Battle Ground by Jim Butcher

Battle Ground Cover

Publisher: Orbit/Penguin Random House Audio (Audiobook – 29 September 2020)

Series: The Dresden Files – Book 17

Length: 15 hours and 43 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

One of the leading authors of the urban fantasy novel, Jim Butcher, returns with the next entry in his world-acclaimed Harry Dresden series, Battle Ground, an awesome novel that was one of the most anticipated releases of 2020.

Jim Butcher is a highly acclaimed fantasy author who has been dominating the market since his debut novel in 2000.  Butcher has written a number of books throughout his career, including his Codex Alera series, the first book of his planned Cinder Spires series, The Aeronaut’s Windlass and even a Spider-Man tie-in novel, Spider-Man: The Darkest Hours.  However, the body of work that Butcher is best known for is his long-running urban fantasy series, the Dresden Files.  The Dresden Files started back in 2000 with Storm Front and follow the adventures of Harry Dresden, a wizard who works as a private investigator in Chicago, solving supernatural crimes and protecting humans from dangerous magical creatures.  This series proved to be incredibly popular and is widely considered to be the gold standard of urban fantasy novels.  The Dresden Files currently consists of 17 books, with the universe expanded out with short stories, novellas and even some graphic novels.

While I have always heard incredible things about the Dresden Files books, I have not previously had the pleasure of reading any of them yet.  This is an admittedly massive gap in my fantasy reading knowledge, and it is one that I have been meaning to fill for a while.  So when I recently received a copy of the latest novel in the series, Battle Ground, I figured that this would be a perfect opportunity to finally break into the series.

For years, Harry Dresden, rogue wizard and general smartass, has defended the city of Chicago from all manner of supernatural threats and each time he has managed to keep it safe, until now!  War is coming to Chicago as a being of unbelievable power, the Last Titan, Ethniu, marches towards it, determined to have her revenge.  To achieve her goal, she has assembled a vast supernatural army and is in possession of a magical superweapon of unbelievable destructive power.  With these forces at her command, Ethniu has sworn to wipe out the entirety of Chicago in one night and kill all eight million of its inhabitants.

In order to combat this terrible threat, Dresden must rally together every friend, former enemy and magical ally he can find in order to face down the opposing army and stop Ethniu.  However, this will be no easy task.  Not only must he deal with the conflicting politics of the rival magical factions but dangerous monsters are also loose in the city, determined to take advantage of the destructive circumstances.  Worse, thanks to Ethniu’s superweapon, every electronic piece of technology in Chicago has been knocked out and the entire population is now helpless and unable to flee from the oncoming chaos.

As Dresden and his allies attempt drive back the enemies coming towards them, they face an uphill battle.  Ethniu is one of the most powerful beings in existence, and not even the combined might of Chicago’s magical elite may be enough to stop her.  Throughout this night Dresden will face terrible losses and be forced to make some of the hardest decisions in his life.  But even Dresden’s most desperate tricks may not be enough to turn the tide and save the city.  One thing is clear: no matter who wins, Dresden and the entire city of Chicago will never be the same again!

Well damn, Jim Butcher really went all out with Battle Ground and has produced one heck of an impressive novel.  This was a spectacular read, filled with a lot of huge, epic moments, smart storytelling, extremely likeable characters and clever fantasy inclusions, all wrapped up with a fun sense of humour and excitement.  Battle Ground is the 17th Dresden Files book, quickly following up the 16th book, Peace Talks (where several storylines explored in the novel originated).  I had an absolute blast reading Battle Ground, and I do have to admit that I am currently feeling a lot of regret for not getting into this series a heck of a lot sooner, as this latest entry is easily one of my favourite books of 2020.

