In the Shadow of Lightning by Brian McClellan

In the Shadow of Lightning Cover

Publisher: Macmillan Audio (Audiobook – 21 June 2022)

Series: The Glass Immortals – Book One

Length: 24 hours and 53 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Martyr by Anthony Ryan

The Martyr Cover

Publisher: Orbit/Hachette Audio (Audiobook – 28 June 2022)

Series: The Covenant of Steel – Book Two

Length: 19 hours and 42 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

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The always impressive Anthony Ryan continues his outstanding Covenant of Steel series with The Martyr, which was hands down one of the best fantasy novels of 2022.

Anthony Ryan is an extremely talented author who has been one of the leading authors of fantasy fiction for the last decade, producing several intriguing and major series.  Best known for his Raven’s Shadow trilogy (which was followed on by the Raven’s Blade duology), Slab City Blues, The Draconis Memoria and Seven Swords series, Ryan has a substantial catalogue of fantasy works to his name, most of which sound pretty damn epic.  However, I have so far only read the books from his latest series, The Covenant of Steel series, which has proven to be exceptional.  The first book in The Covenant of Steel was last year’s deeply compelling release, The Pariah, an excellent novel that set up a deeply intriguing and highly addictive character-driven tale of adventure, conspiracy and war.

The Pariah told the adventure of Alwyn Scribe, a young outlaw who was raised by brutal bandit chief.  However, his time as a member of a notorious band of villains came to a bloody end when his entire gang is brutally killed by the crown and his mentor is executed.  Imprisoned in a mine, Alwyn finds a new mentor in an imprisoned religious figure, who teaches him to be a talented scribe, and he is eventually able to escape.  Chance and self-preservation lead him to join the Covenant Company of Lady Evadine Courlain, a pious woman whose religious visions, sermons and sheer faith allow her to bring together a band of dedicated soldiers.  Swiftly growing loyal to her, Alwyn becomes one of her key followers, and saves her from certain death several times as they fight across the Kingdom of Albermaine.  I deeply enjoyed the elaborate and extremely addictive narrative contained within The Pariah, and this ended up being one of my absolute favourite books and audiobooks of 2021 (as well as being one of my favourite new-to-me authors of the year as well).  As such, I was extremely happy to receive a copy of The Martyr a little while ago, although I held out reading it until I could get a copy of the audiobook version as well.

The Martyr takes places shortly after the bloody conclusion to The Pariah and sees Alwyn Scribe now firmly in the service of Lady Evadine Courlain, whose apparent resurrection has led to her being proclaimed a living martyr of the Covenant church.  However, this and the fanatical devotion of the faithful of Albermaine have placed her in the crosshairs of both the Crown and the Covenant, both of whom see her as a dangerous pretender to their power.  Unable to kill her without starting a religious rebellion, the king decides to use Evadine for his own purposes.

Sent south to the Duchy of Alundia to put down a rebellion and stop a series of religious attacks upon the Covenant faithful, Alwyn, Evadine and the Covenant Company take up residence in a small, dilapidated castle, which soon draws the attention of the Alundian nobility.  Besieged by a massive army, Alwyn and his companions must survive the onslaught if they are to pass on Evadine’s message for the future.  However, not everything is as it seems.  Dark forces are in play and Alwyn soon finds himself in the middle of treacheries, both new and old, as he desperately stands beside his mistress.  Forced to dive into the secret past of the land, Alwyn soon discovers that many of the things that Evadine preaches are true, including the legend of the Scourge that destroyed the world and threatens to re-emerge.  But is Alwyn fully prepared for all the heartache, betrayal and bloodshed his quest is about to unleash?

Anthony Ryan is on fire once again with his second book in The Covenant of Steel series.  The Martyr is an epic and deeply addictive read that perfectly follows on from Ryan’s previous book and in some ways surpasses it with its impressive storytelling and amazing characters.  Thanks to its incredible story and cool expansion of Ryan’s fantasy universe, I had an outstanding time getting through The Martyr, and it receives an easy five-star rating from me.

I had such an outstanding time with the epic story that Ryan pulled together for The Martyr, especially as it cleverly expands on the narrative from the first book, while also taking the characters in some awesome new directions.  The book has a very strong start to it, which follows on from a useful, and slightly humorous, summary of the events of The Pariah.  From there, we quickly see the fallout from the last book, with the protagonist Alwyn and his comrades forced to engage in the politics of the realm to ensure that living martyr Evadine is allowed to continue her work.  The narrative is still told from Alwyn’s perspective as he recounts the events in chronicle form, so I was quickly hooked, and I liked the immediate dive into fantastic political intrigue and compelling universe building.  However, the story only gets even more awesome from there, as the protagonist and his company are deployed to a war setting, which turns out to be particularly epic as they are soon caught up in some outstanding siege scenarios.

Now, I frankly had no idea how Ryan was going to improve on the outstanding story from The Pariah, but having a siege storyline was a pretty good way to go about it.  I love sieges, and Ryan featured an incredible example here, as a large amount part of the book revolves around two amazing battles between attackers and castle defenders.  The first of these sees the protagonists trapped inside a dilapidated fortress facing off against a larger army, which proved to be a lot of fun.  The author really captures the chaos and drama of an impromptu siege with this earlier one, and the carnage comes quick and fast as the characters are forced to bring the attackers to battle before repelling them, using their wits and limited resources.  The action here is pretty intense and shown in excellent detail, as Ryan does not hold back on the brutality and the complexities of a siege.  I had such a great time with this first siege, and words cannot describe how ecstatic I was that he followed it up with a second siege, with the protagonists now acting as besiegers, in a more traditional siege, with artillery, sapping and even a deadly storm of the breach with the point-of-view character in the front.  These two sieges were pretty damn exceptional and have some of the best and most bloody action scenes in the entire book.  I particularly liked how well the author contrasted the differing experiences that the protagonist experienced as both a defender and an attacker, and it was fascinating and very fun to see him on both sides of the wall, especially as he learns from his experiences to become a better invader.  However, it is not all about the action, as you have some compelling political considerations going on here, as well as some great character development and the protagonist gets closer to some of the other characters during the heat of combat.

Following the sieges, the story goes in some interesting and unique directions, as Ryan continues the epic of Alwyn Scribe by expanding the universe around him.  This includes a visit to a dangerous foreign land, where he learns some harsh and surprising truths about the universe he lives in and his place within it.  This results in some trippy but deeply fascinating scenes, especially as there are some interesting reveals and some great hints for the future.  Ryan also once again dives into the political intrigue, as the protagonists are involved in some great fights for the future of the realm.  Watching the protagonists fight both on and off the battlefield is pretty cool, and the sheer threats growing around them in the last quarter of the book bode well for the future of the series.  There are some interesting reveals towards the end of The Martyr, and Ryan also works to tie up a few loose ends from the previous book, which I was very happy to have closure on.  Everything ends on a very intriguing note, as Ryan leaves behind a great little cliff-hanger reveal that will be very thought-provoking in the lead-up to the next book.  I had such a great time with this story, and it really drew me in with its fantastic moments and complex, overarching storylines.

I am a pretty big fan of how The Martyr’s story came together, and Ryan has a great writing style that really enhanced the whole experience.  I absolutely loved the chronicle style that he uses to detail the plot.  Told completely from the protagonist’s perspective as he writes down all he experiences, you get a unique view of the events occurring, especially as the protagonist writes in funny or insightful comments that show his opinions of the events in hindsight.  At the same time, they allow the protagonist to air his many regrets, and you get a certain sense of foreboding for some of the events that are to come, either in this book or in the rest of the series.  I was pretty consistently entertained by this style of writing, and I think that it also added in some extra humour to a somewhat darker fantasy story, especially as the protagonist is quite a funny and unconventional figure.  The Martyr’s story has an amazing blend of different elements, and while I lavished my love above on the great action, especially during the siege sequences, most of the book is about the development of the protagonist and his attempts to keep Evadine alive.  This results in a brilliant combination of politics, intrigue, great interactions between figures, and some awesome character development, which works to produce quite an addictive read.  Watching Alwyn trying to come to grips with the many dangers threating his friends, while also unpicking the multitude of mysteries and secrets surrounding him is just great, and Ryan keeps adding in new secrets and supporting storylines to keep the reader interested.  While there is a lot going on within The Martyr, the pace is pretty fast and consistently exciting, and at no point was I not immensely entertained, either by the powerful action or fascinating world building.  Due to the amount of lore and history featured in the first book, I would strongly suggest that interested readers get through The Pariah before trying out The Martyr, and fans of the first book will really enjoy where this second book goes and how Ryan effectively tells the story.

I was very impressed with all the cool ways that Ryan expanded the series’ setting in The Martyr, as he adds in some great additional history, expands on some of the mysterious religious and mystical aspects of the first, while also showing off some fascinating new lands.  This additional context around parts of the nation of Albermaine proves to be pretty damn intriguing, and you learn a lot more about it, while also seeing a lot more about its internal politics and rule, especially as the characters are forced to deal with the royalty and the church.  The inclusion of the Duchy of Alundia, where much of the plot takes place, was also pretty excellent, especially as Ryan portrays it as a more rugged and dangerous locale, whose unique take on the Covenant religion leads to a veritable holy war when Evadine and her company arrive.  However, the most captivating new part of the book has to involve the protagonist’s journey to the Caerith Wastes.  Alwyn has been haunted by members of the mysterious Caerith race since the start of The Pariah, and their strange ways and powerful magics have been both a boon and a curse to him.  As such, a journey to their homeland was always inevitable, and Ryan ensures that there are many surprises, mysteries and some interesting reveals for the protagonist when he finally arrives.  Ryan did a really good job introducing this new race of people in the story, and there are some great scenes where Alwyn attempts to learn more of them, while using his own personal history to stay alive with them.  The subsequent reveals about some of their powers and how it has been impacting Alwyn are pretty amazing.  One reveal, which illuminates the origins of Alwyn’s historical chronicle that the entire series is based on, was particularly compelling, and it sheds a whole new light on everything you have been reading.  Overall, Ryan did a fantastic job expanding his fantasy realm in The Martyr, and I look forward to seeing what cool inclusions he features in the next book.

Easily one of the best things about The Martyr was the outstanding and complex characters that were such a key part of the book.  Ryan expands on many of the great characters from the first book and takes their unique narratives in some amazing new directions.  The compelling and dramatic interactions that occur between these figures results in some powerful moments and I deeply enjoyed seeing the outstanding ways their tales and lives evolved in this second book.

The character who naturally gets the most focus is central protagonist and sole point-of-view character, Alwyn Scribe.  A former bandit who, thanks to a series of influential leaders and friends, became first a talented scribe and then a soldier, Alwyn is a man with a past and a fast mind who now finds himself in the centre of his nation’s crisis.  Dedicated to the Lady Evadine, Alwyn spends much of this book advancing her cause, while also evolving further as a character.  While he still primarily considers himself to be a scribe, Alwyn ends up taking on more and more different roles as he finds himself thrust into Evadine’s adventures, including being a knight, a military commander, a politician and a spymaster.  As such, you see him go through some major leaps and developments as he tries to reconcile what he is with what he needs to be to keep those around him alive.  This proves to be quite fascinating, and I loved the various unique situations he finds himself in, especially as he begins to realise some of the mystical mysteries the world contains and his place in them.  Alwyn continues to be an excellent main character for this series, and I loved his depictions of how the events of the book unfold, especially as his later insights from when he chronicles his adventures add both weight and humour to the current story.  His unique background as a criminal and a scribe continues to serve him well in The Martyr, and he has some very inventive ways of solving problems that often rely on his criminal or academic past.  I also deeply enjoyed seeing him take on a role as a teacher and mentor to several younger characters in this book, and it was a nice to see Alwyn come full circle after all the mentorship he received in the first book.  I had a great time seeing how he grew into the new roles in this book, and it will be fascinating to see what different positions he takes on in the future, especially as he becomes more and more devoted to Evadine, not matter how crazy their adventures become.

