Throwback Thursday – Warhammer 40,000: Malleus by Dan Abnett

Warhammer 40,000 - Malleus Cover

Publisher: Black Library (Trade Paperback – 27 December 2001)

Series: Eisenhorn – Book Two

Length: 10 hours and 13 hours

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

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Welcome back to my Throwback Thursday series, where I republish old reviews, review books I have read before or review older books I have only just had a chance to read.  For this week’s Throwback Thursday, I continue my extensive dive into the Warhammer 40,000 universe with the awesome, galaxy-spanning thriller, Malleus by Dan Abnett.

For one of my latest Throwback Thursday reviews, I took a look at one of Dan Abnett’s iconic Warhammer 40,000 novels, Xenos, the first book in the incredible Eisenhorn trilogy.  This fantastic book, which followed Inquisitor Gregor Eisenhorn, a hunter of dark influences in the Imperium of Man, was a clever and compelling read that saw Eisenhorn face off against a range of terrible foes who seek to destroy humanity from within.  I had an outstanding time with Xenos, which really showcased Abnett’s skill as an author (I have also really enjoyed his Gaunt’s Ghosts novels, including First and Only, Ghostmaker and The Vincula Insurgency).  Indeed, I enjoyed it so much that I quickly decided to continue the Eisenhorn trilogy by listening to the second book in the series, Malleus, another exceptional read that takes its protagonist on another dark and engrossing adventure.

In the 41st Millennium, the dark enemies of mankind, whether they be heretical, daemonic, or alien in nature, continue to try and destroy the Imperium of Man from within.  It falls to dedicated inquisitors, such as Gregor Eisenhorn, to battle their malign influences by whatever means they deem necessary.  But what happens when the very institutions that Eisenhorn has long fought to uphold are turned against him?

Whilst battling against deadly alien influences on an isolated planet, Eisenhorn is made aware of certain allegations against his character which suggest that he has been corrupted by the influence of Chaos.  Initially planning to ignore the rumours and continue his vital work safeguarding humanity, his plans are put on hold when a terrible act of destruction unfolds on the planet of Thracian Primaris.  Investigating its causes, Eisenhorn is thrust into another deadly conspiracy, one tied to a foe he last encountered 100 years before, the daemonhost Cherubael.

Chasing after Cherubael and his minions, Eisenhorn attempts to discover what their latest unholy plan is.  However, his investigation reveals that Cherubael is just a pawn, and that the true mastermind of the plot he has uncovered may be a fellow inquisitor.  However, before Eisenhorn can find and confront them, he himself is declared a heretic and renegade by puritan members of his order, forcing him to flee.  Chased by the members of the Ordo Malleus, as well as other deadly hunters loyal to Imperium, Eisenhorn must work outside the bounds of his usual authority to prove his innocence and find the true culprits.  But to defeat his enemies, Eisenhorn may be forced to cross a dangerous line and become the very thing he has sworn to destroy.

Damn, Abnett was on a major roll when he wrote the Eisenhorn novels, as the second book, Malleus, is getting another five-star rating from me.  Brilliantly combining a taut and intrigue-laden plot with the darkest elements of the Warhammer 40,000 universe, Malleus is an addictive and powerful read that proves near impossible to stop listening to.

Malleus has an incredible story that I found to be pretty damn addictive.  Set 100 years after the events of Xenos, Malleus continues to follow Inquisitor Eisenhorn as he investigates several malign cults and figures throughout his sub-sector of space.  The story soon ties into some of the lingering storylines from Xenos as the daemonhost Cherubael makes another appearance, framing Eisenhorn as a heretic.  After a massive and suitably destructive series of events, Eisenhorn is thrust into a whole new investigation, trying to finally hunt down the figures that vexed him during the events of Xenos.  Traversing the sector in pursuit of Cherubael and other rogue inquisitors, Eisenhorn finds himself thrust into battle after hopeless battle, and his constant losses war with his determination to finish the case.  The protagonist faces several major hurdles towards the middle of the book, including capture and imprisonment by a fellow inquisitor for false crimes.  Eventually escaping, Eisenhorn spends much of the book as a fugitive hunted by loyalist forces, which is an exciting new element that Abnett plays to full effect to enhance the plot.  The overarching mystery/conspiracy plot of the book comes together extremely well, and I loved the outstanding investigation angle that follows as Eisenhorn desperately tries to find the evidence that not only ends the threat but exonerates him.  This hunt for answers is actually set over a substantial period of time, mainly due to the delays associated with space travel, but this only increases the power of the plot as you witness Eisenhorn lose years of his life being hunted.  Everything leads up to a massive confrontation with plenty of bloody battles and dangerous decisions that leave several fantastic characters dead or damaged.  The ultimate conclusion is pretty impressive, especially as Abnett really starts to showcase his protagonist’s inevitable fall from grace here, and he leaves the book on a particularly dark note that was so damn awesome.

Just like with Xenos, Abnett has a fantastic writing style that really helps to enhance Malleus’s narrative and make the book very addictive and exciting.  Perfectly utilising an excellent chronicle style that allows you to see inside Eisenhorn’s head, you are swiftly drawn into the complex plot.  Abnett keeps up a swift and intense pace the entire way through, and you barely have a moment to stop and breathe before the next intriguing event takes over.  The blend of intrigue, Inquisition politics, sector-spanning conspiracies, complex character development, unique Warhammer concerns, and impressive action is a heady mix and you get really get caught up in the hunt for the antagonists and Eisenhorn’s fight to prove his innocence.  I loved how intense and deadly some of the crazy battle scenes got and Abnett has great skill at showcasing his characters in mortal danger.  His attention to detail also results in some breathtaking sequences, and I was really impressed by that epic parade sequence, especially its ultra-chaotic ending.  Abnett also takes the time in Malleus to set up some future storylines and alternate books, with some fun hints at novellas/short stories you should check out, while also quickly introducing his next major protagonist, Ravenor.  All these brilliant writing elements, and more, really help to drag you into this elaborate narrative, and I deeply enjoyed the more intrigue-focused stories that are the hallmark of the Eisenhorn books.  A worthy and powerful sequel to Xenos that really showcases the awesome characters and continues the outstanding and elaborate storylines.

I really loved the elaborate Warhammer 40,000 elements that Abnett featured within Malleus as the author dives right into the heart of the Inquisition and their battles.  Just like with Xenos, you get a great understanding of the various internal threats that the Imperium faces in this universe, as Eisenhorn attempts to combat various conspiracies and threats.  However, there is also a much deeper look at the inner workings of the often hidden Inquisition Ordos, especially as Eisenhorn is forced to work against the factions associated with them, including the Ordo Malleus, who think he has been compromised.  The ensuing hunt for answers leads the protagonist, and by extension the reader, on a mighty chase around various unique planets in the Imperium, including Cadia before the fall, and Abnett has a lot of fun exploring the intriguing elements associated with these locations, as well as the general lore surrounding inquisitors, daemons and more.  I did find it interesting that one of the major McGuffins of the book, the mysterious pylons of Cadia, ended up seeming a little more important in hindsight after the 13th Black Crusade, and you have to wonder if the antagonist’s villainous plan didn’t actually have some merit.  I felt that this was a particularly awesome Warhammer 40,000 book and I deeply appreciated how the universe’s unique elements and lore were able to seamlessly support the elaborate tale that Abnett wrote here.  Due to Abnett’s detailed and compelling writing style, new Warhammer readers could easily start their exploration of the franchise with Malleus and get a rather good idea of the universe.  However, I would really recommend starting with Xenos, as you get a much better introduction to key details and characters there.  An overall exceptional read that makes full use of the massive, extended setting.

A highlight of any Abnett book is always the outstanding and highly complex characters, and Malleus has those in spades.  The focus is once again on series protagonist and narrator, Gregor Eisenhorn, who grows as a character with each passing adventure.  I really liked how Abnett portrayed Eisenhorn in Malleus and his compelling mission for justice and redemption is pretty intense.  The Eisenhorn here is a different creature to that in Xenos, especially as, after 100 additional years in the Inquisition, he is a lot more experienced and skilled in his work.  Now commanding a small army of followers, Eisenhorn has different methods and resources than before, but the same determination, loyalty and kindness (at least compared to other inquisitors) is still there.  However, Malleus sees Eisenhorn go through some major battles, both mentally and physically, as he is forced to confront an enemy within his own order while defending his own methods and character.  Watching him declared a heretic by his fellow inquisitors is pretty brutal, and Abnett throws in a heartbreaking prison scene to keep the readers intrigued.  These events, coupled with some personal losses, and the continued presence of beings far more powerful than him, force Eisenhorn to make deals and cross lines he really shouldn’t.  I love how each of the Eisenhorn books show the protagonist’s slow fall towards radicalism, and Malleus is an interesting starting point for that, as you understand why Eisenhorn is forced to go down this route.  While he ends the book with most of his humanity and integrity intact, that brilliant final scene shows that he is getting awfully comfortable with his feet over a line he previously feared, and I cannot wait to see how far he falls in the next Eisenhorn novel.

On top of Eisenhorn, Abnett features a pretty awesome collection of supporting characters who assist the inquisitor in his investigation and they each add their own distinctive personality to the narrative.  There is a good continuation of character arcs from the first book as several of his followers from Xenos make a return here, including the entertaining Savant Aemos, former Arbites investigator Fischig and his dedicated psychic blank Bequin.  Each of them is a little older, wiser and more familiar with the hardships of being an inquisitor’s acolyte, and I liked the stronger relationships that developed amongst them, particularly Bequin, who really comes into her own in this book as a veteran.  There are several interesting new characters added as well, such as the bounty hunter Nayl or brash pilot Medea Betancore (replacing her father Midas), and I felt that their distinctive personalities added a fun and entertaining edge to the narrative.  I was surprised that new character Gideon Ravenor, who goes on to get his own spinoff series, only had a relatively small appearance in this book, as I figured he would be a pretty major character to get his own story.  Still, he gets a good introduction here and it will be interesting to see how his arc plays out in the future.

Malleus also features several intriguing antagonists, each of whom test Eisenhorn and his colleagues in different ways.  While there are the usual array of cultists, aliens and other creatures, most of the antagonists in this novel prove to be other inquisitors, who are either working on their own radical plots or who believe that Eisenhorn is the true heretic who needs to be stopped.  This adds a very interesting dynamic to the story and it was fascinating to see the varied philosophies and plots amongst the rival orders and factions.  I did find it interesting that the main villain of the story, a mysterious inquisitor acting from the shadows, only had a very minor appearance in the book, and while you feel his presence, a bigger appearance from him might have been in order.  However, this character is more than made up for by his principal minion, the daemonhost Cherubael, who returns after his fantastic appearance in Xenos.  Cherubael is a brilliantly sinister character who steals every single scene they are in thanks to their menacing monologues and intriguing insights.  The outstanding obsession he forms with Eisenhorn is a great deal of fun and I loved seeing this evil figure toy with the inquisitor and force him to go to great lengths to defeat him.  Abnett really knows how to write an outstanding character, even in a limited amount of time, and it will be fascinating to see what happens to these characters in the next Eisenhorn book.

I of course chose to listen to Malleus on audiobook, as it is my preferred way of enjoying great Warhammer books, and I was not disappointed with how it turned out.  This fantastic format once again deeply enhanced the quality of the story and you can practically see the awesome battle scenes and other breath-taking elements of the wider Warhammer 40,000 universe.  Narrator Toby Longworth, who is the go-to narrator for all of Abnett’s Warhammer audiobooks, does another outstanding job with Malleus, and I loved how he was able to keep the pace of the production going.  He also has an outstanding voice that really conveys the dark and dangerous nature of the universe, while also perfectly bringing the characters to life.  I deeply appreciated how Longworth made sure to utilise the same character tones that he previously featured in Xenos here, and it gave the Malleus audiobook a great sense of continuation.  All the new characters are also given excellent voices, and I loved how awesome he made them sound, especially the more supernatural or alien beings that the protagonist comes across.  I was frankly hooked on this audiobook from the very start, and it is an exceptional way to enjoy this epic narrative.  With a run time of just over 10 hours, I managed to power through this audiobook very quickly, and this is definitely the best format for the Eisenhorn series.

Dan Abnett continues to showcase why he is one of the absolute best Warhammer authors out there with the second book in his superb and beloved Eisenhorn trilogy, Malleus.  Featuring a powerful and incredibly captivating narrative of conspiracy, heretics and desperation, Malleus takes Abnett’s compelling protagonist on an even darker journey of despair, compromise and hard choices.  Brutal, intense and impossible to put down, Malleus is easily one of the best Warhammer books I have ever read, and I cannot get over how exceptional it was.  A very highly recommended book, I plan to check out the third and final Eisenhorn book soon as I can to see how this epic series ends.

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Star Wars: The High Republic: Convergence by Zoraida Córdova

Star Wars - Convergence Cover

Publisher: Del Rey/Penguin Random House Audio (Audiobook – 15 November 2022)

Series: Star WarsThe High Republic

Length: 13 hours and 28 minutes

My Rating: 4.75 out of 5 stars

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The next phase of the High Republic is in excellent form as outstanding author Zoraida Córdova presents a particularly awesome new tie-in novel with Star Wars: Convergence.

For last couple of years, the focus of the Star Wars extended universe has been The High Republic, an intriguing prequel series of tie-in media that expands and explores the iconic Star Wars universe in the centuries before the Skywalker Saga.  Set hundreds of years before The Phantom Menace, the High Republic series examines the Republic and the Jedi at the height of their influence, as well as the many dangers they encountered during this time.  I have had an awesome time with the High Republic series, and there are some excellent stories contained within this elaborate prequel sub-series, written by a great collection of writers.  Highlights so far include the main novels Light of the Jedi, The Rising Storm and The Fallen Star, as well as great young adult novels such as Midnight Horizon, all of which come very highly recommended.

The latest batch of High Republic books are currently part of the second phase of the series, which acts as a prequel to the first and upcoming third High Republic phases.  Set even further back in the Star Wars timeline, the second phase provides intriguing context to the previous entries, including the origins of the main antagonists and the reason for their hatred of the Jedi.  I have so far read the preceding second phase novel, The Path of Deceit, a fantastic young adult read, and I have been excited for Convergence for some time.  Written by talented new Star Wars author Zoraida Córdova, Convergence was an amazing read that I had a wonderful time listening to.