At the heart of this outstanding novel is an extremely powerful story that sees beloved series protagonist Harry Dresden attempt to save his city from all-out destruction as a magical army invades, intent on killing everyone.  This results in an intense and action-packed novel that is a bit of a change of pace from some of the previous novels in the series, which usually read more like fantasy detective fiction.  Battle Ground is a war story, with the protagonist engaged in the battle of his life throughout the entirety of the novel.  Butcher starts Battle Ground off quickly with the protagonist having to face off against a kraken, which easily draws the reader in off the bat (I know I was pretty darn impressed with that introduction).  From there he sets up the start of the war perfectly, with a number of characters introduced as their roles in the coming fight are established, as well as an exploration of the various magical political entities in the city and why they are supporting Dresden in his fight.  It does not take long for the actual war for Chicago to start, and once it does the story does not slow down again until the battle reaches its brutal climax.  There are some truly epic and captivating battle sequences throughout the course of this book as Dresden and his allies face all manner of dangers and turmoil, including a range of distinctive adversaries from the previous entries in the series.  There are so many memorable and exciting moments that featured in this part of the book and I found myself going through an emotional ringer as everything unfolded, from feeling saddened at some critical scenes, to being inspired as a beloved character led an impassioned charge against the foe.  I was on the edge of my seat as I listened to Battle Ground’s story, and it honestly did not take me long to get completely and utterly addicted to the narrative as I desperately waited to see how the story would conclude.  When it did, I found myself completely satisfied with the ending and it left me with a deep longing to see where Butcher takes the series next.  Overall, this was an incredibly well-written and wildly exciting narrative which will stick in the readers mind as they wait for the next Dresden Files book to be released.

Now, was it a mistake coming into this series on the 17th book that serves as an epic conclusion to a number of key storylines?  Potentially.  But do I have any regrets about reading this latest Dresden Files novel?  Absolutely freaking not!  I had an incredible time with Battle Ground, especially as Butcher made sure to make this novel accessible to new readers, even with the book’s huge range of characters and massive stakes.  Pretty much every major character or event that is relevant to the main narrative of Battle Ground is explained in sufficient detail so that new readers coming to the series for the first time can follow what is happening and get a decent sense of the significance of a location, event from a prior book or the personal history that Dresden has with a character.  I do have to admit there were a few things I was a tad uncertain about, mainly because they would have been covered in Peace Talks.  For example, I did find the motivations of the book’s main antagonist, Ethniu, a little vague and there was a lack of build-up around her various allies and minions.  There is also a major twist towards the end of the book which did not hit me as significantly as it would have for a long-term reader of the series, as it is tied into several overarching plot threads from the previous books.  Despite this, I was able to follow the plot extremely closely, and my lack of prior knowledge in no way stopped me enjoying all the incredible action and wonderful characters that were part of the books plot.  As with any later addition to a series, Battle Ground is definitely intended to be enjoyed by established fans; however, I will recommend this to readers unfamiliar with the series as I know they will have an amazing time reading it.

One of the key things that I enjoyed about Battle Ground was the extremely likeable and entertaining series protagonist, Harry Dresden, who serves as the narrator of the entire story.  Dresden is a very fun and unique protagonist, and for most of the series he has worked outside of the established system of magical rule as a private investigator.  However, in this book he is part of the government, serving both the White Council of Wizards and as a member of Queen Mab’s court.  Despite this, he still retains his extreme anti-authoritarian streak and is constantly infuriating those people who are higher up on the magical hierarchy with his glib attitude.  I have a strong attachment to sarcastic and infuriating protagonists and Dresden is one of the more enjoyable ones I have seen in fiction.  Butcher really goes out of his way to make Dresden as likeable and entertaining as possible and most of the book’s brilliant humour is derived from Dresden’s comedic observations and statements about the events occurring around him and the outlandish people that he meets.  I also had to have a chuckle about the various pop-culture references that Dresden brought up throughout the course of the book, even in life threatening situations, such as the way he imitated Gandalf while holding off opponents on an iconic Chicago bridge.  Despite this carefree and entertaining exterior, Dresden is actually a very deep protagonist, weighed down by the responsibilities he faces and the constant desire not to be corrupted by the forces he encounters or bargains with.  Dresden goes through a lot of emotional damage in Battle Ground as he must not only contend with the guilt of letting this destruction reign down on his beloved hometown, but also with a series of losses that he faces along the way.  Butcher expertly captures Dresden’s emotional turmoil through his use of the first-person narrative, and the reader cannot help but be entranced by some of the darker moments this usually cheerful character experiences.  This excellent combination of characteristics really helps to turn Dresden into a relatable individual and an impressive protagonist and I cannot wait to see what happens to him in the future books of the series.