That leads nicely to the other major character I wanted to highlight, Lady Evadine Courlain.  Evadine is a fascinating figure in this series, a pious and devote noblewoman who has been receiving prophetic visions all her life.  Believing these visions to be from the Seraphile (the divine focus of the Covenant religion), Evadine created her own military company in the hopes of averting the Second Scourge (an apocalyptic calamity).  After miraculously recovering from a fatal wound, Evadine has now been declared a Risen Martyr, and believes herself to have been raised up by the Seraphile, despite it actually being caused by a magical bargain struck by Alwyn.  Now a major religious figure, Evadine has become a threat to both the church and the crown and must deal with their attempts to destroy her while she attempts to achieve her mysterious goals.  I deeply enjoy Evadine as a character, particularly as there is such an inherent mystery behind her, as you have no idea whether she is actually divinely blessed or just crazy.  Ryan portrays her as both at times, and while it is easy to assume the latter, she keeps coming up with knowledge and insights that should be impossible to achieve.  Watching her continue to evolve as a religious figure in The Martyr is both fascinating, and a little concerning, as you really have no idea where her story is going to go, or what insanity or divine revelation may come from her next.  Evadine serves as a quite a good foil to the more cynical character of Alwyn, and they become quite an intriguing team in The Martyr, with Alwyn providing the means to many of her successes, while strongly disbelieving her divine status.  There is also a certain growing instability in Evadine that underlies much of the book and adds to the general tension between her an Alwyn.  This, as well as a few intriguing reveals, makes Evadine one of the most compelling and unique figures in the series and it is clear that Ryan has some very, very interesting plans for her future.

Aside from Alwyn and Evadine, The Martyr is loaded with a ton of great supporting characters who add a substantial amount to the overall narrative.  Many of these characters carry over from the first book, and there are some intriguing and dramatic developments that occur in The Martyr that prove to be quite shocking and fun in places.  Great examples of this include the disgraced knight Wilhum Dornmahl, who is a major figure in the Covenant Company’s ranks, Ayin a murderous young girl Alwyn takes under his wing and teaches, and the mysterious Sack Witch, who haunts the character, despite barely appearing in the book.  In addition, Ryan introduces many new great characters in the second book, or else finally introduces and expands on characters mentioned in The Pariah.  Two minor characters from the first book who really stood out to me in the sequel were Princess Leannor, the king’s sister, who serves as a canny and complex political adversary to Alwyn; and Ehkbert Bauldry, a legendary knight who Alwyn bears a grudge against, but who also proves to be an interesting ally.  Both have some intriguing interactions with Alwyn, especially as they know he has some substantial dirt on them that makes him quite a threat.  I also must highlight outstanding new characters like Juhlina, better known as a The Widow, a deadly Covenant Company soldier with a tragic backstory and unstoppable rage, and Lilat, another new mentee for Alywn.  These characters were all extremely fun and compelling, and I loved how Ryan fit them into the story and made them shine.

As I mentioned above, I did receive a psychical copy of The Martyr a little while ago, however, I held off reading it until the audiobook version came out.  While I did regret not diving into the story as soon as I got it, I think it was more than worth it as the audiobook format of The Martyr was pretty damn exceptional.  Coming in with a run time of just under 20 hours, The Martyr has a decent length to it, although I found myself getting through it in just a week, mainly because I was just so addicted to Ryan’s outstanding story.  The audiobook format really helped with my enjoyment of this book, and I really found myself getting drawn into the elaborate narrative through the narration.  I definitely absorb more narrative detail when I listen to a book, and this was particularly noticeable with The Martyr audiobook, as I found all the cool story elements, details about the setting, intriguing characters and epic action popped more into my head through this format.  I also really need to highlight the exceptional voice work of actor Steven Brand (who I best know as the villain from The Scorpion King) who has lent his voice to the audiobook versions of all of Ryan’s works.  Brand is an extremely talented audiobook narrator who deftly captures the many characters contained with The Martyr and gives them distinctive and compelling voices that really fit the character and showcase their emotions.  I particularly liked the way in which he portrays protagonist and narrator Alwyn Scribe, and you really get a sense of the character’s emotional state, as well as the sense of weariness the chronicle format conveys through Brand’s voice.  This ended up being a pretty awesome audiobook and it was definitely my preferred way to enjoy The Martyr.  As such, this format is highly recommended, and when I get around to reading the rest of Ryan’s books, I will be grabbing their audiobook versions.

After all the gushing above, I think it is fair to say that I deeply enjoyed Anthony Ryan’s latest book.  The Martyr was an exceptional and deeply addictive read that I felt perfectly continued the amazing groundwork he established in The Pariah.  This second entry in The Covenant of Steel series was something special, and I had such an epic time seeing what unique and captivating adventures and battles the great protagonists found themselves in.  The Martyr was such an outstanding fantasy read, and I can’t wait to see how Ryan continues this awesome series in the future.  A truly incredible read!

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Upgrade by Blake Crouch

Upgrade Cover

Publisher: Macmillan (Trade Paperback – 7 July 2022)

Series: Standalone

Length: 341 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

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The master of the high-concept science fiction thriller, Blake Crouch, returns with another exceptional and deeply addictive standalone read, Upgrade, which takes the reader on a deep journey into the world of genetic engineering.

In the near future, Earth is facing multiple threats and catastrophes that are slowly destroying the human race.  However, the greatest threat to humanity may come from within, as advances in genetic engineering and manipulation have allowed scientists to change DNA itself.  Following a massive genetic disaster that led to the destruction of an entire food supply and the deaths of hundreds of millions of people, all genetic research has been made illegal and is strictly policed by world governments.

Logan Ramsay is an agent in the newly created Gene Protection Agency that enforces the research ban in the United States and which comes down hard on anyone illegally modifying genes.  The son of the scientist responsible for the last crisis, Logan works to atone for his role in her work and no longer believes in the benefits of genetic research of that kind.  However, when a raid goes wrong and Logan is targeted by a bomb designed to inject an unknown gene hack into him, Logan’s entire life and grasp on humanity is changed forever.

With enhanced physical and mental capacities, Logan has been upgraded into something superhuman.  Forced to leave his family behind and flee from his own agency, Logan soon finds himself caught up in a war for control of humanity’s future, with dangerous forces seeking to change everything about the species.  To survive and prevent another genetic catastrophe, Logan must dive deep into his past and his family’s legacy.  But the more upgraded he becomes, the harder it is for him to care about everyone’s fate.

Wow, Crouch does it again with Upgrade, combining an intense and compelling thriller storyline with an outstanding and highly detailed scientific principle, to create an exceptional and extremely addictive story.  I knew that I was going to enjoy Upgrade when I got it, especially after having such a brilliant time with Crouch’s previous novel, Recursion, and the author really did not disappoint.  Upgrade is a gripping and powerful read, and I ended up powering through it in very quick order once I got addicted to its excellent plot.

I absolutely loved the exciting and clever science fiction thriller narrative that Crouch featured in Upgrade, which swiftly drags you in with its unique story and compelling concepts.  Crouch really kicks everything off in high gear right from the start, providing a quick but efficient introduction to the protagonist, Logan Ramsay, and the dystopian future of the novel, before kicking off the key plot events.  The protagonist is almost immediately placed into danger from a booby trap that alters his genetics, and he is forced to deal with the side effects as he is upgraded to superhero levels.  Forced to escape from his own employers, Logan must come to terms with the changes being done to him, while also diving into some deep family drama as he realises his connection to the person behind it.  After a journey of discovery, Logan ends up in a war to decide the future of humanity’s genetics, as he goes up against a group determined to alter humans against their will.  This led to some big and intense sequences as genetically enhanced beings face off in some powerful and cleverly crafted moments.  Everything is wrapped up in a compelling and emotionally heavy way, and readers will come away very happy after getting caught up in Upgrade’s elaborate and highly entertaining story.

I felt that Crouch did a brilliant job setting out Upgrade’s narrative, and it is perfectly designed to keep the reader absorbed in the plot.  I loved the faster pace of the book, which ensured that you power through the novel very quickly, although it isn’t so fast that you lose sight of its many featured scientific elements.  There are several time skips throughout the course of the plot, which help to move the story along and set up some interesting changes in the character’s situation.  The story is set in a near-futuristic dystopian setting which has been rocked by a series of environmental and genetic disasters.  Seeing some of the author’s suggested futures for certain famous cities (a semi-abandoned Las Vegas and a partially flooded New York), was very interesting, and it worked well with some of the other cool science fiction elements featured throughout.  I also appreciated Crouch’s interesting philosophical take on what it means to be human and the depths of human nature.  There are multiple discussions between the key characters in Upgrade, as they debate the changes being undertaken, as well as humanity’s overwhelming self-destructive tendencies.  This becomes a rather interesting overall theme for the book, and a captivating motivation for some of the characters.  I also must highlight the awesome action sequences spread out through the book, which add some exciting punch to the narrative.  Not only are these very entertaining, but I loved how they were showcased through the protagonist’s eyes, especially once his upgrades take over, and the clinical detail he attributes to various actions give them a fun twist.  This fantastic narrative really comes together well throughout Upgrade, and I felt that this was an exceptional read.

I deeply enjoyed the compelling and intense scientific framework that went into Upgrade.  Crouch does an impressive and expansive dive into the world of genetics for this book, and the reader is soon inundated with information about DNA, genes, and genetic research.  It is very clear that the author has really done their research when it comes to this subject, and this combined with his immense imagination results in some intriguing story elements.  Crouch postulates multiple potential genetic upgrades to humans and other species throughout this book and how such manipulations could be brought about.  As such, you see a lot of very cool stuff throughout Upgrade, particularly enhanced human beings who move and think at superhuman rates.  The author paints a very interesting and compelling picture about what such enhanced humans would be capable of, and it was fascinating to experience them throughout the course of the plot especially as you see them happening through the eyes of someone going through these changes.  There are various evolutions of these genetic upgrades throughout the novel and watching the characters become more and more powerful while simultaneously losing their humanity is a fantastic and captivating element.  Crouch also presents some compelling and thought-provoking discussions about whether genetic engineering should be allowed and would humanity benefit from it.  The different points of view and the resultant debates are an outstanding part of book, and I am sure that many people will come away from Upgrade with a different opinion on the subject.

