Quick Review – City of Vengeance by D. V. Bishop

City of Vengeance Cover

Publisher: Macmillan (Trade Paperback – 9 February 2021)

Series: Cesare Aldo – Book One

Length: 402 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

From impressive debuting author D. V. Bishop comes a powerful and exciting historical murder mystery set in the heart of 16th century Florence with the amazing City of Vengeance.

Synopsis:

Florence. Winter, 1536. A prominent Jewish moneylender is murdered in his home, a death with wide implications in a city powered by immense wealth.

Cesare Aldo, a former soldier and now an officer of the Renaissance city’s most feared criminal court, is given four days to solve the murder: catch the killer before the feast of Epiphany – or suffer the consequences.

During his investigations Aldo uncovers a plot to overthrow the volatile ruler of Florence, Alessandro de’ Medici. If the Duke falls, it will endanger the whole city. But a rival officer of the court is determined to expose details about Aldo’s private life that could lead to his ruin. Can Aldo stop the conspiracy before anyone else dies, or will his own secrets destroy him first?

City of Vengeance is an awesome and powerful historical murder mystery that I have been looking forward to for a while.  New author Bishop has come up with an excellent story that expertly combines great characters, intense historical detail, and a clever murder mystery into an awesome and exciting tale.  I had an outstanding time getting through this amazing book, and this might be one of the better debuts of 2021 that I have so far read.

Bishop has produced an extraordinary narrative for his debut book which I deeply enjoyed and found myself quickly engrossed in.  This book contains an excellent mystery which is actually a clever adaptation of a real-life historical murder and conspiracy in renaissance Florence which the protagonist, Cesare Aldo, finds himself investigating and attempting to stop after several other related crimes are discovered.  Bishop builds a fantastic and intense story around this investigation as the protagonist goes up against several powerful foes and is forced into deadly situations as his opponents attempt to stop him.  There is also a great secondary storyline about a separate murder which is being investigated by both Aldo and his associates at Florence’s criminal court.  While this other murder is not directly connected to the main murder and conspiracy, they do highlight some of the personal issues surrounding the protagonist and provide some intriguing opportunities for a dastardly secondary antagonist.  I loved the author’s great use of multiple perspectives throughout this narrative, and he really comes up with some intense, action-packed moments as Aldo is forced to fight for his life.  This story ended up having some amazing twists to it, especially if you are unfamiliar with the events of 16th century Florence, and the reader is constantly left on their toes as they witness all the crazy events unfold.  I particularly loved the final sequence in the book, mainly because it was an extremely cathartic moment for both the protagonist and the reader, and it served as the perfect end to this dark and captivating tale.  This was an overall incredible narrative, and I am really glad I got to check it out.

Easily one of the best highlights of this fantastic book was the impressive and realistic setting of renaissance Florence that Bishop brought into being.  The author has clearly done their research when it comes to this iconic Italian city as the reader is shown a detailed and complex view of the city throughout the book.  The various characters explore different parts of this historical location, and you get a real sense of the scale and culture of this city.  I really appreciated the way in which Bishop attempts to highlight interesting parts of day-to-day life in Florence during this period, and I also deeply enjoyed the examination of the city’s justice system, leadership, and political placement in the rest of Italy.  The author also utilises a range of different Italian terms and words into the text in a bid to increase the narrative’s authenticity.  I really liked this clever use of language throughout the book, especially as it enhanced the storytelling without disrupting the flow of the narrative.  Several major figures in Florence’s history also make an appearance, and I was deeply impressed by the way in which Bishop portrays them, as well as the infamous historical events that they are connected to.  I thought that the author did a great job cleverly tying these real-life figures into the exciting plot of City of Vengeance, and it was cool to see their unique tales unfold.  All this really helps to elevate City of Vengeance as a historical fiction novel and this was a captivating and clever dive back into 16th century Florence.

I also quite enjoyed the characters featured in this great novel.  On top of the historical figures who are seamlessly fitted into the narrative, Bishop has also come up with a collection of fantastic fictional characters who the main story revolves around.  While I enjoyed all these characters, I must highlight two in particular: the main protagonist Cesare Aldo and secondary antagonist Cerchi.  Aldo is an excellent hero for this book thanks to his dedication to justice, his maverick personality, his quickness with a blade and his investigative prowess, all of which help him attempt to solve the difficult crime before him.  Aldo gets into some very rough scrapes in this book, and it was a lot of fun to see him get through them and survive.  The risks are especially high since the detective also has to hide his sexuality in order to survive.  This was a fantastic character element for Bishop to include and it certainly amped up the difficulties for the protagonist, especially when he is forced to contend with people like Cerchi.  Cerchi is a fellow investigator in Florence’s criminal court, and in many ways he is the direct opposite of Aldo, in that he is a snivelling, corrupt and selfish individual who cares more about lining his own pocket than justice.  Cerchi spends most of the book attempting to undermine Aldo while also blackmailing prominent homosexuals in the city for large amounts of money.  This leads to even greater conflict with Aldo, especially as Cerchi suspects Aldo’s secret, and this adds a whole new level of drama and suspense to the narrative.  I really liked the inclusion of Cerchi in the story as he was a particularly despicable and unlikeable character who the reader quickly grows to hate and beg for his downfall.  Both characters have some great storylines throughout this book, and I particularly enjoyed the way in which their combined arc ends.

In the end I really enjoyed this exceptional first novel from D. V. Bishop which was a lot of fun to read.  Thanks to its awesome blend of history, mystery and clever characters, City of Vengeance has an exciting and captivating narrative that proved extremely hard to put down.  I was deeply impressed with the way that the author utilised his knowledge of 16th century Florence to create a powerful and compelling tale of murder and conspiracy, and readers are in for a real treat with this fantastic debut.  I look forward to seeing what Bishop comes up with next and I particularly hope that he revisits Cesare Aldo and Florence in his future novels.

The Kaiser’s Web by Steve Berry

The Kaiser's Web Cover

Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton/Macmillan Audio (Audiobook – 23 February 2021)

Series: Cotton Malone – Book 16

Length: 14 hours and 32 minutes

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

The always impressive Steve Berry returns with another amazing great historical conspiracy thriller, The Kaiser’s Web, which sees his long running protagonist Cotton Malone investigate secrets left over from World War II.

Germany is in the midst of a ferocious electoral battle as two very different candidates vie to become chancellor.  One is the incumbent chancellor, a long-term public servant who believes in the goodness of her fellow Germans, while her opponent is a far-right populist, stoking the flames of nationalistic hatred and resentment to gain his power.  Both have their own vision for the future, but the key to this election may lie in the past, specifically, to what really happened on 30 April 1945, the day that Hitler and Eva Braun supposedly died in their bunker underneath Berlin. 

When a series of mysterious documents hinting at secrets from her opponent’s past are delivered to the German chancellor, she turns to her long-time friend, former United States President Danny Daniels for help.  Determined to keep Germany from going to the far-right, Daniels calls on the services of former American intelligent agent, Cotton Malone, and his girlfriend, the resourceful Cassiopeia Vitt.  Together, Malone and Vitt follow the trail left in the documents to Chile, where they uncover a dangerous web of deceit and hidden Nazi money, seemingly created by Hitler’s closest confidant and personal secretary, Martin Bormann.

When evidence suggests that Bormann, who everyone believes died in the last days of the war, may have actually survived and fled to South America with billions in stolen wealth, Malone and Vitt are shocked.  However, they soon discover that not everything is as it seems, and that someone has woven a dangerous trap around them, one that could tip the election in the far-right’s favour.  In order to save Germany from itself, Malone and Vitt must unravel the entire truth behind the conspiracy known as the Kaiser’s Web before it is too late.  But what impact can secrets from over 70 years ago have on present day Germany, and how far are people willing to go to protect them?  The truth about Hitler, Braun and Bormann will shock the world, and not even the legendary Cotton Malone will be prepared for the consequences.

Berry has been writing exciting and clever thrillers for nearly 20 years, ever since his 2003 debut, The Amber Room.  While he has written several standalone novels, Berry is best known for his Cotton Malone books, which started in 2006 with The Templar Legacy, and The Kaiser’s Web is the 16th entry.  I only started getting into the Cotton Malone series a few years ago when, on a whim, I decided to try the 14th book in the series, The Malta Exchange.  I ended up really enjoying the amazing story contained within The Malta Exchange, which combined together historical tales of Malta, the Knights Hospitaller and the Vatican, to create an impressive and addictive read.  I was also lucky enough to receive a copy of the 15th book in the series, The Warsaw Protocol, last year, which turned out to be another awesome read that dived deep into the heart of Poland’s history and politics.  Both books were really intriguing reads and I am now quite determined to check out any and all new Cotton Malone novels that come out.  I was particularly interested when I saw the synopsis for The Kaiser’s Web last year and I have been looking forward to reading it ever since.  I am extremely glad that I did, as Berry has once again produced a fantastic and captivating thriller that not only weaves a unique fictional historical conspiracy into an excellent and highly enjoyable story, but which also allows new readers to dive in and readily enjoy. 

