Warhammer 40,000 – Ghazghkull Thraka: Prophet of the Waaagh! by Nate Crowley

Ghazghkull Thraka - Prophet of the Waaagh! Cover

Publisher: Black Library (Audiobook – 15 March 2022)

Series: Warhammer 40,000

Length: 7 hours and 30 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

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Prepare to read one of the most amusing and downright entertaining recent additions to the Warhammer 40,000 canon with the hilarious and brilliant Ghazghkull Thraka: Prophet of the Waaagh! by outstanding author Nate Crowley.

I have been having an immense amount of fun really diving into the massive wealth of tie-in fiction surrounding the Warhammer 40,000 tabletop game this year.  Books like Steel Tread by Andy Clarke, Krieg by Steve Lyons, The Bookkeeper’s Skull by Justin D. Hill and Day of Ascension by Adrian Tchaikovsky, have really highlighted just how diverse and intense this extended universe can be.  However, the latest tie-in novel I checked out may prove to be one of my absolute favourites, as I got to learn all about one of the most iconic ork characters in this universe with Ghazghkull Thraka: Prophet of the Waaagh!

Orks are the most notorious and dangerous creatures that roam the galaxy of the 41st millennium.  Billions upon billions of the powerful, war-loving creatures can be found throughout every sector of space, fighting anyone and anything they can find, especially each other.  However, out of all these monsters, none are more feared, respected or hated than the warlord Ghazghkull Mag Uruk Thraka, chosen of the ork gods Gork and Mork and proclaimed prophet of the Waaagh!

Throughout his legendary life, Ghazghkull has done what no other ork has been able to achieve.  Bringing together innumerable warbands into one massive horde of green, Ghazghkull has warred with every faction in the cosmos, while his infamous invasions of the Imperial planet of Armageddon are the stuff of bloody legend.  Everyone knows of his epic and rivalry with his indomitable foe, Commissar Yarrick, which turned Armageddon into a perpetual warzone, but does anyone know the true story of Ghazghkull and the events that made him?

Rogue Lord Inquisitor Tytonida Falx has long attempted to discover what lurks in the minds of the xenos her order faces.  When an opportunity to find out more about Ghazghkull presents itself, she eagerly jumps at the opportunity, bringing a unique prisoner aboard her heretical ship, Ghazghkull’s banner bearer, the grot Makari.  Interrogating him, Inquisitor Falx and her team soon discover that Makari might just be the only being in the universe who knows the full truth about who, or what, Ghazghkull is, and what he plans to do next.  But, as she listens to Makari’s tale, the Inquisitor soon discovers that the shadow of Ghazghkull’s rage and desire for violence far eclipses anything that the Imperium has ever believed.

Wow, now that was a really fun and captivating read.  I knew going into Ghazghkull Thraka: Prophet of the Waaagh! that I was going to have a great time, especially after enjoying author Nate Crowley’s The Twice-Dead King novels, Ruin and Reign, but I was blown away by how awesome Ghazghkull Thraka was.  Featuring a clever and wildly entertaining story, perfectly told through various unique eyes, as well as some deeply enjoyable characters, I quickly became absorbed in the impressive story and powered through it in a couple of days.  Not only was this my favourite book from Crowley but it also probably overtakes Kal Jerico: Sinner’s Bounty as the most amusing Warhammer novel I have ever read.

I had an absolute blast with the incredible story that Crowley whipped up for Ghazghkull Thraka, as it ended up being an inventive and entertaining way to showcase an iconic Warhammer figure.  Due to his prominence within the game and the extended fiction, Ghazghkull is probably one of the most utilised non-human characters in the canon, with many different novels, game books and comics already diving into his life.  As such, Crowley needed to come up with a completely new way to examine this great character that didn’t tread on any prior works.  I think his solution to this problem was exceedingly clever, as he chose to tell the story through the eyes of the most unlikely narrator and chronicler, the grot Makari, whose unique insights and worldview turned this already known backstory into something truly special.

The story starts off in the current timeline of the Warhammer 40,000 universe and shows Inquisitor Falx obtaining Makari and interrogating him about Ghazghkull.  This causes the book to dive back into the early days of Ghazghkull as Makari chronicle his master’s existence as he saw it.  As such, you get a very specific examination of Ghazghkull’s life, with a focus on his early trials, some of his pivotal moments, and more specifically his interactions with Makari.  At the same time, the story keeps jumping back to the present, with the Inquisitor and her followers interrupting to ask specific questions and discussing whether there is any truth in what he says.  The book keeps jumping between these different perspectives, and you end up with two distinctive storylines as Makari’s presence brings some big woes for the Inquisitor in the present day.  The chronicle storyline goes at a brisk pace, especially as Makari’s interrogators get him to skip or shorten specific sections, but there is a clever and impressive logic into what parts of Ghazghkull’s life are featured or ignored.  Not only are the past and present storylines exceedingly intriguing and entertaining in their own rights, but they also come together perfectly as well, with Makari’s insights into Ghazghkull and himself impacting the actions of Falx.  While the ending was slightly too metaphysical, it served as a brilliant and powerful conclusion to this great story, and I loved seeing the entire tale come full circle in some hilarious ways.

I deeply appreciated the way that Crowley put Ghazghkull Thraka’s story together, as its distinctive and clever style really helped to enhance the chronicle contained within.  The plot device of an interrogation of an alien prisoner works extremely well to set up the main narrative, and the constant interruptions, debates and revelations that occur whenever it snaps back to the present adds to the sense of mystery and mysticism surrounding the titular figure.  While Crowley takes the story in some interesting and complex directions at times, the entire novel is paced beautifully, and there is never a single boring or slow moment within the entire thing.  I particularly liked the near constant humour that was injected into the story, a fantastic side-effect of basing the book around the funny ork species, and I laughed out loud several times as I powered through this impressively amusing read.  Like many Warhammer novels, Ghazghkull Thraka can be enjoyed as a standalone read, and the author makes sure that it features a great self-contained narrative that anyone can enjoy, even those unfamiliar with the universe and the canon.  Indeed, this would be a decent introduction to the Warhammer 40,000 canon and associated extended universe, especially as it perfectly presents one of the key factions of the universe.  Most of the unique universe elements and wider history are explained sufficiently for new readers to follow along without any issues, although some could potentially get confused by the deliberate exclusion of events previously covered in other books.  Still, Ghazghkull Thraka should turn out to be an easy and entertaining read for any science fiction fan, and I thought that this Warhammer 40,000 novel was very well written and extremely clever.

One of the things I love the most about Nate Crowley’s Warhammer novels is his brilliant ability to dive into the unique alien races of the universe and then perfectly showcase their culture and mindsets.  This was the case again in Ghazghkull Thraka, where Crowley expertly dives into the heads of the various ork and grot characters.  No matter whose perspective is shown, every scene of this book features some excellent and often highly amusing depiction of greenskin culture, as Makari attempts to explain the ork perspective as well as his place in the society as a grot.  As such, you get some incredibly detailed and compelling insights into this crude and warlike race, including their brutal hierarchy, need for violence, insane technology, and very unique worldview, which generally results in most of the book’s fantastic humour.  However, rather than the dumb, brutal and one-note figures that most authors depict, Crowley really goes out his way to show that there is a lot more to orks than you realise.  Not only do you get some excellent insights into their various clans and organisations but the various ork characters are shown to be complex beings with unique needs and the ability to formulate some very cunning plans.  There is a particularly intriguing look at the ork religion that follows the gods Gork and Mork, and this novel ends up with a spiritual edge, especially as Crowley shows the orks being extremely successful because they choose to strongly believe in themselves.  As such, you see quite a unique and compelling side to the ork race in this book, and I loved how incredibly Crowley portrayed them.

Naturally, a big part of this examination of ork culture comes from the in-depth look at the life of Ghazghkull himself.  As I mentioned before, Ghazghkull is one of the best-known characters in the entire Warhammer 40,000 canon, so most veteran readers would already be quite familiar with him and his actions.  However, Crowley does an excellent job of examining a completely new side to this character, and mostly ignores his wars at Armageddon and his intense rivalry with Commissar Yarrick, both of which have been done to death in other books.  While certain parts of his history are revisited in this novel, Crowley completely changes their implications and causes, instead focusing on Ghazghkull’s unique orkish mindset and his role as the prophet of his gods.  This new take on Ghazghkull proves to be quite unique and very captivating, as he is shown to be an overburdened being, constantly pressured by his own visions and the influence of the gods to succeed and be a uniting force for his people.  While he still retains the casual violence of his race, you really see Ghazghkull as a deep thinker, and it is fascinating to see his inner ork face off against his grand ambitions and desires.  Crowley also adds some compelling supernatural elements to his character, as Ghazghkull, as seen by Makari, bears a direct connection to the gods which he can use to alter his fellows and himself.  While this isn’t too overpowered or strange, it adds a great extra layer of menace to the character, especially for the humans, and I loved seeing the Inquisitors trying to wrap their heads around the strange occurrences.  I had a lot of fun seeing this other side of Ghazghkull, and this novel ended up being a great analysis of who they are and what they represent to their race.

I also really enjoyed the inclusion of Makari as one of the central characters, and his use as the main witness to Ghazghkull’s life worked incredibly well.  While Makari has always been associated with the character of Ghazghkull, accompanying him in his battles and waving his banner as a source of luck, Crowley really changes him in this novel and paints him as an essential part of Ghazghkull’s success and relationship with the gods.  Shown to be there the moment that Ghazghkull became the prophet, Makari follows Ghazghkull through some of his big moments and it is hilarious to see his snide view on the subject, especially as, like most grots, he a massive coward who doesn’t want to be there.  A lot of this novel’s humour is derived from Makari’s observations and responses, and I loved some of the jokes set up around it.  Crowley does an awful lot with this character, and I particularly liked how the story explained certain aspects of his previous portrayals, such as the apparent multiple versions and his surprising luck.  These are worked into the story extremely well, but it’s the relationship with Ghazghkull that becomes the most fascinating.  Just like with Ghazghkull, there is a major spiritual edge to Makari, who appears to be just as chosen and important to the plan as his master.  Makari’s mystical and religious bond enables him to have a far bigger insight into Ghazghkull’s actions than anybody else, and this really enhanced the analysis of the titular character.  However, it is in Makari’s attempts to serve and help his master achieve his destiny that we see the best Makari scenes, especially when faced with Ghazghkull’s apparent depression, the manipulation of his other followers, and his own stubbornness.  While Ghazghkull does have the inherent ork reluctance to rely on a grot, and indeed he is extremely likely to kill Makari if he starts giving advice, the moments where Makari get through to him are powerful, and I really appreciated the character work surrounding them.  There are some rocky moments between them, especially when Ghazghkull becomes dismissive of his lucky grot, and Makari’s subsequent reactions is very funny and incredibly over the top, which was so very cool.  Overall, this ended up being an excellent and surprisingly compelling portrayal of Makari, and I am exceedingly glad that Crowley featured him in this novel the way he did.

Aside from the greenskin characters, a large amount of plot revolves around the team interrogating Makari.  Crowley really went out his way to create a particularly unique group of Imperial agents who bear surprising insights into the mind of the xenos.  This team is led by Inquistor Falx, a rogue Inquisitor who bears a dangerous obsession with the alien creatures.  Falx is desperate to learn everything she can about the aliens attacking the Imperium to help defeat them and finds herself stymied by the Imperium’s controlling and non-progressive government and religion.  As such, she takes some major risks in this book to understand Makari and Ghazghkull and has some unique and dangerous methods for achieving her goals that borders on the insane/heretical.  I quite liked Falx, despite her obsessive qualities, and she proved to be a great central figure for half the novels plot, especially as her frustrations, concerns and thoughts about the evils of the Imperium, are extremely understandable.