In addition to Dresden, Battle Ground features a veritable smorgasbord of cool side and supporting characters who the protagonist encounters throughout the course of the novel.  Due to the high stakes of the plot, this book contains a massive cast with a huge number of characters from all the previous books and novellas appearing in cameos or significant roles.  Most of these characters are really amazing, and Butcher does a fantastic job introducing them and ensuring that the reader knows who they are, what their connection to the protagonists is, as well as key elements of their history.  Due to my lack of familiarity with the series, I really appreciated the author’s dedication to reintroducing these characters and I felt fairly confident following who the various people were and what their role in the story was.  That being said, I was probably a little less emotionally impacted with some of the resultant twists and turns involving some of these characters, and I imagine long-time readers of the story are going to get a lot more out of their actions then a newcomer to the series.  These long-term readers should be warned that Butcher takes the stakes of this book particularly seriously and several characters are going to meet some dramatic fates.

I personally enjoyed many of the characters that were featured in the plot and I felt that each of these inventive personalities either added some real emotional depth to the novel or served as an entertaining additional to the story.  Some of my favourite characters in Battle Ground included River Shoulders (full name: Strength of a River in His Shoulders), a Sasquatch magician who wears Victorian era garb and who is one of the most likeable creatures in the book.  River Shoulders has a lot of fun moments throughout the story, although I have to highlight the quick scene which saw him make a pitch to improve race relations with an improvised ventriloquist act, as it made me laugh pretty hard.  I also really enjoyed Major General Toot-Toot Minimus, a small fairy who leads an army of Little Folk in defence of Dresden, all in the name of pizza.  Toot-Toot is one of the main comic reliefs of their entire novel and it was quite entertaining to see in action, especially when he manages to overcome the bigguns in defence of Za Lord.  However, the character I enjoyed the most aside from Dresden was Waldo Butters, Knight of the Cross.  Now, despite the fact that I would constantly think about the character of Butters from South Park whenever he appeared (in fairness, they have a lot of similarities with each other), Waldo Butters is probably the character who gets the most development and use throughout the course of Battle Ground.  Butters, who only recently took on the mantle of a Knight after spending most of the series as a defenceless sidekick, really comes into his own in Battle Ground, acting in a major defence role throughout the fight for the city.  Not only does he have some very inspiration fight sequences, but he also has a series of particularly emotional scenes with Dresden and adds a lot of heart to the narrative as a result.  I also really loved some of his scenes where he squares off against Battle Ground’s big bad, and you get a real Neville Longbottom vs Voldemort feel from it.  You can clearly see that Butcher has some big plans for Butters in the future, and I am personally cannot wait to see what they are.  I am honestly only scratching the surface of the various side characters who appeared throughout Battle Ground, but needless to say that they were all pretty exceptional and it was a real treat to meet them.

Battle Ground also served as my introduction to the magical version of Chicago that serves as the setting for this fantastic series.  This proved to be an excellent setting for this great book, and I really enjoyed the way that Butcher has melded together regular Chicago with some more subtle magical elements, such as a ruling magical council, hidden enclaves of power and mysterious creatures hiding just beneath the surface.  There are a lot of cool elements to this setting, and I think that the author did an amazing job reintroducing it for the context of this latest novel.  I was particularly impressed by the way Butcher brought a number of key city landmarks to life in this book, with several iconic pieces of Chicago used to great effect throughout the book as settings for epic scenes.  Unlike any previous book in the series, the events of Battle Ground ensure that Chicago goes through some massive changes as a magical army invades.  The destruction levelled upon Chicago is substantial, and there are several emotional sequences that see the citizens attempting to deal with these forces coming to kill them.  Naturally, this is going to have some major impacts in the future entries in the series, and I look forward to seeing what the long-term impacts of this book are going to be.

I also need to mention that, aside from Battle Ground’s main story, this novel and its associated audiobook format also contains the short story, Christmas EveChristmas Eve is a relatively tiny part of the novel, only made up of 15 pages (or around 25 minutes of the audiobook), and shows Dresden encountering several people on Christmas Eve.  This short story is set after the events of Battle Ground (despite being initially written and released in 2018) and contains a rather nice and emotionally rich narrative that examines Dresden’s emotional state as a father and friend.  Christmas Eve is a much more relaxed and lower-stakes story that Battle Ground, and I personally really enjoyed reading it after all the bloodshed, sacrifice and death of the main story.