For his latest novel, Berry has come up with another cool and impressive story that combines an investigation into historical secrets with an intense and dramatic thriller.  Told from the perspective of all the various players in the book, The Kaiser’s Web’s narrative starts off quickly when a mystery with world-altering implications is presented to the protagonists, forcing them to explore the final days of the Nazi regime and travel all over the world to find the answers.  While it initially seems like the protagonists are caught up in an elaborate and dangerous trap, the narrative quickly takes a turn when a third party intervenes, disrupting the entire plot and leaving everything, including the protagonist’s success or failure, up to chance.  There are so many amazing elements to this story and I loved the way that the author works his altered historical details into a high takes, thrilling narrative, with the secrets of the past very much having an impact of key events from the future.  Like several of Berry’s previous novels, The Kaiser’s Web has a lot less action in it than most thrillers do; instead most of the narrative is filled with talking, historical flashbacks and character building, which I personally really liked and which give this book a much more distinctive feel than some other examples of this genre.  That being said, there are several great, fast-paced action scenes in this book, which, when combined with the clever historical elements and investigation, resulting a thrilling and powerful novel.  I also liked how The Kaiser’s Web has much more a political thriller vibe to it than some of the previous Cotton Malone novels I have enjoyed, with the result of the protagonist’s investigation having severe impacts on the fate of Germany’s election, and indeed Berry works several different stages of the opponent’s campaign into the overarching story, showing how close the election is.  All of this comes together into one big and captivating conclusion, and while I was able to predict a couple of the big twists, including a particularly major reveal, Berry still surprised me in places, and I had an outstanding time getting through this awesome story.

To really flesh out The Kaiser’s Web’s narrative, Berry dives deep into the heart and soul of the country of Germany and its people to set up the story’s central conspiracy and explain its significance.  This includes a really intriguing examination of Germany’s history, both during the war and in the post-war period, and readers get a comprehensive understanding about what happened in Hitler’s bunker, and how history has recorded or, in many cases, failed to properly record these events.  Berry also features a really in-depth examination of some key Nazi figures, including Martin Bormann and Eva Braun, showcasing their psyches and personalities, as well as exploring their role in the war, the major policies that Bormann enacted and their significance to people like Hitler.  There is also an intriguing exploration around their recorded deaths, and the historical inaccuracies about them become a key part of the plot.  There is also a compelling look at what happened to former Nazis post World War II, both in Germany and outside of it.  In particular, the story traces the routes and hideouts that several former Nazis had in South American countries, and it was fascinating to see some of the real-life examples of fleeing Nazis that are repurposed for this narrative.  All of these historical aspects are very interesting, and I love the unique and clever story that Berry was able to create using them.

In addition to Germany’s wartime history, Berry also examines the current political and social climate of Germany, which becomes a significant part of the book’s plot.  Berry really attempts to explore a lot of the current attitudes that the modern German people have, especially as certain resentments, forced political concessions and other factors have seen a re-emergence of the far-right in Germany (and other European countries), and the election featured within the book becomes a real battle for the soul of the country.  The author has obviously spent a lot of time researching current German moods and political preferences, and this proves to be a powerful and compelling heart to the novel, especially as he really does not have to exaggerate some of the problems that new hard-right organisations in Germany are causing.  Berry does a fantastic job not only exploring the roots of a lot of these problems, many of which date back all the way to the war, but also working it into his clever thriller story, resulting in an amazingly powerful narrative that, thanks to these real-world issues, really drags you in.

One of the things that I always like about the Cotton Malone novels are the awesome depictions of the different countries and landscapes that form the backdrop for the impressive narrative.  It is obvious that the author has a real passion for travel and new landscapes, and this really flows through into his writing as Berry spends a lot of time describing all the key features and locations his characters see, both man-made and natural, in exquisite detail.  These depictions are so detailed and compelling that the reader can often believe they are standing next to the characters enjoying the view.  The Kaiser’s Web is no exception to this as the author once again details several amazing places that form the backdrop to the complex story.  As a result, the reader gets to experience some really cool locations, including several provinces of Germany, parts of Chile, brief looks at countries like Switzerland, Belarus and Austria, and an expanded exploration of the Free State in South Africa.  In each of these locations, Berry provides the reader with fantastic details about the landscape, the people, local industries and politics, as well as some fun snippets of history, most of which relate to the post-war period.  This becomes an extremely fascinating part of the book, especially as Berry’s enthusiasm for different horizons is quite infectious, and I had a great time exploring these new locations.  I cannot wait to see where the next Cotton Malone novel is set, as the author is bound to feature some new and intriguing places.

I have to say that I also really enjoyed some of the new characters featured within The Kaiser’s Web.  This was a pretty good book for characters, as Berry continues to not only showcase his long-running protagonist Cotton Malone but also reintroduces two characters who were somewhat underutilised in the previous book.  Cotton, who is something of a nexus for historical conspiracies, has another great adventure in this novel, and I loved seeing this ageing former agent turned rare book dealer get into all manner of trouble as he attempts to find the truth.  Despite being the nominal main character of this novel, I did think that Cotton was slightly pushed into the background of the story, mainly because several of the other characters were very heavily featured.  Part of this is because Cotton spends the entire novel teaming up with his love interest Cassiopeia Vitt.  Due to the fact that I have only read a couple of Cotton Malone novels, this was the first time I have seen the character of Cassiopeia in action, and I quite enjoyed her as a character.  Cassiopeia, who is also the focus of several Berry’s short stories and novellas, is another great character to follow and it was interesting to see her counterpoint to Cotton’s perspectives.  Cotton and Cassiopeia form a fantastic team in this book and I enjoyed seeing them work together and support each other in various ways.  Aside from Cotton and Cassiopeia, it was also great to see more of former US President Danny Daniels, who becomes a key part of the story.  I loved the idea of a popular former President running important international espionage missions after his retirement (could you imagine Obama doing something like that? That sounds pretty awesome), and he serves as a great supporting character getting Cotton and Cassiopeia involved in the story.

While the returning characters are good, my favourite point-of-view characters had to be Marie Eisenhuth, the current German chancellor who finds herself caught in the middle of dangerous events, and her main opponent in the upcoming election, Theodor Pohl, the book’s primary antagonist.  These two characters represent the very different ends of the German political spectrum, with Eisenhuth a pro-immigration and anti-Nazi politician, while Pohl is a far-right figure who is attempting to utilise the conservative populations to introduce damaging nationalistic policies.  Both Eisenhuth and Pohl get a substantial amount of focus in this book and it proved extremely fascinating to see them throughout the novel, especially as their electoral campaign plays out like a battle for the soul of Germany.  It was also great to see Pohl’s perspectives, especially when he is manipulating people or reacting to the actions of Cotton and his friends and is forced to put more deadly plans into play.  While The Kaiser’s Web initially focuses on their political differences, the novel soon examines various parts of both characters’ lives, pasts and families, which proves to be deeply compelling and interesting.  I love the cool reveals behind these characters, and their storylines reveal a very intriguing case of nature versus nature.  I think both characters had exceptional story arcs throughout this book and their storylines ended up being an outstanding part of The Kaiser’s Web.

I ended up listening to The Kaiser’s Web on audiobook, mainly because I have found that Berry’s awesome historically based conspiracies translate across to the audiobook format extremely well and I end up following all the cool detail and inclusions a lot more.  With a run time of 14 hours and 32 minutes, this is a fairly decent sized audiobook, but listeners should generally be able to power through it rather easily, especially once the cool conspiracy really hits its height.  I also really enjoyed the awesome narration of Scott Brick, who does an exceptional job with this latest Cotton Malone book.  Brick is a well-established narrator who has contributed his voice to an amazing number of audiobooks, including all the previous entries in the Cotton Malone series, as well as the fantastic Orphan X series (for example, he did a great job narrating Into the Fire and Prodigal Son).  I particularly enjoyed Brick’s amazing voice work in The Kaiser’s Web, mainly because he got an opportunity to show off the wide range of accents he could do.  Not only does he pull off a range of German accents for the various German characters, but he also does some amazing South American accents and some extremely authentic South African accents.  The South African accent, which is a really hard one to pull off (so many narrators and voice actors try and fail to do it properly, often coming off as Australian), was really good in this book, and I am really impressed by Brick’s skill.  At the same time, Brick’s general narration voice fit the intense tone of The Kaiser’s Web extremely well, and I thought that he moved this dense and complex story along at a decent pace, ensuring that the listener’s attention was constantly drawn in.  As a result, I had an exceptional time listening to this audiobook and this is easily my preferred format to enjoy Berry’s Cotton Malone novels with.

The Kaiser’s Web is another outstanding novel from Steve Berry, who has once again produced a captivating and clever historical conspiracy thriller.  Featuring a unique tale, intriguing dives into several countries and some fantastic characters, The Kaiser’s Web is a must-read for thriller fans and comes highly recommended.  I personally loved untangling all the threads in this cool thriller and I cannot wait to see what Berry comes up with next.

Relentless by Mark Greaney

Relentless by Mark Greaney Cover

Publisher: Sphere/Audible Audio (Audiobook – 16 February 2021)

Series: Gray Man – Book 10

Length: 15 hours and 39 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

One of the leading authors of the spy thriller genre, Mark Greaney, returns with the tenth epic book in his long-running Gray Man series, Relentless, an impressive and captivating read.

Mark Greaney is talented author who has been absolutely killing it over the last 10+ years ever since his 2009 debut.  While he has written some other books, including seven contributions to Tom Clancy’s iconic Jack Ryan universe (three cowritten with Clancy, and four written after Clancy’s death) and the military thriller Red Metal (cowritten with Hunter Ripley Rawlings, and one of my favourite books and audiobooks of 2019), Greaney is probably best known for his awesome Gray Man series.  Starting with The Gray Man in 2009, this series follows Court Gentry, a disavowed CIA operative turned assassin known as the Gray Man.  I am a major fan of this series, having read the last few entries, Mission Critical and One Minute Out (the latter was one of my favourite books and audiobooks of 2020), and I have been looking forward to this book for a while (indeed it was one of my most anticipated releases for 2021).