Falx also employs a unique team of interrogators to help her with Makari, including Brother Hendriksen, a Space Wolves rune priest assigned to Deathwatch who has also fallen out of favour with the Imperium thanks to his work with Falx.  Hendriksen serves as a beastly and powerful presence on Falx’s team, and he often provides a great counterpoint to the inquisitor in both technique and common sense, often despairing at her more dangerous choices.  Crowley’s diverse cast gets even larger with the truly unique character of Cassia, a female ogryn psyker who has grown as smart as a human.  This was a fantastic and extremely distinctive addition to the cast, and her surprisingly calm demeanour, which contrasts beautifully with her immense ogryn strength, works perfectly against Hendriksen’s impatience and anger.  The final member of the team is probably the most enjoyable, with the ork character, Biter (Bites-Faces-Of-The-Face-Biter-Before-It-Can-Bite).  Biter is a member of a Blood Axes mercenary band who have dealings with Falx and who sell Makari to her, remaining behind to interpret Makari’s testimony to the humans.  Due to being a member of the Blood Axes, a group who idolise human military culture, Biter is a very distinctive figure, wearing an approximation of a military uniform and appreciating complex tactics and strategy.  However, Biter is even more intelligent and cunning than most Blood Axes, and his near human tendencies really stand out, as it is pretty unexpected from an orc.  His fantastic reactions, comedic impressions of human behaviour, and determination to antagonise the Inquisitor really make him stand out, and he was an absolute joy to behold.  These four interrogators play off each other perfectly during the present-day scenes, and their arguments, discussions and interpretations of Makari’s story give it added depth, humour and impact, especially once they start realising just how valuable their prisoner is.  This entire cast was put together extremely well, and I had an incredible time with this unique and enjoyable collection of characters.

Like most Warhammer novels I check out, I chose to grab the audiobook version of Ghazghkull Thraka, which turned out to be such a wonderful and incredible listening experience.  Not only did the story absolutely fly by in this format, allowing me to get through its seven and a half hour runtime extremely quickly, but I found that the narrative and descriptions of ork life really popped when read out.  However, the best part about the Ghazghkull Thraka audiobook is the outstanding use of narrators.  This audiobook has three separate narrators, Kelly Hotten, Paul Putner and Jon Rand, each of whom have some experience narrating other Warhammer audio productions.  Not only are each of these narrators quite talented but the way they were featured in this audiobook is extremely clever, with the voice actor changing depending on who is witnessing or telling the events of the book.  For example, Kelly Hotten serves as the narrator for the various scenes and interludes where Inquisitor Falx is witnessing Makari’s interrogation, and Hotten does a brilliant job capturing the various players of these scenes, including the Inquisitor, her unique companions, and their orkish interpreter.  Paul Putner narrates the various scenes shown directly from Makari’s perspective, and he has a lot of fun in this role, not only capturing the cowardly and sneaky mannerisms of the grot protagonist, but also providing some amusing and deep voices for the ork characters.  Finally, Jon Rand has a memorable sequence voicing Brother Hendriksen when he psychically jumps into Makari’s mind and views some of the events occurring, and he gives the character a notable accent and internal growl that fit him extremely well.  The jumps between the voice actors were done perfectly and I really loved how it changed up depending on the perspective.  All three voice actors did an amazing job with their narration, and their work, plus some fun sound effects here and there, helped to turn this into such an impressive production.  Easily the best way to enjoy Ghazghkull Thraka, you will have an incredible time listening to this audiobook.

Nate Crowley continues to shine with another entry in the Warhammer 40,000 universe, with the unbelievably entertaining Ghazghkull Thraka: Prophet of the Waaagh!  Featuring a unique and deeply amusing story that re-examines on of the canon’s most iconic alien characters, Ghazghkull Thraka has a tight and cleverly written story, loaded with action, great characters and whole mess of outstanding humour.  Not only that, but this is without a doubt one of the best portrayals of the Warhammer 40,000 orks I have seen as Crowley obviously had a ton of fun bringing them to life.  Easily one of the best (and definitely the funniest) Warhammer 40,000 novels I have been lucky enough to enjoy, Ghazghkull Thraka comes extremely highly recommended, especially in its audiobook format, and is a must read for all fans of this wonderful fandom.

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World of Warcraft: Sylvanas by Christie Golden

World of Warcraft - Sylvanas Cover

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

Series: World of Warcraft

Length: 15 hours and 38 minutes

My rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Warhammer 40,000: The Bookkeeper’s Skull by Justin D. Hill

The Bookkeeper's Skull Cover

Publisher: Black Library (Audiobook – 18 January 2022)

Series: Warhammer 40,000/Warhammer Horror

Length: 4 hours and 32 minutes

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

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Get ready to dive back into the crazy and terrifying Warhammer 40,000 universe with the clever and exciting read, The Bookkeeper’s Skull by acclaimed author Justin D. Hill, which serves as a great entry in the Warhammer Horror sub-series.

Despite not being even halfway done yet, 2022 has already produced some epic new entries in the Warhammer 40,000 universe, including Steel Tread by Andy Clark, Reign by Nate Crowley, Day of Ascension by Adrian Tchaikovsky and Krieg by Steve Lyons, just to name a few.  After these awesome reads, there was no way I wasn’t going to check out The Bookkeeper’s Skull, especially when it had such an intriguing name.  The Bookkeeper’s Skull is an awesome book that forms part of a sub-series of Warhammer tie-in fiction known as Warhammer Horror.  This series unsurprisingly presents the reader with horror-based stories in its various universes and has already produced some very cool sounding reads.  The Bookkeeper’s Skull is my first brush with this horror series, and I was very excited to read one, especially as it was written by Justin D. Hill, a fantastic author who has been impressing recently with several great novels, including his Cadia series.  I loved the unique and clever story that Hill came up with for The Bookkeeper’s Skull.

Throughout the Imperium of Man, many planets serve the God Emperor in different ways.  For the agri-world of Potence, its only duty is to meet the iron-firm food quotas levied upon it by Imperial hierarchy, ensuring that the armies of the Imperium are supplied with all the food they need to fight the aliens and the heretics.  The enforcers, implacable lawmen with the ability to deal out death on an arbitrary basis, roam the planet and the farms of Potence, ensuring that the populace and serfs do all there is to produce the appropriate amounts.

Rudgard Howe is a new enforcer recruit who has just reported to duty.  The son of the planet’s chief enforcer, Rudgard faces a deadly future which will eventually force him to kill his older brothers to claim his dying father’s position.  But before he faces his family, he must learn the ropes by journeying out to the farmsteads of the planet and ensuring they can meet their quotas.  Travelling with a veteran enforcer, Rudgard learns the hard truths about life in the Imperium and the necessities of justice in keeping the planet running.  However, no lessons will prepare Rudgard for the horrors awaiting the enforcers at their final destination, the far-flung farmstead of Thorsarbour.

Located out in an ancient and unknown region of the planet, Thorsarbour is a cursed settlement, with its overseers poorly led and its serfs living in terror of the strange presences they claim to feel.  Finding the settlement far behind its quotas, the enforcers attempt to whip the farm into shape, but between the unnatural feeling of the land surrounding Thorsarbour and the dangerous presence of a bloody sanguinary cult amongst the serfs, they have their work cut out for them.  Worse, a series of unexplained and brutal murders are occurring around Thorsarbour, each one accompanied by mysterious strawman placed near the body.  As Rudgard tries to uncover the cause of these mysterious deaths before they destabilise their work, the enforcers begin to discover something unnatural behind them.  Can they discover the culprit before it is too late, or will the horrors of Thorsarbour consume them all?

This was a really interesting first dive into the Warhammer Horror series for me and it is one that I am very glad that I undertook.  The Bookkeeper’s Skull is an excellent novel that very quickly grabbed my attention with its clever storytelling and fantastic, fast-paced plot.  Hill manages to do a lot with this story in a very short amount of time as The Bookkeeper’s Skull has a pretty short run time.  Despite this, the reader is quickly and succinctly introduced to the main character and narrator, Rudgard, and the world of Potence, in a great couple of opening chapters, before dropping them right into the horror of Thorsarbour.  Once the narrator arrives then you are quickly struck by the unnatural and freaky nature of the location, as they encounter several of the unusual issues surrounding the farmstead.  Following the initial discovery of a multitude of bodies and death, the protagonists encounter one dangerous situation after another, as they contend with religious fanatics, terrified serfs and overseers, monstrous farm animals, mysterious strawmen, a strange and prophetic girl, and a mysterious force brutally killing off everyone in the compound.  Even with so much happening, the pace of this novel never slackens, and there is a very high death count as everything goes wrong in some very brutal way.  I was pretty hooked on this novel from the very start, and I loved where the story went, even if it did get a little predictable towards the end.  I had a fairly good idea of who was going to live and die from the start, as well as who the killer was likely to be (the title is very suggestive).  I do think that the novel slightly fell apart at the very end, as Hill chooses to leave a little too much mystery behind what sort of force might be ultimately responsible for the events of the book, but this was still an amazing story that I had a lot of fun with.

The Bookkeeper’s Skull turned out to be a pretty good Warhammer 40,000 novel, and I liked how it fit into the wider universe.  This novel is closely related to one of Hill’s other novels, Cadian Honour, which is also set on the world of Potence and features an older version of the protagonist.  I love it when a novel provides an interesting connection to an author’s previous work, especially one that provides some exciting context and personal history, and this was a great example of that.  Despite this, people interested in checking out The Bookkeeper’s Skull don’t need to have any pre-knowledge of Hill’s writing or any other Warhammer 40,000 novels to enjoy this excellent book.  Indeed, this is a fantastic introduction to both Hill’s writing and the wider Warhammer universe and could be an interesting first book to readers curious about either.

I was very impressed with how the author was able to meld horror elements into this Warhammer 40,000 novel to create a unique and impressive story.  Hill did a beautiful job of creating a powerful and creepy atmosphere for this novel right off the bat, especially as the opening chapter features a sinister and freaky toy/companion that the protagonist had as a child (seriously, WTF).  This dark atmosphere only increases as the book continues, especially once the characters arrive at Thorsarbour.  Between the brutal conditions imposed upon the serfs, the unsettling atmosphere, the undercurrent of fear, the crazed religious cult of self-mutilating fanatics, the graphic murders and the haunting presence of several otherworldly characters, you have all the elements you need for a truly impressive and memorable horror tale.  The pacing of the killings is excellent, and the reader finds themselves drawn in by their cruel and bloody nature as the bodies keep dropping in even more elaborate ways.  These killings also work well with the presence of the cult and the appearance of all the strawmen and other agricultural elements, and the book ends up with vibes reminiscent of films like The Wicker Man or Children of the Corn, especially with a pale and potentially psychic child talking about a supernatural figure responsible for the killings.  This ended up being an awesome horror read, and I find myself getting really drawn into the creepy story thanks to some of the freaky elements it contained.

This proved to be a particularly good Warhammer 40,000 novel due to the distinctive setting.  The Bookkeeper’s Skull takes place on a seemingly peaceful agri-world, which gives the reader some intriguing insights into this wider universe.  I loved the cool look at the various archaic ways that this spacefaring civilisation gets food and other resources.  The entire agri-world acts in a mostly feudalistic manner, with practically enslaved serfs doing much of the work on farmsteads.  The blend of gothic science fiction with modern and ancient agriculture elements works really well and it serves as a brilliant background for this darker tale.  Indeed, many of the book’s horror elements are derived from just how bleak and harsh the Imperium of Man truly is and just how badly they treat their own citizens (and they’re the good guys, apparently).  Hill paints some truly shocking pictures of the conditions on this world, including some very gruesome depictions of a rabid self-mutilating cult and some brutal scenes of violence that the enforcers inflict upon the people.  However, the most disturbing part of this world is Gambol, a being who is revealed to be a former criminal who had their arms and legs amputated, his mind modified by technology, and then dressed as a clown to become the protagonist’s childhood toy.  This disturbing figure, equipped with his festering flesh-plugs (shudder!), is sprung on you in the first few pages of the book and really helps to set the horror mood for the reader, as well as just how dark and horrific the Imperium can get (they do this sort of thing to a lot of people).  I loved how grim and dark Hill made this Warhammer story and you really get a sense of just how messed up everything is.