It is a time of great expansion, exploration and diplomatic strides in the galaxy as the Republic seeks to expand its influence.  Led by the Jedi, Republic pathfinder teams are constantly journeying out into the furthest reaches of the galaxy, seeking out new civilizations and planets.  However, not everyone is excited to see the Republic or the Jedi, and chaos is always around the corner.

Nowhere is this clearer than the closely neighbouring planets of Eiram and E’ronoh, which have been at war for generations.  Bound to the fighting by hatred and years of conflict, the end of both planets looks to be near, as the war has resulted in nothing but drought, starvation and despair.  However, after an unexpected tragedy brings the two heirs of Eiram and E’ronoh together for the first time, a solution to the ongoing war comes clear and the mediating Republic are able to broker a marriage alliance between the two royal families.

But before wedding preparations can begin, an attempt is made on the lives of the young couple, which once again brings the planets close to war.  Determined to keep the peace, young Jedi Knight Gella Nattai is chosen to act as the couple’s bodyguard and journeys across both planets with them as they attempt to sell the peace to their people.  A serious and dedicated Jedi, Gella is unprepared for another companion for the journey as Republic Chancellor Kyong also sends her son, Axel Greylark, to represent the Republic.  A rogue and cad of the highest quality, Axel swiftly gets under the group’s skin, especially as his disdain for all Jedi, including Gella, is plainly evident.  However, the new companions need to work as a team, as they find themselves caught in a deadly conspiracy that can impact not only the warring planets but the entire Republic.  Can they get to the bottom of this plot before it is too late, and are they truly ready for the consequences if they do?

Damn, now this was a pretty awesome Star Wars novel from a very talented author.  Córdova came up with a remarkable and powerful narrative for Convergence that not only contained its own brilliant character-driven plot, but which also sets up some awesome narrative threads for the future.  I had an amazing time getting through Convergence, and it was one of the better Star Wars books I read in 2022.

Córdova brings out an impressive and complex story for Convergence that drags you in quickly and hits you with a ton of great elements from this new High Republic era.  Primarily set around the war-torn twin worlds of Eiram and E’ronoh, Convergence starts off with the two once again on the brink of war after an unfortunate space battle.  However, the battle leads to the intervention of the Jedi and the Republic, who attempt to force peace, as well as the chance meeting between the planet’s two royal heirs.  What follows is a compelling bout of political intrigue, as the two planets negotiate, while various elements with ulterior motives try to sabotage it.  This early part of the book is pretty damn compelling, as the author spends a good amount of time introducing the complex characters as well as the well-crafted background setting and war story arc.

Thanks to some mysterious murders and sabotages, the middle of Convergence evolves into an exciting road-trip narrative, as the two royals, their new Jedi bodyguard and the unrepentant party boy Axel Greylark, embark on a goodwill mission to both planets, which results in further action and adventure, while also taking the time to build up the four main characters and establish some intriguing relationships between them.  After some excellent and often heartbreaking sequences, the story enters a whole new phase as the deadly outside influences trying to disrupt the peace process are revealed.  There are series of great twists and turns around here, including one massive reveal that severely impacts a major character, and everything you think you know about the plot is changed as hidden motivations are revealed.  The last third of the book is easily the most exciting, as you wait for the various characters to explode when everything is brought to the light and the full scope of the various plots are revealed.  The author really amps up the action towards the end, including one of the most chaotic wedding sequences in Star Wars history, and there is no shortage of intense interactions as certain characters come face to face.  Everyone walks away from Convergence with their emotional and excitement buckets filled and I really appreciated the fantastic swings that Córdova took in this major High Republic book.

I deeply enjoyed how this excellent narrative came together, and Córdova has a great writing style that lends itself to an intense character-driven plot.  Told from multiple compelling character perspectives, Córdova has produced an excellent narrative that combines adventure, intrigue and character growth with the lore-heavy Star Wars universe.  While there is plenty of action and some great universe building featured here, most of the book is constructed around intense character emotions as the central protagonists attempt to overcome their pasts and the dangerous secrets they all hide.  The author keeps the pace of Convergence’s narrative pretty constant throughout, and there were no major areas that slowed down or got stuck, and I enjoyed the continued build-up of disasters and betrayals that occurred.  The various action scenes featured throughout a very well written and make sure to highlight both the emotion behind each battle, but the iconic Star Wars elements such as the Jedi.  There is also a great sense of mystery and betrayal throughout the book that gives it a powerful overarching tone, and you really get drawn in trying to see how the characters are going to implode with their own inner chaos.  It really proved quite impossible not to enjoy this captivating read, and I really think that Córdova showcased just how impressive her writing ability is with this outstanding read.

In addition to having an outstanding story, Convergence also serves as a great entry in the second phase of the High Republic and I loved how it continued certain awesome storylines as a key novel in this sub-series.  I have mentioned a couple of times previously on my blog that I was surprised they started off the second phase of this sub-series with the young adult book, Path of Deceit.  However, after getting through Convergence, I now completely understand why they did this, as the more subtle Path of Deceit really helped to set up certain key overarching plot elements, as well as the wilder aspect of this period of the Star Wars timeline.  Convergence had a narrower narrative focus which, which really benefited from not having to introduce a whole new batch of major antagonists in too much detail.  Córdova was able to expertly utilise and then expand some of the elements from Path of Deceit throughout Convergence’s narrative, which I think really enhanced the overall story, and made it a bit more gripping and connected with the wider series.  I do think that at this point in the High Republic, Convergence is a very hard novel for those non-Star Wars fans to easily jump in and fully appreciate.  A lot of the joy of Convergence and the other books in the prequel second phase is in seeing the origins of key characters, organisations or events that are featured or discussed in the first phase.  As such, you can only fully appreciate this book if you have read a few of the key novels from the first phase, and this makes Convergence a little less accessible as a result.  Luckily, Convergence really is geared towards established fans of the franchise, who are guaranteed to have a wonderful time with this book.

I really must highlight the outstanding settings that were such a key part of Convergence’s narrative and tone.  Part of this comes from the even earlier timeline that the book is set in, as this period of the High Republic is a lot wilder and less civilized in places, more resembling a space western than the golden age seen in the first phase.  While the story doesn’t spend a lot of time in the wider Star Wars universe, you get an idea of the different society and times in this new phase, and it really feels like a period of flux and new ideas.  However, the story primarily takes place on the twin worlds of Eiram and E’ronoh, both of which have been featured to a degree during the first phase (Into the Dark and The Fallen Star for example).  Both planets are shown in even more detail in Convergence, especially as the characters spend most of the book there.  Stuck in an endless cycle of war and destruction, both Eiram and E’ronoh are in very dire straits when Convergence begins, which adds a great layer of politics, strife, and desperate characters to the narrative.  The protagonists are forced to dive into the history and culture of both planets to resolve the war, which reveals some major emotional edges as the dark similarities and differences between them make peace seem impossible.  Córdova does a remarkable job highlighting both planets throughout the course of Convergence and I really cannot emphasise how impressive they were as a background setting, especially as there is a tangible tension and threat of violence permeating both.  I deeply enjoyed this cool setting and I look forward to seeing another author’s take on these planets, and the wider Star Wars universe at this time in the next High Republic books.

While I loved the epic story and impressive Star Wars elements, the best part about Convergence for me was the exceptional characters that Córdova introduced and strongly featured throughout the course of the narrative.  Each character is pretty intriguing in their own way, and many are clearly set to become central figures in this second phase and will no doubt be reutilised again by other authors in the future.  The plot of Convergence, however, primarily rests around four complex and well-written protagonists who tend to serve as the main point-of-view characters of the book.

The first two characters I need to talk about are Jedi Knight Gella Nattai and political scion Axel Greylark, who form an intriguing odd-couple pairing for much of the book.  Gella is naturally the more serious and stoic Jedi character, who is dealing with regrets and uncertainty after a failed mission that saw the order lose confidence in her.  Now forced to work under more experienced Jedi Masters, Gella is uncertain what her future holds, but her impulsive nature brings her into the middle of the conflict on the two warring planets.  She is eventually relegated to the role of bodyguard for the royal characters and is teamed up with Axel, who is easily the most entertaining and fun character in this entire book.  The son of one of the Supreme Chancellors, Axel is a pampered rogue and troublemaker who spends most of the book gambling, flirting and doing irresponsible things (think Lando dialled up to 11).  Introduced in a very entertaining early chapter which ends with him shooting up an illegal casino, Axel is sent by his mother to the twin planets as her envoy and is recruited as an extra bodyguard when things go bad.  He immediately goes to work annoying Gella, not just because of her uptight personality, but because he also has a great dislike of the Jedi in general after they failed his family as a child.  While it is easy to see Axel as a one-note character, he is one of the most complex figures in the entire novel and he has one of the best character arcs.  I loved the unique partnership he formed with Gella, which initially begins with great antagonism but eventually morphs into something else, that really changes both for the better.  Of course, there is a further great twist around Axel that changes the entirety of his story, and it will be fascinating to see how that evolves in some future books.

The other two major characters are the heirs to Eiram and E’ronoh, Princess Xiri A’lbaran of Eiram and Prince Phan-tu Zenn of E’ronoh, who suddenly find the fate of both worlds resting on their shoulders when they have a chance meeting.  Both are very different from each other as Xiri is a tough and practical warrior from a proud lineage, while Phan-tu is a kind and somewhat gentle former orphan who was adopted into the royal family.  Despite their differences, both are dedicated to their respective planets and initiate the peace process through an arranged marriage that will unite their houses.  While initially uncertain of each other, the two begin to grow closer as the book continues, not only because of their duty but because of their legitimate feelings as they prove themselves to their future spouse.  The author features a slow-burn romance between the two that builds throughout the course of the story and has a lot of roadblocks to it, including both characters’ families and pasts filled with tragedy.  Xiri and Phan-tu prove to be exceptional partners as the book proceeds, and I also really enjoyed the fantastic friendship group they formed with Gella and Axel during their travels, as the four stay to play off each other perfectly.  These four end up really carrying the book on their shoulders, and I really must compliment Córdova on how well they were crafted and the amazing stories woven around them.  Backed up by an amazing supporting cast of big personalities, this was an amazing character-focused book, and I cannot wait to see how some of these figures are featured in future High Republic works.

I doubt that anyone who is familiar with my blog and my love for Star Wars novels is going to be too surprised that I chose to check out Convergence on audiobook rather than reading the physical book I received.  I love, love, love all the Star Wars audiobooks, especially as the production team behind them always features iconic Star Wars sound effects and music throughout the runtime, which I find adds to the overall ambience and emotional impact of the plot.  Convergence was another exceptional example of this, and I especially enjoyed how the awesome music made every major scene feel that little more epic.  At the same time, Convergence also featured the outstanding voice work of Marc Thompson, who is easily one of the best Star Wars audiobook narrators of all time.  I always enjoy Thompson’s brilliant voice work in Star Wars fiction (such as in the audiobooks for Thrawn, Chaos Rising, Greater Good, Lesser Evil, Scoundrels, Dark Disciple and more), and he once again hit it out of the park in Convergence, giving each of the characters their own distinctive voice that really brought out their personalities and inner emotions.  I really loved some of the cool voices that Thompson brought out for Convergence, especially as they were well tailored for the relevant characters and their backgrounds, and this ended up being an epic performance from him that allowed listeners to power through the audiobook.  Coming in with a runtime of roughly 13 and a half hours, Convergence has a decent length, but dedicated listeners should have no trouble powering through it quickly.  I personally thought this was an outstanding way to enjoy this amazing book, and I even featured Convergence on my favourite audiobooks of 2022 list before I’d even finished it.

The brilliant High Republic series of Star Wars fiction continues to roll on at an unstoppable pace with the latest epic read, Convergence by Zoraida Córdova.  Featuring an exceptional plot, amazingly complex characters and serving as an intriguing prequel to the previous run of High Republic books, Convergence was an outstanding read that I cannot recommend enough.  One of the best Star Wars books of 2022, Convergence was extremely impressive and captivating and I am now very excited to check out all the High Republic entries of 2023.

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Throwback Thursday – Warhammer 40,000: Xenos by Dan Abnett

Warhammer 40,000 - Xenos Cover

Publisher: Black Library (Audiobook – 1 May 2001)

Series: Eisenhorn – Book One

Length: 9 hours and 55 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

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Welcome back to my Throwback Thursday series, where I republish old reviews, review books I have read before or review older books I have only just had a chance to read.  In my latest Throwback Thursday I continue to review the awesome Warhammer 40,000 works of Dan Abnett with his impressive and dark space thriller, Xenos.

For my Throwback Thursday last week, I talked about legendary Warhammer fiction author Dan Abnett and his Gaunt’s Ghosts series, which is one of the pillars of Warhammer 40,000 fiction.  I have already had a lot of fun reading several of the Gaunt’s Ghosts novels (including First and Only, Ghostmaker and The Vincula Insurgency), so I thought I would take the opportunity to check out one of Abnett’s other major Warhammer entries, the Eisenhorn series, which I have heard some extremely good things about.  Set in a different area of the Warhammer 40,000 universe than the Gaunt’s Ghosts books, the Eisenhorn books are a darker and more intense series that follows a troubled Imperial Inquisitor hunting down a deadly conspiracy at the heart of humanity.

In the dark future, the Imperium of Man is under constant attack from aliens, monsters and daemons who seek to destroy or corrupt all within.  However, the greatest threat to the Imperium comes from within as diabolical heretics, witches and cultists work from the shadows to weaken the Imperium, worship the forces of Chaos, and bring humanity crashing down around them.  The only protection humanity has against these nefarious and hidden threats are the members of the Inquisition, deadly agents who wield great power and authority to pursue their investigations by any means necessary.

Gregor Eisenhorn is a talented and experienced Inquisitor who has long fought against the shadows constantly threatening stability and order.  When he finally corners and kills an old adversary amid a dark ritual, Eisenhorn hopes that his actions have permanently ended an ongoing source of Chaos and despair in the Imperium.  However, evidence he recovers from the crime scene hints at a greater conspiracy that threatens several local systems.