Around the world, several top intelligence agents are disappearing, and CIA deputy director Matthew Hanley wants to know why.  When a former American agent who was believed to be dead resurfaces in Venezuela under the protection of the local secret police, Hanley has no choice but to send in his most dangerous asset, Court Gentry, the Gray Man.  As the Gray Man, Gentry is feared around the world as a lethal assassin and rogue operative, but his real role is as a deniable hitter for Hanley at the CIA.  Journeying down to Venezuela, Gentry makes contact with the former agent, who spins a tale of conspiracy and espionage in the heart of Europe before being brutally murdered by a heavily armed team of assassins.

Barely managing to escape with his life and convinced of a larger conspiracy at foot, Gentry convinces Hanley to send him to Berlin to uncover the truth.  At the same time, Gentry’s fellow CIA agent and lover, Zoya Zakharova, is infiltrating a private German intelligence firm with connections to the dead man in Venezuela.  As Zoya attempts to find out who is really running the organisation, she finds herself once again in the crosshairs of her former masters in Russian intelligence, who send their most lethal assassin to kill her.

As Gentry and Zoya fight for their life in Berlin, they start to understand the full breadth of the conspiracy they have found themselves amid.  Someone is playing a dangerous game at a global level and they are willing manipulate the American and European governments to further their goals.  Can Gentry and his allies get to the bottom of this conspiracy before it is too late or will a terrible attack lead America into an unwinnable war?

The hits keep on coming from Greaney, as Relentless was a fantastic and incredible novel that is one of the best books of 2021 so far.  I loved the impressive and complex story contained within Relentless with all its twists and turns, and I swiftly became enthralled by the well-written and intense narrative.  I had an outstanding time reading this book and it gets an easy five-star rating from me.

At the heart of this awesome novel is an intense and fast-paced narrative that readers will quickly become addicted to.  Set shortly after the events of One Minute Out, this multi-perspective narrative sends protagonist Court Gentry to South America on a dangerous mission that has connections to the main conspiracy.  After a not entirely unexpected destructive fire fight from a third party, Gentry heads to Europe where he seeks to back up his love interest, Zoya, who is undercover in Berlin following another connected lead.  At the same time, the narrative expands out to showcase other groups involved in the conspiracy, including a manipulative spy master, two separate teams of killers who are hunting different protagonists, and an Iranian sleeper agent, just to name a few.  All their various storylines and character arcs are extremely interesting and exciting, as the author has crafted together some compelling narratives for each of them.  Greaney throws in a lot of amazing surprises and twists throughout the novel, and while I was able to guess how a few things were going to turn out, I could not predict the amazing scale and complexity of the overarching conspiracy that the characters find themselves involved with.  There is a comprehensive and captivating focus on international espionage throughout Relentless which fits into the story perfectly, and I loved all the cool details that author included, including a recreation of a recent real-life espionage event of great significance.  All these storylines come together extremely well, ending with a massive and memorable conclusion that was a lot of fun, and I ended up loving every second of this cool story.  Greaney also sets up some intriguing storylines for future novels in the series and I am really looking forward to seeing what happens next.

In addition to Relentless’s epic story, I really enjoyed Greaney’s cool writing style, which complemented the narrative perfectly.  The novel can be easily enjoyed by people unfamiliar with the series, and I really appreciated the amazing amount of detail and excitement loaded into the book.  There a particular focus on trade craft with this latest novel, with some great explanations about the various spy techniques utilised by the various characters, and this pumped some real authenticity into the story.  I also really enjoyed all the incredible action sequences featured within this latest novel.  Greaney has always had a talent for writing explosive and powerful action scenes, and Relentless contains some impressive examples of this as the protagonists duke it out with a wide range of enemies across the world.  Every action scene is well-planned out, realistic and very intense, ensuring the reader is constantly on the edge of their seat.

I also absolutely loved the author’s excellent use of multiple perspectives throughout the novel, which was a real highlight for me.  While there is an obvious focus on characters like Gentry and Zoya, nearly every other character, including many of the antagonists, have their side of the story shown.  I found this worked extremely well to tell a complex narrative, as the reader gets to see what everyone, from the mastermind of the conspiracy to members of the various kill teams hunting the protagonists, is doing and thinking.  Not only does this build up suspense, as you know in advance some of the dangers and threats coming towards the protagonists, but you also get to see the antagonists react to all of Gentry’s actions and watch them adjust accordingly.  This makes for a much richer and more impressive story, and it works particularly well in some of the combat sequences, as you get to see all the characters manoeuvring around the battlefield.  There are also some extremely awesome chapters where various characters are following each other throughout Berlin.  Watching several point-of-view characters engaging in surveillance and countersurveillance operations against each other, with some other interested parties thrown in for good measure, was very cool, and it ended up being one of the cleverest sequences in the novel.  I really loved how this awesome writing style enhanced the story and I think it worked really well.

As usual, Greaney comes up with an excellent selection of characters for Relentless, all of whom get explored in substantial detail throughout the book.  Most of Relentless’s focus is naturally on the series’ main protagonist, the titular Gray Man himself, Court Gentry.  Greaney continues to paint an interesting figure with Gentry, as a former official CIA operative who was forced to become an assassin with a conscience, before secretly re-joining the CIA in the Poison Apple program as a deniable asset.  Gentry has a great, action-packed story in Relentless, getting into all manner of dangerous situations, and I loved the cool ways he attempts to extricate himself from them, often by killing his opponents.  I also really liked how Greaney gave Gentry a significant handicap in this latest adventure, as he is suffering from a serious infection from a stab wound gained in One Minute Out.  This infection reduces his reaction speed and physical prowess throughout the book and forces him to seek continued medical care, all of which makes his mission even more dangerous and problematic, and which really raises the stakes for the entire book.  It was also great to see more of Zoya and Zack Hightower, the other two Poison Apple agents, both of whom were not featured that much in the previous novel.  Both these agents have some compelling and entertaining arcs in this book, and I always enjoy how well the former Russian knockout and the aging American special operator compliment Gentry as a team.  Interestingly, you also get to see a lot more of CIA deputy director Matthew Hanley, the man secretly running Gentry, as he even gets into the field for a particularly dangerous assignment.  Some big moments occur for Hanley in Relentless, and it will be interesting to find out what happens to him next.  I also quite enjoyed the wild Russian assassin, Maksim Akulov, a drunk lunatic with a death wish, who is assigned to kill Zoya, but eventually starts targeting Gentry, seeing him as the ultimate challenge.  All these amazing characters, and more, really added a lot to the story, and I look forward to seeing how the ones who survived are utilised in the future.

While I did receive a physical copy of Relentless, I ended up enjoying this book in its audiobook format instead.  I have had a lot of fun with Greaney’s audiobooks in the past and I generally find that the intense and epic action and espionage translates into this format extremely well.  Relentless was no exception, and I found myself really enjoying listening to all the cool sequences unfold and at times I almost felt like I was there witnessing it.  With a run time of 15 hours and 40 minutes, Relentless’s audiobook is pretty long and might take listeners a while to get through.  However, it is worth the time investment and you will find yourself quickly powering through it once you get caught up in the story (I personally listened to it for nearly five hours straight at one point).  This latest Gray Man audiobook also sees the return of Jay Snyder as narrator.  Snyder is an experienced and prolific audiobook narrator who has contributed his voice to a wide range of awesome audiobooks in the past, including all the previous entries in the series.  Snyder has a fantastic gruff voice that fits the tone of Relentless perfectly, and which he uses to great effect moving the story along and describing all the deadly action and chaos.  Snyder also produces some great voices for the various characters which I think encapsulate each person really well and proved to be very effective.  I was a little wary about a Minnesota accent that he had to do for one of the characters, but it grew on me as the book progressed and I think it was a decent attempt in the end.  All of this makes for an epic and enjoyable audiobook and this is definitely an amazing way to check Relentless out.

Relentless is another exceptional spy thriller from the always impressive Mark Greaney that comes very highly recommended.  The 10th entry in the always outstanding Gray Man series, Relentless contains another captivating and deeply exciting narrative, which, combined with Greaney’s impeccable writing and fun characters, makes for a truly excellent thriller.  I had such an awesome time reading Relentless, and this book is one of the best releases of 2021 so far.  I look forward to seeing how Greaney continues this series in the future, and I must really go back and check out some of the earlier Gray Man novels this year, especially as a movie adaption of The Gray Man is currently being made by the Russo brothers with Ryan Gosling and Chris Evans set to star (I mean, talk about a movie with some real potential).

Quick Review – The Space Between Worlds by Micaiah Johnson

The Space Between Worlds Cover

Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton (Trade Paperback – 11 August 2020)

Series: Standalone

Length: 329 pages

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Interested in reading a compelling and clever science fiction novel that takes place across multiple alternate dimensions? You need to check out The Space Between Worlds by Micaiah Johnson, one of the most fascinating debuts of 2020.

The Space Between Worlds was an intriguing novel that I was lucky enough to receive and read last year.  This fantastic first novel from Johnson was an exciting and deep read, but I completely failed to review it after finishing it and I have been meaning to write something up for a while.  As we have just gotten into the second month of 2021, I have finally had a chance to rectify this by doing a quick review of The Space Between Worlds, which was a truly impressive and captivating first outing from Johnson.

Synopsis:

A stunning science fiction debut, The Space Between Worlds is both a cross-dimensional adventure and a powerful examination of identity, privilege, and belonging.

‘My mother used to say I was born reaching, which is true. She also used to say it would get me killed, which it hasn’t. Not yet, anyway.’

Born in the dirt of the wasteland, Cara has fought her entire life just to survive. Now she has done the impossible, and landed herself a comfortable life on the lower levels of the wealthy and walled-off Wiley City. So long as she can keep her head down and avoid trouble, she’s on a sure path to citizenship and security – on this world, at least.

Of the 380 realities that have been unlocked, Cara is dead in all but 8.