I quite enjoyed the character of Rudgard, who serves as the central protagonist and narrator.  The Bookkeeper’s Skull is told from Rudgard’s point of view in a chronicle format, so you get a real sense of this excellent character both as an experienced enforcer and the young rookie he is in this novel.  This version of Rudgard is a young and inexperienced man who is trying to live up to his family’s legacy, which includes a cruel father, two murderous brothers and an insane mother.  Sent out on routine mission with veteran enforcer Tarrini, Rudgard quickly learns all the terrible truths about his job as he essentially becomes an executioner.  Because of his past and the terrible events of this book, you get to see Rudgard turn into the no-nonsense figure from Hill’s previous novels, and I liked the continued change in his character.  I enjoyed the excellent mentor/mentee relationship he forms with Tarrini, as well as the narrators continued comments attempting or excusing some of his actions.  These considered and compelling notations from the older Rudgard give some interesting context to both the younger and older versions of the character, and it is interesting to see how much he has changed and developed over the years.  While I did think that parts of his backstory were wrapped up a little too quickly, this was still a fantastic examination of a great character and I look forward to seeing more of him in some of Hill’s other works.

I made sure to grab the audiobook version of The Bookkeeper’s Skull, which proved to be an incredible way to enjoy this brilliant novel.  Due to the shorter length of the story, this is a relatively quick audiobook with a rough run time of four and a half hours, which can be powered through extremely quickly.  I found that the audiobook format was highly conducive to the powerful horror mood of the novel and I personally felt that it really enhanced the tension and fear that the story produced.  A lot of the reason why I enjoyed this audiobook was the excellent voice work from narrator Matthew Hunt.  Hunt, who has lent his voice to several Warhammer audio productions in the past, had an excellent voice for this audiobook, and I felt that he captured both the main character and the overall tension of this novel extremely well.  Hunt moved this audiobook along at a swift and compelling pace that really grabs the attention and ensures that you keep listening as events get darker and darker.  Throw in some fantastic and fitting voices (Gambol’s near childlike voice is pretty damn freaky, and I loved the sly and manipulative voice given to the cult leader), and you have an outstanding audiobook that is really worth checking out.

Overall, The Bookkeeper’s Skull by Justin D. Hill is an outstanding and epic Warhammer Horror novel that I had a brilliant time reading.  Hill came up with a clever and captivating story that does an excellent job combining freaky horror elements with the expansive and fun Warhammer 40,000 universe.  I loved my first taste of the Warhammer Horror brand and I look forward to checking out more of it in the future, as well as some more exceptional writing from Hill.

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A Practical Guide to Conquering the World by K. J. Parker

A Practical Guide to Conquering the World Cover

Publisher: Orbit (Trade Paperback – 11 January 2022)

Series: The Siege – Book Three

Length: 352 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

2022 is off to a very good start for me, especially as I have already read an amazing novel that quite frankly may end up being one of my favourite books of the year.  This awesome read was the third and final book in K. J. Parker’s clever and compelling The Siege series, A Practical Guide to Conquering the World.

Over the last few years, I have been having an incredible time reading the incredible and deeply entertaining fantasy Siege series from K. J. Parker.  Parker, a pseudonym for bestselling author Tom Holt, has come up with something very special with The Siege series that combines an interesting new fantasy world with some brilliant humour and intriguing insights into human nature and reactions.  The first entries in The Siege series, Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City and How to Rule an Empire and Get Away with It, were both exceptional reads and they were among my absolute favourite books of 2019 and 2020 respectfully.  As such I have been eagerly waiting for a long time, and while I was initially disappointed that A Practical Guide to Conquering the World was delayed until the start of 2022, it ended up being such a great read and worth the wait.

The Siege series is set in an alternate fantasy world that bears some interesting similarities to ancient Europe.  The first book in the series, Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City, introduces the Robur Empire, a Roman-esque empire that is destroyed at the start of the novel by a coalition of enemies.  The one exception to this destruction was the Robur capital, simply known as The City, which was able to survive thanks to the actions of a military engineer and conman who was able to come up with some very inventive defences.  The second book, How to Rule an Empire and Get Away with It, was set a few years later and followed a new protagonist, an actor and playwright who is forced to impersonate the City’s figurehead after his death to keep the population’s morale and unity up to keep fighting the ongoing siege.  However, this second protagonist eventually takes control of the city and manages to evacuate it, leading the people to a new life.  The third and final book, A Practical Guide to Conquering the World, occurs during and beyond the events of both the first and second novel (if these books occurred the way they are portrayed) and features a new protagonist in a different land.

Aemilius Felix Boiannes the younger is a minor diplomat and translator assigned to the Robur embassy in the mighty Echmen Empire.  Content to live a relatively blameless life away from the people that wronged him, Felix’s life is forever changed when news of the fall of Robur reaches the Echmen.  Almost killed by the Echmen for no longer having a country, Felix’s life is only spared thanks to a debt owed by barbarian princess.  Determined to no longer live by the whims of others, Felix embarks on an ambitious plan that will reshape all of history.

When the Echmen attempt to enslave the princess’s people, Felix saves her and leads her out of Echmen territory.  Able to convince his new friend to unite the various barbarian tribes, Felix utilises his knowledge as a scholar to lead them to victory over the Echmen.  However, his ambition is not limited to conquering the greatest empire in existence, Felix is determined to take over the entire world and he already has all the tools to do so.  However, not even Felix is able to foresee all the consequences of his actions, and soon the entire world will be turned upside down.  For good or for bad, the story of Felix, the most influential and dangerous man in history, is about to begin.

Well damn, now this was one hell of a read.  Parker has come up with another exceptional read here with A Practical Guide to Conquering the World, combining a brilliant and clever story with incredible humour and an entertaining and compelling look into the human psyche.  Filled with constant laughs, intriguing developments and a truly addictive narrative, this book got an easy five-star rating from me and is near impossible to put down once you start it.

I have had a lot of fun with the great stories that Parker comes up with for this cool trilogy, especially as they are exceedingly entertaining and very unpredictable, even if, due to their complexity and cleverness, they are a bit hard to explain in my inevitable glowing reviews.  Like the rest of the series, A Practical Guide to Conquering the World is a standalone novel that can be read either by itself or as a continuation of the first two books in the series.  This novel is told in the chronicle style and tells the autobiography of the protagonist, Felix, a translator and scholar who finds himself in all manner of trouble when his nation is destroyed while he is in a foreign land.  Able to survive thanks to a recent good deed, Felix is soon dragged into the politics of the nation he is trapped in and attempts to stop the Chinese inspired Echmen empire from destroying and enslaving several neighbouring barbarian tribes.  Forced to put his scholarly knowledge to the test, Felix devises multiple brilliant and unpredictable plans to not only manipulate everyone around him, but to also defeat a massive empire and bend all its power to his ultimate goal of world domination and beyond.  This story goes in some extremely fun directions, and you honestly will not be able to put it down once you start as you become engrossed in seeing what elaborate idea Felix will come up with next.  There are some fantastic ploys and captivating twists scattered throughout this novel, and it is fascinating to see this nobody slowly gain more and more power thanks to his wit and ability to understand people.  I had an outstanding time getting through this story and it is extremely hilarious and very exciting.

A Practical Guide to Conquering the World is part of a larger series which switches protagonists with each entry, providing a new and unique tale of the aftermath of the siege of the City.  This third novel starts around the same time as the first book, Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City, and covers several years, going past the events of the second book, How to Rule an Empire and Get Away With It.  It is really interesting to see how this third book ties into everything, especially as the protagonist only has second-hand knowledge of the events of the prior two novels and, thanks to several clever inclusions in this book, as well as the unreliability of the narrators of the other entries, you’re not even certain those events actually occurred.  While new readers don’t need to have any knowledge of the other Siege novels to enjoy A Practical Guide to Conquering the World, I had a lot of fun seeing the mentions and discussions about the events of these prior books, especially as the protagonist is very disbelieving about what he hears.  The inclusion of a recurring character from the past book increases the connection to the rest of the series, although as she is also rather cagey, you have no idea how reliable her recollection of events is.  I loved how compelling this loosely connected series turned out to be, and it was a lot of fun to see how the entire funny saga come together into one entertaining collection.

Just like with the first two books in the series, A Practical Guide to Conquering the World is set around a single protagonist, with the story reflecting their personal account of what they experienced.  This new protagonist, Felix, is another entertaining and interesting central character, a former soldier who, after making some big mistakes and paying the cost for them, is banished to a diplomatic post in another country.  This, and his ability for languages, ironically ensures that he survives the destruction of his homeland and places him in a unique position for his goals.  I personally really enjoyed the cool story that Parker places around Felix and while there are some notable similarities between him and the other protagonists of the Siege books, mainly the fact that he is a conniving and selfish person with impressive insights into human nature and reaction, I think that there are enough differences to keep readers of the series happy.  I loved the focus on his experience with languages and scholarly research, which he uses to great effect throughout the book, manipulating translations for his advantage and then coming up with obscure or historical solutions to the various problems he faces.  Watching him turn this unique knowledge to his advantage, especially once he is inadvertently placed in the centre of world-shaping events, is really cool, and I loved seeing him succeed in his goals.  Parker adds in a great attempted redemptive arc around Felix, which serves as a surprising driving force for much of what he does.  However, readers do have to take Felix on face value, as, like the previous two protagonists of the Siege books, Felix is a bit of an unreliable narrator who may or may not be altering the story to make himself sound better to history.  The final stinger of the book, which hints at the falseness of Felix’s account, is a clever and amusing touch from Parker, and you will come away wondering just how much you believe this character.

Easily the highlight of this book is the amazing humour that Parker has laced his impressive story with.  Parker has an incredible and wicked ability with subtle comedy which permeates the entirety of A Practical Guide to Conquering the World thanks to the unique abilities that occur within.  Much of this humour is derived from the eccentric protagonists’ impressive insights into the human mind, which allows him to manipulate events and people to his favour.  Thanks to some great setup and some outrageous events, the readers get to see this protagonist subtly manipulate everyone, and his explanations for how he gets away with it and the subsequent reactions are extremely amusing.  At the same time, Parker also satirises large parts of the human experience and culture, including the inefficiencies of bureaucracy, the inevitability of betrayal in the name of survival, the herd mentality of groups of people, the unpredictability of starting your own religion, and the inherent suspicion that everyone has inside them.  All of this comes together quite brilliantly throughout the book, and you will honestly be chuckling straight from the beginning, especially as the first joke, about a massive bureaucracy nearly killing the wrong person due to a case of mistaken identity, is very cleverly put together.

Overall, K. J. Parker really did not disappoint with the third and final entry in his hilarious and impressive Siege trilogy.  A Practical Guide to Conquering the World was just as fun and clever as the first two books, and I had a brilliant time reading this captivating fantasy novel.  Containing a wildly inventive narrative set around a compelling protagonist, you will fall in love with this outstanding book, especially as Parker’s comedic inclusions will keep you laughing.  A Practical Guide to Conquering the World is easily going to be one of the best books of 2022 and if you have not checked out The Siege series yet, do yourself a favour and dive into these hilarious and addictive books.

The Pariah by Anthony Ryan

The Pariah Cover

Publisher: Orbit (Audiobook – 24 August 2021)

Series: The Covenant of Steel – Book One

Length: 19 hours and 57 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Bestselling fantasy author Anthony Ryan returns with the first book in an epic, brand new series, The Pariah, a massive and captivating tale of one young man destined to alter an entire kingdom.