Travelling to a prosperous system hub, Eisenhorn restarts his investigation, determined to get to the bottom of this new danger.  However, he is unprepared for the full scope of the hidden forces of Chaos that wait for him, as a massive and hidden cabal rises in opposition against him.  As multiple planets within the system burn due to the action of the Chaos cultists, Eisenhorn works with a series of unique allies to bring this cult to heel before they cause irreparable damage to the Imperium.  However, the more sinister danger may come from the prize that his enemies are seeking, an ancient and dark tome of knowledge, known as the Necroteuch, which has the potential to burn the universe and turn the entire Inquisition against Eisenhorn.

Xenos was another exceptional novel from Abnett, and one that really showcases his ability to tell a varied and complex tale.  This is a dark, powerful, and impressive character-driven read, and I loved the switch to dark intrigue and heretical investigations, which made for such an incredible story.  I was an instant fan of Xenos’s clever and highly addictive plot, and I must give it a full five-star rating for how awesome it was.

I was deeply impressed with the outstanding and compelling story that Abnett featured in Xenos, especially as it was very different in style and substance to his previous works I have enjoyed.  While the Gaunt’s Ghosts novels are gritty war stories that focus on the common soldier, Xenos was a powerful and twisty space thriller that saw a determined Inquisitor attempt to root out the manipulations of Chaos far away from the battlefields.  The story itself is extremely clever and well-paced, and it swiftly draws you in with its dark events, especially its intense and action-packed introduction.  Despite killing his nemesis early in the story, Eisenhorn is forced to keep digging even further as he uncovers more conspiracies and plots.  Utilising undercover methods, interrogations, obscure evidence and a series of bloody fights, Eisenhorn and his unique comrades follow the trail across the sub-sector, attempting to discover the true plot of their enemies.  This leads to several large and memorable set pieces, and I loved the constant change of locations, especially as it allowed you to get a whole new idea of the scope of their foes plans and the desperate battles being fought to stop them.  I also enjoyed the quieter scenes that were laid out between them as they not only added some great intrigue, but also highlighted the personal nature of the protagonist’s quests and the bonds he forged along the way.  The plot is eventually resolved after several major battles, including some very trippy sequences, and I came away from this book very satisfied and wanting more, especially as Abnett laid some intriguing hints about deeper conspiracies towards the end.  I was absolutely hooked the entire way through this narrative and I had such an amazing time reading this exciting and compelling story.

Xenos was an extremely well written Warhammer novel, and I really appreciated how Abnett was able to seamlessly change writing style and tone for this darker read.  The author makes excellent use of a first-person perspective for Xenos, as the story is in a chronicle format being written by the central character of Inquisitor Eisenhorn.  This allows for a much more personal and protagonist-centric narrative which really draws you into the hunt as you see the protagonist’s obsession with capturing the heretics and ending the threat to the Imperium.  Abnett keeps the pace pretty fast and intense throughout the entirety of Xenos, even during the sequences between the main action-packed scenes, and you are constantly engaged with the hunt or the intriguing relationships between the characters.  I was personally very impressed with how Abnett was able to blend a lot of distinctive story elements together throughout Xenos to produce an excellent story.  The way that the author combines Warhammer, thriller, mystery, science fiction and even horror (the Chaos creatures can get pretty bad at times) elements together is just amazing, and it opens up the appeal of the book to a wide range of readers.  I loved the continued and powerful hunt throughout the Imperium, especially as all the protagonist’s actions and attempts to end the threat result in major consequences for those around him.  This was a deeply captivating and intense read, and I cannot empathise how addictive and fun I found it.

One of the main reasons I chose to check out Xenos and the Eisenhorn series, aside from generally loving Abnett’s writing, is it is generally considered to be one of the best series to start a dive into Warhammer fiction.  After powering through Xenos, I can confirm this as Abnett uses the lore and the darker side of the Warhammer universe to its full advantage throughout this fantastic thriller tale.  While some slight knowledge of the large Warhammer 40,000 universe might be helpful to understand parts of Xenos, new readers unfamiliar with the franchise can easily dive into this book and follow the story with no problem, and any science fiction fan can have an amazing time reading it.  Abnett patiently and competently explores key details of the Warhammer universe as the story continues, although never in a way that interferes with the captivating flow of the book.  As such, you get a good view of the overall state of humanity and the Imperium during this novel, with a particular focus on the Inquisitors and their mission.  The Inquisitors have always been a fascinating and complex part of Warhammer 40,000 lore, and this series really highlights just how dangerous their tasks are, as well as the fine line they walk in their hunt for justice and purity.  Naturally, this dive into the Inquisition will also make this book very appealing to experienced Warhammer readers as well, and Abnett is considered to be one of the best franchise authors for a reason.  I have a deep appreciation for all the cool lore elements that were featured here, and I particularly enjoyed how Xenos offers a very different story to many of the other Warhammer 40,000 books out there, and really highlights just how complex the universe can be.

I was also very impressed by the exceptional character work that Abnett featured with Xenos, as this compelling read features some great characters.  The primary figure of this book is naturally Inquisitor Gregor Eisenhorn, who serves as the main protagonist and narrator of the story.  I felt that Xenos served as a particularly good introduction to this iconic Warhammer figure, and I found myself getting quite attached to his journey.  A no-nonsense and extremely practical Inquisitor, Eisenhorn is seen by many as a cold and calculating man, although deep down he is a caring individual who feels great attachment to his friends and comrades.  Abnett portrays Eisenhorn as a pretty reasonable figure, preferring subtle investigations, which makes him appear a bit radical to some of his fellow Inquisitors whose preferred methods are to kill anyone with any potential for evil.  It was very interesting to see him as a pretty strait-laced guy in Xenos, especially as I have heard of how radical he gets in the future, and I think it was very smart of Abnett to showcase him in this way first to enhance the impact of his future actions.  However, Eisenhorn does go through a lot in Xenos, including mental, psychical and spiritual tortures, and you can really see the damage done to him and how his desire for vengeance and getting the job done by any means grows.  I cannot wait to see how his story advances in the next few books, as I know that Abnett has damaging days in store for him.

In addition to Eisenhorn, Abnett loads Xenos with a ton of interesting supporting characters, all of whom are seen through Eisenhorn’s eyes.  This includes Eisenhorn’s eccentric entourage of follows and agents, including a data-obsessed scholar, a skilled pilot, a grim justice operative and his newest associate, Bequin, a psychic blank who is drafted into the war against Chaos against her will.  This unusual team prove to be great backup to the dour Eisenhorn, and I liked the genuine connection that Eisenhorn forms with them, especially as it shows that he really isn’t the monster many people think he is.  Other characters of note include the varied and distinctive fellow inquisitors that either assist or oppose Eisenhorn, and the various deadly enemies he goes up against.  Rather than have one specific antagonist in Xenos, Abnett featured a cabal of Chaos worshipping foes, each of whom despises Eisenhorn for what he represents.  While there isn’t a massive focus on any specific villain, each of the major players in the cabal are pretty distinctive, and I liked the overall effect that Eisenhorn is fighting a multi-faced beast in Chaos, rather than a specific evil.  These outstanding characters really enhanced this epic and captivating narrative and I look forward to seeing what other insane figures show up in this series as it progresses.

Unsurprisingly, I chose to enjoy Xenos in its audiobook format, which is frankly the best way to experience any Warhammer novel.  With a run time of just under 10 hours, I absolutely powered through this audiobook and I found that it perfectly conveyed all of Abnett’s elaborate and compelling story elements.  This was partially due to the brilliant narration of veteran voice actor Toby Longworth, who has lent his fantastic vocal talents to most of Abnett’s Warhammer books.  Longworth did another remarkable job here with Xenos, and I loved his take on this slighter darker narrative.  I deeply appreciated all the voices he provided to the characters in Xenos, especially as he is not just recycling the voices he uses in the Gaunt’s Ghosts books.  Each of the voices here are pretty fitting to their respective character and there is some fantastic variation based on plot details such as the speaker’s planet of origin, species, inclination, and personality.  This excellent voice work really enhanced my enjoyment of this captivating read and I would strongly recommend this format to anyone interested in reading Xenos.

The first entry in Dan Abnett’s Eisenhorn series, Xenos, lives up to all the hype surrounding it as it proved to be an exceptional and highly addictive read.  Perfectly combining an elaborate thriller story with the dark Warhammer 40,000 universe, Xenos was a joy to read from start to finish.  I cannot recommend this novel enough and my plan is to listen to yet another book from Abnett in the next couple of days.

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Dead Man’s Hand by James J. Butcher

Dead Man's Hand Cover

Publisher: Ace (Hardcover – 29 November 2022)

Series: The Unorthodox Chronicles – Book One

Length: 373 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

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Murder, magic and mayhem are about to be unleashed in the impressive urban fantasy debut from exciting new author James J. Butcher, Dead Man’s Hand.

I think it is fair to say that no recent urban fantasy book has intrigued me more than the compelling Dead Man’s Hand by James J. Butcher.  Not only did it have a striking cover, a cool name, and an awesome synopsis, but the author himself is very interesting.  Despite the fact this is his first novel, Butcher is a name that comes with some expectations, due to him being the son of legendary fantasy author Jim Butcher.  Jim Butcher has pretty much set himself up as the gold standard of urban fantasy fiction thanks to his iconic Dresden Files series that follows wizards in modern Chicago.  I am a pretty big fan of the Dresden Files and when I first heard that Jim Butcher’s son was releasing his own book, I was immediately curious about it.  As such, I made sure to get a copy of Dead Man’s Hand as soon as it came out, and I was very happy that I did.  The first book in his series, The Unorthodox Chronicles, Dead Man’s Hand was a superb read that I had an amazing time getting through.

On the mean streets of Boston, a dark murder has occurred whose ramifications will shake the city’s magical community.  The victim was Samantha Mansgraf, an extremely powerful witch and one of the most effective agents of the Department of Unorthodox Affairs, the government department that polices magic users and keeps the peace between the ordinary Usuals and the paranormal Unorthodox.  Her body has been found mangled and tortured, and the only clue is a secret message she left behind which simply reads, “Kill Grimsby.”

This message can only relate to one person, Grimshaw Griswald Grimsby, whose future as an Auditor for the Department of Unorthodox Affairs was unceremoniously ruined by the victim.  Now working in a terrible fast food job extremely close to where Mansgraf was killed, Grimsby seems the most likely suspect for her murder.  However, there is one major flaw in this theory; Grimsby is magically incapable of committing the crime.  Only able to cast a few minor spells and hampered by an old injury, there is no way that Grimsby could have killed the victim.  But this fact isn’t going to be enough to stop everyone coming after him.

Targeted by both the Department and the monsters actually responsible for Mansgraf’s murder, Grimsby finds himself in a whole lot of trouble.  His only hope of survival is to team up with Mansgraf’s old partner, the legendary Huntsman Leslie Mayflower, an expert at killing all things magical, and find out who is really behind this gruesome murder.  However, Grimsby and Mayflower soon find themselves caught in the midst of a deadly magical conspiracy, one where every potential loose end needs to be killed.  To survive, Grimsby and Mayflower will need to dig deep and uncover the darkest secrets from Boston’s magical community.  However, can an old broken down Hunstman and a failed witch manage to take on the evil coming for them, or are they about to be as dead as Mansgraf?

Butcher comes out the gate swinging with his first magical adventure, and I really enjoyed the result.  Dead Man’s Hand is a clever and cool new novel that sets up Butcher’s planned series while also presenting the reader with a captivating character driven story, filled with mystery, murder and magical mayhem.  I managed to knock this book out in a couple of days, and it proved to be a wonderful and impressive debut.

Dead Man’s Hand has a great urban fantasy narrative to it that follows two interesting and complex characters caught in the middle of a magical conspiracy.  Butcher kicks the story off quickly, with Mayflower getting involved in the hunt for his former partner’s killer, which leads him to Grimsby, who is initially a suspect, until it becomes very clear he couldn’t have pulled off such a destructive killing.  When Grimsby is attacked by the apparent murderer, the two start to work together and they focus their investigation into finding a dangerous artefact that the victim had hidden before her death.  That leads them into all manner of trouble, including demonic gangsters, freaky constructs, and Department agents, all of whom are coming after them with lethal intent.  This results in a great twisty and slick narrative, as the characters need to uncover multiple mysteries while also confronting the many unusual creatures coming for them.  There are several great action-packed confrontations loaded into this book, and Butcher makes excellent use of his distinctive new magical universe to create some memorable sequences.  Everything leads up to a big and powerful conclusion where, after some personal betrayals, the two protagonists are forced to come together to take out the culprit and save the day.  While the ultimate reveal of who the killer is was a little predictable, Butcher did it in an entertaining way and the stakes were pretty damn high by the end of it.  Butcher also ramped up the tension for the final confrontation and you honestly had no idea how the book was going to conclude and who was going to pull through.  I was personally hooked all the way to end and I came away pretty happy with the conclusion, especially as Butcher sets up some potential sequels in the future and I have a feeling that this is the first entry in an awesome long-running series.

I quite enjoyed Butcher’s writing style for Dead Man’s Hand and I think that the excellent story came across really well in the end.  The story moved at a very quick pace, and Butcher really did not slow down for anything, hitting the reader with a ton of action, intrigue and moving character development from start to finish.  Like most good urban fantasy novels, Dead Man’s Hand had a fantastic blend of mystery and fantasy elements, and you are soon swept up in the hunt for the magical killer, especially as it reveals a complex and deadly conspiracy.  This helped to create quite a compelling and exciting read, which comes across like a buddy-cop romp thanks to the entertaining partnership between the two main characters.  The story is broken up between these two character’s perspectives and you get to see how they come together as a dysfunctional but effective team, and I loved the fun veteran/extreme-rookie dynamic that their partnership achieved.  Butcher further enhances the story by featuring a ton of comedic humour, most of which was brought in by the chatty and snarky main character.  Readers will no doubt notice that Butcher took some inspiration from his father when it came to writing humour, especially when it came to the main character’s snark, as well as some of the very over the top scenes and inclusions.  There are some pretty ridiculous moments, especially surrounding the character of Grimsby (his stint as a food entertainer was fun at the start), and things only get more over the top as you go (let’s just say that there is something very interesting in a box, and leave it at that).  While this was amusing, I was glad that most of the focus remained on the more serious elements of the book, which came together extremely well.  This ended up being a very strongly written book, especially for a debut, and I was pretty impressed with Butcher’s great style and writing ability.