Cara’s parallel selves are exceptionally good at dying – from disease, turf wars, or vendettas they couldn’t outrun – which makes Cara wary, and valuable. Because while multiverse travel is possible, no one can visit a world in which their counterpart is still alive. And no one has fewer counterparts than Cara.

But then one of her eight doppelgangers dies under mysterious circumstances, and Cara is plunged into a new world with an old secret. What she discovers will connect her past and future in ways she never could have imagined – and reveal her own role in a plot that endangers not just her earth, but the entire multiverse.

Johnson has come up with a very compelling story in The Space Between Worlds that follows Cara, who makes a living hopping across alternate realities to obtain useful data and information that her parent company can utilise.  Cara, who originally lived in a violent wasteland slum outside the gleaming city where her employers are based, is given a new reality to visit when her doppelganger from that reality apparently dies.  However, when she arrives at the new world, she finds that not everything is as it seems, and she encounters a vastly different and infinitely more dangerous version of the town that she grew up in.  Her visit to this reality places her in even more danger when it uncovers some long-buried secrets about her own world, including something from Cara’s own past that she has long tried to keep hidden.  This was an extremely compelling and fast-paced story that proved very easy to get addicted to.  Johnson’s narrative is filled with some fantastic and impressive twists and turns as Cara finds herself amid a dark conspiracy that has its roots in the dimensional travel that keeps her employed.  While it is easy to read this book only for the cool science fiction thriller elements, readers will also become enthralled with the deep character moments as the protagonist tries to come to term with who she is and whether all the versions of her are cursed or damaged in the same way.  All of this makes for an excellent story which is extremely fun to read.

My favourite part of The Space Between Worlds had to be the exceptional alternate reality elements that were such a distinctive part of the book’s plot.  In this dystopian future, Earth contains at least 380 alternate realities that can only be visited by someone whose duplicate in that universe is already dead.  Each of these realities is slightly different, with differing personal decisions resulting in changes to the lives and personalities of its inhabitants.  Johnson did a fantastic job introducing the entire concept around the alternate reality travel to the reader, including with a few entertaining quotes and anecdotes, and I liked how the author envisioned how travelling between dimensions could be utilised and how it could happen.  The scenes featuring the jump to the alternate realities are really trippy, and I loved the quasi-religious nature that those interdimensional travellers take as they view the space that exists between realities.

While all the theory, science and practicalities behind Johnson’s version of reality-jumping is cool, the real beauty is the way in which the author works it into the plot of the book.  Throughout the course of The Space Between Worlds you see several different alternate versions of the same dystopian future, and it was really intriguing to see the subtle differences between them.  The real shock is when the latest world Cara visits turns out to be completely upside down, as several key people in her lives have changed dramatically, including Nik Nik, a brutal warlord to whom Cara’s destiny is constantly tied no matter which reality they are in.  Seeing a completely different version of some of the featured characters in this novel really drives home just how significant a single moment can be and how certain events can change everything about someone.  The author works a lot of the cool revelations, similar character histories and unique details about each character across the cosmos into the overarching plot, helping to create a thrilling tale with some powerful and intense character studies.  I had an outstanding time seeing these cool alternate reality science fiction elements coming into play throughout the book and they proved to be a fantastic and clever addition to the narrative.

The Space Between Worlds by Micaiah Johnson was an extremely compelling and cleverly inventive science fiction debut that is really worth checking out.  I loved the complex and fascinating tale of choices, fate and thrilling betrayals that the author wove through the course of this book, and this was a fantastic book to check out.  I look forward to seeing what Johnson will cook up next and I am sure that it will result in another intriguing and captivating read.

Colonyside by Michael Mammay

Colonyside Cover

Publisher: Harper Audio (Audiobook – 29 December 2020)

Series: Planetside – Book Three

Length: 10 hours and 4 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

One of the most impressive rising stars in science fiction, Michael Mammay, returns with the third entry in his outstanding Planetside series, Colonyside, a captivating science fiction thriller that sees Colonel Carl Butler return for another epic adventure.

After blowing up a second alien planet, former war hero and current “disgrace” Colonel Carl Butler is living a quiet life as a recluse on a remote planet.  While Butler is more than happy to be left alone by everyone, he knows that it is only a matter of time before the government or the military attempt to draft him into another crazy adventure.  This time, a powerful and rich CEO wants the maverick Butler to head up an investigation into the disappearance of his estranged daughter on a newly formed colony.

Knowing the pain of losing a daughter, Butler reluctantly accepts the job and takes the next ship to Eccasis.  Working with old associates Mac and Ganos, as well as a new government-assigned aide, Captain Fader, Butler soon finds himself leading an investigation in a controversial colony where a dangerous and lethal jungle environment lurks just outside the bio-dome.  The missing woman, a talented biologist, disappeared whilst on a routine research mission for her father’s company out in the jungle.  While most people believe that her disappearance can be blamed on the planet’s predatory megafauna, her father believes that there is more to the case.

While everything initially seems on the level, Butler soon becomes convinced that something more is afoot when someone tries to blow him up.  As he begins his investigation in earnest, Butler is forced to contend with corrupt and incompetent local politicians, a hamstrung military presence, a militant environmental organisation and a greedy corporation determined to cover themselves.  Once more caught in the crosshairs of dangerous people with sinister agendas, Butler is forced to bend all the rules to have a chance of surviving.  But has Butler finally found a problem that even he cannot blow his way out of?

Colonyside is the latest awesome science fiction thriller from exciting author Michael Mammay.  I am a major fan of Mammay, having deeply enjoyed his 2018 debut, Planetside, which followed Carl Butler as he attempted to find a missing soldier, only to find himself in the midst of an alien conspiracy.  Planetside was an incredible novel with an impressively shocking and explosive ending, and it was not only one of my favourite books of 2018 but it is also one of my favourite debut novels of all time.  Mammay followed this outstanding debut with a fantastic sequel in 2019 with Spaceside, which saw the protagonist get involved in another conspiracy, this one revolving around military contractors, which proved to be another amazing read and one of the best novels of 2019.  Due to how much I enjoyed the first two Planetside novels, I have been looking forward to seeing how the series would continue in the future and I was extremely excited when I saw that the third novel, Colonyside, was coming out (especially as it had the cool cover above).  My strong anticipation for this novel was not in vain, as Colonyside proved to be another exceptional read that gets a full five-star rating from me.

This outstanding novel contains an epic and addictive narrative that sets its unconventional protagonists on the path to uncover a massive and sinister conspiracy.  Like the previous entries in this series, Mammay brings several genres together in this book, with Colonyside blending science fiction, military fiction and thriller elements into one fantastic story.  This mixture of genres works extremely well together as the protagonist, a former soldier with a penchant for investigation, finds himself attempting to find the final fate of a missing person who disappeared from the jungle of an alien planet.  This awesome premise leads into a clever and compelling narrative as the protagonist attempts to uncover and disrupt a massive conspiracy with galaxy-wide implications while also ensuring his own survival from a range of deadly opponents.  Mammay comes up with a really impressive story here, and I loved all the complex twists and fantastic reveals throughout the novel as the protagonist builds up his case and then deals with the consequences of his discoveries.  While I did find the start of the story a tad slow, it does not take long for the story to heat up and you find yourself getting more and more drawn into the compelling web of lies, intrigue, politics, and the occasional firefight.  I particularly enjoyed the fantastic connections that Colonyside had to the previous entries in the series, as the motivations of the antagonists are directly tied into Butler’s prior actions and their dramatic consequences.  While readers can easily start the Planetside series here with the third book, those readers familiar with Mammay’s prior two novels will really appreciate the way in which the story becomes linked, and I felt that it was a clever bit of storytelling.  All of this leads up to an amazing and exciting conclusion that contains both an incredibly deadly scenario for the protagonists and a series of final reveals, many of which were very well set up and quite enjoyable to uncover.  This makes for an impressive overall narrative that becomes very addictive as you just cannot wait to get to the bottom of the story.

One of the best things about Colonyside was the fact that it once again follows the adventures of the retired maverick solider, Colonel Carl Butler, who serves as the novel’s protagonist and point-of-view character.  Butler is a clever, damaged and calculating military figure who knows that sometimes the only way to get things done is to break the rules and go off book, even if it costs him.  This amazing character has gone through a lot of stuff over the course of the first two entries in the Planetside series, including nuking two separate alien planets.  While he did have good reasons for his actions, Butler is now unsurprisingly an incredibly infamous figure in the galaxy, with a huge number of enemies across the political and social spectrum (it takes skill to be simultaneously hated by both environmentalists and big corporations).  While he has committed some atrocities, Butler is still an incredibly likeable character, mainly because deep down he is a good person who is mainly trying to do the right thing, no matter the consequences.  Butler proves to be a fun character to follow, especially as he as a very smart-assed way to him, producing a number of entertaining moments.  The character is also a competent investigator and a surprisingly effective master manipulator, especially of military personal.  I also quite liked the way in which the character has grown and evolved since the start of the series, and there are several examples throughout the book which show him learning from his mistakes in the earlier novels.  He also has a much greater appreciation for all sorts of people and various forms of life within the universe, particularly after his experiences with sentient alien life forms, and these new insights have helped to turn him into a much more well-rounded protagonist.  As a result, you really want for him to survive and succeed throughout the course of the novel, and your heart breaks a little each time he finds himself in danger or he is forced to compromise his morals for the greater good.