Anthony Ryan is an impressive and highly regarded fantasy author who has been a leading figure in the fantasy fiction landscape for the last 10 years.  Ryan has already written several compelling series, including the Raven’s Shadow trilogy (succeeded by the Raven’s Blade duology), the Slab City Blues series, the Draconis Memoria trilogy and his Seven Swords series.  All these series sound pretty awesome, and I have been meaning to check out some of Ryan’s works for years, especially his Raven’s Shadow books.  Unfortunately, I never had the opportunity to go back and read any of them, which I really regret.  So when I was lucky enough to receive a copy of The Pariah a couple of weeks ago, I was very interested in checking it out, especially as it serves as the first book in the brand new The Covenant of Steel series, which I thought would be a good way to experience Ryan’s writing style.  I am very glad that I did as The Pariah was an outstanding and powerful fantasy read that I had a wonderful time getting through.

Alwyn is a young outlaw, trained by his band to steal, kill, spy and deceive.  Raised in the massive and forbidding forest known as the Shavine Marches, in the heart of the kingdom of Albermaine, Alwyn serves the notorious Deckin Scarl, a feared and revered bandit king who rules the forests with an iron fist.  Following a deadly civil war, Deckin finds himself with an opportunity to eliminate a recently installed duke and his family and seize his power and lands.  However, before he can enact his ambitious and murderous plan, the bandit horde is betrayed, Deckin is executed and Alwyn is imprisoned, sent to work a lifetime in the labour prison known as the Pit Mines.

Determined to escape the mines and get revenge on the person responsible for the death of everyone he knew and loved, Alwyn finds himself under the sway of an inspirational cleric imprisoned alongside him.  Under her tutelage, Alwyn learns a subtler art and becomes a scribe of great skill.  However, his desire for freedom and revenge is never far from his mind, and he soon leads the inmates of the pit in an ambitious escape attempt, and so sets forth a series of events that will change Albermaine forever

Managing to escape from the prison and find sanctuary, Alwyn learns much and finds himself taking on many guises including that of scribe, scholar, advisor, and thief, as he attempts to find safety, wealth, and revenge.  However, fate never appears to be on Alwyn’s side, and his bad luck eventually forces him to join a military company serving a noble lady who believes herself touched by the gods.  Pledging himself to this company to save his life, Alwyn traverses battlefields and warzones across Albermaine, encountering some of the unusual people who inhabit this chaotic realm.  His adventures will place him at the centre of the formative events of the kingdom and the church, but how will this scribe of bastard birth rise to become one of the most infamous figures of the age?

This was an outstanding novel from Ryan and one that makes me really regret not checking out some of his previous novels earlier.  The Pariah contains an epic and comprehensive fantasy tale that sees a flawed protagonist traverse a compelling and well-established new fantasy realm.  I had an amazing time getting through this impressive novel and it gets a full five-star rating from me.

The Pariah has a really great story that I got pretty damn addicted to.  This latest book from Ryan is told in the chronicle form, as penned by its protagonist, Alwyn Scribe, who recounts his life story, including the early events which are the focus of this book.  Ryan dives right into The Pariah’s narrative extremely quickly, with details of the setting and history weaved in as the tale progresses.  The story has an intriguing start to it, showing Alwyn as the young member of a bandit crew with an ambitious leader.  However, the story goes in some very interesting and devastating directions fast, with a brutal massacre changing the entire status quo for the protagonist and forcing him onto a new path.  The rest of the story follows Alwyn as he becomes mixed up with a series of inspirational leaders, mysterious magic users, and fun side characters, whose plans and beliefs forces the protagonist into great adventure and intrigue.  This leads to some awesome and memorable scenes, including a dangerous prison break, some epic battle sequences, and innumerable mysteries and revelations, several of which are left open for the author to explore in the rest of the series.  This all leads to an intriguing and action-packed conclusion that showcases the protagonist’s growth, while also setting up the future entries in the series pretty well.

I deeply enjoyed the author’s impressive writing style in this novel, especially with the entire novel set out in the form of first-person chronicle.  Due to the cool stories that it can tell, I have a lot of love for the chronicle format, and I felt Ryan did a really good job of utilising it in The Pariah.  The post-examination of Alwyn’s story from his older self provides a unique and compelling view of the events unfolding around him, and I enjoyed the various notes from his older self that hint at future events and hidden secrets.  These discussions of future events help to add a certain amount of anticipation and suspense at various points at the novel, such as the early hints about the ambush at the bandit camp or mentions about future dark meetings with certain characters.  I also found the focus of this book to be quite interesting, especially as a large portion of the novel was more concerned with setting up future storylines, rather than moving the story along at a quicker pace.  This is a very classic epic fantasy move from Ryan, and it quite enjoyed the way in which he took the time to establish the protagonist, the supporting cast, and the settings, with a particular focus on some of the formative events of Alwyn’s life.  While I enjoyed this set-up, it does steal a little excitement and momentum from the narrative, although I think the sheer amount of interesting setting detail and the intriguing potential of several established, long-term storylines more than makes up for it.  All these interesting writing elements helped to turn The Pariah into a very exciting and compelling read, and I really loved the way in which they enhanced the already awesome narrative.

I also quite enjoyed the new setting that Ryan set up for The Covenant of Steel series, which has an interesting medieval European feel to it, equipped with knights, forest-dwelling bandits, and religious crusades.  The entire novel is set within the Western Duchies of Albermaine, a nation riven by civil war, invasion and religious instability.  This proves to be an outstanding and compelling background to the awesome story contained with The Pariah, especially as the protagonist finds himself visiting some of the more unique locations of this setting during major historical events.  I personally enjoyed the cool forest lair portrayed in the start of the novel, mainly because Ryan was trying to emulate a darker version of the Robin Hood tale, but there is also a deadly prison mine and an elaborate cathedral that serve as major settings which I thought were really good. 

There is also a great focus on the political and religious makeup of Albermaine, and this results in some fascinating storylines.  I really liked the focus on the martyr-based and corrupt overarching religious organisation that has substantial control of the kingdom, as that forms a driving point of the plot, with the protagonist becoming involved with several unorthodox clergy members, who bring down the wrath of the rest of the church for their actions.  Also, I am kind of curious to see if a prophesied end-of-the world event that multiple characters preach about actually occurs in future novels, especially as it would be a pretty fun story moment if it did.  The protagonist also seems drawn to several people with magical abilities considered heretical by the church, which offers an interesting counterpoint to his other threats, especially as each of these magical characters produce impressive mysteries and potential dark storylines.  I was impressed with how much time the author takes to imbue his setting with a massive amount of detail and after the quick start to the narrative, the reader is given a crash course in the history and politics of the realm.  Despite the level of detail, I think that Ryan spread the world building out to an acceptable degree, and I never felt too overwhelmed with the various explanations and world expansions.  I had a wonderful time traversing Albermaine with the protagonist and I look forward to seeing what additional developments and storylines occur within it in the future novels.

As I mentioned above, the novel is solely told from the perspective of protagonist Alwyn, later known as Alwyn Scribe once he takes up his profession, who is penning the events of his younger life.  Alwyn is an interesting protagonist to follow and thanks to the author’s use of the chronicle style, you really get a sense of the character’s personality, motivations, and intentions as the novel progresses.  Initially starting off as a young thief with immense loyalty to his chief, Alwyn goes through a lot as the novel progresses, forced to make hard decisions and encountering horrors, mistakes and a load of enemies as his tale progresses.  I found Alwyn to be a complex and compelling figure, and I didn’t always like him or his decisions, especially when he was reckless and rash.  However, he does grow as the novel progresses and, while he still has a lot more development to go, I felt that he was a better character at the end of the novel.  I liked the various talents that Alwyn develops throughout the novel, and it was fun to have a more complex and less noble figure, thanks to his past as a thief and conman.  I especially enjoyed his transition into a scribe, which the character soon sees as his primary profession, and it certainly is an interesting and compelling role for a fantasy protagonist.  I liked the way in which the older version of the character tells the story, especially as there are some great reflections about his actions and his personality during that time, and you can often hear the protagonist’s regret over what he did and what is to come.  I cannot wait to see what happens to this character in the future, and I kind of suspect that his tale is not going to come to a very happy end.

Aside from Alwyn, The Pariah is filled with a massive contingent of side and supporting characters who Alwyn meets throughout his adventures.  These characters are featured perfectly throughout the narrative and I loved the unique and compelling ways in which they influenced the overall story.  Ryan invests a lot of time into developing many of these characters, even some who had more minor roles, providing interesting personal histories and personality traits to make them stand out, and I appreciated how complex and compelling their storylines could turn out to be.  I found it interesting that there was a focus on inspiration leaders, with Alwyn falling in with three separate figures in this novel, each of whom commanded his loyalty through different means and whom he became close with in different ways (one is a surrogate father, another a teacher, while the third has a very complicated and constantly evolving relationship with the protagonist).  There were also some interesting antagonists featured throughout the novel, and while a couple died before their time, Ryan made sure to leave some of the better ones alive for the next entry in the series, and I am sure they will have an impact there.  Each of the characters featured in The Pariah added a lot to the plot, and I cannot wait to see what unique figures are featured in Ryan’s next entry.

While I did receive a physical copy of The Pariah, I decided to try out the audiobook format instead.  I am glad that I did as this was an excellent and enjoyable audiobook that was really fun to listen to.  Due to its massive story, The Pariah has a decent run time of just under 20 hours, although I managed to get through it in less than a week as I really got into the amazing story.  The audiobook moved at a great pace, ensuring that there were never any dull or slow moments for the listener to get bogged down in.  I also found that the audiobook format was a great way to absorb the intense amount of world-building, and it also lent itself to some of the exciting fight scenes extremely well.  I was also impressed by the narration of Steven Brand, who brought a wonderful energy to this format.  Brand has an amazing voice and he quickly leapt into the role of the narrator, telling the unique tale of the protagonist’s life and inhabiting the character seamlessly.  I loved the distinctive and well-fitted voices that Brand used throughout The Pariah, and he really helped to turn this format into something special.  As a result, the audiobook version of this book comes highly recommended and I will probably end up listening to the rest of this series in this format.

The Pariah by Anthony Ryan is an epic and deeply compelling piece of fantasy fiction that is really worth reading.  Perfectly setting up Ryan’s intriguing new series, The Pariah was an awesome outing from this talented author, and I loved the brilliant story, complex characters and chaotic setting that was featured throughout it.  I cannot wait to see how this awesome series is going to turn out, and The Covenant of Steel novels look set to be one of the most iconic fantasy series of the next few years.

How to Rule an Empire and Get Away with It by K. J. Parker

How to Rule an Empire and Get Away With It

Publisher: Orbit (Trade Paperback – 18 August 2020)

Series: The Siege – Book Two

Length: 357 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Prepare to laugh like crazy with How to Rule an Empire and Get Away with It by K. J. Parker, an intensely funny and clever fantasy read that was one of my most anticipated releases of 2020.

Several years after their home fell under a brutal and prolonged siege, the inhabitants of the City have settled into a new way of life.  There may be a vast army camped on the plains outside and the occasional catapult shot may demolish a house or two, but that does not mean that people cannot make some money and get on with their lives.  This includes Notker, an acclaimed actor, skilled lookalike and mediocre playwright, who scrapes a living by impersonating the rich and powerful of the City at parties while trying to get someone to pay him money for his latest play.  However, what Notker does not know is that fame, opportunity, and a rather large boulder are about to land in his lap.

When the City’s greatest hero and nominal leader, Lysimachus, secretly dies, his followers/handlers, desperate to stay in power, recruit Notker to play the role of a lifetime.  Impersonating Lysimachus, Notker continues to act as the city’s figurehead, allowing life to go on, and he even begins to think he has a handle on this simple job, until someone tries to murder him.  Now he finds himself in the midst of a brutal and ongoing power struggle as the various power players in the city attempt to manipulate him for their own ends resulting in him being crowned as Emperor of the entire Robur Empire (or what is left of it).