Butcher’s series, The Unorthodox Chronicles, has an interesting urban fantasy setting to it, and I was impressed with the new world.  While I am sure that some will try to unfairly compare it to his father’s urban fantasy world, I felt that Butcher did a good job making it stand out on its own the reader is successfully introduced to many cool key details in this first book.  This series takes place in a version of Boston where the world is aware that magic exists, and magical creatures and magic users are kept in line by the Department of Unorthodox Affairs and their deadly agents known as Auditors.  I was quite intrigued by the inherent bureaucracy surrounding an unhidden magical world and it was fun how wizards are treated in a world where people are aware of them.  The visible magic itself is pretty simple, but effective, with magic users drawing their own inner-magic (Impetus) from within and launching it out using simple keyword spells.  Some of the effects of these spells are pretty fun and the protagonist manages to achieve a lot with some very basic combinations.  Butcher further populates his world with some freaky magical creatures, who give the book a darker and intense edge, especially those human familiars, who make for quite an effective and deadly enemy.  However, one of the most distinctive features of this universe is the Elsewhere, a dark, alternate magical realm that most wizards can perceive and which have its own rules.  The Elsewhere is so weird and crazy that all magic users need eye protection on all the time or else they will be driven mad by the things they see.  One excellent extended sequence sees the protagonist forced to visit the realm (which can be achieved by travelling through mirrors), and it came across as a pretty gruesome place to journey, thanks to all the creepy creatures and its inherent time dilation.  I loved all the cool details contained in this new world and I am quite excited to see how Butcher plans to expand on it in the future.

Aside from the amazing story and intriguing fantasy elements, one of the main strengths of Dead Man’s Hand was its excellent main two characters, who Butcher uses to great effect as alternating narrators of the story.  Both central protagonists are very damaged and complex in their own ways, and their eventual team-up helps them both to develop and escape the ruts they find themselves in at the start of the book.  The main character is Grimshaw Griswald Grimsby, an orphaned wizard who was badly scarred as a child in a fire that killed his family.  Grimsby previously attempted to become an Auditor for the Department, but he found his path blocked by the murder victim, mainly due to his inability to do complex spells and because his scars weaken his magic.  Now trapped in an embarrassing dead-end job, Grimsby starts the book off depressed and resentful, with zero confidence in himself.  However, this changes as the story continues and he is able to prove himself to his new mentor character, Mayflower, who, while gruff, helps mould him into a better person.  The one thing he cannot change is his motor mouth as Grimsby is constantly talking and joking, giving off a magical level of snark.  Much of the book’s humour comes from Grimsby’s irreverent view of the world and there are some great jokes flying out his mouth here.  I also loved seeing Grimsby’s inventiveness throughout the book, especially as he can only really cast three weaker spells, which requires him to be very imaginative in how he uses them, especially in self-defence.  There are also some fantastic storylines surrounding his traumatic past, as well as some more contemporary storylines about whether he actually belongs in this dangerous lifestyle or whether he should seek a quieter life.  While it would be easy to compare Grimsby to another snarky urban fantasy protagonist (say the one written by Butcher senior), I think that Grimsby stands on his own, and there are still quite a few layers for Butcher to uncover in the future.

The other major character is Leslie Mayflower, better known as the Huntsman, a bitter retired agent who specialises in killing magical creatures and beings.  Eternally grouchy and bitter at the Department, Mayflower dives into the case seeking revenge and comes across Grimsby, eventually partnering with him.  Mayflower is the direct opposite to Grimsby for much of the book, and I loved how Butcher portrayed him as a past-his-prime killer who returns for one last job.  Shown to be full of regret, self-loathing and a desire for revenge, Mayflower was a powerful part of the book, especially once Butcher pairs him with Grimsby.  These two made for a great team, and watching the positive Grimsby start to have an impact on Mayflower’s personality was a fun part of the book.  Despite still being mistrustful for most of the book, Mayflower soon grows to appreciate the partnership with Grimsby, and it was quite moving to see the character have something to live for again.  While you do see a lot of his personality and intensity in Dead Man’s Hand, I liked that Butcher was a little vague when it came to his past, and I am hoping that the author will dive into more of his history in future books.  Both central protagonists were extremely well written and very damaged in their own way, and this makes for a great story focus, especially as there are some excellent scenes when they start working together.

Overall, I thought that Dead Man’s Hand was an excellent and captivating first book from James J. Butcher, and it is one that I had an amazing time reading.  Fast-paced, hilarious, and filled with all manner of magical chaos, Dead Man’s Hand served as a powerful and enjoyable first entry in the author’s new series, and it comes highly recommended as a result.  I will definitely be grabbing the next book in this series when it comes out and I look forward to seeing how Butcher’s career progresses from here.

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Fool’s Gold by Jon Hollins

9780356507651

Publisher: Orbit (Paperback – 26 July 2016)

Series: The Dragon Lords – Book One

Length: 517 pages

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

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Prepare for all manner of craziness and exceedingly entertaining fun as Jon Hollins presents an amazing book about heists and dragons with Fool’s Gold.

A few months ago, whilst perusing my local book fair, I happened upon a copy of Fool’s Gold by Jon Hollins (a pseudonym for fantasy author Jonathan Wood), which really grabbed my attention.  The first book in Hollins’ The Dragon Lords trilogy, Fool’s Gold had a fantastic plot synopsis which involved heists and dragons.  I was very intrigued by this cool book, which sounded so very fun, so naturally I made sure to grab it.  As a result, it was nice and handy when I was in the mood for a fun fantasy book, and boy was I entertained by this cool read.

In the fantasy land of Avarra, there are many different magical creatures and beings who infest the world and bring all manner of chaos with them.  However, no creature is as dangerous, arrogant, and domineering as the dragons, especially members of the destructive Consortium who have taken over the isolated nation of Kondorra and rule it as overlords.  Employing a private army, the dragons impose massive taxes on the lands surrounding their lairs, driving the people into poverty and forcing many to lose everything.

It is only a matter of time before something gives, and when Willett Fallows loses his farm to greedy dragon who controls his village, he snaps and becomes a fugitive.  On the run, Will finds himself in the most unusual of situations after a chance meeting with four unlikely wanderers in a nearby cave, including a skilled warrior woman, a murderous lizard man, a dragon obsessed academic with explosive magical powers, and his village’s local insane drunkard.  Together the five new companions come up with an ambitious plan to steal all the gold from the local dragon lord and make their escape.

However, when their heist unsurprisingly goes wrong the friends find themselves in a surprising position as the nation’s apparent saviours.  Suddenly worshipped by a massive following, the companions must find a way to escape both the deadly retribution coming their way and their own insane devotees.  But no matter how hard they try, all their plans seem to backfire until they find themselves in the middle of a deadly religious war against the dragons.  Can they pull off one more con to destroy the Consortium, or is everyone about to end up dead in a field of fire?

Fool’s Gold is an exceedingly fun and very entertaining read that I was able to finish off in a few days, especially once I got caught up in its exciting and fast-paced narrative.  Hollins sets everything up very quickly, with the new fantasy world introduced, the dragon’s control of Kondorra established, and all five of the main characters brought together.  While I wasn’t the biggest fan of the extremely coincidental meeting that saw all the protagonists meet up in the first few chapters, the story evolves at a much more appropriate pace from there, with the characters quickly planning their theft of the local dragon’s hoard.  I was a little surprised at how fast the first heist came about, as I figured it would be a long-term plan that would unfold much later in the book.  However, featuring this heist early on really works, as it sets up the rest of the story extremely well while also showcasing early just how crazy and over-the-top this book is going to be.  The chaotic results of the first heist see the protagonists incorrectly declared religious saviours destined to bring down the dragons.  Suddenly leading a ragtag army, the protagonists are forced to engage in several more attempted heists and plots against other dragons and their minions.  While these plans often backfire in very funny ways, the protagonists keep failing upwards and must keep the con going while dealing with a multitude of problems, including deranged followers, immense responsibility, and deep personal issues.  This all leads up to the final confrontation with the dragon Consortium, with the characters unleashing their most ambitious plan yet.  Watching this final plan come together is pretty damn awesome, and the insane battles and crazy results that follow were so damn epic.  I ended up really loving this compelling and very fun story, which Hollins leaves open for some intriguing sequels in the future.

Fool’s Gold is an incredibly fast-paced novel with a great writing style that makes it very easy to power through.  The author has a brilliant and wicked secret of humour that infects his writing, and I found myself chuckling the entire way through, not just because of the jokes but because of the insane scenarios that resulted.  I was also deeply impressed with how well Hollins brought together several genres to create a compelling and hilarious read.  The book initially appears to be a classic fantasy read, as the author quickly and effectively sets up an intriguing new fantasy world at the start of the book, which contains several classic fantasy creatures and elements that are likely going to get expanded on in the sequels.  However, it soon becomes apparent that this isn’t going to be a typical fantasy book, especially as the very modern sense of humour and language that Hollins employs gives it a whole new tint.  I often enjoy when authors feature contemporary language and attitudes in fantasy novels, and I felt that Hollins uses it to great effect in Fool’s Gold, giving the book a distinctive tone.  The author further brings in the brilliant heist elements to the book, which I deeply enjoyed thanks to all the fantastic plans and cons.  It proved to be extremely fun to see all these elaborate and weird heists get planned out and executed in a fantasy universe, and it combines extremely well with the humorous tone and fantasy elements of the book.  I deeply enjoyed how this captivating story came together, and I can’t wait to see how the next books in the series pan out.

I also really liked the cool characters featured in Fool’s Gold, especially as Hollins came up with a very eclectic and damaged group of central figures.  The book primarily revolves around five protagonists, each of whom have multiple chapters told from their perspective and who unite as a team very early in the book.  This includes Willett Fallows, the former farmer who turns to heist planning after the dragon’s greed takes everything from him.  There is also the fantastic pair of Lette and Balur, a female adventurer looking to settle down and her lizard man companion who loves all forms of violence and is determined to fight and kill the biggest opponents he can find, in this case dragons.  There is also Quirk, a former mage turned academic who arrives in Kondorra to study the dragons and finds herself dragged into the group’s plans so she can get a closer look at the dragons and their lairs.  Finally, there is Firkin, a local drunk whose failure years ago to defeat the dragons drove him mad and who finds new life during the new adventures. 

All five characters are pretty crazy in their own way, and I think they made for quite an intriguing and amusing focus for the narrative, especially all the interesting growth Hollins makes use of.  Will’s evolution from a farmer to a master strategist was very well written and I appreciated the compelling examination of how the power he started to wield was potentially corrupting him, especially when he holds the lives of so many in his hands.  The inevitable romance between Will and Lette was handled well throughout the book and it came across as a natural and well-developed relationship.  Balur, the battle-loving lizard man was easily one of the most entertaining characters in the novel, and I loved seeing his mad rages and various attempts to kill the dragons they encounter, especially as it results in an incredibly funny and hilariously brutal final fight at the end of the book.  I was also quite impressed that Hollins was able to keep up Balur’s unique style of speech for much of the story.  Firkin’s rise from unpredictable drunk to unpredictable drunken religious mouthpiece and rabblerouser was exceedingly funny in places, especially as you are never quite sure whether he is actually insane or just messing with everyone.  I did find his continued crazy speech a bit too much at times, although the occasional hints at his deeper intelligence and sanity made up for that.  However, the best character work was probably reserved for Quirk as Hollins really dives back into her history as a child soldier/mage who was gently rehabilitated and taken into the academic lifestyle.  Quirk finds herself reverting to her old destructive magical ways throughout the course of the adventure and she must figure out who she truly wants to be.  I had a great time with all the cool characters in this book, although I do wish that the greedy and arrogant dragons might have gotten a little more development.  Overall, I would say that the characters were some of the best parts of Fool’s Gold and look forward to seeing more of them in the future.

Unsurprisingly, I had a pretty wonderful time with Fool’s Gold and it ended up being as thrilling and compelling as I hoped it would be.  Jon Hollins wrote a wildly entertaining and very funny fantasy heist narrative for Fool’s Gold, which came equipped with some great fantasy elements and a bunch of excellent characters.  I really enjoyed Fool’s Gold and I will have to try to grab the next two books in the Dragon Lords trilogy, especially when I’m in the mood for some crazy, over-the-top adventure and excitement. 

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Desert Star by Michael Connelly

Desert Star Cover

Publisher: Allen & Unwin Australia (Trade Paperback – 8 November 2022)

Series: Ballard and Bosch – Book Four

Length: 393 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

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Legendary crime fiction author, Michael Connelly, returns with another impressive and deeply enjoyable read that once again brings together two of his best protagonists for a compelling investigation, with Desert Star.

Connelly is an author who needs very little introduction, having spent the last 30 years dominating the crime fiction world.  His various outstanding works often cover several diverse subgenres of crime fiction, and his unique and captivating protagonists all exist in one shared universe, primarily set around Los Angeles.  Ever since I started properly reading crime fiction a few years ago, Connelly has been an author I have particularly enjoyed each year, and I have had a wonderful time reading several of his most recent books.  This includes the fantastic Mickey Haller legal thriller, The Law of Innocence, and the intense Jack McEvoy journalistic investigative read, Fair Warning (one of my favourite novels of 2020).  However, some of my favourite Connelly books have been the more classic police investigation novels, all of which have been part of the Ballard and Bosch subseries.

The Ballard and Bosch books are an intriguing set of recent novels that bring together Connelly’s two main police protagonists into one investigative team.  These two protagonists are female detective Renée Ballard and Connelly’s original protagonist, Harry Bosch, who has long retired from the LAPD but is still in the detective game.  These two form a fantastic team, and it is always fun to see their interesting mentor/mentee relationship as they investigate a series of cases.  There have so far been three Ballard and Bosch books, and I have had a wonderful time with each of them, including Dark Sacred Night, The Night Fire (one of my favourite books and audiobooks of 2019) and The Dark Hours (one of my favourite books of 2021).  Due to how awesome these last three books have been, I was quite excited to see that Connelly had a new one coming out in 2022, and that book, Desert Star, was one of my most anticipated reads for the second half of 2022.