While Crouch does dive deep into the science for Upgrade, I found that I was able to follow along with the various premises without too many issues.  The author really tries to explain the genetic science to the reader in an interesting way, which I really appreciated.  There were no points in the book where I couldn’t follow what was happening, and I ended up getting really interested in all the potential genetic manipulations that might be possible in the future.  I also felt that these scientific elements were worked into the plot of Upgrade extremely well, and the awesome thriller narrative really wrapped around it.  Overuse of genetic manipulation is a real potential threat in the future, so having government agencies, underground labs and world-affecting schemes in place isn’t too far-fetched, and these science elements serve as a rich ground for the cool storylines.  I loved seeing upgraded humans facing off against agents and SWAT teams, and it resulted in some brilliant scenes.  The underlying message about the responsibility of those involved in genetic research played well with the action-packed narrative, and I was once again really impressed with how the author can seamlessly combine science with fiction.

Another outstanding element of Upgrade was its fantastic protagonist and point-of-view character, Logan Ramsay.  Logan is quite a fascinating and complex character, especially as Crouch establishes him as the son of the brilliant genetic scientist who caused the ban and was partially responsible for the resulting mass deaths.  For most of the novel he is trying to redeem himself for these actions, mainly through his work as a government agent.  However, his entire life changes when he becomes genetically enhanced, and there are some deep emotional scenes and narrative threads that are explored because of this.  While he is initially horrified by the changes, Logan soon realises they are exactly what he always wanted, and he must reconcile that with his perceptions of humanity and the damage he has already caused.  At the same time, he is also finding himself changing, and the continued and detailed examinations of all his upgrades and altered perceptions are showcased in an excellent way by the author.  The increased physical and mental capacities are worked into his character well, and it was fascinating to see the first-person perspective of everything that happens to him.  I particularly appreciated the slow loss of his emotional self and as the book proceeds, he becomes less and less human in many ways, unable to connect with the people around him.  This is sad in a lot of ways, especially as he must give up his family, but you get an impressive understanding of everything the protagonist is going through and grow closer to him as a result.  There is some excellent character work around this protagonist in Upgrade, and I really appreciated the emotional depth that it brought to this already captivating story.

With Upgrade, Blake Crouch continues to shine as one of the most creative and brilliant authors of science fiction in the world today.  The compelling, science-based ideas he comes up with combine perfectly with his exciting and emotionally powerful storylines to create an excellent narrative with amazing characters.  I had such a great time with Upgrade, and it is one of the better science fiction novels I have read so far in 2022.  I also think it was also really good in comparison to the other Crouch book I have read, Recursion, which I hold in really high regard.  While I think that Recursion had the better overall narrative, I appreciated the scientific elements of Upgrade a little more and I felt it fit into the plot a little better.  As such, I think that Upgrade is another five-star read, and it comes very highly recommended by me.  A must-read for all science fiction fans in 2022!

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The Coward by Stephen Aryan

The Coward Cover

Publisher: Angry Robot (Audiobook – 28 April 2021)

Series: Quest for Heroes – Book One

Length: 14 hours and 50 minutes

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

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Prepare for a legendary quest with a complex and damaged hero as bestselling author Stephen Aryan presents the first book in his new fantasy duology, The Coward.

Aryan is an awesome fantasy author who has been writing some great books over the last few years.  Aryan debuted back in 2015 with Battlemage, the first book in The Age of Darkness trilogy, which focused on a brutal magical war.  After finishing this initial trilogy, Aryan released a sequel trilogy, the Age of Dread trilogy, which was set 10 years after the events of the first trilogy, which focused on the consequences of the first trilogy, especially the fear and prejudice its magical war brought on every mage in this fantasy world.  I ended up reading the second book in this trilogy, Magefall, and quite enjoyed its interesting story.  Unfortunately, I never got a chance to finish the trilogy off or go back and check out some of the earlier books, which I kind of regret.  But I did get the chance last year to read the first book in his new series, The Coward, the first instalment of the Quest for Heroes duology.

Everyone in the Five Kingdoms knows the legend of Kell Kressia, the most renowned hero in all the lands.  At the young age of 17, Kell volunteered to join a band of legendary warriors and heroes on their greatest quest ever: travelling to the far north and killing the Ice Lich to save the world.  Twelve men ventured to the north, and only Kell returned, having slain the Ice Lich, leaving the land’s greatest heroes behind in death.  Kell’s fame as a hero spread throughout the land thanks to song and story.  However, not everything you hear in stories is true.

Ten years later, Kell is living the simple life on his family’s farm, content with the peace and quiet and avoiding people where possible.  However, fate has a funny way of catching up with heroes, and when word reaches the kingdoms of further trouble in the north, Kell is called for once again.  A terrible evil is said to have taken root in the fortress of the Ice Lich, and their power threatens the entire world.

Taking up his famous sword and ready to revisit the dangers up north, Kell sets out.  However, Kell is carrying a dark and desperate secret: he is no true hero; instead he is just a lucky man broken by his experiences and with no intention of returning to hell.  However, caught up in his own legend, and with a new band of heroes forming around him, Kell has no choice but to once again venture forth, even if it means his death.  Everyone is convinced that Kell will once again save the world, but can the hero win when he doesn’t even believe in himself?

This was a fantastic and clever fantasy novel from Aryan that I had an excellent time reading.  Aryan came up with an outstanding story for The Coward, based on a complex protagonist forced to relive his worst experiences.  I deeply enjoyed this cool novel and I managed to power through its entertaining and compelling narrative in no time at all.

The Coward has an awesome and captivating plot that quickly draws the reader in and ensures that they are held captive by the compelling quest.  I was honestly a fan of this book the moment I read the first line: “Kell Kressia, slayer of the Ice Lich and saviour of the Five Kingdoms, tripped on a rake and fell into a pile of horse shit.”  This perfectly set the scene for the entire novel, and showcased Aryan’s fun and compelling take on classic fantasy quest heroes.  The story initially develops primarily around Kell and showcases his severe emotional damage, as well as the fact that the legendary events of the past are mostly false, no matter what the bards and histories say.  Quickly dragged back into the fray by an ambitious king, Kell is tasked with travelling back to the scene of his last adventure and killing whatever evil he discovers there.  Naturally Kell, having learnt his lesson the first time, graciously accepts the request, and then tries to run away the first chance he gets.  However, thanks to a starstruck young man following in his footsteps, Kell is trapped into the mission and decides the best way to survive is to recruit a new bunch of heroes, and soon pulls together a small, eclectic group of rogues and warriors to take up the quest.

Most of these events take place in the first half of the book, and you really get to grips with the central characters while also fully understanding Kell and his pain.  Interspersed with flashbacks to the true story of the original quest, Aryan does a wonderful job of painting the risks of the upcoming journey to the reader, and you know that some brutal events are in store for the protagonists in the future.  At the same time, there is an excellent subplot that shows political intrigue throughout the Five Kingdoms, as a nefarious church attempts to take control of the lands, while the kings use Kell and his quest as pawns in a great political game.  This results in some dangerous moments for the protagonists on their way to their destination, and I liked the compelling and thrilling change of pace the dive into court politics presented.

Everything leads up to the big trek up North that dominates the second half of the book.  What follows is a bleak and captivating series of events that ensures that Kell and his companions hit every single monster and deadly creature that the author could think off, including wraiths, cunning ice sharks and an aggressive herd of lethal arctic beasts.  These scenes are all written extremely well, and Aryan does an excellent job of showcasing the deadly stakes of the mission, and there is even a memorable, and frankly surprising, tragedy just before the final major sequence.  This sequence, which sees the heroes re-enter the Ice Lich’s fortress, is paced extremely well, and leads to a brutal and intense final confrontation with their enemy.  While I did think that Aryan was a little too mysterious when it came to who or what this antagonist was, they certainly left their mark on the story, and it was fascinating to see their impacts.  Aryan fits in a couple of concluding chapters to set up the characters for the next book, while also containing some interesting surprises that will come into play in the future.  The reader comes away from The Coward extremely satisfied, and I felt that this was a very well-crafted narrative that not only stands on its own, but which leaves the reader curious to find out what happens next.

I deeply enjoyed the way that Aryan set this entire narrative up, and I felt that all the distinctive narrative threads fell into place extremely well.  Running at a swift and enjoyable pace, The Coward’s fantastic and elaborate story quickly drags you in, especially with its focus on a damaged protagonist and his new quest.  The author was extremely good at balancing deep and damaging character insights with a fast-paced action narrative, and you really had to feel for the protagonist as he revisited his trauma, while also selfishly encouraging him to keep going with the quest.  There is an excellent layer of dark humour over the entire story, and I liked how the action and adventure of the main storyline was well balanced by the alternate scenes of political intrigue that also set up the main villain of the second book.  I also deeply appreciated the captivating and clever dive into the dark side of an epic fantasy quest, and the traumatic memories of the events really shape the protagonist and the narrative in some excellent ways, while also proving to be an interesting and fun alternate perspective of classic fantasy novels.  Aryan features several fun allusions and homages to other iconic fantasy works in this book, and I appreciated his distinctive take on how a classic fantasy story adventure would really go.

I also quite enjoyed the fantastic and impressive new fantasy landscape that Aryan introduced in The Coward.  This first book is set in the Five Kingdoms, a collection of lands who are currently experiencing hardship, especially with a poor harvest and the increasing cold.  Despite the efforts of the authoritarian Church of the Shepherd to quash them, rumours abound that the Five Kingdoms are facing a threat from the north again, just like they did years before.  Aryan does a great job setting up the Five Kingdoms, and you swiftly get an idea of the many problems and conflicts befalling them, especially as their church is slowly increasing its influence and power, attempting to undermine its kings.  This proves rich ground for the early part of the narrative, and it was amazing to get introduced to this land.  I particularly loved the exploration of the myth of the protagonist throughout the lands, and the impact it had on the people, both in terms of morale and celebration, as well as politically.  Having multiple characters recite a famous in-universe retelling of the original quest was particularly fun, especially as the inconsistencies and blatant lies attached to them soon become extremely apparent.  The best setting in the entire book, however, was easily the North, were much of the second half of the book takes place.  Although it is similar to other famous fantasy winter landscapes, Aryan works to make his fairly distinctive, especially with the unique creatures and threats that lurk within.  The author really makes the landscape seem as brutal, barren and isolated as possible, and it is very intense to see the characters travel through it, particularly when Kell encounters remnants of the original quest, and is forced to relive his previous horrors again.  I had a lot of fun exploring Aryan’s intriguing world in this book and I look forward to seeing how it is expanded out in the sequel.

While I deeply enjoyed the narrative and had a great time exploring the new fantasy realm, easily the best thing about this book is the character work.  Aryan has done a real masterclass with some of the characters in The Coward, and you swiftly get attached to the main band of heroes, especially the protagonist Kell Kressia, all of whom are damaged or hiding something.  Watching them endure through terrible hardship and come together as a group is just wonderful, and I loved how attached I ended up feeling them as the novel progressed.