While there are a range of intriguing aspects to Butler’s character and portrayal, easily the most distinctive part of his inclusion in this novel is his unique narration.  Butler provides a first-person narration for the entire novel, which results in the reader being privy to all his thoughts and feelings.  While this may seem like typical first-person narration fare, it is actually pretty distinctive in Colonyside as Butler is constantly analysing everything that he says, does or hears and immediately relaying that back to the reader.  This includes in some cases evaluating each sentence that another character utters, and then thinking hard about how he wants to respond before uttering his next bit of dialogue.  While this way of writing the character’s thoughts and perceptions does take a little getting used to and may seem a little excessive at times, you soon grow to appreciate all the character’s valuable insights and opinions about the people he is dealing with.  Not only is it refreshing to hear a protagonist admit when he is in the wrong or just being an arse (both of which happen frequently), but hearing his thoughts on the other characters and events occurring in front of him gives you additional insights into the complex investigation and makes the overall investigation even more intriguing.  I also loved the way in which the protagonist plans out how he is going to manipulate or outmanoeuvre his various opponents throughout the novel, especially when he is talking to them, and it is entertaining to see his schemes unfold, whether they succeed or fail.  All of this helps to turn Butler into a unique and enjoyable protagonist to follow and I cannot wait to see what happens to him in his next adventure.

Colonyside is also filled with a great range of side characters who add a lot to the story.  The other three main characters are Butler’s team of Mac, Ganos and Captain Fader, all three of whom have some intriguing and enjoyable interactions with the protagonist.  Mac, Butler’s personal bodyguard, who previously appeared in Planetside, is a solid and incredibly likeable non-commissioned soldier who loyally serves Butler and tries to keep him safe, even from his own stupid decisions.  Despite being outranked by Butler, Mac does not take any crap from him, and the two characters have a fantastic and enjoyable bond throughout the book.  The other recurring character is Ganos, the tough, anti-authoritarian hacker who helped Butler in Spaceside.  Ganos starts the novel off having some major issues with Butler, especially after the fallout from their escapades in the second novel.  This requires Butler to try and rebuild her trust in him throughout the novel, and their struggling friendship becomes a dramatic and enjoyable plot point throughout Colonyside.  This team is joined by new member, Captain Fader, a by-the-book officer who has been assigned to Butler as his aid, while also being ordered to report on his actions.  Fader, an extremely efficient, organised and bright individual, becomes a key part of the protagonist’s investigation, and she serves as a useful sounding board for Butler’s various theories about the disappearance and overarching conspiracy.  The clash of styles between the two characters becomes an intriguing part of the novel, as Fader struggles to deal with Butler’s rule breaking.  Nonetheless, Butler and Fader form a great mentor relationship throughout the course of the novel, and it was great to see the various ways in which Butler influenced the younger officer.  Aside from these three excellent written comrades for Butler, Colonyside is also filled with a range of compelling side characters, including some figures from the previous novels, as well as the various inhabitants of the colony.  Mammay does a great job introducing the fantastic range of extra characters featured in the book and many of them become key suspects in the novel’s overarching mystery.  This complex collection of suspects adds some great layers to the main story, and it proved to be quite entertaining to see Butler attempt to interact with them to get his way.

The great story and fantastic characters are backed up by an outstanding and unique science fiction setting that serves as the perfect backdrop to this amazing novel.  The settlement of Eccasis is large bio-dome surrounded by a planet of harsh and inhospitable jungle.  The jungle is full of dangers, including dangerous megafauna, poisonous insects and all manner of bacteria that makes going outside without a suit an unbelievably bad idea.  Naturally, the protagonist spends a great deal of time out in this hostile environment and there are some great scenes set out there.  While the jungle is extremely dangerous in its own way, it turns out to be a cakewalk compared to the main setting inside the colony’s dome.  The inhabitable interior of the Eccasis settlement is a political powder keg filled with all manner of competing interests: greedy corporations, a radical environmental group, a corrupt civilian government and an understaffed military attempting to keep the peace despite their lack of equipment and manpower.  This diverse group of competing personalities helps to enhance the intriguing story and it proved to be very compelling to see the protagonist attempt to get to the bottom of their various motivations and agendas.  It was also intriguing to see how Butler’s previous actions have impacted the overarching universe that the series is set in.  After his prior adventures where he nuked two separate planets with the intention of killing aliens, a series of strict environmental laws have been passed, limiting expansion and corporate interest.  This leads to a bunch of clever storylines within the novel, and I really enjoyed seeing some fallout from the events of the earlier books, especially because it has such a major impact on this third book’s plot.  There is also a real anti-corporation theme to this novel, mainly because the protagonist is a lot more suspicious of corporate organisations after the events of Spaceside, and it will be interesting to see if this will be a recurring theme in future books.  I had a lot of fun with this cool science fiction setting and I really enjoyed the way in which the author worked into the plot, helping to create an excellent story.

I ended up listening to the audiobook format of Colonyside, which proved to be an excellent and fantastic treat.  This format of Colonyside has a reasonable run time of just over 10 hours, making it an easy audiobook to get through quickly, especially when you get caught up in its intrigue-laden story.  I found that this epic novel flew by for me in this format and I felt that I absorbed a lot more about the setting and characters while listening to it.  Probably the main reason that I liked this format was the fact that the audiobook is narrated by the very talented R. C. Bray, who previously narrated Planetside and Spaceside.  Bray, who has an impressive selection of science fiction and thriller narrations to his resume, has an awesome, deep voice that perfectly fits the protagonist, Carl Butler.  I really liked the authoritative and confident tone that Bray used for this central character, and the listener ended up with a fantastic sense of who Butler is and what his emotional state is throughout the audiobook.  While I did occasionally find it hard to differentiate between the protagonist’s dialogue and inner thoughts in this format, this was a particularly minor issue and I still had an incredible time listening to this book and I would strongly recommend the audiobook version for anyone interested in checking out Colonyside.

Colonyside by Michael Mammay is an incredible and deeply captivating read that pits an outstanding and enjoyable protagonist on a high-stakes, mysterious adventure.  This latest novel from Mammay is an amazing third entry in one of the best science fiction thriller series out there, and I love the clever and addictive plot contained within this book.  A highly recommended read, I cannot wait to see how the next entry in this fantastic series turns out.

#NoEscape by Gretchen McNeil

#NoEscape Cover

Publisher: Freeform Books (Hardcover – 8 December 2020)

Series: #MurderTrending – Book 0 (prequel)

Length: 344 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Bestselling author Gretchen McNeil returns with another murderous young adult thriller with #NoEscape, a gripping and fantastic prequel to her amazing #MurderTrending series.

Gretchen McNeil is a fantastic author who specialises in amazing young adult novels with horror or suspense twists to them.  She is probably best known for her Don’t Get Mad series of novels (which were adapted into the Netflix series, Get Even), and her 2012 novel Ten, which was turned into a Lifetime movie.  Other works of McNeil include Possess, 3:59 and I’m not Your Manic Pixie Dream Girl, all of which sound like fun and entertaining reads.  I am most familiar with McNeil due to her latest series of novels, the #MurderTrending books.  This series started in 2018 with #MurderTrending, which followed a group of young felons, known as the Death Row Breakfast Club, who had to survive their brutal public execution on reality television.  #MurderTrending was an extremely fun and thrilling book that not only presented an exciting narrative for a group of great character, but which also parodied society’s love for social media and reality television shows.  McNeil followed up this first entry in the series with the sequel #MurderFunding, an awesome-sounding book that followed another deadly reality television show.  While I really liked the sound of the second #MurderTrending novel, I did not get a chance to read it, although I might try to read it later this year.  Her latest novel, #NoEscape, serves as a prequel to #MurderTrending and is set 20 years before the events of the first book.

Seventeen-year-old Persey has been beaten down her whole life by her abusive parents and her overachieving brother.  While everyone considers her to be useless, Persey knows that there is one thing she is good at: escape rooms.  After solving a supposedly unbeatable escape room, Persey is given a chance by the parent company, Escape-Capades Ltd, to compete in an elite escape room challenge with a multi-million-dollar reward for whoever wins it.

In desperate need of the money, Persey reluctantly accepts the invitation and is taken to the Escape-Capades headquarters in Las Vegas with several other gifted teen competitors, each with substantial escape room experience.  Persey and the other participants are shocked when the challenge begins almost as soon as they arrive at the headquarters.  Entering a series of elaborate rooms, the group are instructed to work together to succeed within the set time frames.  While at first the challenges seem like normal escape room fare, it soon becomes apparent that something is off.

After one challenge that puts each contestant in mortal risk, they players are shocked when someone is killed in front of them.  Convinced it was faked as part of the game, the escapees continue to advance until someone else is killed.  As each room becomes more and more deadly, it becomes apparent that someone is out for blood and is determined to make the escapees suffer.  Forced to solve a series of gruesome and bizarre puzzles to survive, Persey begins to realise that each of her fellow participants has a secret they would die to protect.  Each contestant is related to each other in some way, and whoever is running the game is seeking vengeance.  Can Persey and her new friends survive, or will they become the first victims of a sick killer with dangerous ambitions for the future?

In this latest novel, Gretchen McNeil has come up with an exceptional tale of manipulation and vengeance as the protagonist finds herself trapped in a series of deadly escape room with a group of unpredictable allies.  This is an extremely fun and exciting novel that blends a tense situation, excellent characters and a series of clever twists to create a deeply compelling and highly addictive read.  I read through this book in one night as I became deeply engrossed with the plot and couldn’t wait to see how the story unfolded.  I love the idea of a group of teenagers caught in an escape room designed to expose secrets and kill its participants, and McNeil utilised her plot design to maximum effect, creating a dark and high-stakes read.  The novel features a great collection of distinctive and fun characters, each of whom stand out in their own way and bring something different to the story while also bringing in some excellent drama with their conflicting personalities.  The main protagonist and point-of-view character, Persey, is particularly intriguing, and the author spends significant time exploring her past, showing a series of flashbacks that highlighted her emotionally abusive parents and damaged brother.  All of these characters have some major secrets, and McNeil cleverly weaves hints of them into the plot before they are eventually revealed.  This book features a lot of excellent and cleverly written twists and turns, and while I was able to predict a good deal of them, it was still a lot of fun seeing them unfold and I was every taken by surprise with several major reveals.  Overall, this is a fantastic and fast-paced narrative that readers will quickly become addicted to and which has an outstanding and powerful conclusion.