Desert Star is set a year after the events of The Dark Hours, which saw Renée Ballard quit the LAPD after encountering sexism, corruption, and obstacles to solving her cases.  Lured back after being offered a dream job, Ballard now finds herself leading an elite cold cases unit which hopes to find justice for the many unsolved murders throughout Los Angeles.  While Ballard has already pulled together an effective team, there is still one person she needs to complete it: Harry Bosch.

While angry at Ballard following their last encounter, Bosch is lured back as a volunteer investigator after Ballard offers him help on the one cold case that has haunted him for years, the slaying of the Gallagher family.  Years ago, the entire family of four was found brutally killed, their bodies buried in the desert, and Bosch has never forgotten them or the fact that he was unable to find the man he knows killed them.  In return for access to the resources of Ballard’s unit, Bosch agrees to help Ballard solve her own cold case.

To keep their unit alive and well funded, Ballard needs to solve the rape and murder of a councilman’s sister years ago.  There are few avenues for a further investigation, and Ballard hopes that Bosch’s unique views may be the key to solving it.  However, after a chance clue connects their case to another brutal murder, Ballard and Bosch find themselves taking their investigation in some very dangerous directions.  At the same time, Bosch’s obsession with finding the Gallagher family’s killer grows even more, as he finds himself determined to catch him before it’s too late.  Can Ballard and Bosch solve their crimes, or will tragedy strike right at the heart of their partnership?

This was another outstanding crime fiction read from Connelly that combines a cool series of murder mystery cases with some intense character work to create and excellent story.  Desert Star gets off to a quick start, bringing back the two main protagonists and showing what changes have gone through their lives in the last year, as well as introducing the new cold case unit.  The reader is swiftly then brought across the two central murder cases that the protagonists are investigating.  The initial focus is on the murder of councilman’s sister, which has political connotations for the cold case unit, but Bosch also spends a large amount of time examining his personal case.  After some interesting breaks in the main case, Ballard and Bosch find themselves stuck looking far closer to home than they imagined, when clues point to a serial killer with connections to the very politician who created their unit.  There are some great twists and turns towards the centre of the book as they come close to their revelations, and the identity of this killer is pretty clever, with several interesting clues in the lead-up to the big confrontation.  At the same time, Bosch starts closing in on the main suspect in his case after revisiting witnesses from his initial investigation.  This leads him down a long, dark road as he contemplates what he’s willing to risk to get justice.  Everything leads up to a heart-pounding finale, which will leave readers on the edge of their seat as you honestly have no idea how far Connelly is going to take everything.  Desert Star ends on a particularly satisfying note, and it will be interesting to see where Connelly’s narratives go next, as he has left several intriguing storylines open.

This was a pretty addictive and fast-paced read, and it really doesn’t take long to get drawn into the two intriguing cases.  I loved the focus on cold case investigation in this book, which is a classic Connelly story element, and the author presents some excellent mystery elements.  I had a lot of fun with both cases, one because it was a seemingly unsolvable case with huge political issues behind it, the other because of one protagonist’s intense obsession with cracking it.  Connelly does a good job splitting focus between the two cases, which is made easier with the use of two perspective characters, Ballard and Bosch.  Both have very different views of the investigations, and the split in perspectives helps to ratchet up the tension in several scenes extremely well.  Connelly goes for a pretty fast pace in Desert Star, and you really find yourself powering through the narrative, especially once you get caught up in the excellent investigation arcs.  I loved how both cases turned out, and Connelly puts in some great build-up for both of their powerful conclusions.  Like most of the books in this shared crime universe, Desert Star can be easily read as a standalone novel, and no prior knowledge of either character is really required to enjoy it.  However, this latest Ballard and Bosch book is coming off a lot of emotional build-up and character development from the previous entries, so you’ll appreciate Desert Star more if you’ve checked them out first.  Connelly also throws in a ton of references to some previous novels, mainly some of Bosch’s older adventures, which established fans will really appreciate.  I loved Desert Star’s amazing story and how it was presented, as will all die-hard Connelly readers.

As always with a Connelly read, there is a noticeable and impressive focus on the central characters, with the author diving deep into his two point-of-view protagonists, Renée Ballard and Harry Bosch.  Both characters have a ton of history behind them at this point in Connelly’s joint universe, both as a team and as established, independent protagonists of their own novels.  As such, Connelly takes a little less time introducing them in Desert Star than he would previously, and instead starts highlighting their current issues and concerns, as well as re-establishing the teamwork between them.  While there is a little friction at the start of the book, mainly due to the fallout of The Dark Hours, Ballard and Bosch mostly get their investigative teamwork groove back and become an effective unit.  While Bosch does take on the mentor role in this book, it isn’t as prevalent as it has been previously, mainly because Ballard is now in control of her own unit and is the boss.  This forces her to supervise and try to control Bosch, with limited success, and this impacts their previous established dynamic.  At the same time, Ballard also relies on Bosch’s unpredictability and dislike of the rules to solve their more difficult, politically associated case, so that creates some odd friction and reliance that I rather enjoyed.

Most of the best character work in Desert Star revolved around old favourite protagonist Harry Bosch.  Bosch, who Connelly has aged up naturally over the last 30 years, is retired from the police, but he comes back to help Ballard with her case, and I loved seeing his maverick attitude reassert itself here.  However, he is primarily concerned with his own cold case, and swiftly reignites his obsession with finding the man responsible for the murder of a family.  This obsession soon starts to overwhelm him, and while he helps Ballard, he risks a lot to find his target while there is still time.  Connelly paints a powerful picture of Bosch in this book, and there are some big reveals about him that have been a long time coming.  While I won’t go into too much detail here, this is one of the more powerful and compelling Bosch narratives in a while, and Connelly does an outstanding job building up some tension around his storylines here.  Ballard also gets some interesting development in this book, and it was great to see her as a leader in this book, especially after spending so many years as the LAPD’s unwanted pariah for her attempts to report a superior for sexual harassment.  However, Ballard also encounters the darker side of leadership as she is forced to play politics and encounters various attempts to cover up the whole truth for expediency and self-gain.  This forces her to make some tough choices, and she becomes a bit more like her mentor, Bosch, with every case.  All this excellent character work really adds some impressive impact to Desert Star’s narrative, and this was one of the more significant novels for both of this amazing and iconic Connelly protagonists.

Michael Connelly continues to dominate the crime fiction scene with another epic and captivating read, Desert Star.  Bringing back two outstanding protagonists for a joint investigation, Desert Star contains a compelling and clever investigation into two fascinating murders.  Featuring a great story, some exciting pacing, and the amazing use of two complex protagonists, Desert Star was another exceptional read from Connelly that I had an awesome time reading. I can’t wait to see what Connelly writes next, and no doubt it will tie into the powerful moments raised in this incredible book.

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Warhammer 40,000: The Wraithbone Phoenix by Alec Worley

The Wraithbone Phoenix Cover

Publisher: Black Library (Audiobook – 30 August 2022)

Series: Warhammer Crime

Length: 11 hours and 6 minutes

My Rating: 4.75 out of 5 stars

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The entertaining team of Baggit and Clodde return for another Warhammer Crime adventure in the rip-roaring and deeply exciting science fiction thriller romp, The Wraithbone Phoenix by the impressive Alec Worley.

Last week I presented a review that talked about the intriguing Warhammer Crime series that combined crime fiction narratives with elements of the iconic Warhammer universe to create some amazing reads.  While some Warhammer novels already feature some intriguing crime fiction elements, such as in Necromunda novels like Kal Jericho: Sinner’s Bounty by Joshua Reynolds, the Warhammer Crime books are a much more complete melding, with cool thriller plots and complex mysteries.  I was rather intrigued by this concept, especially as I love it when authors combine wildly different genres together, and I mentioned how I planned to try out one of those books next.  Well, that book was The Wraithbone Phoenix by Alec Worley, an awesome and captivating read set in the Warhammer 40,000 universe.  A follow-up to Worley’s 2020 full-cast audiobook, Dredge Runners, The Wraithbone Phoenix is a full-length novel that brings back the protagonists of the original audiobook and puts them in another unique and deadly situation.

In the far future of the universe, there are few places more corrupt and chaotic than the crime-ridden city of Varangantua.  Life is cheap on the mean streets of Varangantua, and death waits around every corner, especially if you have a massive bounty on your head.  Unfortunately, the most wanted in the city currently are the abhuman deserters turned criminals, Baggit and Clodde.  Baggit, a tricky ratling always looking for the next score, and Clodde, his ogryn friend with a rare facility for thought, have made an enemy of one of the most dangerous men in the city, and now everyone is after their heads.  Hiding out within one of the city’s industrial salvatoriums, Baggit and Clodde have taken on new identities until the heat dies down.  However, the twos natural inclination for getting into trouble soon breaks their cover, and they are soon forced out into the open.

Desperate to find a way to pay off their debts, Baggit hears an interesting bit of news that could change all their fortunes.  One of the nearby salvatoriums is dismantling the decommissioned Imperial Navy ship, Sunstriker, the reputed home of a long-lost treasure, a xenos artifact known as the Wraithbone Phoenix.  Guided by the rumours he heard when previously served about the Sunstriker, Baggit believes that the Wraithbone Phoenix is still hidden aboard, and its value is more than enough to get rid of their bounty.

But no secrets every remain safe in Varangantua, and as Baggit and Clodde make their preparations to sneak into the Sunstriker, news of their location and their potential treasure leaks out.  Soon every criminal, bounty hunter, treasure hunter and mercenary is on their way towards the Sunstriker, desperate to claim either the bounty on Baggit and Clodde’s head, or the Wraithbone Phoenix.  Forced to face off against the very worst killers that Varangantua and its main criminal cesspool, the Dredge, has to offer, Baggit and Clodde attempt to do the impossible, recover the artefact from the ship and get out with their heads intact.  But can even the clever Baggit and the indomitable Clodde escape the deadly wave about to crash down upon them?

Wow, now this was one of the most entertaining and thrilling Warhammer 40,000 novels I have read all year.  Worley has produced an amazing novel in The Wraithbone Phoenix that did a wonderful job blending Warhammer elements with an impressive crime fiction narrative.  Filled with a ton of action, some amazing humour, and so many outrageous characters, The Wraithbone Phoenix is an outstanding read that proves to be extremely addictive.

I had such a brilliant time with The Wraithbone Phoenix, especially as Worley pulled together an extremely impressive and intense narrative that is very hard to put down.  Set in a particularly crime-ridden and corrupt city, the novel sees the chaotic duo of the ratling (halfling/hobbit) Baggit and the ogryn (ogre) Clodde, get into all manner of trouble.  Featuring a range of character perspectives, the first third of the book is pretty firmly focussed on the main duo, with some fun scenes from the contemptable villain Lemuel Scratchwick.  Forced into hiding due to past mistakes, Baggit comes up with an ambitious plan to recover the Wraithbone Phoenix, a legendary xenos treasure that is rumoured to be hidden in a nearby ship being scrapped (the theft and hiding having been cleverly set up in some early interludes).  However, after Lemuel overhears and spills the beans in a very public way, the entire city knowns what the two are planning, and a horde of killers and thieves head towards the ship.  The book starts spreading its focus to several other outrageous figures, all of whom are interested in either the Wraithbone Phoenix or killing Baggit and Clodde.  The author does a wonderful job introducing each of the characters, and you soon become invested in their hunt, as all of them are pretty amusing in their own way.  The action ends up in the decommissioned ship, were everyone starts their search for the missing treasure, and it doesn’t take long for everyone to start fighting each other in a series of bloody battles.  You honestly have no idea who is going to survive the various encounters, and it is very fun to see the distinctive characters dying in surprisingly and compelling ways.  At the same time, the characters also attempt to solve the mystery of the hidden Wraithbone Phoenix, and the various hints about its initial disappearance are cleverly woven into the modern tale, requiring the protagonists to solve it.  Eventually, only a few characters are left, and there is a great series of twists and turns that sees everyone get what they truly deserve.  While I did think that Worley perhaps went one twist too far (the final one was a bit too metaphysical for my taste), the reader comes away extremely satisfied, and highly entertained.

I had a wonderful time with this awesome book, and I think that Worley did a great job setting the entire narrative out.  The combination of crime fiction elements and the great and grim Warhammer 40,000 setting worked extremely well, and you ended up with a high-octane thriller that saw futuristic and half-crazed killers go against each other in a deadly contest for money and treasure.  The use of various perspectives allows you to get to know the various outrageous killers and participants in a very short amount of time, and you are soon invested in them and their various personal struggles as they duke it out.  I was getting a very cool and cinematic vibe from this story that put me in mind of films and books like Smoking Aces, Snatch or Bullet Train, with big casts all working against each other for the same goal.  While you are generally rooting for the main two characters, it is also very fun to see the other players in action, and the multiple unique interactions all these crazy figures have results in an impressive and frenetic read.  Worley backs this up with a ton of brilliantly written and highly detailed action sequences, and you really won’t believe the range of destruction and deliciously devious deaths that occurs.  There are so many impressive and cleverly set up moments throughout this narrative, and the deaths of several characters are usually the result of some well-placed bit of trickery that occurred chapters ago.  All this action, intrigue and character development is perfectly bound together by the book’s overarching humour, which helps to balance out the more intense elements of the novel, while also keeping everything darkly funny.  There are so many good jokes or hilariously over-the-top moments scattered throughout the novel, and I had a lot of great laughs as I powered through it.  Heck, even the title, The Wraithbone Phoenix, is a play on the classic noir book/film, The Maltese Falcon.  Everything comes together so perfectly throughout the book, especially as Worley also includes several outstanding interludes, some brilliant flashbacks, and even some hilarious in-universe text excerpts and announcements, all of which add perfectly the funny, but grim, tone of the book.  This was an incredibly well written and captivating read, and it proves quite impossible to put down at times.