Most of the focus of the plot is directed to Kell Kressia, the titular coward.  Kell is a fantastic and memorable figure who draws you in with his unique story of woe.  The lone survivor of a legendary quest he undertook as a naïve teenager, Kell suffered a lot during the previous journey, and despite the renown and love lauded upon him, Kell ended up with nothing to show for his quest and has lived a simple life ever since.  In the current story, Kell has grown up significantly and is now content to be alone.  However, when he is sent on another quest, he attempts to flee, only to be dragged in against his will.  I really appreciated the development that Aryan put into Kell, especially as I figured that the twist would be that he’s a fraud.  However, despite the title, you realise that Kell isn’t really a coward; instead he is a deeply traumatised man who is now wise enough not to repeat the mistakes of his youth.  Rather than seeking battle, he tries to avoid it, but when he is forced to complete the quest, he reveals himself to be quite competent and able to lead his companions, even if he doesn’t want to.  I had an amazing time with Kell in this book, and you really sympathise with him once you find out the whole truth behind him.  I loved seeing how much he matured since the original quest, and the canny and realistic new hero is a very understandable figure as a result.  Aryan builds in a bit of closure for Kell in The Coward, especially as he comes to terms with the dark events from his past and finally starts to move on, but he does have to suffer some more tragedy along the way.  I also liked seeing him manipulate and utilise his status as a legendary hero throughout the book, even if he doesn’t believe it, and it was fun to see people who knew in the past underestimate him, not realising how much he’s grown up.  Kell is an excellent and impressive protagonist, and I can’t wait to see what Aryan puts him through next.

Another major character I need to highlight is Gerren, a young and idealistic teenager.  Following Kell’s example from the stories, Gerren finds Kell on his quest and stubbornly follows along, attempting to become a hero in his own right, despite Kell’s many attempts to get rid of him.  Realising that Kell doesn’t want to be there and means to run away, Gerren becomes quite angry and uses Kell’s own legend to trap him in the quest.  However, the further he travels with Kell and the heroes, the more he realises that Kell was right, and he soon regrets his decision.  I loved how Aryan used Gerren in The Coward, as the character essentially ends up being a younger version of Kell, making all the mistakes that his hero did, and becoming a dark mirror to him.  Watching Gerren mimic Kell’s life is pretty moving for all involved, and I loved seeing Kell’s reaction, especially as he tries to save Gerren from all the pain he suffered, which results in some amazing scenes.  Aside from being an emotional anchor on Kell, Gerren also goes through quite a lot of development in his storyline, as he grows from naïve kid to serious adventurer.  Watching his resentment to Kell grow and then fade when he realises what Kell was trying to protect him from is amazing, and you really wish that he would turn back at some point, not just for his sake but for Kell’s.  You also grow really attached to Gerren as the book goes on, and he served as an intriguing companion to the protagonist and really helped amp up the dramatic heft of Kell’s trauma.

Aside from Kell and Gerren, I really must highlight the rest of the fantastic band of heroes that travel with him, as Aryan brings together an eclectic and complex group, each of whom are there for very different reasons.  This includes the mysterious but entertaining bard Vahli, the hilarious pairing of Bronwyn and Malormir, two outrageous heroes with many a tale behind their deeds, and the monstrous but heroic non-human character of Willow.  Willow is probably the most intriguing out of these, as her entire species is something of a mystery, with a strange connection to the events of the plot.  Willow grows to be quite a significant figure as the book continues, and I am looking forward to seeing how the author expands on her in the future.  All these characters and more (the villainous Revenant Mother Britak was a fantastic secondary antagonist), were very impressive, and their unique and powerful adventure, as well as the many deep secrets in their past, help to turn The Coward into an exceptional character driven novel.

Like many great epic fantasy books, I would strongly recommend The Coward’s audiobook format.  Narrated by actor Matt Wycliffe, The Coward flows along at an excellent pace as an audiobook, and you really get caught up in the adventure and epic fight scenes out on the snow.  Wycliffe does some amazing and fitting voices for the various characters, and you really get caught up in their personalities and emotional depths through this narration.  With a run time of just under 15 hours, this is a slightly lengthy audiobook to get through, but I found myself powering through a very short amount of time thanks to the compelling story and characters.  A wonderful way to enjoy this amazing and clever novel.

Overall, The Coward by Stephen Aryan was one of the more captivating and intriguing fantasy novels of 2021 and it is one that is well worth checking out.  I loved elaborate narrative and impressive character work in this outstanding read, and readers will find themselves getting dragged into its compelling adventure tale.  I had an exceptional time with The Coward last year, and I really regret not reviewing it sooner.  I will hopefully read the next book in this duology, The Warrior, in the coming weeks, and I have no doubt it will be just as awesome as The Coward.

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Throwback Thursday: Blood Rites by Jim Butcher

Blood Rite Cover

Publisher: Penguin Audio (Audiobook – 3 August 2004)

Series: Dresden Files – Book Six

Length: 13 hours and 5 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

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Welcome back to my Throwback Thursday series, where I republish old reviews, review books I have read before or review older books I have only just had a chance to read.  For my latest Throwback Thursday I keep diving into the epic Dresden Files urban fantasy series with the impressive sixth book, Blood Rites.

Last week, in my review for the outstanding fifth book in the Dresden Files series, Death Masks, I mentioned how I had also started listening to the next book in the series, Blood Rites.  I honestly had so much fun reading Death Masks last week (as I did with the rest of the Dresden Files series, such as Storm Front, Fool Moon, Grave Peril, Summer Knight, Battle Ground and The Law), that I had to immediately dive into the next book as soon as I could.  The sixth novel in the series, Blood Rites, was another epic novel which had an impressive and captivating plot to it.

Harry Dresden, Chicago’s resident wizard and protector from the paranormal, continues to eke out a deadly living through his chaotic career of odd mystical jobs while also defending the city against the worst monsters lurking in the shadows.  However, his latest job may place him in the most uncomfortable spot yet, on the set of an adult movie, which finds itself under attack from a deadly and relentless curse.

Taking the case as a favour to his vampire friend and suspicious ally Thomas Raith, Dresden goes undercover on set and attempts to discover who is responsible for cursing the movie’s cast and crew, and why.  However, Dresden’s heroics on set make him a target, and he soon finds the curse striking at him, attempting to end his investigation before he can find the magical murderer.  Worse, enemies old and new are bursting out of the shadows, as two separate courts of vampires attempt to strike Dresden down.

As Dresden continues to search for the murderer wielding the curse, he is forced to fend off attacks from the lethal Black Court.  Led by a powerful elder vampire with a serious grudge against Dresden, the Black Court will stop at nothing to destroy him and any of his friends that gets in their way.  However, the greatest threat may reside in the White Court, to which Thomas belongs.  The White Court vampires are manipulative and subtle killers, using their alluring presence to suck the life out of everyone they touch.  Caught between warring members of the White Court family, Dresden must use all his wits to escape their wrath and uncover hidden truths if he is to survive.  But what secret from the past connects Dresden to the White Court and their machinations, and is Dresden really ready for the dark knowledge waiting for him?

Whelp, it seems that it is pretty impossible for Butcher to write a dud novel.  Blood Rites is an exceptional addition to the wider Dresden Files series, and it was another one that I have no choice but to give a full five-star review to.  Featuring an intense and deeply captivating narrative, Blood Rites was an incredible read and I quickly got sucked into its unique story, compelling mysteries and dark, damaged characters.

I just loved the elaborate, dark and powerful narrative that Butcher featured in Blood Rites, as the author comes up with a complex tale that expertly brings together a dark urban fantasy with a thrilling murder mystery storyline.  Like the rest of the Dresden Files books, Blood Rites exclusively follows protagonist and point-of-view character Harry Dresden as he finds himself forced to face off against a series of dangers and threats at the same time.  The most prominent of these includes an investigation into a deadly curse aimed at the female employees of an adult entertainment studio, which sees Dresden go undercover on set to try and save the remaining cast and determine who the killer is.  This also leads him into a confrontation with the White Court of the vampires, especially when his vampire friend, Thomas Raith, requests his help.  At the same time, vampires from the Black Court are after Dresden for his actions in Grave Peril, which forces him to call in some major backup to take them on.  Unfortunately, this also leads him into conflict with his supposed allies, as well as his former mentor, when secrets from the past are revealed.  Dresden is also hit with a whole bundle of personal drama, especially when he discovers unfortunate truths about his long-dead mother, and there is an interesting growth in the relationship between him and several supporting characters.

As a result, there are many plot elements scattered around Blood Rites, which makes for quite an elaborate overall story.  Luckily, Butcher does an excellent job of introducing all these separate narrative threads to the reader, and you swiftly get drawn into all of them.  After a good and necessary bit of setup, the story roars off at a quick and captivating pace, and the reader has a great time jumping from storyline to storyline.  Everything starts to come together near the middle of the book, where you get some excellent action scenes, including a particularly funny death sequence involving a vampire and a frozen turkey, and the fallout of these scenes leads to some great dramatic moments with big personal revelations.  Following this, the story zooms along, and you soon find a partial and problematic solution to the murder case, while the protagonist is also forced to deal with an all-out assault on the Black Court, while also dealing with dark secrets from his allies.  The attack on the Black Court was one of the best sequences in the book, and the surrounding drama results in some major revelations that fans of the series will lap up.  The remaining storylines then come together perfectly for the finale, as Dresden solves the murder and faces off against its overall architect in a brilliant and extended dark sequence.  I loved how this entire narrative unfolded, and some of the concluding notes will leave you wanting to dive into the rest of the series to see what happens next.

To bring Blood Rites’ great story to life, Butcher utilises his typical style and techniques, which I always immensely enjoy.  The entire narrative is paced perfectly, and you quickly get drawn into the various plotlines, especially with their great combination of characters, intriguing plots, fantasy elements, and dramatic moments.  All of this is overlayed with Butcher’s distinctive humour, most of which is expelled through his cocky point-of-view protagonist, and it helps to enhance the overall powerful and entertainment of the book, especially when the protagonist tries to deflect from his many issues with comedy.  The narrative pretty much goes non-stop, and you get bounced through multiple excellent and powerful scenes, all of which are very fun to see.  I loved how the author balanced out action, character growth, universe building and more in each of the sequences, and there is something quite entertaining and fun for all manner of readers.  I wasn’t as keen on Butcher’s continued attempts to spice up the story with more adult themes, such as the adult film set or the lust-inducing White Court vampires, although it was pretty tame compared to some of the scenes in the last book (that bondage scene, yikes!), and Butcher wove some very compelling narratives around all of them that I deeply enjoyed.  I did enjoy how inclusive Butcher made this novel to new readers, and anyone could easily jump into Blood Rites and enjoy it, even if they haven’t read a Dresden Files book before.  However, there is also a lot to appeal to established fans of the series, especially as there are multiple major reveals and secrets featured here, many of which will lead to big story moments down the track.  As such, I deeply appreciated how this story came together, and pretty much everyone will have a great time getting through it.

I really enjoyed some of the cool fantasy elements featured throughout Blood Rites as Butcher seeks to expand on the lore and magic of his unique universe.  There are some great and intriguing fantasy inclusions here, with the obvious focus being on the various Vampire Courts.  The three main factions of Vampires have all been featured in previous books, although most of the focus has been on the Red Court, whom Dresden is at war with.  Blood Rites, however, has a far bigger spotlight on the two of the other courts who have major differences in powers and appearances.  Most of the focus is on the White Court, who are essentially this universe’s version of succubi, extremely beautiful and seductive creatures who feed off the life energy of those who desire them.  The White Court go on to become a major faction in the Dresden Files series, but this is one of the first books that fully explores them in substantial detail.  As such, you quickly get across their unique abilities, strengths, weaknesses and powers throughout this book, and they come across as quite a distinctive group as a result.  You really get to understand their entire society and worldview, as well as seeing some very different members of the factions, and Butcher writes some compelling storylines around them, while also putting in some very vivid depictions of their powers in action.  I loved how sinister and villainous members of the White Court appear at times, and there is something quite insidious about their abilities that creeps out the protagonists and reader.  A truly complex and excellent group that I had a lot of fun exploring.