As Notker attempts to find some sanity within his home, he begins to understand what a fragile position the City is in.  With enemies surrounding them and the besiegers slowly overcoming the City’s defences, Notker needs to choose between making a run for it or trying to save the City.  But what difference can one very good actor make in a war?  If Notker has anything to do with it, everything!

How to Rule an Empire and Get Away with It is another spectacular and extremely entertaining fantasy novel from legendary fantasy writer, K. J. Parker.  Parker, a pseudonym of bestselling author Tom Holt, has written a vast catalogue of books over the years, including a substantial collection of humorous and satirical fantasy novels.  I first really got into Parker’s work last year when I was lucky enough to receive a copy of the awesome Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City, a very funny novel that focused on a conniving engineer as he thwarted a massive army through guile, tricky and a substantial amount of BS.  Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City was an amazing read and it was easily one of my favourite books of 2019.  As a result, I have been eagerly keeping an eye out for any additional releases from Parker and was very excited when I saw that How to Rule an Empire and Get Away with It was coming out.  I was especially intrigued when I learnt that this latest Parker novel was some form of sequel to Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City, and I was very, very happy when I got my copy of this latest book.

This new novel from Parker proved to be an extraordinary read and it was easily one of the funniest novels of 2020.  The author writes a clever, fast-paced and addictive story that utilises the author’s unique sense of humour to create a very entertaining piece of literature.  This is a very enjoyable read, and fans of Parker’s work will love that How to Rule an Empire and Get Away with It is a sequel to Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City, continuing some of the great storylines from the prior book.  I had an outstanding time reading this book and it gets an easy five-star review from me.

Parker presents another brilliant and witty story for How to Rule an Empire and Get Away with It that follows the adventures of another unlucky and jaded protagonist as he tries to survive the chaotic events unfolding around him.  Just like with Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City, this novel is written purely from the perspective of the protagonist as he chronicles his actions and personal history into a historical text.  This results in a very fast-paced and hilarious story, as the main character bounces from one bad situation to another, encountering plotters, ambitious politicians, angry crime bosses, dangerous invaders and one particular fierce actress who serves as Notker’s leading lady.  I absolutely loved the various outrageous and challenging situations that the protagonist finds himself in, and Parker does a fantastic job presenting them in a humorous way, showing how silly everything is and the various, clever and well-written solutions to these problems.  The entire story goes in some very fun and compelling directions and this ends up being an overall excellent narrative that is extremely well written.  I was able to predict the overall conclusion of the story somewhat in advance, but Parker did an amazing job setting it up and it resulted in a very entertaining and satisfying conclusion.  This was such an amazing story and I had an absolute blast getting through it, laughing my head off the entire time.

As part of this awesome and entertaining story, Parker sets up a whole new protagonist for this novel, Notker the liar.  Notker is another fun protagonist in a similar vein to the main character of Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City, in that he is a self-serving and opportunistic individual who is mostly looking out for his own wellbeing.  This changes once he takes on the assignment of impersonating the dim-witted but charismatic Lysimachus and soon finds himself responsible for the safety of the city.  While at first he is mostly trying to survive and find a way to escape from all the insanity and backstabbing that is his life, once he becomes more aware of the situation facing the City and the danger it is really in he begins to take on more responsibility, manipulating everyone so that they can start fighting a more effective war.  I really liked seeing this protagonist attempt to take control of the situation surrounding the City, especially as he appears to be one of the only sane people around.  Watching his various incredulous reactions to the problems presented to him and his various solutions, which are a combination of common-sense responses and brilliant but out-there tactics, is really entertaining.  I especially loved how Parker played up the actor/screenwriter aspect of the character as many of his greatest tricks are derived from theatre techniques, such as selling something to a crowd, misdirection or the value of good lighting.  There is also a great underlying aspect to the character as he pretends to be Lysimachus and he needs to strike a balance between responses that Lysimachus would have done and his own common sense and craftiness.  This compulsion to act like Lysimachus actually becomes a major problem for Notker as he enjoys being the heroic former gladiator and soon begins emulating him instead of acting in his usual manner of self-preservation.  All of this results in another complex and likeable central character who the reader cannot help but root for as he attempts to survive.  I really liked how Notker’s story progressed and it was a real joy to read about him from start to finish.

Another thing that I really enjoyed about this book was the way in which it acts as a fantastic and humorous follow-up to Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled CityHow to Rule an Empire and Get Away with It is set in the same city as the author’s 2019 release, and the story begins a few years after the events of this proceeding novel.  This new novel mostly presents a new story, told from the perspective of a different protagonist, but it does have a lot of connections to the previous novel.  The individual Notker is impersonating, Lysimachus, was a side character in the first novel, serving as a bodyguard to the original protagonist.  In this book it is revealed that following Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City, Lysimachus, a champion gladiator and a revered public figure, was given all the credit for the original protagonist’s efforts following his death.  Parker does a fantastic job revealing this to the reader, and it is extremely fitting in the scope of the first novel as this original protagonist was always getting overshadowed and overestimated.  The author makes sure to really drive this point home by completely excluding the name of the previous protagonist throughout How to Rule an Empire and Get Away with It, just to emphasise how no one in the city truly remembers who he was or what he did, which is pretty darn hilarious.  The novel contains a number of fantastic references to the events that occurred with the previous book, including giving Notker a copy of the previous protagonist’s memoirs (which formed the basis of Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City).  Notker of course then provides his own witty two cents to this memoir, providing a writer’s critical analysis, including doubting some of the events that occurred, such as the coincidence around the protagonist being the childhood friend of the mastermind of the siege.  All of this definitely adds a lot to the book’s overall humour, and it is always entertaining to see an author make fun of his own work.

Despite these fun references and the continuation of some story elements from Parker’s previous book, How to Rule an Empire and Get Away with It is very much its own novel, taking the reader on a whole new fun adventure.  As a result, you really do not need to have read Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City first, although it is a lot of fun to see the previous book’s events lampooned in this novel.  Indeed, due to the fact that the protagonist and point-of-view character has no idea of the full events of the previous book, you get a good overview as everything is explained to him, which is fun.  Overall, this serves as a very entertaining sequel to this amazing previous book and I will be interested to see if Parker decides to continue the story in some way, which I have no doubt will be another incredible read.

How to Rule an Empire and Get Away with It is a truly awesome and enjoyable read, and author K. J. Parker lived up to all my expectations with this book.  Not only does it contain a captivating and addictive narrative anchored by a likeable and complex main character, but it is also intensely funny.  I loved every second that I spent reading How to Rule an Empire and Get Away with It, and this was without a doubt one of the best books that I have read this year.

Demon in White by Christopher Ruocchio

Demon in White Cover 1

Publisher: Gollancz (Trade Paperback – 28 July 2020)

Series: Sun Eater Sequence – Book Three

Length: 776 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Demon in White Cover 2

Howling Dark by Christopher Ruocchio

Howling Dark Cover

Publisher: Gollancz and Recorded Books (16 July 2019)

Series: Sun Eater – Book 2

Length: 679 pages or 28 hours and 3 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Outstanding new author Christopher Ruocchio, who blew me away last year with his debut novel, Empire of Silence, returns with the second book in his brilliant Sun Eater series, Howling Dark.

Empire of Silence was one of my favourite books from last year, easily making my Top Ten Reads for 2018 list, and I absolutely loved the author’s highly addictive story and its vast new science fiction universe. This was a fantastic first book from Ruocchio, and when I finished it, I really wanted to know what happened next. As a result, I have been waiting to read this sequel for a while, having done a Waiting on Wednesday article on it and including it on my Top Ten Most Anticipated July – December 2019 Releases list. I was pretty excited to receive a copy of this book a few weeks ago, especially as Ruocchio was nice enough to mention my blog in his acknowledgements (this has not affected my review or rating in any way). However, due to having a huge number of other books that were high priority reads, I ended up listening to the audiobook format of Howling Dark instead, which is narrated by Samuel Roukin. I had extremely high hopes when I started reading this book, and I was definitely not disappointed by the final result.

The Sun Eater series is set far in humanity’s future, where humans have left Earth and expanded out to thousands of worlds. While humanity, mostly in the form of the Roman-inspired Sollan Empire, has flourished, for the last four hundred years they have been fighting a brutal and destructive war with the Cielcin, a spacefaring race of aliens who have destroyed hundreds of colonies and billons of humans. Each of the books in the series is written as a part of the autobiographical chronicle of series’ protagonist, Hadrian “Halfmortal” Marlowe, otherwise knowns as the Sun Eater. Hadrian is the man who will one day destroy a sun in order to burn every Cielcin to a cinder, and in doing so become both history’s greatest hero and most infamous monster. However, these events are set to occur much further on in the future, and these earlier books focus on the events that formed Hadrian’s character, and show how he became the man to end it all.

In Howling Dark, the story is set some 50 years after the events of Empire of Silence. During this time Hadrian Marlowe has been wandering the outer fringes of the galaxy trying and failing to find a myth. Leading a band of mercenaries, former gladiators and disguised Imperial legionnaires, and carrying a cargo of frozen Cielcin prisoners, Hadrian hopes to travel the lost planet of Vorgossos. The planet’s mysterious master apparently has a way to contact the Cielcin, who Hadrian hopes to finally negotiate peace with, ending the brutal war that has ravaged both races.

However, finding Vorgossos has proven far more difficult than Hadrian initially anticipated. The legendary planet is well hidden, and the only way to uncover its location is to deal with the Extrasolarians, a group of humans who live outside of Imperial control and whose reliance on technology and enhancements borders on the heretical. As Hadrian and his companions locate a promising lead, they are suddenly ordered back to the fleet as the war against the Cielcin needs every soldier.

Determined to bring his plan for peace to fruition, Hadrian and his companions disobey these orders and go rogue. Entering the worlds of the Extrasolarians, the Exalted and other grim horrors at the edge of the known universe, they are able to obtain passage to Vorgossos. However, what they find at their destination may be even worse than the alien foes they are attempting to contact. Between facing technological monstrosities, a cruel, immortal king and the appearance of humanity’s oldest and most feared enemy, Hadrian has his work cut out for him. But the further along his path he travels, the more Hadrian begins to understand the grim destiny in front of him and the terrible cost he will have to pay.

This is another epic book from Ruocchio! Howling Dark is a dark, gothic science fiction masterpiece that was an absolute treat to read, and which really highlights the author’s creativity and ability to create a wide-ranging universe with some unique and captivating features.

This was another incredible and ambitious story from Ruocchio, who takes the reader on an extended and powerful adventure through his great universe. The Howling Dark contains a lengthy and compelling plot which goes in some very interesting directions. While this is a long book, Ruocchio does a great job of pacing the story out, and there is rarely a moment where the plot is not progressing in an intriguing way, or where the reader is left bored. I really enjoyed some of the dark places that the author took the story in this book, and there are a variety of cool new locations, antagonists and other monsters that the protagonist and his friends need to deal with in one way or another. Hadrian goes through some notable character development in this story as he takes more and more steps down the road to becoming the biggest legend in the universe. Howling Dark has a pretty epic conclusion to it, with some major plot developments occurring in the last 100 pages or so, and I really liked how Ruocchio wrapped up the storyline. Overall, this book has an intense and captivating storyline to it, and I am exceedingly glad I got a chance to read it.

I did find that the start of the book was a tad hard to get into. Due to the complex storylines (and possibly because I have read so many different books in the last year) it took me a little while to remember whom some of the characters were and where the plot was up to. It did not help that the story had jumped ahead by 50 years, and some of the events that occurred during this break are mentioned a few times at the start of the book. However, once I was able to get my bearings, it did not take me long to get hooked on the story and I had no problems following the enjoyable plot, especially as the author does a great job explaining these missing events and offering the reader several recaps of the events from the first book. Readers of the physical copy of Howling Dark will also be helped by the detailed dramatis personae, index of worlds and lexicon of terms that is included at the back of the novel, which can really help to clear up some confusion about the events that have occurred. I would say that readers would probably be best served checking out Empire of Silence first before trying to read Howling Dark, but I believe that new readers will be able to fully enjoy this story once they reach the recaps and get a sense of what happened in the previous books.