While The Wraithbone Phoenix does have an outstanding crime fiction narrative, this book wouldn’t be anywhere near as good if it weren’t set in the grim future of Warhammer 40,000.  Worley did a remarkable job setting the book in this futuristic world, and it was great to see the various technologies and factions from the game being utilised in a crime story.  The author really works to explain many different elements from the Warhammer 40,000 lore here, and readers new to the franchise can easily dive into this book and start appreciating its clever story and settings.  I particularly loved the primary location of the corrupt city of Varangantua.  The author expands on this city a lot in this new book, giving more depth than it had in Dredge Runners, and you see more of the massive industries the planet supports, and the terrible conditions the people forced to work there endure.  Worley continues to hammer home just how much of a dark, dystopian society Varangantua, and the larger Imperium, really is for ordinary human citizens, and that their supposedly enlightened rulers are in many ways just as bad, if not worse, than the various monsters and the forces of Chaos they fight against (at least Chaos worshippers are honest about their intentions).  You can really sense the woe and control that Varangantua’s rulers have over the populace, and this is only enhanced by the various propaganda announcements that are played at various intervals throughout the book.  The propaganda posts are very obviously biased in their attempted manipulations and exhalations for service and order, that they are all extremely funny, even as they show just how bad things are by denying them.  However, Worley takes this even further by showing the darker, criminal side that surrounds the city, and it was really cool to see just how much worse things could get.

One of the most intriguing Warhammer 40,000 elements that Worley explores in The Wraithbone Phoenix is how the Imperial abhumans are treated.  Abhumans are genetically diverse humans who come in many shapes and sizes, like the small and sneaky ratlings and the gigantic, but dumb, ogryn.  Tolerated by the Imperium for their usefulness, these abhumans are treated as second-class citizens, looked down on by everyone just for the way they were born.  While this has been explored in other books, Worley really hammers it home in The Wraithbone Phoenix, especially as the two main characters are both abhumans.  You get a brilliant examination of how abhumans are regarded throughout the Imperium, both in the Astra Militarum and in general society, and the results are pretty damn grim.  Not only do all the humans treat them terribly and generally tell them they are worthless (there is an entire litany they need to learn about them being abhorred, unclean, but forgiven), but there are multiple examples of abhumans being killed or maimed, just for what they are.  Not only is this fascinating, while also enhancing the dark nature of the Imperium and the supposedly righteous humans, but it also becomes quite a key plot point throughout the book.  There are multiple scenes that focus on the protagonists struggling to deal with the prejudice they have suffered throughout their life, which defines them and drives them.  In addition, the plot around the hidden Wraithbone Phoenix is down to a mistreated ratling trying to get his revenge after being unfairly targeted and left filled with hate.  This proves to be quite a fascinating and well-written aspect of The Wraithbone Phoenix, and I loved being able to see everything from the abhumans perspective.

I also have a lot of love for the excellent characters that Worley set his story around.  There is such a great range of distinctive and captivating characters throughout The Wraithbone Phoenix, and you really get drawn into their individual tales and battles for survival and redemption.  Most of the focus ends up going around the main characters of the book, Baggit and Clodde, abhuman Astra Militarum deserters turned criminal entrepreneurs who were introduced in Dredge Runners.  Worley ensures that new readers can quickly pick up who Baggit and Clodde are, and it was so much fun to follow this ratling/ogryn combination, especially as they continued their chaotic lives of crime.  Both protagonists have their own brilliant characteristics, including Baggit’s (I assume the name is a fun homage to Bilbo/Frodo Baggins) enjoyment of plans and schemes that never work out, and the surprisingly smart and philosophical nature of Clodde (that’s what happens when you get shot in the head).  The two characters play off each other perfectly, with Baggit taking on the role of leader and carer for his big comrade, and Clodde letting him, while also not allowing him to get away with anything, thanks to the increased understanding he has.  We get a bit more history surround these two characters, including their time in the army, and while it is not fully explored yet, you get to see the fantastic bond they have.  Baggit ends up getting a bit more of a focus in this book than Clodde, mainly because the central plot point is so tightly tied to the fate of a mistreated ratling.  Baggit, who suffered his own abuse from humans while serving, becomes obsessed with the fate of this long dead ratling, and he is determined to find out what happened to him and whether he got his revenge.  Baggit really emphasises with him as the story continues, and his obsession for answers lead him to make some big mistakes, especially once he learns all the ancient ratling’s secrets.  Both Baggit and Clodde are extremely likeable, and you can’t help but fall in love with the scheming ratling and the sweet, if brilliantly weird, ogryn.

Aside from Baggit and Clodde, Worley also fills The Wraithbone Phoenix with an eclectic mix of characters, with some very diverse storylines and characteristics to them.  The most iconic and heavily featured are the various assassins, bounty hunters and other individuals who are flocking to the Sunstriker for various reasons, be it money, treasure, or a chance of redemption (sometimes all three at once).  This list of crazy characters includes a genetically enhanced killing machine, a cult of phoenix-worshiping wackjobs, a team of elite mercenaries, an ageing bounty hunter trying to regain his reputation, a sadistic archaeologist with a love of whips, another ratling with a past connection to Baggit and Clodde, a disgraced and drunk Imperial Navy officer with a dream of finally impressing his dead mother, and the mysterious hooded assassin known only as Death.  Worley did a really good job of introducing each of these unique figures, and you swiftly get drawn into their compelling personal stories and outrageous personalities, especially after witnessing several scenes from their perspective.  While I could go on for ages about all of these dangerous people, I’m mainly just going to give a shoutout to the character of Lemuel Scratchwick, a steward at the plant Baggit and Clodde were working at, who really grows to hate the pair.  Dragged down from his high perch by them, Lemuel spends the rest of the book trying to get even and comes across as the most arrogant and detestable villain.  It is so amusing to see Lemuel in action, especially as his pride often gets the better of him and nothing goes his way, much to my delight.  He forms quite an unhealthy rivalry with Baggit which draws them both into taking stupid risks.  All these over-the-top, but deeply likeable characters, really enhanced my enjoyment of this book and I can’t wait to see what impressively outrageous figures appear in Worley’s next novel.

Unsurprisingly, I chose to listen to The Wraithbone Phoenix on audiobook, which is really one of the best ways to enjoy a great Warhammer book.  This was a moderately long audiobook, coming in at just over 11 hours, and I found myself getting through it in a relatively short amount of time, including powering through the last several hours in a day trying to get to the conclusion.  This was a very fun and entertaining audiobook, and I had a great time listening to the awesome humour and intense violence unfold, especially as the narration by Harry Myers painted quite an impressive picture.  Myers, whose work I previously enjoyed in another recent Warhammer 40,000 novel, Day of Ascension by Adrian Tchaikovsky, does a pretty epic job in The Wraithbone Phoenix, and I loved his narrative take on the captivating story.  Every character in this audiobook is given their own distinctive and fitting voice, which I deeply enjoyed, especially as it helps the listener to connect more to them and the story.  Myers clearly had a lot of fun when it came to voicing all the outrageous figures and some of the voices he came up with were very amusing.  I really appreciated the squeakier voice he used for the rattling characters, as wells as the deeper boom of Clodde, and the rest of the voices he came up with were not only distinctive and fun, but they also helped to enhance the inherent traits of the character it was associated with.  For example, he really conveyed the deep arrogance and distain contained within the character of Lemuel Scrathwick, as well as he dramatic decline in sanity as the book unfolded, and I really appreciated the narrator’s attention to detail with that.  Myers really impressed me as a narrator in The Wraithbone Phoenix, and I liked how some of his scenes, namely those depicting the in-universe propaganda, were enhanced with some serious and inspiration music and sound effects, which made the absurd declarations even more hilarious.  This was such a good audiobook, and I cannot recommend it enough as a way to enjoy this epic Warhammer novel.

Overall, this was an outstanding first Warhammer Crime novel from me, and I had such an incredible time getting through this book.  The Wraithbone Phoenix is an impressive and highly addictive Warhammer 40,000 read, and I loved the elaborate story that Alec Worley came up with for it.  Containing some brilliant characters, a highly entertaining story, and a great combination of crime fiction and Warhammer elements, The Wraithbone Phoenix comes highly recommended, and you are guaranteed to have an exceptional time reading this witty and intense read.

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Star Wars: The Princess and the Scoundrel by Beth Revis

Star Wars - The Princess and the Scoundrel Cover

Publisher: Del Rey (Trade Paperback – 16 August 2022)

Series: Star Wars

Length: 348 pages

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

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Outstanding author Beth Revis presents an intriguing and enjoyable new entry in the extended Star Wars canon, with the fantastic tie-in novel, The Princess and the Scoundrel.

2022 has been a rather interesting year for Star Wars fiction.  While the focus has primarily been on the High Republic sub-series, several great authors have produced some awesome reads set around the various film trilogies (such as Star Wars: Brotherhood by Mike Chen).  However, one of the most exciting recent Star Wars tie-in novels is a character-driven read that focuses on the relationship between Han Solo and Princess Leia, The Princess and the Scoundrel, which was written by exciting author Beth Revis.  Revis, who already has some experience with the Star Wars canon, having written the 2017 novel, Rebel Rising, came up with an awesome story in The Princess and the Scoundrel that I had a wonderful time reading.  Not only does The Princess and the Scoundrel explore an interesting period of the complex and inspiring Star Wars canon, but it also contained a fantastic romantic heart that will appeal to a wider range of readers.

Goodreads Synopsis:

The Death Star is destroyed. Darth Vader is dead. The Empire is desolated. But on the forest moon of Endor, amongst the chaos of a changing galaxy, time stands still for a princess and her scoundrel.

After being frozen in carbonite, then risking everything for the Rebellion, Han is eager to stop living his life for other people. He and Leia have earned their future together, a thousand times over. And when he proposes to Leia, it’s the first time in a long time he’s had a good feeling about this. For Leia, a lifetime of fighting doesn’t truly seem over. There is work still to do, penance to pay for the dark secret she now knows runs through her veins. Her brother, Luke, is offering her that chance—one that comes with family and the promise of the Force. But when Han asks her to marry him, Leia finds her answer immediately on her lips . . . Yes.

But happily ever after doesn’t come easily. As soon as Han and Leia depart their idyllic ceremony on Endor for their honeymoon, they find themselves on the grandest and most glamorous stage of all: the Halcyon, a luxury vessel on a very public journey to the most wondrous worlds in the galaxy. Their marriage, and the peace and prosperity it represents, is a lightning rod for everyone in the galaxy—including Imperial remnants still clinging to power.

Facing their most desperate hour, the soldiers of the Empire have dispersed across the galaxy, retrenching on isolated worlds vulnerable to their influence. As the Halcyon travels from world to world, one thing becomes abundantly clear: The war is not over. But as danger draws closer, Han and Leia find that they fight their best battles not alone but as husband and wife.

I had a fantastic time getting through The Princess and the Scoundrel as Beth Revis wrote a pretty awesome and captivating Star Wars novel that covered a lot of bases.  Split between the alternating perspectives of Han and Leia, The Princess and the Scoundrel takes off right after Return of the Jedi.  While the victorious Rebellion plans their next moves, Han and Leia decide to make the most of their sudden freedom to get married after their traumatic year apart.  While both are still reeling from the events of the original trilogy, they come together in a fun wedding scene, before leaving on a glamorous trip that will be part honeymoon part propaganda show.  While initially trying to enjoy their honeymoon, both quickly fall into their old patterns, with Han chafing at the formality, while Leia continues to try and do her work as an ambassador and planner.  Arriving at an isolated ice planet, Han and Leia soon discover a destructive Imperial plot and must come together as a couple to thwart it.  This ended up being a really distinctive read, as Revis worked a more romantic plotline into the always entertaining Star Wars canon.  I loved seeing this fantastic tale of Han and Leia’s first adventure as husband and wife, and Revis ensured readers got an excellent blend of action, intrigue, and character development, as you witnessed these two amazing protagonists try to come together as a married couple.  There is a little something for everyone in this great read, and I found myself getting caught up in the action and the impressive focus on two of my favourite fictional characters.  An overall brilliant book that is really easy to enjoy and appreciate.

The Princess and the Scoundrel proved to be a very interesting addition to the current Star Wars canon.  While the romance between Han and Leia was strongly explored in the previous Legends canon, the current Disney canon has not featured it as much, and as such you see some fascinating events from their lives here for the first time.  Revis paints quite a fun picture of the sudden wedding these two have, which features entertaining interruptions from several key characters, some tricky manoeuvrings from Lando to get Han into a nice outfit, and, of course, a ton of Ewoks, while the honeymoon is as chaotic as you would expect from these two.  As such, this is a pretty key book for all fans of these two iconic characters, and I think that Revis hit an excellent tone when it came to some of these key events.  The author also fits in a lot of fantastic references and moments that a lot of Star Wars fans will appreciate, most of which are covered in a very fun way.  For example, the characters finally address that infamous kiss between Luke and Leia at the start of The Empire Strikes Back, with Han and Luke having a rather awkward conversation about it, before agreeing never to bring it up again.  Revis also makes quite good use of an interesting Han Solo villain from one of the previous canon books, and it was great to see some continuation from the previous intriguing storyline.  That, and several other amusing references, help to make this quite a key book for Star Wars fans, and I had a wonderful, nerdy time getting through it.

Aside from the direct references to the book, I was personally intrigued to see more about the period of Star Wars history that occurred in the immediate aftermath of the Death Star’s destruction in Return of the Jedi.  Despite the death of the Emperor, the war between the Empire and the Rebellion (now renamed as the New Republic), is still ongoing, and indeed some of the toughest fighting is still to come.  Several authors have covered this frenetic period in the current canon with some recent books, such as the Alphabet Squadron trilogy by Alexander Freed (made up of Alphabet Squadron, Shadow Fall and Victory’s Price).  However, I particularly enjoyed how The Princess and the Scoundrel covered this period, as it shows events literally hours after the end of the film.  Quite a bit is shown of the Rebellion’s initial strategies following the battle of Endor, as well as the Empire’s reactions to the death of the Emperor and the sudden shift in power.  While some of the wider campaigns aren’t shown, you get an interesting idea of what the military and political situation was at the time, which I deeply enjoyed.  Revis also spends time examining how members of the general public reacted to the news, and there is an interesting variation of responses.  Not only did some people straight out disbelieve that the events even occurred, with many assuming it was fake propaganda from the Rebellion, others who were associated with the Empire, or who had members of their family aboard the Death Star, acted quite hostile to the change in the established status quo.  These diverse reactions not only reflected some current real-world societal issues, but also provided a compelling insight into just how much influence the Empire had, even on the way to its downfall.  Throw in some hints and previews of the upcoming Operation Cinder, and this proved to be a very interesting addition the Star Wars canon that many established fans will really enjoy.