Almost in direct comparison to the White Court is the Black Court.  The Black Court are a completely different group of living dead, portrayed more like the classic vampires from Bram Stoker’s novel (indeed, the Dracula novel was an elaborate propaganda attack by their enemies).  Shown as ugly, decaying, blood-hungry creatures that are more monsters than their original human forms, the Black Court are a much more obvious threat with much clearer motives.  There are some brutal and powerful scenes featuring the Black Court in this book, and it was really interesting to see Dresden and his allies go up against them with some classic vampire-hunting weapons, albeit with some fun modern twists to them.  I also deeply appreciated the fantastic parallels between the Black Court and the White Court vampires featured in the Blood Rites; whilst they are both extremely dangerous, their diverse methods and powers troubled Dresden in different ways.  These cool vampires, plus some other great new supernatural threats, added a lot to the complexity of the narrative and I loved the excellent detail and lore that Butcher imbued them with.

As usual, one of the highlights of this Dresden Files book is the compelling and impressive characters the story revolves around.  Butcher features an intriguing and fantastic group of characters in this book, with a compelling blend of established supporting characters and several new figures, many of whom will go on to have substantial roles in the rest of the series.  I had a brilliant time with all these characters, especially as Butcher endeavours to write some outstanding and distinctive storylines around them.

As usual, the most prominent character is Harry Dresden, the wizard protagonist and point-of-view character of the series.  Like most of the recent books, Blood Rites is an emotionally damaging book for Dresden.  Not only is he forced to deal with another harrowing case that racks his sanity, but he also finds out some long-buried secrets that prove quite damaging to behold.  In particular, there is a deep dive into his past and his missing family, both of which are hard subjects for him, and he finds himself with some unexpected connections that he has long been missing.  It was truly fascinating to see this long buried and painful part of Dresden’s past explored, and Butcher ensures that the reader gets struck in the feels with some of the powerful scenes that are explored.  Other interactions and reveals see Dresden re-evaluate some of his relationships in this novel, and there were some intriguing and harsh discussions between him and other characters as a result.  I did think that Butcher is over-playing the whole chivalrous-to-a-fault aspect of Dresden, as he continues to be a tad sexist and constantly underestimates woman, usually to his own detriment.  It’s honestly getting a little old, and I hope it gets phased out a bit in future books.  Still, I deeply enjoyed the fantastic development around Dresden in Blood Rites, and it greatly enhanced the narrative.

This book also featured a great appearance from previous supporting characters Karrin Murphy and Thomas Raith, who both play a major role in Blood Rites.  This proved to be quite a pivotal novel for both characters, and I really appreciated the way that Butcher built on their previous appearances and used them to write some impressive and powerful storylines around them.  This proves to be one of the more intriguing looks at Murphy so far in the series, especially as it dives into her complicated family life, and I liked the early hints here about the future relationship between her and Dresden.  Murphy gets dragged far further into Dresden’s magical activities than ever before here, and she is forced to balance her responsibilities as a cop with the necessity of killing monsters, something she has great difficulty with.  An overall badass character, Murphy has some brilliant and action-packed scenes in Blood Rites, and I love how well she serves as a foil to the more ridiculous Dresden.

Thomas, on the other hand, gets quite an intense and deeply personal storyline here as you get the most in-depth look at this elusive and compelling vampire character.  Not only do you get a great look at the rest of his family as the book explores the White Court, but you finally find the reasons why he is always helping Dresden, which leads to some emotional and compelling scenes.  A lot of time is also spent exploring the battle between Thomas’s humanity and the monster within, especially when it comes to feeding on those around him.  This comes to a head when his need to feed and survive hurts someone close to him and he has trouble coming to terms with what he’s done, especially when Dresden harshly confronts him.  Throw in his complicated family and intense daddy issues, and Thomas goes through the emotional wringer in this book, which proves to be very illuminating.  Butcher sets Thomas up as quite a substantial supporting character in this book, and I look forward to seeing more of him in the future.

Aside from these main characters, there is also a great collection of supporting characters who add a lot to the story, and there are some awesome appearances here.  I really enjoyed seeing more of mysterious mercenary Kincaid in this book, especially after his fun appearance in Death Masks.  Kincaid is a badass killer who is hired by Dresden to kill the Black Court, only to end up being a bigger threat to Dresden when the wizard lacks to money to pay him.  Kincaid has some excellent and action-packed scenes, and I was intrigued by his backstory, especially the hints at his dark, dark past.  I also loved the use of Dresden’s mentor, Ebenezar McCoy, an older wizard who raised him and taught him magic.  Butcher writes some amazing scenes around McCoy, especially once Dresden finds out just how many secrets the old man has been keeping from him.  Throw in a batch of great vampire characters (including the sinister Lord Raith and the compelling Lara Raith), some entertaining members of the adult film industry (including the fantastic diva Trixie Vixen), and the first appearance of Mouse, Dresden’s puppy, and you have an amazing cast of characters here that Butcher gleefully and impressively wraps the story around.  Each of these characters is very fun and intriguing in their own way, and I loved the elaborate and moving scenes that they star in.

Naturally I chose to check out Blood Rites on audiobook, which I maintain is the absolute best way to enjoy the Dresden Files books.  The captivating story and excellent characters really fit into this format extremely well, and I find myself absorbing the narrative and the author’s fantastic style a lot better this way.  With a runtime of just over 13 hours, Blood Rites is the noticeably longer than the previous books in the series (they get progressively longer and longer as the series goes, with some later books like Cold Days reaching nearly 19 hours in length).  Despite the increased run time, I still found myself knocking this audiobook off in no time at all, especially once I got stuck into the excellent and powerful story.  I must also highlight the incredible voice work of the always awesome James Marsters, who did another spectacular job narrating this fantastic novel.  At this point in the series, Marsters has really hit his stride when it comes to narrating, and he voices each audiobook with some impressive passion, effortlessly bringing the dark events and complex characters to life and ensuring that everything sticks in the listener’s mind.  All the characters are voiced extremely well, with the highlight again being protagonist Harry Dresden, who Marsters inhabits effortlessly.  He really understands the character’s anguish, pain, and dark humour, and this comes across in his narration perfectly.  Thanks to his epic performance in Blood Rites, and the other Dresden Files audiobooks, Marsters remains one of my favourite audiobook narrators, and I cannot recommend the Blood Rites audiobook enough as a result.

My dive into the early Dresden Files novels continues to be incredibly epic, as I once again fell in love with one of Jim Butcher’s unique reads, Blood Rites.  This fantastic novel has so much going for it, and I had a brilliant time exploring the powerful urban fantasy/crime fiction based narrative.  Featuring a deeply compelling mystery, a ton of intriguing parallel storylines, and some impressive and emotionally charged character development, Blood Rites is another exceptional book that is so much fun to get through.  Honestly, if I didn’t have such a backlog of awesome recent audiobook releases, I would probably be diving into the seventh Dresden Files novel right now, but hopefully I will get a chance later this year.  If you haven’t checked out the Dresden Files books after my previous glowing reviews, then you really need to get your butt into gear and start reading them now!

Tribe by Jeremy Robinson

Tribe Cover 2

Publisher: Breakneck Media (Audiobook – 26 November 2019)

Series: Standalone/Infinite Timeline

Length: 10 hours and 36 minutes

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

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Gods, mortals and everything in between will clash in Tribe, the intriguing fantasy thriller from the always entertaining Jeremy Robinson.

Last year I decided to take a chance and check out an author whose work I was unfamiliar with, and boy did that work out for me.  Jeremy Robinson had a very impressive and extensive list of awesome books to his name, most of which straddled the border between thrillers and other genres like fantasy, science fiction and horror.  The first book of his I checked out was The Dark, which followed a very likeable protagonist who gets caught up in a terrifying and horrific invasion of his neighbourhood by a horde of demons.  The Dark was an outstanding read, and I really got drawn into its awesome story, intense pacing and fun characters.  After giving The Dark a full five-star rating, I had to make sure to grab the other 2021 release from Robinson, Mind Bullet, especially as it was in the same loosely connected series.  Mind Bullet was a fantastic and highly entertaining read that followed a psychic hitman being hunted by a series of unusual but deadly assassins.  Mind Bullet was another five-star read in my book, and I had such a great time reading it.  Indeed, I loved both The Dark and Mind Bullet so much that I included them both of my top books and audiobooks lists of 2021.

Naturally, this has made me quite eager to read some more of Robinson’s work, and while I had to miss one of his 2022 releases The Order (I need to read some of the lead-up books beforehand), I did recently decide to go back and try one of his older novels, the 2019 release, Tribe, from the same storyline as The Dark and Mind Bullet.  Not only does this allow me to better follow one of Robinson’s upcoming books in the Infinite series but it had a very fun-sounding story that I really wanted to check out.  It turns out Tribe was just as fun as I hoped it would be, and I had a wonderful time getting through it.

Sarah, a 20-year-old college dropout working at a donut shop in Boston, has long struggled with the bad turns her life has taken.  Constantly plagued by bad luck and misfortune, Sarah has no one in her life she can count on, until she runs into homeless teen street punk Henry.  Henry, a kid who literally knows no fear, has randomly blown into her life and the two find themselves with a strange attachment to each other that they can’t explain.  However, life is about to get much more complicated for both when they run into each other at the local bank.

Arriving at the same time, the two manage to work together to foil a robbery that seems focused on targeting a mysterious and wealthy woman named Helen.  Taking Sarah and Henry under her wing, Helen attempts to take them to her apartment, but before they can make it they find themselves under attack by members of an ancient cult who are determined to cause as much chaos and destruction as they can.

Separated from the incredibly capable and violent Helen, Sarah and Henry find themselves alone on the streets of Boston, pursued by the cult.  Forced to keep moving and face off against a stream of determined and dangerous foes, Sarah and Henry begin to realise that there is something special about them that allows them to fight back, and which is making them stronger.  However, if they want to survive, they will need to discover the truth about who they are and what dark legacy their blood contains.  But with a dangerous figure hunting them, can Sarah and Henry live out the day, or will they become links in a master plan spanning millennia?

Tribe was an extremely entertaining and action-packed novel from Robinson, who utilises his usual fun and thrilling style to create an excellent read.  Featuring a captivating and electrifying narrative based around a couple of interesting and damaged figures, Tribe was a truly unique and captivating read that I had a fantastic time with.

Robinson crafted together a very interesting and highly exciting narrative for Tribe, which is essentially a non-stop action adventure from the very first scene.  After a quick but memorable introduction to, Sarah and Henry, the story dives right into the action, when the protagonists chance upon a violent bank hold-up.  Thanks to the impulsive Henry, the two are forced to intervene, assisting the mysterious Helen, making them heroes.  While you would imagine that would allow them to have some quiet time, Robinson puts them into the next action set piece within a few pages, as they are forced to flee an army of angry and over-the-top cultists who are hunting them.  This results in a series of impressively violent and extremely compelling fight sequences and chase scenes, as the protagonists try to survive while their lives are changing in ways that they don’t fully understand.  These initial sequences fill up the first half of the novel well, and you quickly become pretty damn invested in the narrative, especially once Robinson finally reveals the reasons behind everything and how everyone connects into the wider plot.  This first half also does a great job setting up the novel’s style, and you soon get quite used to the fantastic combination of action, character development and slick humour as the outrageous characters experience an array of over-the-top situations.