While I did receive a nice hardcover copy of Battle Ground, I ended up listening to its audiobook format instead.  The Battle Ground audiobook runs for a little under 16 hours, which I powered through in only a few short days; it did not take me long to get addicted to this novel.  I deeply enjoyed the Battle Ground audiobook and I felt that it was an awesome way to enjoy this great book.  Not only did I find myself absorbing more of the story elements and getting drawn more into the plot but I also loved the top-shelf narrator they utilised for this audiobook.  Battle Ground was narrated by James Marsters, best known as Spike from Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel, who has also narrated all the previous books in the series as well as the short stories and other associated novels.  I am a major fan of Marsters, having watched a ton of the television shows he has appeared in, so I was very excited to listen to one of the audiobooks he narrated.  Unsurprisingly, Marsters proved to be an outstanding narrator, empowering this already impressive novel with his amazing vocal talents and moving the story along at a brisk and exciting pace.  Marsters did an awesome job providing each of the characters with their own unique and distinctive voice which fit the personality and depiction of each character perfectly.  I was also particularly impressed with how he brought the book’s protagonist to life.  Marsters really dove into the character of Harry Dresden, providing a perfect voice for the maverick wizard that effectively captured his various quirks and personality traits.  This excellent narration also explored the various raw emotions that Dresden experienced throughout the course of the novel and you get a fantastic sense of what the character is going through and how much he is struggling.  I really have to highlight the enthusiastic emphasis that Marsters utilises when reciting Dresden’s various spells and I could totally imagine the protagonist shouting out his incarnations in that way.  I also liked the humorously altered voices that were utilised for some of the supernatural creatures, such as Toot-Toot, which was not only widely entertaining but which fit the outrageous character extremely well.  All of this makes for an incredible audiobook experience and I fully intend to listen to the other entries in the series rather than seeking out a physical copy.

Battle Ground by Jim Butcher is an extraordinary and epic urban fantasy novel that serves as the latest novel in Butcher’s acclaimed Dresden Files series.  Butcher has done an incredible job with Battle Ground, presenting the reader with an awesome and captivating narrative, filled with a huge array of enjoyable characters and clever fantasy elements.  The result is an outstanding and deeply impressive novel that I had an amazing time reading.  Battle Ground gets an easy five-star rating from me and it was one of my favourite books (and audiobooks) of 2020.  I cannot praise this novel enough and it certainly served as a wonderful introduction to the Dresden Files.  I am intending to go back and start reading the series from book one and I have no doubt I will love each and every entry in the series.  I am especially keen to check them out in their audiobook format because James Marsters has narrated each of them and I know I will deeply enjoy hearing these clever stories read out.  Needless to say, this book comes highly recommended from me and I cannot wait to see what other extraordinary stories exist within Butcher’s extensive Dresden Files.

Skyward, Volume 1: My Low G Life by Joe Henderson and Lee Garbett

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Publisher: Image Comics

Publication Date – 25 September 2018

 

Those looking for the next amazing comic book adventure they can get addicted to should look no further than Skyward, one of 2018’s breakout hits, which takes away a fundamental force and replaces it with a sensational story.

One day, around the planet, gravity all but disappeared, and the one thing that was previously holding everything to Earth’s surface all of a sudden became a fraction of what it previously was.  In the resultant chaos, huge swathes of the population simply floated away into the atmosphere.  Those that remained were forced to adjust to a new world with different rules.
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Twenty years later, humanity has adapted to its new low-gravity reality.  For some, such as Willa Fowler, it’s the only way of life they have ever known, and Willa excels at navigating the skies above Chicago.  Living with her father, Nathan, a brilliant scientist traumatised by the events that sent his wife tumbling into the skies, Willa scrapes a living as a high-speed delivery girl with a number of risky and dangerous tricks up her sleeve.  But when her father reveals he has a way to bring gravity back, Willa doesn’t believe him and instead plans a meeting with Roger Barrow, her father’s rich former research partner, who has created much of the technology that allows the world to survive its new situation.  Descending to ‘The Streets’ of Chicago, the lowest level, inhabited by its richest citizens, Willa quickly discovers that Barrow is not the saviour she thought he would be.  Instead he is determined to keep gravity from returning, and will go to extreme lengths to stop Willa and her father.

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This is one of the first comic book works from Henderson, whose main claim to fame is as showrunner for the Lucifer television show.  The artist, Garbett, is probably best known for his work on the comic Loki: Agent of Asgard.  Together, this new team has created an incredible new comic book series that has already been picked up by Sony for a potential feature film, and it will be intriguing to see how this challenging and creative series will be adapted to the screen.  This first volume contains issues #1-5 of this new series.