One of the strongest elements of The Princess and the Scoundrel is its impressive focus on the two main characters, Han Solo and Princess Leia.  While this book does contain a lot of action, intrigue and fantastic Star Wars elements, at its heart it is a romance novel between two well-established and complex characters, both of whom have experienced a lot of trauma and anguish in recent years.  Revis does a remarkable job of diving into both characters throughout the course of The Princess and the Scoundrel, and you really get a sense of their feelings, concerns and traumas following their victory.  However, there is also a great focus on their relationship, and you can really see the strong bond they have, even if they are still coming to terms with their feelings and their wildly different personalities.  I felt that Revis painted a realistic view of their relationship, which contains some difficulties early on, especially with their independent streaks.  However, the author also shows that the two characters are much stronger together, and they can work through any issues that come their way.  I think that this much better than just showing them having a fairy tale relationship, and I really appreciated the authors compelling take on one of the most iconic relationships in fiction.

Aside from their relationship, Revis also did a great job of diving into the complex emotional issues facing both central characters.  For example, Revis makes sure to explore the trauma surrounding Han after being trapped in carbonite for over a year.  Not only did he miss out on a lot of key events in his friends’ lives, but at this point of the book he has only been awake again for a few days, and some of his decisions are based on his concerns and fears about being trapped again.  Leia is also going through a lot after the discovery that Luke is her brother and, more importantly, that Darth Vader was her father.  As such, Leia spends much of the book attempting to reconcile the fact that her real father was a genocidal maniac who tortured her and is partially responsible for destroying her home planet.  This proves to be quite a deep and intriguing part of her character arc, especially since, unlike her newly discovered brother, she is unable to forgive Vader for everything he did.  There is also an interesting look at Leia’s early attempts to connect with the Force, after Luke reveals her Jedi potential.  Watching her attempts at using the Force is very fascinating, especially as she battles with her feelings about Vader while doing so and is reluctant to even try to use the abilities that he could do.  All these unique character examinations, and more, really help to showcase just how complex and traumatised Han and Leia were at this period, and how much their relationship helped them get past it.

Star Wars: The Princess and the Scoundrel by Beth Revis is an amazing read that provides Star Wars fans with something a little different to the typical tie-in novel.  Featuring a continuation of one of film’s most iconic romances, The Princess and the Scoundrels is at times touching and romantic, while also exploring the grim realities of the war-torn galaxy, all topped off with some classic Star Wars action and humour.  With an outstanding focus and understanding of its two main characters, The Princess and the Scoundrel was a fantastic novel that is well worth checking out.

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In the Shadow of Lightning by Brian McClellan

In the Shadow of Lightning Cover

Publisher: Macmillan Audio (Audiobook – 21 June 2022)

Series: The Glass Immortals – Book One

Length: 24 hours and 53 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

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One of the most inventive and compelling authors of fantasy fiction, Brian McClellan, kicks off an awesome new series with In the Shadow of Lightning, the first book in The Glass Immortals series.

Few authors over the last 10 years have had more of an explosive impact on the world of fantasy fiction then Brian McClellan.  Debuting in 2013, McClellan quickly set the world ablaze with The Powder Mage trilogy, which saw chaos and destruction unravel in a new fantasy world where gunpowder-powered mages face off against an enraged god.  I had a brilliant time with the first book in the series, Promise of Blood, and McClellan followed this initial trilogy off with the sequel, Gods of Blood and Powder trilogy, set in the same universe.  While I still need to finish the Powder Mage novels off, I was very excited to hear that McClellan was starting a new series with In the Shadow of Lightning, the first book in the author’s The Glass Immortals series.  This is an impressive and outstanding read that introduces readers to a distinctive new fantasy world, this time with a fascinating focus on glass magic.

Demir Grappo was once one of the most respected politicians, tacticians and glassdancers in the Ossan Empire.  A rising star in the assembly, a proven governor, and the only son of a prominent family, Demir’s promising career is suddenly shattered in the immediate aftermath of his greatest military victory when his army sacked and destroyed the entire city of Holikan, apparently on his orders.  Mentally broken by the massacre done in his name, Demir abandons his army and vanishes into the provinces, giving up his life of privilege for one of anonymity.

Now, nine years after the sacking of Holikan, Demir is a very different man, having spent the intervening time as a grifter with no true home.  However, everything changes when news reaches him that his mother was murdered, brutally beaten to death in public in an apparent political attack.  Determined to find her killers, Demir returns to the city of Ossa to reclaim his seat as the head of his family.  But not everyone is happy that he has returned, and Demir soon finds himself in the midst of several deadly conspiracies, while Ossa goes to war against its neighbour, all in the name of avenging his murdered mother.

To get to the centre of these conspiracies, Demir must find allies, including old friends and new acquaintances if he is to gain the power and influence he needs find answers, especially those hidden by the powerful guild families who rule Ossa.  However, as he searches, and soon finds a much more troubling secret: godglass, the source of magic within the world, is running out, and when it goes, chaos will reign.  The key to securing the future may lie in a device that could re-power inert pieces of godglass, and only one girl appears to have the skill to create such a device.  But as Demir fights to secure this new vital ally, he finds himself fighting against a mysterious new enemy, one that seems determined to destroy anyone who gets in their way.

McClellan impresses again with another incredible fantasy novel that had me instantly enthralled.  Presenting the reader with a multifaceted narrative that combines great characters with intriguing fantasy elements, In the Shadow of Lightning proved to be an outstanding start to McClellan’s new series and I had an exceptional time reading it.  Epic in scope, ambition and potential, In the Shadow of Lightning gets a full five-star rating from me and I am still reeling from just how good this was.

In the Shadow of Lightning is a particularly addictive novel, especially as McClellan presents the reader with an outstanding and complex narrative that pulls them in on so many levels.  Starting off with a compelling prelude that perfectly introduces central protagonist Demir Grappo and shows his dramatic and bloody fall from grace and sanity, the novel then undergoes a time skip which takes the reader into the current storyline, right as events are kicking off.  The initial focus is on Demir, who, after finding out his mother has been murdered, returns to Ossa to take over the family business and discover her murderers.  However, he soon finds that his mother was involved in complex dealings that might have led to her death, and that her assassination has been blamed on a neighbouring city Ossa is going to war with.  The story then splits as McClellan introduces three additional point-of-view characters, each other whom has their own distinctive story arc, closely related to Demir and the politics of Ossa.

These new characters include Thessa Foleer, a siliceer (godglass worker) from Ossa’s neighbour Grent, the breacher Idrian Sepulki and Kizzie Vorcien, an enforcer for a powerful guild-family who Demir hires to investigate his mother’s death.  Each of these new characters have their own individual storylines that tie into the plot points introduced in Demir’s initial chapters.  While these character arcs go in their own direction, their storylines are loosely connected together and form a great overarching narrative as they are dragged into war, imprisonment, political battles, conspiracies and criminal investigations.  I loved the cool blend of character-driven storylines, and everything comes together extremely well to show that something very rotten is going on within Ossa.  This is a very fast-paced story, and McClellan keeps multiple compelling plotlines running simultaneously to keep the reader’s attention, with some great reveals and amazing fight scenes scattered throughout the book.  Most of these reveals are set up and foreshadowed extremely well, with a couple of exceptions, and I didn’t see some of the twists coming, which was pretty fun.  Everything comes to a head towards the end of the novel, as all four characters find themselves in their own extremely dangerous and concerning situation.  Not only is there a massive battle for the future of Ossa but there are some shocking revelations about who is involved in the conspiracy and why.  The author leaves everything on an amazing note that not only leaves readers satisfied with the conclusion of some of the storylines but which also leaves a lot of questions unanswered and the reader wanting more.  An excellent and impressive story that dragged me in extremely quickly.

I was very impressed with how In the Shadow of Lightning’s story came together, as McClellan presented an epic and addictive offering that I snapped up extremely quickly.  I especially loved the use of four separate narrators to tell this story, and McClellan did an outstanding job of separating out their narratives.  Each narrator has their own unique story to tell, and what is really good is that they also explore a different aspect of the author’s new fantasy world, which often breaks across the associated genres.  For example, Thessa’s story focuses on the magical science behind godglass, and examines the political and social elements associated with this branch of magic.  Idrian’s tale comes across as a war tale as he is forced to participated in the deadly conflict between Ossa and Grent, where his particularly magical expertise makes him a living weapon.  Kizzie’s chapters come across as an investigation arc, as she attempts to uncover who killed Demir’s mother, and is forced to dive into the intrigues and shifting allegiances amongst the Ossan families, uncovering a deep conspiracy.  Demir serves as a bit of a joining figure; while he also has his own unique adventures, especially around Ossan politics, a lot of his arc involves interactions with the other three point of view characters.  Not only does this ensure that we get another viewpoint on the other character’s actions, as he gets involved in the godglass, espionage and the war elements that they are solely focussed on, but he helps to bring the other protagonist’s disparate storylines together into one solid and compelling narrative.

All four character-driven storylines are pretty exceptional in their own right, and this was one of those rare multi-perspective novels where you honestly can’t choose which character arc is the most intriguing or enjoyable.  I was particularly impressed with how McClellan brought these storylines together into one outstanding novel, and it makes for quite the epic read, especially as the author ensures you get the right blend of intrigue, action, magic and mystery throughout.  Despite its longer length, In the Shadow of Lightning has a pretty fast pace to it, and the readers are constantly treated to fantastic scenes that really keep your interest, either by being directly exciting, or featuring excellent examples of character development or world building.  I also really have to highlight the outstanding and amazing action sequences featured throughout this book.  McClellan has an impressive way of making these fight scenes really come to life in your mind, and it so easy to see all the epic events unfold.  These action scenes are particularly impactful when combined with the new magical features that the author has come up with, and I had so much fun seeing them unfold.  This really was an exceptional and highly entertaining read, and I loved how this entire amazing story was presented to the reader.

One of the things that most impressed me about In the Shadow of Lightning was the way in which McClellan envisioned and introduced the reader to an entirely new fantasy realm, equipped with its own distinctive magical system, all of which was substantially different from the elements featured in his previous Powder Mage novels.  While there are some similarities, namely that the Glass Immortals series also features magic, firearms, and a similar level of technology, there are quite a few differences which really make this new series stand out.  Most of the book is set in the Ossan Empire and its capital city of Ossa, which proves to be an excellent background location for the complex story.  Ossa, as well as some of the other nations mentioned reminded me of an Italian city-state, and I felt that it was an interesting change of pace to the French/English influences of Powder Mage universe.  The city is ruled by rival merchant guild families who are constantly battling for dominance, while the influence of the cities extends out to various provinces in the extended empire.  There is an intricate society set up around Ossa, and I loved the compelling interplay of industries, politics and intrigue that resulted.  McClellan examines various aspects of Ossan society, including sports, leisure, the military, and the various social levels, all of which were pretty intriguing to discover, and which painted Ossa and its people in a compelling light.  I particularly enjoyed their innate love for intrigue, contracts and business above everything else, and the fact that their national sport involves two magically enhanced people beating each other with cudgels tells you a lot about them.  Throw in some compelling snapshots of other relevant nations, as well as some sneaky hints at other mysterious beings, and the reader is given a really impressive and detailed introduction to this new world in this first book in the series, which McClellan did an outstanding job setting up.

However, the most distinctive part of this new universe is the cool magical system that forms the basis for much of the plot.  Just like with the Powder Mage novels, there are actually several different variations of magic and magic users in this series, which are connected to various forms of glass.  The first of these is the magical godglass, empowered glass items that give its users various abilities, such as strength, intelligence and enhanced senses, or which can be used to control a person.  Godglass is the most common form of magic in this series, which anyone can use, and indeed the entirety of human society in this world is based around the use of these items.  Pretty much every action a character does in this book is helped out in some way with godglass, resulting in some excellent sequences, especially during fights, and McClellan spends a lot of time exploring how it fits into his new world.  This includes multiple scenes set inside glassworks, where the godglass is forged, and you get an idea of how it is made and the significance it holds to the people of this world, including the fact that many of the characters have piercings that allow them to attach godglass to them.  Godglass actually becomes a key part of the book’s plot, once it is revealed that the supplies of magical cindersand that is used to create it is running low, resulting in an undercover war to control the remnants or finding a means of regenerating it.

The other magical elements of this new series involve the inbuilt talents of several characters, who have various degrees of sorcery in them.  The most prominent of these are the glassdancers, sorcerers who can control glass (except godglass) to an astonishing degree, and use it as a weapon.  There are multiple glassdancer characters featured throughout In the Shadow of Lightning (including the central protagonist), and you get to see multiple fights involving them, which are pretty badass.  You would never consider just how dangerous someone controlling glass could be until reading this book, and the brutal and quick ways in which they kill their opponents are pretty damn impressive.  The other major form of magical user are glazalier, who have more of a passive ability that allows them to resist the negative impacts of godglass (too much magic starts to eat away at someone) while still being able to use them.  These glazaliers are deployed as breachers, heavily armoured soldiers equipped with a ton of godglass that make them unstoppable tanks in battle, capable of killing units of men by themselves.  Acting as both a hammer and shield to their comrades, they are a lot more brutal than the subtly lethal glassdancers, and I loved the compelling contrast between the two major magical soldiers featured in this book.  McClellan does an outstanding job introducing, explaining and showcasing all these different magical elements in this first book, and I deeply enjoyed seeing the many cool ways these magical abilities and the godglass could be used, especially in the book’s many awesome action sequences.  I look forward to seeing how McClellan expands on them in the future, and I am still so impressed by how much magic the author could work into glass.

Another area where McClellan really excels as a writer is with the complex and multi-layered characters he is able to create.  This was really evident in his new novel, where several great point of view protagonists and fascinating supporting characters are perfectly introduced to the reader and become exciting focal points for the brilliant plot.