There are some rather interesting dives into Greek mythology in the second half of Tribe, which alters the course of the story and impacts everything the protagonists thought they knew about the world and themselves.  After a couple of attempted separations, the characters find themselves in some pretty dark situations as they finally face off against the big bad of the story, who ended up being an extremely sinister baddie.  The action comes thick and fast in this second half of the book, as the protagonists keep going up against a series of unique and memorable foes.  These scenes really make you appreciate Robinson’s ability to write brilliant, fast-paced action sequences, and the fantastic detail and intriguing depictions of deadly fights are so much fun to see.  I also enjoyed the strong Greek mythological motifs and elements that are slipped into this half of the book.  I think that they melded with the thriller style of the plot extremely well, and a lot of the story felt like a cool fantasy/superhero combination.  Along with some powerful reveals, major trauma, and subsequent character evolution, the protagonists become ready for the final confrontation that lays everything on the line.  The entire narrative flowed into this intense and high-stakes conclusion extremely well, and readers are in for a fun and captivating time as the protagonists go all out.  I really liked how everything turned out, and while this wasn’t my favourite of Robinson’s narratives, it was pretty damn addictive and readers will come away extremely satisfied.

I had a lot of fun with Tribe, and I am very glad that I checked it out, especially with how it plays into Robinson’s wider universe.  As I mentioned above, Tribe is part of a loosely connected series of cool books that are part of the Infinite Timeline.  While most of them are standalone reads, the further you get into the series, the more the storylines start to blend a little more, and this will all lead to several massive crossover novels, such as one being released later this year.  This is one of the main reasons why I wanted to read Tribe, as the main characters from it have appeared in the two other Robinson books I have read and will also be part of the upcoming 2022 release, Khaos.  However, readers don’t need to do any pre-reading for Tribe to enjoy it; thanks to its relatively early position in the Infinite Timeline, it doesn’t noticeably feature characters or story elements from the other novels.  As such, it is a very accessible read, and anyone who likes a fun action story can have a great time reading it.  Still, those people who are interested in Robinson’s larger series will do well to read Tribe soon, especially as it sounds like the plot of Khaos is going to come back to key details from Tribe in a big way.

I also deeply appreciated how Robinson made use of some excellent and fun central characters, Sarah and Henry, two seemingly unconnected people.  The story is set up to continuously rotate between their perspectives, which really enhances the overall quality of the narrative, especially when you get two separate views of the same events, or the characters are dealing with separate outrageous events at the same time.  The author does a great job of building up both characters throughout the novel as they start to discover their destiny and their various shared connections.  A lot of the revelations around them result in some interesting abilities and moments for the characters and watching them react to it in very different ways was very entertaining.  They also go through a lot of trauma throughout the book, and again both of them deal with it differently, which I felt was an intriguing and realistic inclusion.  Both characters are quite interesting in their own way, and they serve to balance each other out in the narrative, with Sarah acting as the moral and sensible one (at least until she unleashes the inner beast), and Henry being the wildcard.  Henry is definitely the life and soul of the much of the book.  Due to a brain condition, he lacks any sense of fear whatsoever and has no filter when it comes to doing stupid stuff.  I have mixed feelings about this; while many of these random outbursts and actions are a lot of fun, they do start to get a little repetitive and annoying after a while.  I also felt that it ensured Henry started to overshadow Sarah in parts of the book.  Still, these were some great central protagonists you quickly get attached to, and with the fantastic supporting figures, you have a lot of fun characters in this book that really enhance the narrative.

One of the most appealing things about Robinson’s books is that they all make for an amazing audiobook.  Tribe was another excellent example of this, especially as listening to the story really allows you to get to grips with the incredible and powerful action sequences.  With a run time of just over 10 and a half hours, this is a relatively quick audiobook to get through, and it is very hard not to get attached to it, especially when it features brilliant narrator R. C. Bray.  Bray is a very skilled audiobook narrator who, in addition to providing his voice to most of Robinson’s books, has also narrated several other great books and series, such as Michael Mammay’s Planetside series (Planetside, Spaceside and Colonyside), all of which were excellent audiobooks.  Bray has an exceptional voice that works really well to tell high-stakes and powerful action orientated novels while also bringing a range of interesting characters to life.  He did another outstanding job in Tribe, and all the high-octane action fights are told perfectly, with Bray really highlighting the brutal fights with his telling.  He also provides powerful and insightful voices to all the characters, with all their quirks and interesting features perfectly brought to life as a result.  As such, I had a brilliant time listening to Tribe on audiobook and felt that Bray’s excellent narration really added to my overall enjoyment of this novel.  As such, I would very much recommend the audiobook version to anyone interested in trying out Tribe, as it was a lot of fun to listen to.

Overall, Tribe was a pretty fantastic and extremely entertaining book from Jeremy Robinson.  Loaded with all the intense action, clever references to Greek mythology and intriguing characters you need for an incredible narrative, Tribe was such an epic read and it comes very highly recommended, especially as an audiobook.  I had an outstanding time, with Tribe and it will be interesting to see how these characters, as well as the protagonists of The Dark and Mind Bullet, will feature in the upcoming Khaos.

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Blood Sugar by Sascha Rothchild

Blood Sugar Cover

Publisher: Trapeze (Trade Paperback – 26 April 2022)

Series: Standalone

Length: 328 pages

My Rating: 4.75 out of 5 stars

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Outstanding screenwriter Sascha Rothchild presents her debut novel with the utterly addictive Blood Sugar, an awesome and clever thriller with a sweet twist.

Ruby Simon has been a killer since she was five years old.  On a sunny day, young Ruby took an opportunity to rid herself and her sister of the school bully by helping him drown at the local Miami beach.  After managing to get away with her crime, Ruby expected to feel guilty for the life she took, but instead all she felt was relief that the boy would never hurt her sister again.  This action led to Ruby having a realisation that sometimes killing a terrible person is not necessarily a bad thing.

Twenty-five years later, Ruby appears to have it all.  A successful and driven psychologist in Miami, Ruby has killed several times over the intervening years and has never felt guilt for her actions.  However, everything she has built is about to come crumbling down when she finds herself in an interrogation room under suspicion of murder.  In front of her lie four photographs of people who she once knew and who are all now dead.

As the interrogation continues, Ruby soon discovers a significant problem: of the four victims she is accused of murdering, she has only killed three of them, and it is the death she is not responsible for that the police are most determined to bring her down for.  Can Ruby prove she is innocent of this one murder?  And even if she can, does she even deserve to be set free?

This was an impressive and compelling debut from Sascha Rothchild that I was really quite happy to get a copy of.  Not only did it have an awesome-sounding plot but I was also very intrigued by the author, as Rothchild already had some major writing creds after her work on several television shows, including GLOW, which I was a big fan of.  I ended up really loving Blood Sugar and I swiftly got drawn into its witty, humorous and powerful story set around an unlikely and extremely likeable murderer.

Blood Sugar has a distinctive and fun narrative that really grabs your attention from the beginning, starting as it does with child-on-child murder.  Told exclusively from the perspective of central character Ruby Simon, the book is an impressive, deep and occasionally humorous character study of a very unique fictional killer.  The initial narrative is split between events in the character’s present, where she is being interrogated by the police, and an extended look back at her past, as you see all the major events in her life.  These flashback sequences take up the majority of the first two thirds of the book, and they present some powerful and intriguing examinations of the protagonist and all the moments that led to her present.  In particular, they look at her key relationships, her schooling, the events that made her into the successful person she is today, as well as the moments where she decided to take a life.  These two separate narrative threads play off each other extremely well, with the character history providing some intriguing context to the character’s background and mindset, while the present-day interrogation does a good job at hinting at events that are still to be revealed in the flashbacks.  Rothchild’s excellent writing style and ability to forge interesting and compelling characters are on full display during this part of the novel, and she is effortlessly able to construct a powerful and natural life story around the very relatable protagonist, with her occasional murders cleverly worked in.  The blend of character history and justified killings really works well to keep your attention, while also making you really start to care about the protagonist and her future.  Both separate linear threads bind together perfectly as the novel progresses and leads the reader towards Blood Sugar’s awesome third and final act.

The final third of Blood Sugar takes on a completely new format as the first-person examination of the protagonist’s past is wrapped up and the book turns into an intense legal thriller.  This fantastic and powerful change of pace is quite jarring and sees the protagonist encounter all manner of personal setbacks and attacks as the police close in on her.  Thanks to all the awesome work that the author did in the first part of the novel, the reader is now incredibly invested in Ruby’s life story, and you feel incredibly sympathetic for her.  As such, it hurts a little to see her so terribly attacked, even though many of the things that they are accusing her of are true and a key part of her life.  This final part of the novel is incredibly intense, and Rothchild brings out all manner of intriguing twists and turns to shake the reader, especially as you still a little uncertain about who is responsible for one of the key events.  The author comes up with an intriguing and entertaining conclusion for the novel that really makes one of the supporting characters shine.  I really liked how everything wrapped up here, and it really did the rest of the book justice.  An overall impressive and highly addictive narrative that I powered through in very short order.

I deeply enjoyed some of the unique elements that Rothchild sprinkled throughout her novel.  While there is a natural focus on the morality of murder and the mindset of her protagonist, the author also takes the time to examine other interesting elements in her own entertaining way.  Many of these elements revolve around relationships, with the protagonist finding herself connected to multiple interesting people in a variety of complex ways, from a very close platonic friendship that experiences major highs and severe lows, to a loving relationship that tries to overcome mistrust and traumatic pasts.  The author also presents one of the most honest and powerful examinations of the relationships people have with their pets, as the protagonist becomes extremely close with several animals that she adopts.  While one of these ends quite tragically (I was legitimately heartbroken when this happened), it transitions into a very moving and accurate examination of the strong grief that people often feel for their pets, and it is one that every animal lover will understand and appreciate.  The various relationships featured in Blood Sugar form a key part of the story, and it was fascinating to see them unfold around the protagonist, especially as they brought out some unique family dynamics, and I really appreciated the clever ways that the author worked them into the wider plot.

There is also an outstanding look at the media circus that surrounds big crimes, especially once the protagonist finds their previous crimes under investigation.  Watching Ruby’s entire carefully constructed life come unravelled in the public eye is one of the more intense parts of Blood Sugar, and Rothchild pulls no punches when it comes to the savagery of the media and the isolation that accused people find themselves in.  I also appreciated the intense dive into the world of the personal psychology, as the protagonist uses her training to explore her mind as well as issues surrounding several of her clients.  This was a very intriguing part of the book’s plot, and I liked how Rothchild praised therapy, showing that it can be very beneficial to people, even trained psychologists and serial killers.  However, the most impressive story element that Rothchild worked into the novel was the in-depth examination of diabetes and the impacts it can have.  Due to a key plot point, quite a lot of the book revolves around a character’s diabetes, with their low blood sugar (yep, that is what the book is named after), become a major factor in the case against Ruby.  Rothchild has clearly done her research when it comes to the intricacies of diabetes, and I really appreciated how she was able to imagine a potential murder based around this disease.  All these distinctive elements and more are expertly utilised in the wider plot and become a key part of the protagonist’s unique and complex life.