Skyward contains an excellent story that examines life in a different and catastrophically affected version of Earth while also presenting an action-packed adventure with a wild protagonist.  The central idea of this series, the removal of gravity, is a crazy concept that allows for an exceptional overall package that combines great storytelling with incredible and unique artwork.  Throughout this first volume, there is a great combination of humour, action, character development and powerful emotional moments, all set within a fascinating new world shown in great artistic detail.

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It was quite intriguing to see the various ways in which a lack of gravity could affect the world that we live in.  Henderson and Garbett have come up with a range of different ways for the characters in this book to navigate around the skyline, and it is interesting to see the range of tools that are shown in the artwork.  The creative team has done an amazing job highlighting the various ways that the lack of gravity has affected the world, from food production to water gathering to human mobility.  One of the more intriguing aspects of the new world is the way in which guns have become obsolete due to the recoil pushing shooters back through the air, making it an ineffective weapon and more dangerous to the user than the target.  That said, the protagonist, Willa, has some more extreme and effective uses for the gun she carries around with her.  Perhaps the most intriguing idea presented in Skyward is the location known as The Streets, the lowest street level of Chicago, where the city’s richest inhabitants live in a state of denial at the changes that have happened and are trying to live like there is still gravity.  This includes wearing grav-boots to keep them stuck to the ground and forcing a man with no legs to sit in a wheelchair rather than floating in the air as he would prefer.  There are also some crazy inventions, like a magnetised hem to keep a dress from rising up.  These inhabitants of The Streets are absolutely terrified of the sky and have a very different lifestyle from the people living in Chicago’s skyline, who have embraced the new world.  One funny scene involves Willa traumatising an obnoxious bouncer by wrecking his grav-boots and making him float up into the sky a little.  Overall, this is a fun new world to set this great story in and has a lot of potential for future volumes of this series, where additional changes to day-to-day life are no doubt going to be revealed.

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The artwork in Skyward is just gorgeous and is definitely a key highlight of this incredible book.  The creative team have done an outstanding job showing off the low-gravity concept in art form, creating some fantastic scenes and drawings.  Most of the characters are shown floating around and navigating the air, which creates some amazing panoramas of the city from high above for the reader to enjoy.  All the characters, even those rich individuals trying to ignore the lack of gravity, are shown with their hair floating up in the sky, and multiple scenes have various liquids floating in the air around the characters attempting to have drinks.  It also means that fight scenes are constantly surrounded by droplets of blood that float around the characters and add a whole new sense of realism and brutality to the story.  The artistic highlight of this book has to be the incredible and exceptional drawings of the storm in low gravity that becomes such a massive part of the background in the later part of the volume.  Due to the effects of the low gravity, the storm manifests itself as a gigantic ball of water in the sky, surrounding several high-rise buildings.  The first drawing of this is amazing, and the following scenes which show the main characters navigating around this bubble and creating massive pockets of air are just fantastic, and represent some exceptional comic book art.  I was also suitably terrified by several of the drawings in this volume, from the opening scenes which show multiple people being lifted away by the low gravity, to the horrifying shot of the planet Earth and its new artificial ring, made up of planes, cars, ships, other debris and of course multiple dead animals and humans that have not decayed in their 20 years in orbit.  Lee Garbett and the creative team have outdone themselves in Skyward and I cannot speak highly enough of the artwork in this book.

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The main character, Willa, is an excellent protagonist for this series.  As a character who has never known what it’s like to live in a world with gravity, Willa’s antics through the air are pretty crazy and she does some amazing and unpredictable things throughout the book.  Whether it’s using a gun to gain rapid altitude and to come down again, or blowing out a window underwater in a low-gravity storm of water after creating an air pocket with her oxygen tank.  The constant incredulity of the other characters as she does these things is very amusing and makes it quite clear that these actions are not the social norm in the new world.  My favourite quote of the books is when the antagonist, realising that Willa is about to blow open a window with her gun says ‘She wouldn’t…’ while Willa’s friend who is being held hostage responds with ‘Oh, she would.’ I must again return to the artwork of Skyward when it comes to showing off this main character.  The artists do a fantastic job highlighting the joy on Willa’s face as she flies around in the upper city; she looks like she was born to float.  I also loved the drawings that show off her crazy antics, from the early sequence which shows her using a gun to blast off away from people attacking her, to that fantastic scene where she blows open the underwater window.  The drawings themselves are incredible and really show off the action, while the looks of shock and amazement on the faces of onlookers tell a whole new story.  Henderson and Garbett have created a perfect main character and protagonist in Willa, and I can’t wait to see what she gets up to in future volumes of this series.
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Skyward is an incredible new series from the fantastic team of Henderson and Garbett.  I really enjoyed the central concept of a lack of gravity, as it allowed the creative team to present a bold and exceptional new setting for this exciting and powerful story.  I really cannot hype up the artwork of this series enough, and I love the various ways that the artists show off what impacts these gravitational changes would have to everyday life on the planet.  An outstanding five-star start to a series with incredible potential, this is the perfect read for current comic book readers and a great starting point for those trying to break into the medium.