One of the major appeals of this book is that it serves as a great prequel to #MurderTrending and #MurderFunding.  This makes it an opportunity to highlight the origins of some of the characters (mainly the antagonists) that appeared in the later books in the series.  Fans of the series will really love the excellent way McNeil ties the narrative into the other #MurderTrending novels and there are a lot of clever and fun references scattered throughout this latest book.  There is really no requirement for someone to read either of the other novels in the series first before trying out #NoEscape, and new readers will be able to easily enjoy this cool and exciting tale.  Indeed, this novel could even serve as a fantastic entry point into the series, and I would definitely recommend that anyone who enjoyed #NoEscape should definitely read #MurderTrending next.  I personally wish that I had read #MurderFunding first, as there were a couple of reveals that did not have as significant an impact on me as I think they were supposed to.  Still, I had an outstanding time reading this latest book from McNeil and I cannot wait to see what she comes up with next.  After getting hooked on this latest book, I might try and read #MurderFunding this year, especially if McNeil is planning any additional entries to this awesome series.

I really liked how McNeil utilised escape rooms in this novel, and it proves to be a fantastic setting for this amazing young adult thriller.  The author has come up with a huge range of intriguing and clever challenges for her participants to try and overcome, and I loved seeing all the various riddles and puzzles.  As the escape room continues, the rooms become more and more deadly, and it was quite fun to see all the unique and elaborate murder contraptions that the author imagines.  Some of the challenges and the deaths in this book were really over the top, and it proved to be exhilarating and nerve-racking to watch the protagonists attempt to overcome them, especially when a particularly fun character’s life was on the line.  McNeil also uses her novel to examine and somewhat parody the current escape room trend, with each of the characters being a major escape room user with a huge amount of enthusiasm for them.  As a result, this ends up being a particularly fun read for anyone who has done an escape room in the past, although I can guarantee that you will be rather suspicious about the next challenge that you undertake.  I had a lot of fun getting through these deadly escape rooms in the story and I cannot wait to see what McNeil uses as the major plot setting in her next novel.

Like the previous entries in this series, #NoEscape was written for a young adult audience and follows several teenage protagonists.  This is excellent novel for teenage readers; I know I would have loved to read this when I was younger.  I particularly liked how the author did not write down for a younger audience, instead presenting a detailed and complex tale, filled with intriguing characters, compelling story elements and several very dark sequences.  I would say that, due to the sometimes gruesome content, this book is probably best read by older teenagers, especially those who have a love of escape rooms.  This is also one of those young adult novels that can be easily enjoyed by adult readers, who will enjoy all the excitement and clever twists.  There are also a huge number of cool pop culture references throughout the book that will prove appealing to readers of many different ages, as McNeil covers a massive range of different genres and forms of entertainment, ranging from classic horror movies (there is a great clue hidden in one reference that older readers will particularly enjoy), anime, professional wrestling, books and movies (I loved one of the character’s Harry Potter themed shirt; shame it got blood on it).  Overall, this is a great young adult book, and I really appreciate the fact that McNeil has made it appealing to very wide audience.

#NoEscape is another fun and exciting young adult thriller from the amazing Gretchen McNeil.  Serving as a fantastic prequel to #MurderTrending, this is a clever and captivating read that is really worth checking out.  Readers are going to love this exhilarating and deadly narrative, and you are guaranteed to speed through this outstanding and thrilling novel in a very short amount of time.  Highly recommend.

Call of the Bone Ships by RJ Barker

Call of the Bone Ships Cover

Publisher: Orbit (Trade Paperback – 24 November 2020)

Series: The Tide Child – Book Two

Length: 491 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

One of the biggest rising stars in fantasy fiction, the always impressive RJ Barker, returns with the second novel in The Tide Child trilogy, Call of the Bone Ships, an epic read that was one of the best fantasy releases of 2020.

Welcome back to the boneship known as Tide Child, a black ship of the damned crewed by those condemned to death for various crimes in the Hundred Isles and tasked with fighting in a war against their nation’s rivals, the Gaunt Islanders.  Following their first grand adventure, which saw Tide Child save the last of the vast sea dragons from whose bones the powerful ships are made, much has changed in the world.  The Shipwife of Tide Child, Lucky Meas Gilbryn, seeks to undermine her mother, the ruler of the Hundred Isles, by working with black ships of both nations to create a new settlement outside of their tyrannical controls.  However, their previous decision to save the last dragon has had unexpected consequences, and soon the ocean is alive with the news that more dragons have returned.  With their return comes the battle to kill the creatures and harvest their bones to create more ships, as the nation with the most ships will rule the waves.  However, the crew of Tide Child find themselves drawn into a different conflict when they chance upon a damaged ship with a hold full of dead or dying prisoners.

Attempting to find out more about the mysterious cargo, Meas and Tide Childs’ Deckkeeper, Joron Twiner, try to follow it to its original destination, only to discover that their new island sanctuary has been destroyed and its people carried off for a nefarious purpose.  As they start to fight back against their former comrades in the Hundred Isles, Tide Child finds itself in the midst of a dark conspiracy which will push the entire world into chaos and conflict.  A new war is coming to the oceans, and no-one is safe from its deadly consequences.

Well damn, how does Barker keep on doing it?  Over the last few years, RJ Barker has been one of the most consistent and outstanding fantasy fiction writers out there, producing several incredible and deeply enjoyable novels.  I was a major fan of his debut, The Wounded Kingdom trilogy, as all three novels, Age of Assassins, Blood of Assassins and King of Assassins were amazing reads, with each one being better than the last.  However, Barker’s writing was on a whole other level in 2019 when he published the first entry in The Tide Child trilogy, The Bone Ships, an epic read that detailed the trials and tribulations of a condemned crew aboard a ship made from dragon bones.  I absolutely loved The Bone Ships and it was one of my favourite books and audiobooks of 2019.  Needless to say, I was extremely eager to receive my copy of Call of the Bone Ships, and it was one of my most anticipated reads for the second half of 2020.  Unfortunately, circumstances forced me to hold off reading this novel until the end of the year, which I deeply regret as this was another awesome novel from Barker that got an easy five-star rating from me.

For Call of the Bone Ships, Barker has come up with another exciting and amazing narrative which follows a unique group of protagonists on a deadly adventure through a dark fantasy world.  Told primarily from the point of view of Tide Child’s Deckkeeper (first mate), Jordon Twiner, this is a massive character-driven story filled with action, intrigue, and betrayal.  While the first novel in this series focused on a wild adventure as a ship followed their new captain on a quest to find a sea dragon, this second novel focuses more on the politics of the Hundred Isles, as the Tide Child and their allies attacking as undercover rebels to undermine the cruel ruling hierarchy and determine what their plans are.  After an intriguing introduction, Call of the Bone Ships swiftly devolves into a war novel, as Meas and her crew begin to fight back against the oppressive Hundred Islanders who oppose them.  At the same time, Joron is forced to deal with a number of personal issues aboard the ship as he finds himself thrust into the midst of danger and betrayal as everything in his life goes to hell around him.  The plot of Call of the Bone Ships goes into some dark but captivating directions, and the Tide Child crew are hit with some major curveballs and tragic events.  All of this leads up to an impressive conclusion which is highlighted by a major and dramatic cliff-hanger that is going to require any reader of this book to desperately wait for the final entry in this series to be released.  While this book was a tad slow to start, especially if you were unfamiliar or somewhat forgetful of the events of The Bone Ships, it eventually resulted in a truly epic and outstanding story that proves impossible to put down once you get wrapped in its intense and captivating narrative.  The plot of Call of the Bone Ships has a fantastic flow on from the previous entry in the series and served as an excellent sequel, making great use of several of the story elements introduced in The Bone Ships and more than living up to the hype Barker established with the first The Tide Child novel.

One of the things that I have been most impressed with for this series is the author’s ability to create a gripping and consistently well-written maritime story.  Narratives that are primarily set aboard boats are notoriously hard to write, but Barker has risen to the challenge, writing a novel rich in naval and maritime detail, with a major fantasy fiction edge to it.  Call of the Bone Ships contains an intense amount of intriguing detail about the coming and goings aboard the ship out at sea and Barker does an amazing job highlighting the various day-to-day actions a crew are expected to undertake, as well as all the unique features that makes a ship in this fantasy universe different from real-world ships.  This impressive attention to detail translates extremely well into several naval battles and combat sequences, and it was cool to see the Tide Child engage in battle with other ships in some outstanding and beautifully written sequences.  In addition, Barker ensures that every major character in this novel had a real nautical feel to them.  Everything about these characters, from the way they spoke to how they act or think aboard the ship made you think of old sea-salts who had spent a lifetime on the waves, which helps to bring an interesting ring of realism to the story.  I also really love the intense and encapsulating atmospheres that Barker creates with his excellent writing ability, and you get a real sense of the moods of the entire ship throughout the novel, whether it be despair at something bad that has befallen the ship, or the sense of repetitive boredom that arrives from the ship doing the same action day after day with no break in routine.  All of this helps to produce a truly exceptional narrative, and I cannot emphasise how impressive the author’s various nautical inclusions are.