Finally, I really must touch on Blood Sugar’s awesome protagonist of Ruby Simon, who stands out as one of the most original and surprisingly likeable literary characters of 2022.  Ruby is a very distinctive figure; she first killed at a very young age and has gone on to murder again several times through her life.  Even though she feels no guilt for these killings, Ruby is not portrayed as a psychopath or a serial killer; she is simply someone able to justify the actions she took in a very logical way.  Due to the way that the novel is set out, you see most of Ruby’s life through her eyes and you swiftly come to appreciate her point of view, especially as she appears as a mostly normal person who finds herself in some unique situations.  Each of her killings is laid out to the reader in a very logical and natural way, and you honestly have a hard time understanding and even supporting her reasons or justifications for the killings.  Due to this, as well as the extremely relatable way that Rothchild portrays her, you become strongly connected to the character, and you quickly start rooting for her to avoid being capture or prosecuted for her crimes.  I honestly cannot remember becoming as attached to a killer character as did with Ruby in Blood Sugar, and Rothchild really went out of her way to ensure that you liked her protagonist.  An excellent and memorable bit of character work.

Overall, Blood Sugar was one of the more unique and entertaining releases of 2022 so far, and I was really impressed with Sascha Rothchild’s first novel.  Featuring an extremely clever, hilarious, thrilling and addictive story, Blood Sugar was a very fun novel to dive into, especially once you become attached to the amazing main character.  Powerful, intense and very distinctive, Blood Sugar is easily one of the best debut novels of 2022 and it comes very highly recommended by the Unseen Library.

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Quick Review – The Maid by Nita Prose

The Maid Cover

Publisher: Harper Collins (Trade Paperback – 20 January 2022)

Series: Standalone

Length: 334 pages

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

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Get ready to follow a unique and entertaining protagonist into an intriguing mystery in this compelling debut novel by Nita Prose, The Maid.

The Maid is an interesting read that I was lucky enough to receive earlier in the year.  Written by new author Nita Prose, The Maid is already getting a substantial amount of attention across the literary world, with a ton of positive reviews and media coverage.  This positive attention has only been enhanced by news that this book is already in line to become a film starring current movie sensation Florence Pugh.  Well, after having a great time reading this book, I am also throwing my opinion about The Maid into the fray, especially as it proved to be an entertaining and captivating read that did a good job blending an unusual protagonist with a fantastic story.

Plot Synopsis:

Molly Gray is not like everyone else. She struggles with social skills and misreads the intentions of others. Her gran used to interpret the world for her, codifying it into simple rules that Molly could live by.

Since Gran died a few months ago, twenty-five-year-old Molly has been navigating life’s complexities all by herself. No matter—she throws herself with gusto into her work as a hotel maid. Her unique character, along with her obsessive love of cleaning and proper etiquette, make her an ideal fit for the job. She delights in donning her crisp uniform each morning, stocking her cart with miniature soaps and bottles, and returning guest rooms at the Regency Grand Hotel to a state of perfection.

But Molly’s orderly life is upended the day she enters the suite of the infamous and wealthy Charles Black, only to find it in a state of disarray and Mr. Black himself dead in his bed. Before she knows what’s happening, Molly’s unusual demeanor has the police targeting her as their lead suspect. She quickly finds herself caught in a web of deception, one she has no idea how to untangle. Fortunately for Molly, friends she never knew she had unite with her in a search for clues to what really happened to Mr. Black—but will they be able to find the real killer before it’s too late?

A Clue-like, locked-room mystery and a heartwarming journey of the spirit, The Maid explores what it means to be the same as everyone else and yet entirely different—and reveals that all mysteries can be solved through connection to the human heart.

This was a very enjoyable and fantastically addictive novel that I had a lot of fun reading, especially with its cool and slick narrative.  Told exclusively from the perspective of this central character, Molly, The Maid starts off quickly, introducing the odd-duck character of Molly and the subsequent terrible events as she discovers a body within the hotel.  What follows is an intense and fast-paced story that sees Molly inadvertently dragged into the midst of the investigation as a suspect as forces within the hotel conspire to hide the truth.  Forced to rely on her unique outlook on life and a few trusted people, Molly soon finds herself the key to solving the case thanks to her connections to various guests and staff, as well as her obsessive attention to detail and the secrets only a maid would know.  The story unfolds at a great pace, with a strong beginning, moving centre and shocking and well-established ending, which comes together extremely well, especially as the narrative thrusts its distinctive protagonist into several unique and serious situations.  Prose sets up several great twists throughout the story, and while a couple of reveals and guilty individuals were a little obvious, a couple of things did come as a surprise, including one impressive reveal right at the end.  I really liked this cool, mystery filled narrative and you will quickly find yourself powering through it to see how everything comes together.

While this is nominally a murder mystery, the real appeal of The Maid is easily its central character, Molly, who gives the story some real heart and is easily the best thing about this entire book.  Prose has done an incredibly good job of creating a distinctive and troubled figure in Molly, the obsessive and socially awkward maid, and I really appreciated how complex and unique she turned out to be.  I always like a character who is a little different than established norms, and Molly is particularly noteworthy, as, thanks to her atypical outlook on life, sheltered upbringing, odd way of talking and stunted social instincts, everyone thinks she is weird and stupid.  However, as the book is told from her perspective, the readers soon understand that she is indeed quite a complex and clever being in her own way, as her tough upbringing and family situation has ensured that she views the world in a different way.  It proves to be extremely moving to see everything from Molly’s mind, especially as you soon understand all the heartbreak and betrayal she has experienced.  Despite this, Molly keeps her positive attitude and determination, and this notable attribute quickly steals the readers’ hearts and ensures that they are firmly in her corner as the novel unfolds.  The focus on her ability as a maid to help solve the crime was pretty fun, and it was interesting to see how the insights of “the help” can reveal so much about us.  There is also a certain darkness to the character which, while mostly hidden, comes up in certain points in the book, and I deeply appreciated how Prose worked into the character and the story.  I loved so many aspects of this character’s creation, and it proved to be extremely fun to see her develop and find some happiness throughout the novel.

Overall, The Maid was a fun and captivating first novel from Prose that I really enjoyed reading.  The cooky and distinctive central character helps to turn this great mystery into a very entertaining and addictive novel which is well worth checking out.  I look forward to seeing the eventual film adaptation of The Maid, and I am sure that Florence Pugh will kill it in the central role.

Kill Your Brother by Jack Heath

Kill Your Brother Cover

Publisher: Allen & Unwin Australia (Trade Paperback – 30 November 2021)

Series: Standalone

Length: 339 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

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One of Australia’s most brilliant and potentially psychotic crime fiction authors, Jack Heath, returns with a powerful and captivating thriller, Kill Your Brother, which was one of the best pieces of Australian fiction I read all year.

Would you kill your brother to save your own life?

That is the question that Elise Glyk is forced to ask herself after being placed in an impossible situation.  Elise, a disgraced athlete hated by the entire country, is a woman on a mission.  Her brother, Callum, a popular local teacher, has been missing for a month, and the police have been unable and unwilling to find him.  Determined to locate Callum, Elise’s investigation eventually leads her to a dilapidated local farm, where she is shocked to discover her brother being held prisoner in a modified septic tank.  However, before she can rescue him, Elise is captured and thrown into the same hole as her brother.

Their captor is heartbroken former sheep farmer Stephanie Hartnell, who believes that Callum is responsible for her daughter’s death and has been attempting to force him to confess to his supposed crimes.  However, Stephanie doesn’t have room for two prisoners, and while she doesn’t want to hurt the innocent Elise, she needs to make sure that she won’t immediately go to the police.  To that end, she offers Elise a deal: kill your brother and you’re free to go.

Not even considering the deal, Elise attempts to find another way to gain their freedom.  Trying to find a way to escape while also working to prove Callum’s innocence to Stephanie, Elise hopes that someone will eventually be able to find them before time runs out.  However, the more Elise digs into her brother’s story, the more inconsistencies she discovers.  What is her brother really hiding, and how will either sibling react when the truth comes out?

Kill Your Brother was an awesome and impressive novel that I powered through in a couple of days due to its incredible narrative and amazing twists.  This was a great standalone book from Jack Heath, an author from my home city of Canberra, who has written some fantastic thrillers over the years.  This includes his bestselling Timothy Blake series, the third book of which, Hideout, was one of my favourite pieces of Australian fiction in 2020Kill Your Brother was originally released as an Audible original audiobook, with the paperback version I read subsequently rewritten and adapted into a novel format.  I had an outstanding time reading this book, and it was an excellent and impressive Australian thriller.

This book has an incredible story that takes the reader on a powerful thrill ride that they cannot get off if they tried.  Told using several character perspectives, Kill Your Brother quickly launches into the book’s deadly and compelling scenario, with Elise, a universally hated woman, attempting to find her brother.  Her hunt, which has been going on for months, has been largely unsuccessful, and the evidence found at her brother house’s, combined with her own reputation, means that everyone in her life constantly brushes her off.  However, Elise’s perseverance pays off when she finds Callum being held in a septic tank in Stephanie Hartnell’s backyard.  Posing as a private investigator, Elise tries to reason with Stephanie while plotting an escape, but she is soon forced into the ultimate no-win situation when given the option to kill her brother.  From there, the story devolves even further, with several escape attempts and mounting danger from their captor, and the two siblings turning against each other as their situation gets more desperate.  As the story progresses, several viewpoints on the situation and the events leading up to it are presented.  As the protagonist attempts to survive you get an interesting view of what Callum is accused of, and the eventual reveal of the full picture really influences the rest of the narrative.  This all leads up to the gripping and deadly finale in which every secret comes out and no-one is left untouched by the revelations and accompanying violence.

I really cannot exaggerate how awesome this cool narrative is.  Heath has gone out of his way to make Kill Your Brother’s story as clever and thrilling as possible, and I loved every single second that I spent reading it.  This book is filled with some brilliant twists and reveals, and Heath does a wonderful job of setting each of them up and slowly revealing them as the book progresses.  I honestly did not see half the twists coming and I loved how several small and seemingly inconsequential details eventually come back with amazing significance towards the end.  Heath also perfectly utilises a series of flashbacks that examine Elise’s past, showing why she is so disliked, while also revealing several clues about her family and the circumstances that lead to her brother’s imprisonment.  This was a really good standalone read, and potential readers are guaranteed a satisfying ending after getting stuck into the unique mystery and scenario.  I deeply enjoyed how this novel flowed, and there were no obvious issues with this being an adaption of an audiobook novella.  The impressive combination of character history, twisty writing and fast-paced storytelling ensured that I was deeply addicted within a few pages of starting.