The most prominent of these is central protagonist, Demir Grappo, a brilliant strategist and politician, whose entire life is shattered in the opening prologue.  Forced back into public life after the death of his mother, Demir takes control of his family and attempts to rebuild his legacy while also finding answers.  Utilising the swindling, bluff and manipulation skills he built in the decade he was away, Demir proves to be a tough political adversary and quite an interesting figure to follow.  I loved his impressive and unique storyline, and watching him regain his political skills and self-confidence was really enjoyable, especially as he acts as a deadly glass sorcerer, businessman, politician, leader and even a general.  There are great sequences that highlight his skills, and I loved how he was able to manipulate everyone in many different ways, from being an agreeable political ally, to acting like a smarmy lord who is able to bluff his way around by sheer force of personality.  While he does come across as arrogant at times, which is partially due to the fear and respect everyone gives him due to his sorcerous abilities, McClellan ensures that the protagonist is aware of it, and works to fix his character flaws as he goes.  However, the biggest character aspect of Demir involves the trauma he carries after his actions apparently led to the massacre of an entire city.  Still haunted by the scenes from that night, Demir is forced to revisit them throughout the course of the book, especially when he meets a survivor while trying to find out who was actually responsible.  His roiling emotions around these events are his one weak spot, and the author slips in some powerful and understandable scenes where he loses control.  McClellan did a great job setting up Demir in this first book, and I have no doubt his story is going to get even more complex and painful.

McClellan ensures that all his intriguing characters have their own distinctive and compelling motivations, as well as a dark history that is explored throughout the course of In the Shadow of Lightning.  This includes Thessa Foleer, whose heartbreaking narrative and past worked perfectly in concert with Demir’s, which was appropriate as their storylines were the most closely linked.  Thessa’s story is one of constant loss, especially as everyone who seems to get close to her dies or suffers in some way, and the character goes through some major grief and trauma as a result.  The author does a good job balancing the focus on her past and her feelings of loss, with the scenes depicting her work as a siliceer, and I liked how you get some of the best insights about this book’s primary fantasy elements throughout her chapters.  McClellan sets up Thessa as quite a major character in this novel, and it will interesting to see how her story progresses in the future.

The other two point-of-view characters are Idrian Sepulki and Kizzie Vorcien, who add a lot more excitement and fun to the story.  Idrian’s scenes are some of the most action-packed, and it is very cool to see him in battle, especially as he tends to plough through entire units of men like a human tank.  However, Idrian is one of the most caring and likeable figures in the entire novel.  Primarily concerned for the lives of his comrades, Idrian goes into the battle to protect them, and the close friendships he builds with his men help define him.  However, Idrian is also battling some inner demons, and it is clear that McClellan has some tragedy planned for him in the future.  This is a little heartbreaking, as you really cannot help but enjoy Idrian’s straightforward nature and natural integrity, and anything bad that happens to him is going to strike the reader twice as hard as a result.  Kizzie, on the other hand, is a scrappy enforcer, forced to survive the intense politics of the city’s guild families.  The bastard daughter of the Vorcien family head, Kizzie desperately seeks legitimisation and acceptance from her father, if only to protect her from vicious brother.  Dragged into Demir’s hunt for his mother’s killers, Kizzie dives into the world of political intrigue and family espionage, only to find herself conflicted by the answers she seeks.  Forced to choose between friends and family, as well as between her desires and what his right, Kizzie has some great moments in this book, and her inner conflicts add a great amount of drama to the plot.

These central protagonists are well rounded out by an impressive and enjoyable series of supporting characters, each of whom add to the plot in their own unique way.  McClellan does a great job introducing all the key supporting characters featured in the plot, and there are some amazing and distinctive characters featured here, from long-time friends of the characters, to bitter enemies with their own agendas.  My favourite supporting character would probably be Baby Montego, Demir’s adopted brother who returns to help Demir with his exploits and find out who killed their mother.  A massive brute of a man and a former cudgeling world champion, Baby is considered to be the deadliest man on the planet, even though he doesn’t have any magical abilities and can’t use godglass.  He more than lives up to this reputation throughout the book, and he has some of the most exciting and action-packed sequences in the entire novel as he casually deals out violence.  At the same time, he is also a cunning thinker, and his dry humour and complete self-confidence really make him standout.  It was fantastic to see amazing characters like Baby interact with the point-of-view characters, and you get some impressive moments as a result.  Honestly, every character featured in this book was amazing in their own way, and I cannot emphasise enough how well McClellan wrote them.

As I tend to do with most massive fantasy novels, I chose to check out In the Shadow of Lightning in its audiobook format, which proved to be pretty damn awesome.  Coming in with a runtime of just under 25 hours, this is a lengthy audiobook to listen to (it comes in at number 15 on my latest longest audiobooks I have listened to list), and it took me a decent amount of time to get through it.  However, I felt that was time well spent, as I was relentlessly entertained every single second I spent listening to In the Shadow of Lightning, and there were times I wished it was even longer.  This epic novel really came to life in the audiobook format, and I loved how impressive and cool some of the big action sequences and confrontations felt when being listened to.  While I did initially struggle to keep track of the side characters in this format (having the ability to easily go back and figure out who people were would have been helpful), I was soon able to figure out who everyone was, while also absorbing a heck of a lot more detail about the new universe and its unique elements.

I was also deeply impressed with the outstanding narration In the Shadow of Lightning featured, thanks to the work of Damian Lynch.  Lynch is a veteran audiobook narrator with several epic fantasy series under his belt and he swiftly made me a big fan with his great voice work here.  He really dove into the various characters featured in the book, and you got a great sense of their personalities, emotions and actions as he narrated them.  I had fun with several of the voices he provided in this book, and I thought that protagonists like Demir, Idrian and Baby Montego, were really good, especially as you get notes of weariness in the old veteran Idrian, and the barely contained violence that resonates off Baby every time he talks.  I particularly liked the cool European accents that Lynch gave to the various characters, which helped to reinforce the Italian city-state nature of the main location, and people from other nations or cities had subtly different accents, which I thought was a very nice touch.  All this, and more, makes for an outstanding audiobook and this is easily the best way to enjoy In the Shadow of Lightning.  I had a wonderful time with this exceptional audiobook and I will definitely be grabbing the next book in this format when it comes out.

As you can no doubt see from this lengthy review, I deeply enjoyed In the Shadow of Lightning, which was such an epic book.  Brian McClellan did a remarkable job with this new novel, and he really proved his ability to set up another distinctive and exceptional fantasy series.  Loaded with so many amazing story elements, a cool new fantasy world with unique magical elements, and some impressive and complex characters, In the Shadow of Lightning was so very addictive, and I really could not stop listening to it.  A highly recommended read, especially in its audiobook format, In the Shadow of Lightning was one of the best books of 2022 and is a must read for all fantasy fans, especially those who have enjoyed McClellan’s work in the past, and I am exceedingly excited to see how The Glass Immortals series progresses from here.

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Quick review – Warhammer 40,000: Dredge Runners by Alec Worley

Dredge Runners

Publisher: Black Library (Audiobook – 8 August 2020)

Series: Warhammer Crime

Length: 1 hour and 1 minute

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Amazon

Prepare to dive into the dark and fun world of the Warhammer Crime subseries with the short but incredible hilarious audio drama, Dredge Runners by Alec Worley.

Fans of this blog will be well aware of my current obsession with all things Warhammer fiction, as I have been making an effort to try out a range of their recently released books, all of which have been highly entertaining reads.  One of the main things that I love about the tie-in fiction that surrounds the Warhammer tabletop games is the sheer range of different stories that can be told, especially as the various authors associated with this franchise often go out of their way to blend it with other genres and story types.  As a result, there are several great Warhammer sub-series out there at the moment, including the Warhammer Crime books, which dive into the criminal underbelly of the Warhammer 40,000 universe and presents the readers with some intriguing and unique adventures.

I have been meaning to check out some Warhammer Crime novels for a while, especially as there are some quite fascinating sounding books already part of it.  I love the idea of the grim and gothic Warhammer universe blending with a more traditional crime fiction read, and I know I am going to have a lot of fun with all of them.  As such, when I saw that a new Warhammer Crime book, The Wraithbone Phoenix by Alec Worley, was coming out, I thought that it would be a good entry point to the wider Warhammer Crime sub-series.  However, I noticed that The Wraithbone Phoenix was actually a follow-up to a previous short story by Worley, Dredge Runners, which was released in 2020 as a full-cast audio drama.  Well, I am a reviewer who likes the get the complete picture and considering that Dredge Runners was just over an hour long I figured I would listen to it quickly to get some context before diving into The Wraithbone Phoenix.  As such, I listened to the whole of Dredge Runners in one go this morning, and it proved to be quite an amazing and amusing listen.

Goodreads Synopsis:

A Warhammer Crime Audio Drama

Baggit the ratling and Clodde the ogryn fight to survive on the mean streets of Varangantua as powerful enemies close in from all sides.

LISTEN TO IT BECAUSE
Experience the sounds of a crime-ridden city and enjoy the twists and turns of a tale starring some of the more unusual inhabitants of the Imperium of Man.

THE STORY
Baggit is a fast-talking ratling sniper with a greedy eye and loose morals. Clodde is an ogryn, a brute with a core of decency and a desire for a better life. Two abhuman deserters turned thieves, at large in the monolithic city of Varangantua, where only the tough or the ruthless survive. Having landed in debt to a savage crime lord, Baggit and Clodde end up in the crosshairs of the meanest, most puritanical sanctioner in the city. Caught between two powerful enemies, and with innocent lives at stake, the unlikely companions must think fast and hustle hard before death points a las-pistol in their direction… 

Unsurprisingly, Dredge Runners turned out to be just as amusing and fantastic as the plot synopsis suggested.  I loved the idea of two abhumans, in this case a ratling (a futuristic halfling sniper) and an ogryn (ogre), getting involved in a series of disastrous criminal enterprises after getting caught between the city’s biggest crime lord and a puritanical sanctioner (law enforcement official).  Despite its short runtime, Worley achieves a lot with Dredge Runners, perfectly introducing his excellent protagonists and taking them on a wild science fiction thriller adventure that includes hilarious exchanges, failed undercover operations and explosive heists.

Told completely through dialogue (with some sound effects giving off extra context), Dredge Runners’ story draws you in within the first few minutes as the author blends the more outrageous elements of the Warhammer 40,000 universe with a dark but amusing crime fiction narrative.  Due to the length, you do not often get the full story of the events taking place, but the subsequent reaction by the characters allows you to imagine the full destructive scope of their actions, and it often proves funnier this way.  There is a real focus on humour in this short production, and I was constantly left in stiches at some of the fantastic antics that the main characters get up to as a chaotic team.  However, the story also has some real heart to it, especially towards the end when the protagonists are forced to make some tough decisions about their future, and they find their greed crashing up against their moral responsibility to other abhumans.  Throw in some memorable and deeply cynical propaganda messages from the city authorities that shows just how corrupt and repressive the entirety of Imperial culture is in the Warhammer 40,000 universe (the one that concluded the story had me laughing hard), and this proves to be an outstanding Warhammer production that I had an absolute blast getting through.

One of the main things that Worley achieved with Dredge Runners is the successful introduction of protagonists Baggit and Clodde, who serve as a fantastic central duo.  On the surface, Baggit is a thieving rattling who serves as the team’s leader and plan maker, while Clodde is the muscle, going along with Baggit’s plans and often messing them up by not understanding them.  However, there is a lot more to both of them.  Baggit is desperate to escape the dark life they currently have in Varagantua and feels a responsibility to Clodde due to their connected past.  Clodde, on the other hand, is a rather unique and amusing ogryn character, who has an unusual intellectual side after getting shot in the head (by Baggit).  As such, Clodde comes off as surprisingly deep and philosophical, and he is way smarter than he appears, especially when it comes to Baggit’s antics.  These two play off each other perfectly, especially with Clodde acting as the group’s conscious, and their eventual attempts to get justice and do the right thing, paints them in a much different light that makes them even more likeable.

I really need to highlight the outstanding way that this audio drama was presented, as the fantastic production melded well with Worley’s great script.  Acted out by a full cast of talented voice actors and narrators who tell the entire story through dialogue, this was a really fun Warhammer presentation to listen to, especially as the dialogue was also enhanced by some great sound effects and small bits of music.  I was particularly impressed by the voice actors, as each of them gave it their all when it came to their specific character/characters, moulding their voices to fit their distinctive traits and personalities.  The cast was led by Jon Rand (Baggit) and Paul Putner (Clodde), who I previously deeply enjoyed in Ghazghkull Thraka: Prophet of the Waaagh!.  These two actors did an outstanding job with their abhuman characters in Dredge Runners, and they play these two humorous figures perfectly, showcasing their different natures while also slowly revealing their outstanding hidden hearts.  These two are expertly matched by Emma Noakes and Kelly Hotten, who play the antagonistic crime lord and sanctioner respectively.  Noakes and Hotten both bring some outstanding menace to their roles, and I loved hearing these more serious characters attempt to deal with the chaotic main characters.  The voice cast is rounded out by veteran narrators, David Seddon and Andrew James Spooner, who narrate some of the fun supporting characters, and I loved some of the unique and compelling voices they brought to the table.  This entire audio drama comes together extremely smoothly, and listeners are constantly aware of all the actions going on in the story, especially with the fantastic cacophony of explosions, gunshots and screams that often happen around Baggit and Clodde.  I had a wonderful time listening to Dredge Runners in one go, and you will not be disappointed with this excellent audio production.

Overall, Dredge Runners was an awesome and highly impressive Warhammer 40,000 short, that is well worth checking out.  Not only did Alec Worley come up with a captivating and deeply hilarious narrative and script for this production but it features an outstanding and talented voice cast who perfectly perform it.  As such, Dredge Runners was a particularly epic introduction to the Warhammer Crime sub-series, and I had an outstanding time seeing just how amazing and unique crime fiction in the Warhammer 40,000 universe can be.  I am really glad that I chose to check out Dredge Runners first, and I honestly was surprised at just how perfectly entertaining this short audio drama turned out to be.  As such, I am giving it a five-star review and I am now extremely excited to see how the next adventure of Baggit and Clodde turns out in The Wraithbone Phoenix.

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