While the series is nominally about the dangerous events that the Tide Child finds itself involved with, in many ways its plot is driven by the growth and development of the main protagonist and point-of-view character Joron Twiner.  At the start of this series, Joron was a depressed and embittered young man who was unjustly forced aboard the black ship and made its Shipwife due to his lack of courage and determination.  But after meeting Meas and beginning to serve under her, Joron has become a competent officer who has the respect of most of his crew and who is now dedicated to Meas and her mission.  Call of the Bone Ships turns out to be a major novel for Joron as he participates in several adventures and battles, showing his skill as a commander, warrior and leader throughout the novel.  However, participation in these adventures has severe consequences as Joron gets beaten down and broken apart multiple times from injuries, betrayal and personal tragedy.  Watching Joron suffer is quite a hard part of this novel as the reader becomes extremely attached to him due to his likeable personality and sheer determination.  However, it is worth it to see Joron rise again as a stronger and much more developed person, and this ended up being a fantastic part of his personal story arc.  A lot of this book is also dedicated to Joron’s mysterious ability as the caller, someone who is prophesied by the Gullaime (the enslaved avian wind mystics who provide power to the ships) as a great saviour.  Joron, who first experienced these powers while calling a sea dragon to his aid, continues to develop certain abilities which prove to be rather effective and spectacular throughout the novel and opens up a lot of opportunities for the character.  The end of Call of the Bone Ships leaves Joron in an extremely intriguing position, and I am deeply curious about how his story will end in the final novel.

In addition to his complex protagonist, Barker also includes a literal raft of impressive and captivating characters, most of whom serve as members of Tide Child’s crew.  These great characters each have distinctive personalities and add a great deal to the narrative.  The main side character is easily Lucky Meas, the Shipwife of Tide Child who has turned her ship from a bastion of reprobates to a group of heroes with a noble purpose (mostly).  Meas is a truly inspirational character who has served as a close mentor to Joron and who continues to lead her crew with wisdom, experience, and humility.  Meas was a little less utilised in this novel than in the first book, with Joron taking more of a lead now that he has some command experience.  She was still a fantastic and distinctive character within this latest novel, and I really enjoyed where her personal story arc went, even though we still do not have that much information about her backstory.  Another great character was Tide Child’s ultra-powerful Gullaime, who continues to work along the crew, especially Joron, who has a special connection to the creature.  The Gullaime also has a rather intriguing arc in this novel, and it is clear that he will play a rather substantial role in the ending of the overall series.  The mysterious bird creature also develops a lot more as a character in this novel, especially after encountering different members of his species, although he continues to provide his entertaining tirades of broken speech to the crew.  The rest of the crew prove to be extremely compelling, and I liked the fact that Barker spent time expanding out the roles and personalities of a huge number of side characters, including giving several of them brief point-of-view chapters.  However, in some of these cases it did seem that the author only gave these characters more of a role so that he could then brutally kill them off, much to the heartbreak of the reader.  A number of these characters do get some rather substantial and enjoyable story arcs, and it will be interesting to see where the remaining members of the crew end up in the final book.

I have a lot of love for the dark and elaborate fantasy worlds that Barker creates in his novels, and the one featured in The Tide Child series is particularly amazing.  I deeply enjoyed this harsh and cruel world of small islands, deadly seas and warring nations, especially with the cool gender-bent world (for example, captains are known as Shipwives, while boats are referred to as him).  I really enjoyed returning to this amazing and creative world, especially as it proves to be an incredibly rich setting for the novel’s awesome and addictive narrative.  Barker does some excellent world-building in this second entry in the series, and you get some cool features, such as different groups of Gullaimes who lack wind powers but serve as jailers for their powered brethren, some new powers for the characters and some intriguing new locations.  All of this helped to create a more elaborate and impressive narrative and it is always cool to see more of this grim and deadly fantasy universe, especially as Barker’s awesome writing bring so many of the more impressive elements, such as the giant dragons, to life in such epic fashion.

The final thing I wanted to praise about Call of the Bone Ships were all the little details featured within the paperback version of the novel, that I would have previously missed in the first The Tide Child novel due to me checking out The Bone Ships in audiobook format.  I definitely have to highlight the impressive and intricate cover above, which was drawn by talented artist Edward Bettison.  The covers for this series are extremely cool, and I cannot wait to see what amazing design the artist comes up for the final entry in the series.  I also really liked the awesome artwork that was featured within the novel.  Not only is there a fantastic and detailed map at the very front of the book but there is also some sweet artwork at the start of each chapter, which depicts locations, creatures and characters from within the book.  Barker has also featured a short index at the end of the novel which contains some of the crew titles that were created for the series, detailing what each crew member is supposed to do.  All of these details are great and eye-catching inclusions to the novel, and I felt that it made Call of the Bone Ships just a little bit more special.

Call of the Bone Ships by RJ Barker was another epic and outstanding novel that shows why Barker is one of the most impressive new fantasy talents in recent years.  This incredible sequel to 2019’s The Bone Ships contains an exceptional and addictive story at sea, featuring rich and complex characters and all set within a creative and vibrantly dark fantasy world.  The combination of these awesome elements helps to create a captivating and powerful read which turned out to be one of the best books of the year.  I cannot recommend this novel enough.  If you have not found out about RJ Barker yet, you are really missing out!

Cyber Shogun Revolution by Peter Tieryas

Cyber Shogun Revolution

Publisher: Penguin Random House Audio (Audiobook – 3 March 2020)

Series: United States of Japan – Book Three

Length: 10 hours and 55 minutes

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

If you like the sound of a gritty spy thriller set in an alternate version of America filled with destructive mechas, then you really need to check out Cyber Shogun Revolution, the third novel in Peter Tieryas’s outstanding United States of Japan series.

The United States of Japan novels are a fun and inventive series that is routinely described as a combination between The Man in the High Castle and Pacific Rim.  This series is set in an alternate history in which the United States lost World War II after Japan invented mechas to defeat the Allies.  Following the end of the war, the United States was split between the Japanese Empire and the Nazis, who subsequently engaged in an extended and brutal Cold War against each other.  This latest novel is set in 2020 and features an intense and thrilling new tale that is separate from the stories told in the previous two entries in the series.

Following the end of the latest war against the Nazis, the United States of Japan is facing a crisis as their corrupt governor appears to be a Nazi sympathiser, secretly doing their enemy’s bidding.  Seeking justice after a brutal Nazi attack in Kansas, mecha pilot Reiko Morikawa joins a secret organisation of high-ranking soldiers, mecha pilots and politicians, known as The Sons of War, who plot to assassinate the governor and replace him with one of their own.  While their initial plan to kill the governor goes awry, their target is still killed thanks to the intervention of the mysterious assassin and feared Nazi slayer, Bloody Mary.

However, Bloody Mary has a whole different agenda and swiftly turns against The Sons of War, assassinating key members of the organisation in a brutal strike that leaves Reiko as the only survivor.  Determined to find out why Bloody Mary betrayed them, Reiko teams up with Bishop Wakan, an agent of Japan’s secret police, the Tokko, to hunt her down and stop her plot.  Tracing a shipment of black market mecha parts to Nazi America, Reiko and Bishop travel into enemy territory to find answers and soon find themselves in the midst of a massive conspiracy.  Bloody Mary has plans to change the entire United States of Japan forever, and she does not care who dies to achieve her goal.  Can Reiko and Bishop stop her before it is too late, or will the entire world feel Bloody Mary’s wrath?

Cyber Shogun Revolution is an exciting and compelling new novel from Tieryas, which serves as the third entry in the United States of Japan series.  I have a lot of love for this series after powering through the second novel, Mecha Samurai Empire, when it came out a couple of years ago.  I have been meaning to check out this latest entry for some time now, and I was glad I was able to get around to it before the end of 2020.  This latest book was really cool, and I loved the bold new story that Tieryas was able to come up with, especially as he once again makes excellent use of his unique and captivating alternate world.

This latest entry in the United States of Japan series proved to be a fun and fast-paced novel, which sees two intense protagonists forced to investigate a lethal conspiracy in an inventive and clever setting.  Told from the alternating perspectives of its two main characters, Reiko and Bishop, this story gets off the ground quick and does not slow down one bit throughout the entire book as the protagonists quickly find themselves in the midst of all manner of intrigue and suspense.  This was a deeply exciting novel, and I liked how the author changes focus from the previous novel, writing Cyber Shogun Revolution as more of a spy thriller with alternate history and science fiction elements.  I really liked the impressive pace of this novel and I was quickly drawn in by the compelling and complex thriller that Tieryas weaves for the reader, especially as it makes great use of its setting and unique world elements to tell the entire story.  The author throws in a few good twists and turns throughout the narrative, and I quite enjoyed seeing the story unfold in all its action-packed glory.  Readers do not need to have any pre-knowledge of the United States of Japan series to enjoy this book as the narrative is mostly unrelated to the events of the previous novels, although fans of the series will no doubt enjoy seeing the various changes to the universe.  Overall, Cyber Shogun Revolution had a fantastic and exhilarating story that is guaranteed to keep the reader wildly entertained throughout the entire run of the book.

A major highlight of Cyber Shogun Revolution, and indeed the entire United States of Japan series, is the inventive and unique alternate version of the world that the author has created.  The Japanese-controlled America featured within this series is an intriguing blend of Western and Japanese culture, mixed with advanced technology and an entirely new history.  I really enjoyed seeing all the clever combinations of culture that the author featured throughout his story, and there are quite a few amusing references and ideas featured throughout.  There is a particular focus on cuisine, and Tieryas once again enthrals the reader with descriptions of intense and interesting-sounding fusion foods, many of which I would love to try out.  These descriptions of the United States of Japan are really cool, and it proves to be a rich setting for the narrative to run through, especially as it is not the shiny utopia that it appears on the surface.  The country is instead a dangerous and oppressive regime ruled over by fanatical thought police, where even a momentary slipup is enough to condemn you to a horrible fate.  Tieryas spends time really highlighting this darker side of his universe in Cyber Shogun Revolution and it ends up become a major part of the plot.  The author also takes the reader on a brief tour of Nazi-occupied America, which proves to be a particularly horrible experience (strangely enough, the Nazis are just as bad, if not worse, in this reality), mainly due to the Nazis’ reliance on bioengineering rather than machines, which results in a number of disturbing and disgusting creatures, such as their bimorphs (giant organic mechas).  The comparisons between the Japanese and Nazi controlled parts of America are really fascinating, and I am really glad the author based a bit of the story there.  Needless to say, I absolutely loved the setting for Cyber Shogun Revolution, especially as it helped create a clever and complex narrative, and I cannot wait to revisit it in some of Tieryas’s future novels.