One of the things that I must highlight is the fantastic central protagonist, Elise.  Elise is a brilliantly complex and sympathetic figure due to her complicated and tragic past, which has led to her current ostracism from her community and the hatred of the entirety of Australia.  I really enjoyed the impressive and complex backstory that surrounds this interesting and unique protagonist, especially as Heath did a great job of gradually introducing the full character history as the book progressed.  The whole angle is perfectly portrayed, including her motivations and the distinctly unfortunate events surrounding her disgrace, as well as the predicted reaction of the ordinary Australian sports fans.  This compelling and damaging backstory gives her quite an interesting insight and set of emotions regarding the events around her, as well as some intense determination to survive no matter the odds.  This helps produce a really fascinating character driven narrative, and I deeply enjoyed seeing the captivating and emotionally rich development that surrounded this brilliant protagonist.

I also deeply appreciated the way that Heath captured the feel of small-town Australia in his writing.  Most of the story is set in the fictional town of Warrigal, which draws a lot of inspiration from the small rural settlements throughout Australia, such as Braidwood, where Heath apparently wrote a good portion of this novel.  I really think that Heath did an amazing job of portraying the attitudes and mindsets of people in these sorts of locations, and you get an impressive sense of the location.  Watching the protagonist attempt to deal with the challenges of being the biggest pariah in her small town is pretty fascinating, and it was also compelling to see some of the limitations of a police investigation in this location, especially when it comes to locating a missing teacher.  The impacts of growing up in such a location also become a major part of the protagonist’s backstory, especially as the pressures of succeeding and representing her family and town drive her to make some mistakes.  I also must highlight the tiny pit that the protagonist and her brother find themselves held captive in.  Heath ensures that the reader gets the full sense of claustrophobia and the feeling of being trapped as the book progresses, especially once the characters become weaker and start turning on each other.  This intense and claustrophobic setting really helps to amp up the tension, and you will feel very uncomfortable during the scenes set down there.  Finally, I had a lot of fun with the author’s occasional visits to Canberra throughout the book, mainly because it was interesting to see the author’s take on my home city.  Overall, these settings are perfectly portrayed and the reader gets a real sense of them, especially the small-town lifestyles.  These work in the narrative extremely well, and it was a lot of fun to see the various characters’ experiences and impressions of them.

Kill Your Brother was an exceptional read from Jack Heath, who is quickly becoming one of Australia’s most impressive thriller writers.  This brilliant, dark and exceedingly clever thriller takes the reader on an incredible ride, and I loved seeing all the unique and captivating twists and turns that Heath came up with.  Focused around an amazingly complex protagonist and making full use of the rural Australian landscape, Kill Your Brother’s story is just incredible, and I am still reeling about some of the twists it contains.  This is a highly recommended read that gets a well-deserved five-star rating from me.  I am extremely excited to see what Heath writes next.

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The Dark Hours by Michael Connelly

The Dark Hours Cover 2

Publisher: Allen & Unwin (Trade Paperback – 9 November 2021)

Series: Ballard & Bosch – Book Three

Length: 391 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

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The master of crime fiction, bestselling author Michael Connelly, returns with another outstanding Ballard and Bosch novel, The Dark Hours, which sets his iconic protagonists on another intense and captivating case.

Connelly is one of those authors who needs very little introduction, having written an amazing number of crime fiction novels throughout his exceptional career.  I have really been getting into Connelly’s work lately, especially after reading his 2020 releases, Fair Warning and The Law of Everything.  However, my favourite Connelly novels have probably been the Ballard and Bosch sub-series, which follows the team of two of Connelly’s great protagonists.  This includes Renée Ballard, who debuted as the lead character of The Late Show, and Harry Bosch, Connelly’s long-running protagonist who has appeared in nearly every one of Connelly’s books since The Black Echo.  These two protagonists first teamed up in Dark Sacred Night in 2018, and then again in The Night Fire, one of the best books and audiobooks of 2019.  I have deeply enjoyed these two characters, and I was very excited when I saw that Connelly was featuring them again in his latest novel, The Dark Hours, which was one of my most anticipated releases for 2021.  The Dark Hours is the 36th overall novel in Connelly’s overarching crime fiction universe and proved to be another exciting and clever read.

As the clock ticks down the last seconds of 2020, the citizens of Los Angeles celebrate New Year’s Eve in their typical chaotic way, with hundreds of celebrators firing guns up into the air, with a rain of bullets coming down shortly after.  Sheltering under a bridge, LAPD detective Renée Ballard is staking out the nearby neighbourhood in hopes of catching a team of rapists terrorising women during the holidays.  However, she instead finds herself called to the scene of a party where an auto shop owner has been fatally hit in the head with a bullet.

Initially assuming that the death was an accident brought on by the lateral bullets fired in celebration, Ballard soon discovers that the shooting occurred at point-blank range, indicating that someone used the revels to disguise their up-close murder.  Starting her investigation, Ballard soon discovers that the same gun was used in an unsolved murder case which had been investigated by her friend and mentor, retired LAPD detective Harry Bosch.

Working with Bosch, Ballard soon finds herself on the trail of a dangerous killer who may have killed many times before and is at the centre of a deadly conspiracy.  Determined to catch this killer before the case is taken away from her, Ballard is willing to break any rule to catch her suspect, no matter the danger to herself or her career.  At the same time, Ballard becomes obsessed with catching the team of rapists destroying lives in her city, but finds herself fighting against a demoralised and uncaring police department, more concerned with maintaining their image than police work.  Can Ballard and Bosch solve these latest crimes before it is too late, or will the predators they stalk land another fatal strike?

This was another incredible book from Connelly that contains a clever and captivating murder mystery that I deeply enjoyed.  The Dark Hours has a fantastic story to it, that not only takes the reader on an intense and particularly dark couple of cases but which also explores the state of policing in 2021.  A brilliant and powerful read, this was an excellent Connelly novel that gets a full five-star rating from me.

Connelly came up with an exceptional crime fiction narrative for The Dark Hours, which I powered through in a few days.  This latest story, told exclusively from the perspective of Ballard, follows the character as she investigates several horrific crimes.  There are two central cases in this book; the first involves a murder of a mechanic, which sees Ballard connect with her old friend Harry Bosch, who previously worked a connected cold case; and the other is a series of rapes throughout LA, made distinctive by the presences of a two-man team.  These two cases are both pretty compelling and unique in their own way, with Ballard getting quite obsessed with both of them.  The murder case has several outlying threads that see Ballard and Bosch chase down gang connections, dirty cops, and a wide-ranging conspiracy of dentists, all of which results in a tight and powerful investigation story with some substantial dangers to Ballard.  The rape case is a dark and disturbing counterpart to this murder, and Connelly ensures that the full horror of this particular type of crime is on full display.  Both of these cases come together extremely well as the story progresses, and I really appreciated how some of the emotions and consequences stirred up in one case led to the characters doing some rash and dangerous things in the other.  Throw in some major professional drama around Ballard, and you have an intense and powerful narrative that really sticks in the mind.  I loved some of the cool and dark twists associated with these intriguing storylines, and Connelly certainly has the ability to create some major and memorable moments.  The Dark Hours also does a good job of continuing some of the storylines from the previous novels, particularly around Ballard’s many issues as a member of the LAPD, and it sets up some future plot points that will no doubt make for an awesome novel or two in the years to come.

One of the most interesting things about The Dark Hours is Connelly’s compelling and in-depth examination of the LAPD in early 2021, following COVID and the protests of 2020.  Connelly paints a detailed and intriguing picture of the LAPD as a dispirited and defunded organisation which has withdrawn from proactive police work and is instead more concerned with avoiding bad publicity and controversy.  The police characters featured within this novel are notably unmotivated and aggrieved, with many more concerned with their own lives than protecting people.  This is a rather grim but seemingly realistic view of the LAPD, and I really appreciated the fact that Connelly attempted to explore what life as a police officer is like in these controversial times.  The author makes sure to try and show both sides of the debate around policing, made easier by his protagonist’s status as LAPD outsiders, and it was fascinating and moving to see the police perspective.  The apathy of the LAPD comes into play in the story in multiple ways, and it was an exceptional and memorable inclusion to The Dark Hours.  In addition, Connelly spends a lot of time exploring early 2021 Los Angeles, with multiple references to masks, vaccines, unemployment and all the other aspects of COVID-19 that we have come to know and love.  While most people are probably quite sick (ha!) about seeing all the COVID stuff wherever you go, even into book-land, those authors wishing to display modern life need to include it, and I felt that Connelly did a great job showing it from an LA perspective.  Throw in some commentary on other key events of early 2021, and The Dark Hours turns into quite a contemporary novel with some extremely intriguing opinions and insights.

Another aspect of The Dark Hours that I enjoyed was the fantastic use of characters featured within it.  In particular, it was rather interesting to see which protagonists got the most focus throughout the novel.  When I first started reading this novel, I assumed that, like the previous Ballard and Bosch books, the story would be a split perspective narrative featuring the two main characters.  Instead, the entire story ended up being told exclusively from Ballard’s point-of-view, with Bosch featured as a supporting character.  While some long-term Bosch fans might feel a little let down, I personally did not mind this as Ballard has been a really fascinating and relatable protagonist in her last few novels.  Ballard has always been an outcast in the LAPD, following her attempt to report her previous supervisor for sexual harassment, and this sense of being an outsider has only intensified throughout her more recent novels.  This all comes to a boil in The Dark Hours, as Ballard is continually stymied by the new attitude of the LAPD, and is constantly undermined by ineffective, dispirited and politically minded colleagues and superiors.  This eventually forces her to adopt a more Bosch-like mentality and she goes outside the lines multiple times to try and bring her culprits to justice.  I rather liked this more reckless side of Ballard, and it ends up resulting in some major changes to her personality and potential law enforcement future.  It was also very fascinating to see Ballard’s opinions on the recent issues affecting policing, and even she finds herself quite angry with some of the accusations levelled against her and the LAPD, despite harbouring her own negative opinions.  Throw in an interesting new relationship and a fun new puppy friend, and this ended up being a particularly good Ballard story.  I look forward to seeing more of Ballard in the future, and I really think that Connelly is setting her up as his primary police character for the future.

While most of the focus is on Ballard, Bosch still has a significant role in The Dark Hours, serving as the main supporting character and Ballard’s unofficial partner.  While it was a little odd not to see Bosch’s perspective on the two main investigations, he was a great wingman to the protagonist and I liked how Connelly was able to work Bosch’s veteran mindset into Ballard’s way of thinking.  It was fun to see him serve the joint role of being Ballard’s voice of reason while also subtly encouraging her to do some more rebellious moves.  I really enjoyed seeing more of Bosch in the book, and it will be interesting to see what Connelly does with him in the future.  Considering that Bosch is currently a much older, out-of-work detective currently battling leukaemia, you have to imagine that Connelly is planning to retire him permanently some point soon, and I am curious to see how or when that happens, no doubt occurring in heartbreaking fashion.

Overall, The Dark Hours is another exceptional novel from Michael Connelly, who continues to showcase why he is one of the best and most consistent authors of crime fiction in the world today.  This latest novel serves as an excellent continuation of the Ballard and Bosch subseries, and it is always so much fun to travel back into Connelly’s expanded and intriguing crime fiction universe.  The Dark Hours has an outstanding and compelling narrative that follows the authors dogged protagonist as she investigates several major and disturbing crimes.  I was pretty much hooked the moment I picked this book up and it is a must-read for all crime fiction fans.

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