My Rating:

Five Stars

Low Chicago Edited by George R. R. Martin

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Publisher: Harper Voyager

Publication Date – 12 June 2018

 

From of eight of the world’s leading science fiction and fantasy writers comes the latest addition to the superhero-filled Wild Cards universe, edited by fantasy legend George R. R. Martin.

Wild Cards is one of the more interesting series currently running in the world today due to its distinctive anthology format and the unusual way the series came into existence.  The stories that would eventually form the Wild Cards books were originally written as part of a lengthy Superworld role-playing game campaign that had Martin as gamemaster.  Martin and the other players, all of whom were science fiction writers, created elaborate backstories for the campaign and characters, which were eventually incorporated into the first book in the series, a dark and gritty superhero based anthology also called Wild Cards.  The following entries in the series, despite routinely changing authors, tended to follow the same format as the original book by combining together a series of short stories into a connected narrative.  Low Chicago is the 25th Wild Cards book to be released since the 1987 debut, with two other entries due to be published later in 2018.

The Wild Cards books are set in an alternative universe where an alien virus, known as the Wild Card virus, was released in 1946 above New York City.  This virus affected thousands throughout the planet, killing most of the people it came into contact with and altering the DNA of the survivors.  The vast majority of the infected who remained alive were mutated physically and are now referred to as Jokers.  However, a small percentage gained superhuman abilities and powers and are referred to as Aces.  The stories that followed have been set between 1946 and a time period that usually corresponds to the book’s real world publication date.

In Low Chicago, Martin continues to serve as editor.  The book includes input from two long-running Wild Cards contributors, John J. Miller and Melinda M. Snodgrass, who authored stories in the original Wild Cards.  There is also input from previous contributors Paul Cornell, Marko Kloos, Mary Anne Mohanraj and Kevin Andrew Murphy, as well as newcomers to the series, Saladin Ahmed and Christopher Rowe.

Low Chicago starts in 2017, where a high-stakes poker game has been set up in the city’s famous Palmer House Hotel by a prominent mafia boss.  Each of the seven players has a one million dollar buy-in, and is allowed to bring two attendants including bodyguards.  However, all hell breaks loose when a mysterious assailant targets one of the players, causing the other players and attendants, many of whom are powerful Aces, to unleash their abilities throughout the room.  In the middle of the chaos one of the bodyguards unleashes his own mysterious power and accidently scatters everyone in the room back in time.

Now with history changing outside the hotel, it falls to John Nighthawk and the Sleeper, Croyd Crenson, to travel back to various points of Chicago’s past and find the people trapped there before the present unravels.  But among those who have been sent back are some of the world’s most dangerous criminals, who have decided to change time for their own benefit.  Stuck throughout key points of Chicago’s history, can the time travellers be recovered before the present is permanently altered?

Like many of the books in the franchise, Low Chicago is an anthology featuring several short stories that have been combined together into one overarching and interconnected narrative.  Each of the short stories is unique and features one or more of the characters sent back in time, or inhabitants of the timeline they encounter.  Whilst these short stories all have the same starting plot point, they all have different focuses thanks to that story’s specific characters or time periods.  As a result there are several varied stories, each with their own unique features.  For example, the story Stripes, by Markos Kloos, features a fantastic narrative about the half-human, half-tiger character Khan being trapped in Chicago in 1929 and getting involved in the events surrounding the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre.  Not only is the narrative about an obviously powered individual attempting to influence such an iconic moment in a mob war fun and exciting, but Kloos also includes some significant and heartfelt ethical and emotional decisions that really make you feel for the character of Khan.  At the same time, the story Meathooks on Ice is a complex and emotional story from Saladin Ahmed that focuses on a young and troubled Ace, Meathooks, as he attempts to find redemption and his place in the world back in prehistoric times.