I really enjoyed how Ruocchio continued to write his story in the chronicle format that worked so well in the first book. Each of the books in the Sun Eater series are presented as part of a self-written chronicle of Hadrian’s life, penned some years in the future after he destroyed the sun. As a result, the story is told exclusively from Hadrian’s perspective and features his memories of the various events that formed his character. This is a great way to tell the story, mainly because the reader gets to see a contemplative version of the narrative. There is a real and palpable sense of regret in Hadrian’s narration, which really adds to the book’s grim tone, as the reader gets to hear the protagonist recount events that are not only traumatic for him, but which set him down the path to his defining moment. Due to Hadrian’s lifetime of self-reflection, you also get a far more in-depth examination of the character’s motivations for taking certain actions, as well as an analysis of why other characters acted the way did, which adds a great edge to the story. I also liked how the protagonist hinted at some of the key moments that occur later in the book or may occur in later books. This dramatic irony does a wonderful job of keeping a sense of tension in the air, as the reader knows that the worst is yet to come. Ruocchio’s use of the chronicle format for these novels is cleverly done, and I really enjoyed how it helped enhance the overall story.

Possibly Ruocchio’s biggest strength as a writer is his amazing ability to come up with a widespread and intriguing new universe to use as a setting for his fantastic story. This was one of my favourite things about Empire of Silence, as I loved the large, sprawling human empire that Hadrian lived in during the first book. This Sollan Empire was created after a major war with artificial intelligences thousands of years before, and therefore any technology that is too advanced or which thinks for itself is considered heretical by a controlling religious organisation. The massive empire is heavily inspired by the Roman Empire, with a similar government, military system, social castes and culture. This also affects the overall tone of the story, as the narrator, Hadrian, is a true son of this empire, and thus has a classical education that guides his overall view of life. As a result, the story is filled with the Hadrian quoting a number of historical verses and aphorisms to tell his tale, which really helps to give the overall story a more classic tone in the science fiction environment. I really liked this cool combination of science fiction elements with this antique mindset, and the general history of the Sollan Empire, with its veneration of other historical empires such as the Romans or the Victorians, is deeply interesting. This Sollan Empire actually reminded me a bit of the Imperium from Warhammer 40k, which also has a Roman inspiration and overarching gothic theme to them. As a fan of Warhammer 40k, it was cool see a universe built along similar ideas, and Ruocchio comes up with a number of clever and unique new elements to make his Sollan Empire stand out. Although most of the story in Howling Dark is spent outside of the main empire, the author still spends time expanding on elements of this massive organisation, and the reader gets more of a sense of them. I especially enjoyed seeing the Imperial legions in battle during this book, and it results in a number of incredible scenes that I really enjoyed.

Ruocchio also does an outstanding job introducing a number of intriguing new universe elements to this book in the form of the Extrasolarians. I found the dive into the world of the Extrasolarians to be extremely fascinating, especially as Ruocchio let his creativity run wild during this part of the books, coming up with all manner of technological marvels, body augmentations, genetic modifications and other science fiction wonders. However, many of these technologies have a darker side to them, which the protagonist and his friends find out the hard way. Some of these modifications are downright creepy, and this really helped the author create a dark and distinctive expansion to his universe. I was especially impressed with one of the new antagonists of this story, Kharn Sagara, a sinister, technologically enhanced ancient with hidden motivations (check out the cover below to see how cool his character design is). The reader also gets a much more in-depth look at the Cielcin in this book, as the protagonist starts to understand more about them and how they think. Ruocchio does a fantastic job exploring the mindset of these creatures and showing them as truly alien beings with very little similarities to humanity, and the reader starts to get an understanding of why Hadrian will eventually be forced to destroy them. All of this is really cool, and I could honestly go on for pages about all the cool world building that Ruocchio does in this book, it was that impressive.

As I mentioned above, I ended up listening to Howling Dark’s audiobook format. The audiobook runs for 28 hours and 3 minutes and is narrated by Samuel Roukin, who does a fantastic job bringing this story and the characters to life. This is a lengthy audiobook, and readers will need to make a bit of room in their listening schedule to get through it. It is actually the longest science fiction audiobook that I have ever listened to (so far) and would easily make my Top Ten Longest Audiobooks That I Have Listened To list. I found that Howling Dark’s audiobook format was a great way to enjoy this epic novel. I always find that listening to a complex story helps me absorb a lot more of the story and universe details, making for a much fuller read. This was definitely true for Howling Dark, as I was able to really appreciate the huge amount of gothic science fiction detail that Ruocchio installed in his work. I also found that Roukin’s narration also did a wonderful job of capturing Hadrian’s inherent regret and despair, and this really helped me appreciate the entirety of the book’s story. Roukin also creates some terrific voices for the various characters and does a fantastic job bringing them to life through the audiobook. This was a fantastic format to enjoy Howling Dark with, and I will strongly consider listening to the audiobook of the next book in this series.

Overall, I think that Christopher Ruocchio does an excellent job following up on his spectacular debut, Empire of Silence. Howling Dark is an amazing read that I absolutely loved. Ruocchio has come up with a complex story for this book, which is massively enhanced by his clever writing style and impressive imagination. Clearly, Empire of Silence was no fluke, as Howling Dark gets a full five stars from me. I am really looking forward to checking out the next book in the series, especially as Ruocchio has left a huge number of intriguing storylines open, and I fully intend to stick with this series until Hadrian destroys that sun.

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Throwback Thursday – The Tomorrow Series by John Marsden

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Publishers: Pan Macmillan Australia and Bolinda Audio

Books:

1. Tomorrow, When the War Began (1993) – Amazon     Book Depository

2. The Dead of the Night (1994) – Amazon     Book Depository

3. The Third Day, the Frost (1995) – Amazon     Book Depository

4. Darkness, Be My Friend (1996) – Amazon     Book Depository

5. Burning for Revenge (1997) – Amazon     Book Depository

6. The Night is for Hunting (1998) – Amazon     Book Depository

7. The Other Side of Dawn (1999) – Amazon     Book Depository

Series Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

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

For this week’s Throwback Thursday review, I dive back into one of the most popular and iconic Australian fiction series of all times, John Marsden’s epic Tomorrow series.

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The Tomorrow series, by bestselling and award-winning Australian author John Marsden, is a powerful and thought-provoking young adult series that was released in the 1990s.  Made up of seven books, the series began in 1993 with Tomorrow, When the War Began and ended in 1999 with The Other Side of Dawn.  The Tomorrow series follows a small group of young teenage protagonists as they deal with a foreign invasion of Australia which forces them to hide in the bush and engage in a guerrilla war to win.  Thanks to its strong characters, frank depictions of war and trauma and its excellent utilisation of Australia’s bush and rural landscape, the Tomorrow series has become one of the most highly regarded and popular Australian series of all times, with millions of copies sold in Australia alone (which, considering our relatively small population, is pretty impressive).  It is also considered a must-read series for young Australian readers, and it is still required reading in many schools to this day.

I have been a major fan of this series for a very long time.  I remember reading these books while I was at school, both for classes and for my own enjoyment, and I was enthralled by its depictions of war and its captivating story, which stoked my imagination for years.  Re-reading it at an older age, I began to appreciate the more complex nature of its story and the characters portrayed within.  I have re-read or re-listened to these books many times over the years, and it still remains one of my most favourite series of all times.  I have actually been planning to review this as part of my Throwback Thursday series for some time, and after recently mentioning it in my First Ten Books I Reviewed list, where it placed No. 1 thanks to a review project at school, I have decided it was time to share why I love this series and why those who readers unfamiliar with it should check it out.

The Tomorrow series is set in the 1990s, around the same time as the books were written, in a fictional area of Australia.  The plot revolves around seven teenagers, Ellie, Corrie, Homer, Fiona, Lee, Robyn and Kevin, who live in and around the rural town of Wirrawee.  During the holiday period they decide to head out to a remote and mostly unexplored area of the bush, known as Hell, for a week of camping.  Isolated from the rest of the world, they are mostly unaware of events transpiring beyond their bush hideaway.  Once they finish their trip, they emerge from Hell to find their farms and houses abandoned and their town occupied by soldiers.  It soon becomes apparent that all of Australia has been invaded by a foreign nation, with Wirrawee being one of the initial points of occupation due to its proximity to a harbour that is vital to the invader’s supply network.  Using Hell as a base, the protagonists have to come to terms with the new reality they find themselves in, and they must band together to not only survive, but to try and find some way to oppose the invading army.

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The first book, Tomorrow, When the War Began, sets up the story and introduces the readers to the main characters.  The book starts with the seven main characters heading off into the bush, and then returning to find that their world has changed.  Not knowing what had happened and only initially finding that their families are missing, they venture into Wirrawee and encounter their first batch of enemy troops.  After some initial conflicts, which include Lee getting shot, Ellie blowing up an enemy patrol and Corrie’s house getting destroyed by a missile, the group retreats back to Hell with newcomer Chris, who had also managed to hide from the invaders.  Once back in the bush, they initially work on gathering information about the enemy forces and on turning Hell into a long-term home for themselves.  However, as it becomes obvious that the war is going poorly for Australia and the invading army is here to stay, they decide to attempt a major act of sabotage.  Their plan works, but tragedy forces two members of the group to surrender themselves to enemy custody while the rest of the group remain hidden in Hell.  Tomorrow, When the War Began is an excellent novel that does a great job introducing the reader to the characters and setting up an amazing story.  While Tomorrow, When the War Began would have been a great standalone novel, it also does an outstanding job setting up the rest of the series.  There are so many good parts to this novel, but I have to say that the early scenes in which the protagonists start putting the clues together and slowly begin to work out that their town and country have been invaded are among some of the best in the entire series, especially with the tension and uncertainty that the characters are experiencing.

The second book in the series, The Dead of the Night, starts only a few weeks after the events of the first book.  Still reeling from the loss of two of their friends, the remaining members of the group engage in more attacks or acts of sabotage, before finding a group of adult rebels who have managed to avoid capture.  However, the teenage protagonists quickly realise that the adult rebels have no idea what they are doing, and disaster strikes when they encounter the enemy.  The protagonists manage to escape back to Hell, where they successfully undertake another massive attack, although another unforeseen tragedy is revealed in the aftermath.  This is a great follow-up to Tomorrow, When the War Began and it continues several interesting story threads from the first book, while also setting up some new characters and situations.  The scenes with the teenage protagonists encountering the adult rebels are not my favourite, but the counterpoints between the two groups are extremely fascinating.  In addition, the various covert actions that the group undertakes in this book, as well as the characters starting to show evidence of war trauma, offers some well-written and powerful moments to the series.

The next book, The Third Day, the Frost (released as A Killing Frost in the US and Canada), takes the protagonists out of their comfort zone as they leave Hell and the Wirrawee area in order to launch a seemingly impossible attack on the enemy’s nearby harbour complex.  Their hopes are buoyed when they manage to reconnect with a lost friend whose newfound knowledge may prove to be the key to pulling off their attack.  However, their success is short lived as they fall into the clutches of the enemy army and are soon sentenced to death.  They eventually manage to escape, but their freedom comes at a great cost.  This is easily one of the darker books in the Tomorrow series, especially the parts where the remaining main characters are caught and held in prison.  Some of the sequences in the book are pretty cool, especially the assault on Cobbler’s Bay, and this book is one of the ones I enjoy the most in the entire series.

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Following the events of The Third Day, the Frost, the series experiences a seven-month time-skip as the remaining main characters recover in New Zealand.  As a result, the fourth book, Darkness, Be My Friend, feels a lot like it is the beginning of a slightly different second half of this series, resulting in some significant changes and character developments.  This book starts with the protagonists being asked to return to Australia in order to escort a band of army commandoes to a high-value target in the Wirrawee area.  While initially reluctant to return, the protagonists eventually agree to head back for a short mission.  However, when the commandoes go missing, the protagonists find themselves once again trapped in occupied territory and are forced to use their wits and experience to survive and fight back.  Darkness, Be My Friend is a really interesting and significant instalment in the series.  Not only are there a number of major changes in Wirrawee, including several shocking deaths, but this is the book where the trauma and PTSD angles of Marsden’s storytelling really come into effect, as all of the main characters are completely shell-shocked after the events of the first three books, and it takes them a lot to get back to their former operational readiness.  This book does feature some great scenes, including a night-time escape on horseback and a failed attack on the enemy which necessitates another desperate escape.

The fifth book in the series, Burning for Revenge, sees the protagonists once again holed up in Hell, hiding from the enemy army.  With no chance of extraction back to New Zealand, the young guerrillas decided to leave their sanctuary and find a new target to attack.  Fate intervenes, and they find themselves in a position to do a lot of damage to the enemy.  I really enjoyed Burning for Revenge, even though it suffers from some pacing issues.  The major offence takes place in the middle of the book, and while the corresponding sequences are epic in their scale, destruction and savagery, the second half of the book, in which the characters hide out in a nearby city, really peters out in comparison.  The parts of the book set in the city do offer an interesting change of location, and also feature some compelling story points, but it does seem to be a bit lacking after the big attack.  But the major action sequence, the lengthy escape and the significant story developments that occur more than make up for it.

The next book, The Night is for Hunting, is set right after the events of Burning for Revenge and sees the protagonists still hiding out in the suburbs of Stratton.  Their new way of life is shattered when they witness troops capturing some of the wild street children who also haunt the ruins of Stratton.  Rescuing the small group from the enemy, the protagonists escape back to Hell, and must find a way to adapt to their new charges.  However, Hell may not be the safe haven they remember; violence visits them in the bush for the first time.  The Night is for Hunting is probably my least favourite book in the Tomorrow series, although it still is an extremely enjoyable book and an essential part of the series.  It is a little hard to deal with this book’s change of focus from war to childcare, but the focus on the new war orphans who require care allows for some interesting scenes and some intriguing character development.  Most of the child characters are pretty annoying, but their leader, Gavin, more than makes up for it, as the deaf badass has some amazing scenes through this book.  The final action sequences above Hell are also quite jarring, as the bush location that has been built up as a safe haven for your favourite characters is invaded.

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The seventh and final book in the Tomorrow series, The Other Side of Dawn, begins immediately after the conclusion of the sixth book.  After taking out the enemy patrol that infiltrated Hell, the protagonists need to escape before the soldiers are reported missing.  However, instead of an extraction back to New Zealand, they are given a new mission: to venture out and perform as many attacks as possible.  The war is in its final days and any damage they can do will help determine the future of Australia.  Setting off again, the protagonists prepare for their final battle.  Who will survive and what will the country look like after they are done?  This is a really good conclusion to the series that features a number of great scenes.  Not only are many of the story threads that ran through the entire series wrapped up but the protagonists find themselves drawn further into the wider war than they ever have been before.  Marsden tries some different stuff in this book, including a significant amount of the book focusing on an isolated Ellie, and it works to create not only an enjoyable novel but also an excellent end to this great series.

While all seven books in the series are deeply entertaining and extremely well written, their real strength lies in their continuation as a series.  Marsden does an outstanding job linking all of the books in the series together, creating one lengthy and captivating story that you cannot wait to get to the end of.  The sheer amount of character development that occurs throughout the series, as well as the various attacks and input in the war effort, is amazing, and the Tomorrow series really needs to be read in its entirety and in order.

The Tomorrow series is told from the first-person perspective of the main character, Ellie, who is chronicling the adventures of the protagonists so there is a record of what they did during the war in case they are captured or killed.  I always quite enjoyed having the story told in this manner, as it gave the series a lot of realism and is supposed to evoke other famous wartime chronicles.  Ellie is a unique narrator, as she really does not tell a straight story of the entire adventure.  While she endeavours to cover all the events that are occurring, she goes off on a huge number of tangents, recalling stories from her past, analysing the thoughts and feelings in her head, or engaging in some deep emotional debate about the situations the characters find themselves in.  While this may seem random, it goes a long way to explaining the narrator’s thought process, as it helps her break down events she cannot quite handle and interpret them as something more recognisable to her.  It is also through her eyes that we see the other characters, and as such we get a really good idea of their past and their potential motivations, as Ellie knows huge amounts about their past and tells a number of funny stories or analogies that help highlight their character traits and personalities.  Because all of the main characters are her friends, Ellie’s feelings of closeness and love for these characters really shines through and ensures that the readers really care for all the other characters.  One of the things I quite liked about the chronicle format of this series was that Marsden went out of his way to explain the text’s creation and how the protagonist was able to preserve them through the war.  The chronicles also have an impact on the story, especially in the second book, as the characters read and react to Ellie’s inner thoughts and observations about the series’ opening events.

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I absolutely love the overarching story concept of this series, which sees Australia being invaded by a hostile enemy force who quickly takes over the country, forcing a small group of young people to fight back.  While some comparisons with Red Dawn can be made, there are some significant differences to the story, such as its focus on Australia, character development and the more realistic story of young people surviving in a war zone.  I always felt that the idea that Australia, with its relatively small population and relative isolation from Europe and America, could be invaded and completely conquered in such a short period is a lot more realistic than similar events occurring in America.  In addition, the way that the teenage protagonists operate is a lot more realistic in the Tomorrow series.  The characters spend most of their time mainly trying to survive and avoid capture or death at the hands of their enemy.  Even when they attempt an attack, they plans usually attempt to avoid a direct fire fight, as they realise that any attempts to do so would likely see them killed.  Instead, they mostly travel without guns, hoping that if captured, the enemy would believe they were kids who were hiding and not actual guerrillas.  I also liked how the protagonists’ planned assaults on the enemy are more opportunistic in nature and rely more on improvisation and everyday items rather than training or proper military explosives or weapons.  Most of their attacks involve petrol, gas and weapons farmers would use (although one attack was achieved by toasters), and even when they receive some better equipment from the New Zealand army, they utilise it in a way adult soldiers would not think about.  The author’s depiction of Australia’s invasion is really interesting, and the attack and the international reaction to it feel quite realistic, even in more modern times.  I really love the ideas that Marsden comes up with when it comes to the actions his protagonists undertake to survive the war, and it is clear that he dedicated a lot of time and attention to coming up with these actions.  As a result of this, and the realistic depiction of Australia being invaded, the Tomorrow series has always fired my imagination about what I would do if Australia were invaded, and I have to admit I would be tempted to do what these protagonists would do and try and hide out in the bush.

The way that the war is depicted in this series is quite intriguing.  Due to the story being told from Ellie’s perspective as a chronicler, the reader only gets a fairly narrow view of the war, as the protagonists lack any knowledge of what is happening due to their isolation.  Having the protagonists only finding out about the invasion days after it occurs, and then retreating to their hidden base for long periods of a time is quite a cool concept, and I always found that it added so much to the story, especially realism; you cannot expect teen civilians in the bush to have knowledge of troop movements.  Another clever plot device that the Tomorrow series makes use of is the fact that the series has no singular antagonist; instead, the protagonists see every member of the invading army as an equal threat.  While the character of Major Harvey in the second and third book is an antagonist, he is really just a cog in the military machine that is conquering Australia.  Much more negative focus is put on the enemy army as a whole, even though they are fairly faceless, with only one member of their forces ever really named, and that was in the last book.  I always felt that Marsden considered war and the reasons for it as the book’s primary villain, as the harsh depictions of it and its aftermath are very convincing.

As you would expect from a series that focuses on invasion, war and guerrilla attacks, there is a heck of a lot of action going on within these books.  Marsden has some real skill when it comes to writing these scenes, and the reader is dragged right into the middle of the carnage as the narrator describes everything that they see.  I was also impressed with how realistic these scenes were, and the author does not pull any punches when it comes to describing the carnage, with some truly gruesome or violent events occurring all over the place.  There are a huge number of scenes that come to mind in the series, but the one that I would say is the most descriptive is the airfield sequence in Burning for Revenge.  The devastation, destruction and fire that occur in the scene is just insane, and you can’t help but feel the heat of the flames and explosions that are occurring all around the narrator.  This intense action adds so much to the story and really highlights the author’s skill as a writer.

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One of the most distinctive aspects of the Tomorrow series is Marsden’s extremely realistic and insightful depictions of emotional and psychological trauma as a result of war and death.  The inclusion of this sort of trauma is prevalent throughout the entire series and affects all of the characters in some way or another.  Marsden started featuring these depictions of trauma quite early in the series, as within the first book alone two of the characters suffer from panic attacks after seeing or being forced to commit severe acts of violence.  This trauma continues to define many of the characters throughout the rest of the books, and large parts of the series deal with them trying to come to terms with the various traumatic experiences, the deaths of loved ones and all the horrendous acts of violence they have committed.  The most obvious example of these occurs in the fourth book, Darkness, Be my Friend, where at the start all the surviving characters are deeply shell-shocked and emotionally distraught after everything they have done, as well as only narrowly escaping from the death sentence at the enemy prison and witnessing another one of their friends dying.  Even after months recovering in New Zealand, none of them have come close to coming to terms with what happened to them, and the stream of emotion that followed the discussions about heading back to Australia really cuts to the reader’s core.  This is especially true when at least two characters have mental breakdowns when back in Australia, especially Kevin, whose mind essentially shuts down for most of the fifth book in response to everything that happens.  Some of Ellie’s descriptions of the depression or despair she experiences throughout the course of the series are just heartbreaking, but they really drive home how the war has affected her and how devastating the events of the book are.

The Tomorrow series features a fantastic core group of characters who are thrust unprepared into a war setting.  The characters are a diverse and interesting bunch.  Due to his background as a teacher in a rural area of Australia, Marsden has a good idea of the lifestyle of rural kids, and he incorporates this into his characters.  After the various adventures with these characters, the reader does really start to care for them, and they really feel the dark points strongly, such as when they are imprisoned.  I liked the way that Marsden portrayed their relationship, as the characters become dependent on each other in their isolation and situation.  Each of the main characters goes through some significant character development throughout the books, as the situations they face force them to become more responsible or more vicious, depending on their circumstances.  None of the characters are unaffected by this, whether it is the initially rebellious Homer turning into a compassionate leader, or the initially pampered Fiona becoming a more independent and resilient person.  Perhaps the best example of character changes is Lee.  In the first book he is a more easy-going character whose main story arc involves his romance with Ellie.  However, when he witnesses the brutality of the enemy in the second book, he starts to show more signs of violence and anger, killing several soldiers in brutal fashion.  When he finds out that his parents have died, he becomes eager for vengeance, acting out more against the group and putting them in danger with his decisions.

As the narrator, we spend the most time with Ellie, and as a result we really get a deep dive into her character, personality and motivations.  Throughout the series, so many things happen to Ellie that fundamentally change her as a person.  One of the things I really liked about this series as a whole is the way that Ellie maintains her quirky outlook on life even when terrible things happen to her or when she is forced to do terrible things to survive.  Ellie is the first one of the characters to kill someone, and the many deaths she witnesses or is forced to participate in haunt her for all of the books.  With her strong and overwhelming personality, I always thought that Ellie was an outstanding main character for this series, and she is a fantastic creation of Marsden.