In addition to the overarching time travel plot feature, each of these short stories is also connected together by the characters of John Nighthawk and Croyd Crenson, who could be considered the book’s main protagonists.  Nighthawk and Crenson either appear in the stories themselves or later interact with a story’s central character in order to resolve the specific storyline.  Nighthawk and Crenson are also the main characters of the book’s central storyline, A Long Night at the Palmer House, written by one of the founding authors of Wild Cards, John J. Miller.  This central storyline, told from the viewpoint of John Nighthawk, a character created by Miller in a previous book, is broken up into 11 parts and spread between Low Chicago’s other stories.  The first part of this storyline features the initial poker game and shows the events leading up to the other characters being sent back in time, while the reminder of this storyline focuses on the protagonists’ attempts to find them.  Large portions of this storyline directly tie into Low Chicago’s other short stories, but there are also some sections where they hunt down characters not featured in any of the other short stories.  Miller has included some great scenes in this central storyline, and they get particularly compelling when they encounter the results of the other characters meddling in time and they have to discuss the ethical implications of resetting the timeline.  One particularly outstanding example of this is a sequence that requires the characters to navigate through and fix up a messed up dystopia caused by one of the runaway Aces.

Despite the different authors and the varied content of Low Chicago’s stories, many of the entries complement each other and fit together really well as a result.  Nearly all of the stories contain links to the Wild Cards universe, make full use of Chicago’s rich history, have a comparable dark humour, feature intense action sequences, tell the story in the third person from point of view characters, and have a very similar pace.  There is however, one story that doesn’t follow this trend.  A Bit of a Dinosaur, by Paul Cornell, stands out from the rest of the entries in Low Chicago, as it breaks from third person narration that the other authors utilised, and is instead written in the first person.  Cornell capitalises on this by ramping up the humour in the story and making it a little lighter in tone than the other stories in the book.  The first line of A Bit of a Dinosaur, “I think it’s important to say, immediately, that I am no way responsible for the extinction of the dinosaurs” really sets the tone for this whole short story and it only gets better from there.

One of the most enjoyable parts of Low Chicago is the rich history of the book’s titular city, Chicago.  Throughout all of the short stories, the reader is transported to various periods of Chicago’s history in order to witness several of the most significant events in the city’s past.  These include The Great Chicago Fire of 1871, the Black Sox scandal of 1919, the opening of the first Playboy Club, the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, the disastrous 1968 Democratic National Convention and the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition.  All of the authors take significant pains to explore the significance of these events and the impact they had on Chicago and the rest of America.  The reader is given a crash course in the history of these proceedings, and also experiences the author’s interpretation of several key historical figures.  Many of these events occurred before the 1946 release of the Wild Card virus which removed the Wild Cards universe storyline from real world history, and it is fun to watch these events get altered due to the inclusion of several super-powered beings.  It is also extremely fascinating to see the various authors’ interpretations of the historical occurrences that happened after 1946, as they occur in a world where superpowers and mutations are rampant.  As a result, the authors have provided some inventive and captivating alterations that will prove to be highly enjoyable for the reader.

Fans of the Wild Cards universe will also love the deep connections that Low Chicago’s stories have with the rest of the franchise.  In addition to some interesting and complex new characters, Low Chicago features a huge range of characters who originated in the previous Wild Cards books.  There is a deep focus on the history of many of these characters and the readers get to see them placed in a range of unique and compelling situations.  In addition, the authors make full use of the overarching time travel storyline as they visit a range of characters who were killed off in previous books or whose main adventures occurred in storylines set many years before 2017.  Long-time fans of this series will love the inclusion of or nods to these early characters, especially as several have significant roles in the narrative.

Readers unfamiliar with this series may be slightly overwhelmed at the start of the book, but all of the authors contributing to Low Chicago do an amazing job of providing the relevant exposition and explanation for all the characters and the overall history of the Wild Cards universe.  Indeed, Low Chicago might be a perfect book for first time readers of the Wild Cards franchise, as the huge range of characters and the focus on time travel provides the reader with a huge amount of backstory and history that the previous books did not need to contain.

Low Chicago is an outstanding new release that is a sensational and memorable inclusion to one of the best science fiction series currently on the market.  It makes incredible use of its distinctive anthology format and the overarching time travel storyline throughout Chicago’s history that is an inspired and marvellous in its execution.  Low Chicago really stands out from the rest of the books in the Wild Cards franchise and readers will not be disappointed by this latest offering.

My Rating:

Four and a half stars