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Much of the Tomorrow series is set in the Australian bushland.  Marsden is a very descriptive author, and throughout the course of his books, he really brings the bush to life with his fantastic writings.  The reader really gets a sense of the beauty and strangeness of the bush, and the narrator, who has spent her entire life near the bush, gives several poetic and inspiring accounts of why she loves the bush so much.  There are a number of great bush locations featured throughout the series, and this landscape takes on a life of its own at times.  I loved the location and thought that it contrasted well with some other locations, such as the city the characters spend time in during the last three books.  The immortal bush remains undamaged through the entire series, while the city becomes more and more devastated every time the characters visit.  I loved the use of the bush, and it is an outstanding location that adds so much to the series.

These books are an excellent young adult series that are a must read for its intended audience.  Some of the violence and other content may be considered a bit much for some younger audiences, although I did read this when I was quite young and I personally think that the underlying lessons and themes well outweigh the risks.  Marsden, as a teacher who worked with teenagers, really wanted to portray a group of teenage protagonists in a positive light by showing them as capable beings rather than as the lazy troublemakers of popular media.  Without a doubt, Marsden was able to achieve this, showing a group of teenagers who able to adapt and survive in the most hostile of locations, becoming heroes and survivors where their contemporaries were mostly captured in the early days of the invasion.  Even those adults they encounter after the invasion are mostly incompetent, especially the group known as Harvey’s Heroes in The Dead of the Night.  These characters, including some of their antagonists, actually try to treat them like children, which is galling when the protagonists are far more capable.  However, the protagonists are able to survive where the adults do not, and even some of the professional soldiers they work with in the later books are unable to do the things they do.  As a result, this book does a great job of showing what teenagers are capable of when they face adversity.  However, while it does show them stepping up, the books do not glorify war for young people, as all their actions are done out of necessity, and they are left with some terrible mental and physical scars.  I would strongly recommend this series for all young readers, and I believe that older readers will become enthralled in the story contained within.

As the Tomorrow series is one of the most popular and well-known book series in Australia for the last 20 years, there have been a couple of attempts at adapting the books to the screen.  While this is not necessarily important to enjoying the story, it is intriguing to see how these adaptations have gone, especially as I do not think either of them gets the story 100% correct.  The first adaption the Tomorrow series had was the 2010 film, Tomorrow, When the War Began, which stared a young, mostly Australian cast, a couple of whom have gone on to some international success.  I quite liked the film, which I felt mostly captured the heart and intent of the first book.  However, there were some scenes that were way over the top or slightly stupid, such as having the religious Robyn killing a whole bunch of soldiers while the camera pans sadly to a playground to represent innocence lost, or the final scene showing the protagonists outfitted like a major paramilitary group.  The film also did a really good job of moving the story out of the 90s and setting it in 2010 by cleverly inserting recent technology into the story.  For example, there is one memorable scene where all the characters simultaneously check their cell phone reception when they first discover Ellie’s farm abandoned, rather than having one person checking the landline.  The second adaptation was a television show that ran for one season in 2016.  While it roughly covered the events of the first book, they really took a lot of artistic licence, which honestly did not pay off.  For example, they spent a huge amount of time focussing on what was happening with the captured parents, even though the parents where pretty much non-entities in the first book.  Stuff like this really added nothing to the story, and I personally thought it was quite stupid and kind of ruined the show for me.

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Marsden actually continued the story of the Tomorrow series in a sequel trilogy known as The Ellie ChroniclesThe Ellie Chronicles ran between 2003 and 2006 and focused on Ellie as she struggles to adapt to life in post-war Australia.  I have actually not had the chance to read or listen to The Ellie Chronicles before, which is weird considering how much I love the Tomorrow series.  I have a copy of these books and I will try to get through them at some point in the future as I am deeply curious to see what happens to these beloved characters in peace time (Is the leader of the Australian terrorist group mentioned in the synopsis Lee?  He was still pretty murderous at the end of the series).

While I originally read the physical copies of these books, I mostly choose to listen to the stories on audiobook.  The audiobooks are all narrated by Suzi Dougherty, and mostly run for around seven hours, with the final book, The Other Side of Dawn, running for over nine hours.  When I do my re-listen of these books, I try to get through the entire series in one go and I am generally able to do so quite quickly, as the compelling story keeps me enraptured for all seven books.  Doherty does an amazing job when it comes to these books and she comes up with some outstanding voices for all the characters she portrays.  I especially feel she gets the character of Ellie down perfectly, which has a real trickle-down effect to the rest of the book, as Ellie is the character narrating the entire series.  I really enjoy listening to the series and I think I become a lot more attached to the series when I do.  I would strongly recommend listening to the Tomorrow series on audiobook; it is an amazing way to enjoy these fantastic books.

As you can see from my rather long review, there is so much about the Tomorrow series that I enjoy.  To my mind it is one of the best book series I have ever read, and even after the many years since I first read it, I am still enthralled by the epic story it contains.  Each of the books within the Tomorrow series is excellent, but when taken as a whole, the series becomes some sensational.  I highly recommend this entire series and I am so glad that many Australian schools still require their students to read it.

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Empire of Silence by Christopher Ruocchio

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Publisher: Gollancz

Publication Date – 3 July 2018

 

First time author Christopher Ruocchio boldly introduces himself with his five-star debut, Empire of Silence, an extraordinary and spellbinding science fiction epic.

In the far future, humanity has left Earth behind and made its home in the stars by colonising thousands of the planets.  However, expansion was halted when the humans encountered the Cielein, the only other race in the galaxy with the ability to travel through space.  For years, the humans and the Cielein fought a brutal and devastating war against each other, until one man changed everything.

That man is Hadrian Marlowe, who, for the best of reasons, destroys a sun and burns every last Cielein from the stars.  This destruction also results in the deaths of four billion humans, including the Emperor of Sollan Empire.  After this infamous act, Hadrian is considered throughout the galaxy as both humanity’s greatest hero and its most terrible villain, known as The Sun-Eater, Starbreaker, Palekiller and Deathless.  But how did one man who was neither a soldier nor a hero seize such a responsibility and commit such atrocities?  The Sun Eater series is the chronicle of Hadrian’s life, of which Empire of Silence is the first part.

Born the eldest son of a noble house, Hadrian fled his family and his overbearing father to escape his future as a member of the Chantry, The Stella Empire’s state religion.  When the ship he chartered is mysteriously abandoned en route to his destination, Hadrian finds himself stranded on the wrong planet with no means of escape and none of his family’s resources available to him.  Forced to fight his way up from the gutters, Hadrian attempts to survive on this strange new world by any means necessary.  Starting out as a beggar and thief, Hadrian eventually embarks on a career as a gladiator in the hope of making enough money to buy a ship.  But when his true identity is revealed, Hadrian must find a way to survive in a foreign court, where powerful enemies lurk around every corner.

However, all of Hadrian’s problems become immaterial when the Cielein arrive above the planet, searching for something.  Drafted into a war he never wanted to be involved in, Hadrian seeks to understand the Cielein, but finds only mysteries and secrets.  Hadrian’s path to becoming The Sun-Eater is set, and his journey begins here.

Empire of Silence is the first volume in Ruocchio’s incredibly ambitious debut series, The Sun Eater.  Featuring fantastic storytelling and a galaxy-wide setting that is breathtaking in its scope and content, this is an outstanding first book and an excellent start to a series with real potential.

Many readers will be interested to know that Empire of Silence is already receiving quite a few comparisons to Patrick Rothfuss’s highly regarded fantasy epic, The Name of the Wind.  It is an easy comparison to make, as there are a large number of similarities between the two books.  Both books contain utterly compelling content designed to capture the reader’s imagination; however, the major similarity is the use of a chronicle format to tell their massive, character-driven epics.  Like The Name of the Wind, Empire of Silence is told solely from the point of view of the protagonist, Hadrian, and takes the form of a written retrospective explaining the terrible act that makes him infamous throughout the galaxy.  The series will completely explore Hadrian’s life, examining every action that leads up to this event.

The chronicle format is a superb choice for the Empire of Silence’s epic story.  Not only does it allow the author to produce a complex and extremely detailed epic storyline but it also allows him to add to the story’s gravitas by having the narrator comment on and reflect on his actions in hindsight.  This great format also allows the author to show off his protagonist in a range of different circumstances.  Because of various science fiction elements, Hadrian is destined to have an extremely long life span and a great many opportunities for adventure.  Within Empire of Silence alone, Ruocchio portrays Hadrian performing a range of different roles, including the presumed heir to a planet, a scholar, a fugitive, a beggar, a thief, a gladiator, a companion and tutor to noble children, an amateur archaeologist, a translator, a torturer, a negotiator and an irregular member of the military.  Each of the different roles that Hadrian plays influences his mindset and viewpoint, which allows the reader to see him evolve in front of their eyes.  It is also interesting to note that Ruocchio has not pre-emptively indicated how many books will be in his series, a mistake some other authors using a chronicle format have made before.  This will allow him to tell the whole story he envisioned without compromising on pacing, world-building or character development in order to reach a hasty conclusion, and will no doubt result in a much more complete and enjoyable series.

The overall plot of Empire of Silence contains various storytelling elements that are masterfully combined throughout the book.  It contains everything from science fiction elements and action sequences to long discussions of the history of the galaxy in which the series is set.  There is also a series of significantly dramatic storylines, such as Hadrian dealing with the difficulties of having a self-interested and manipulative father and an uncaring family.  There are some great coming-of-age moments within the storyline as Hadrian first seeks independence from his family and their history and then tries to find his own way on a new world where he has none of his power and influence.  The reader gets to witness several powerful scenes in which Hadrian’s life changes dramatically and he desperately attempts to claim some sense of normality or sanity in this new world.  Of particular note are some very emotional scenes during Hadrian’s first encounters with the Cielcin.  In these scenes, Hadrian is forced to contend with his own curiosity, conscience and morality while stuck between his own species, represented by the cruel and domineering Empire, and the aliens that somehow appear to bear much more humanity.  This results in some truly spectacular scenes that make this book impossible to put down.

One of the most impressive and enjoyable aspects of Empire of Silence is the vast and imaginative universe in which the story is set.  Ruocchio has an extremely interesting vision of the future that readers will find quite intriguing.  The entirety of the first book is set within the Sollan Empire, which represents the largest faction of humans in the future galaxy.  This civilisation, whilst retaining some advanced technology, such as spaceships, has reverted socially and culturally following a catastrophic event many years before.  There is a rigid class system, with the nobles wielding considerable power and disregard for the ordinary people.  A religious organisation holds sway over much of the empire, using inquisitor-like tactics to control the population and prevent what they consider heresy, which includes an aversion to advanced technology.  An interesting twist to this is the large number of cameras and drones that they and the nobles use to continually survey and intimidate the populace.  The Empire’s culture appears to be strongly inspired by the ancient Roman and Greek civilisations, and their various influences can be seen throughout the book.  This is an excellent setting for such an expansive story, and the reader gets to experience a unique and compelling combination of science fiction advancements and old school ideals.

Aside from the main setting of the Sollan Empire, Ruocchio has also stacked his universe with a range of characters, aliens, mysteries and side storylines that prove to be massively intriguing for the reader.  Several of these of mysteries and side stories are explored to an extent throughout the book; however, many are left open and will carry through to later books in the series.  The protagonist interacts with a massive of number of characters, which plays into the overall concept of him having a busy life.  In order to assist the reader in keeping track of the cast of thousands, who sometimes have limited scenes within the story, Ruocchio has provided extensive indexes.  Not only do these indexes contain details of all the characters the protagonist encounters but they also contain a huge amount of history, definitions and other useful information to help the audience absorb this massive new universe.

In one of the most impressive and elaborate science fiction novels of the year, first-time author Christopher Ruocchio has shown himself to be one of the brightest new stars in the science fiction genres.  Empire of Silence contains an absolutely amazing story that makes full use of its original and immense overarching setting, and is guaranteed to capture the reader’s imagination.  This is epic science fiction at its very best, and I cannot wait for the second book in Ruocchio’s The Sun Eater series.

My Rating:

Five Stars