Now there is no way that I can talk about Cyber Shogun Revolution without mentioning the mechas, the giant and powerful human-controlled battle machines which won the war for the Japanese.  Mechas are a distinctive and exciting pop culture creation, especially in anime, and Tieryas uses them to great effect throughout the entire book.  While this latest entry in the series has a definite focus on conspiracies and espionage, Tieryas still slips in several mecha fights and combat scenes.  Indeed, the entire last third of the novel sees the protagonists go up against a series of different and powerful mechas in some intense and epic sequences.  The author has clearly had some creative fun in this book as Cyber Shogun Revolution features a raft of new mechas, each with some unique or advanced piece of technology that gives them an edge over their opponents, including mechas with magnet guns, a mammoth-shaped mecha with a chainsaw trunk, and a mecha that has super speed.  This naturally leads to some fantastic and distinctive sequences, as the protagonists need to find a way to defeat the varied opponents around them.  I particularly enjoyed one sequence that saw one of the characters fighting against a rival mecha, while the other protagonist assists from the outside while riding a jetpack.  Needless to say, if you love mecha combat and fantastic battle scenes (who doesn’t?) then you are going to have a lot of fun with Cyber Shogun Revolution.

In order to tell this fantastic novel, Tieryas utilises two excellent, if damaged, point-of-view protagonists in the duo of mecha pilot Reiko Morikawa and secret agent Bishop Wakan.  After both have separate run-ins with Bloody Mary in which they are the only survivor, the two team up in order to get to the bottom of why she betrayed their nation and what her end goal really is.  Both characters are extremely interesting, mainly because they both have complex and tragic pasts which drive them towards their goals.  Tieryas does an amazing job diving down into these characters’ inner psyches, creating some truly complex characters with major flaws who the reader are inexorably drawn to.  In addition, both characters also have some intense history with Bloody Mary and some of her co-conspirators, resulting in some emotionally charged moments throughout the novel.  These two characters are also a little anti-authoritarian, having seen the dark side of their nation firsthand, which alters the way that they deal with events, and also ensures that they are a little more susceptible to their enemy’s manipulation.  I really enjoyed these amazing characters and I thought that they made for a great duo of central protagonists.

While I had initially planned to grab a paperback version of this book, I ended up splashing out and getting Cyber Shogun Revolution’s audiobook format.  This audiobook has a relatively quick runtime of just under 11 hours and was narrated by the talented Emily Woo Zeller.  Zeller, who I recently enjoyed in the Star Wars: Doctor Aphra audio drama, did an exceptional job narrating Cyber Shogun Revolution and I had an outstanding time listening to it.  Zeller came up with some fantastic and distinctive voices for the various characters featured within this novel, and the entire audiobook quickly flew by thanks to her fast-paced narration.  I also loved having the cool mecha fights being narrated to me, as hearing the action being described made it pop a lot more for me than simply reading it on a page.  Because of this, Cyber Shogun Revolution comes highly recommended in its audiobook format, and I really enjoyed hearing all the awesome action and excitement contained within this amazing novel.

Cyber Shogun Revolution is an epic and captivating novel from the amazing Peter Tieryas that serves as the third entry in his fantastic United States of Japan series.  Containing an intense story laden with action, intrigue, and treachery, all set with a clever alternate version of America, Cyber Shogun Revolution is a ball of excitement that readers will have an incredible time reading.  An excellent and fun read to check out, I look forward to exploring more of Tieryas’s outrageous universe in the future.

Hollow Empire by Sam Hawke

Hollow Empire Cover 2

Publisher: Bantam Press (Trade Paperback – 1 December 2020)

Series: Poison War – Book Two

Length: 560 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

After a two-year wait, we finally get to see the epic sequel to Australian author Sam Hawke’s impressive debut novel, City of Lies, with her blockbuster new novel, Hollow Empire.

Two years after the siege of the city of Silasta, where the oppressed Darfri minority were manipulated into attacking the capital by an unknown outside force, the city has started to recover.  While the city focuses on rebuilding and reconciliation with their former besiegers, the poison-eating siblings Jovana and Kalina Oromani, secret protectors of the Chancellor, continue their efforts to work out who was truly behind the attack on their city.  However, to their frustration, no-one else in the city shares their concerns; instead they have grown complacent with the returned peace.

But no peace lasts forever, especially as Silastra celebrates the karodee, a grand festival, to which representatives of all the nations surrounding the city state have been invited.  While the focus is on peace and forging ties between nations, the siblings begin to suspect that their unknown enemy is using it as an opportunity to launch a new attack against Silastra.  In order to determine what is happening, Jovana attempts to hunt down a dangerous and deadly killer that only he seems to have noticed, while Kalina navigates the treacherous world of politics and diplomacy as she works to determine which of their neighbours may have been involved in the prior attack on their city.

Working together with the Chancellor Tain and the Darfri mystic Hadrea, the Oromani siblings get closer to finding some of the answers that they desire.  However, both siblings find themselves under attack from all sides as their opponents attempt not only to kill them but to discredit their entire family.  Determined to protect Silasta no matter what, Jovana and Kalina will risk everything to find out the truth, even if the answers are too much for either of them to bear.

Hollow Empire was another awesome novel from fellow Canberran Sam Hawke, which serves as the compelling and enjoyable second entry in her Poison War series, which follows on from her 2018 debut, City of Lies.  I am a big fan of Hawke’s first novel; not only was it one of my favourite books of 2018 but it is also one of my top debuts of all time.  As a result, I have been looking forward to seeing how the story continues for some time now and I was incredibly happy to receive my copy of Hollow Empire several weeks ago.  The wait was definitely worth it, as Hawke has come up with another impressive and clever novel that not only serves as an excellent sequel to City of Lies but which takes the reader on an intrigue laden journey into the heart of an exciting fantasy city filled with great characters.

Hawke has come up with an excellent narrative for this latest novel which takes the protagonists on a wild journey throughout their city and beyond as they attempt to uncover a dangerous conspiracy threatening to destroy everything they love.  Told from alternating perspectives of the two main characters, Jovana and Kalina, Hollow Empire’s story was a clever and exciting thrill-ride of intrigue, lies, politics, crime and treachery, as the protagonists attempt to find out who is targeting them and plotting to destroy their city.  This proved to be a fun and captivating narrative, and I liked how Hollow Empire felt a lot more like a fantasy thriller than the first book, which focused a bit more on the siege of the city.  The protagonists must dig through quite a few layers of lies, hidden history and alternate suspects to find out what is happening in Silasta, and while there was a little less focus on the fun poison aspects that made the first novel such a treat, I really enjoyed how the story unfolded.  Hawke comes up with several great twists and reveals throughout the book, some of which really surprised me, although I was able to guess a couple of key ones.  I did think that the eventual reveal of the ultimate villain of the story was a tad rushed, but it resulted in an intense and fast-paced conclusion to the novel which also opens some intriguing avenues for any future entries in this series.  Readers may benefit from rereading City of Lies in advance of Hollow Empire, especially as there has been a bit of gap between the first and second novels’ releases.  However, for those wanting to jump right in, Hawke did include a fun recap at the start of the book, which sees the protagonists watching a theatrical recreation of the events of City of Lies.  Not only is this a rather entertaining inclusion (mainly due to how Jovana is portrayed) but it also serves as a good summary of some of the book’s key events, and readers should be able to follow through this second book without any trouble, even if they have not had a chance to read City of Lies.  Overall, this was an epic and impressive story, and I really enjoyed seeing how the Poison Wars continued in Hollow Empire.

I really enjoyed some of the cool writing elements that Hawke featured in Hollow Empire which added a lot to my overall enjoyment of the book and its great story.  The most noticeable of this is the use of the split perspectives, with the main protagonists, Jovana and Kalina, each getting alternating chapters shown from their point of view.  These split chapters worked extremely well in City of Lies, and I am really glad that Hawke decided to use them once again in her second book.  While the primary use of these alternate chapters was to show the different angles of investigation that the siblings were following, it does result in some additional benefits to the narrative.  I particularly liked the way in which the author uses the split perspectives to create tension and suspense throughout the novel, such as by one protagonist lacking information that the other character (and the reader) has knowledge of, or by leaving one protagonist’s fate uncertain.  It was also interesting to see the different opinions that the protagonists had on various characters and the specific relationships and friendships that they formed.  I also liked the way in which Hawke placed some intriguing in-universe poison proofing notes before each chapter, which recounted various poisonings that Oromani family has prevented or investigated over the years.  These notes were quite fun to check out and it really helped to highlight the importance the main characters place on protecting the Chancellor and their city from poison attacks.  These clever elements enhanced an already compelling narrative, and I imagine that Hawke will continue to utilise them in some of her future novels.

One of the major highlights of this book was the return to the author’s great fantasy setting that is the city of Silasta and its surrounding countryside.  Silasta is an extremely woke city full of artists, inventors and scholars who believe in equality between genders and acceptance of all sexualities and gender identities (for example, Hawke introduces a non-binary character in Hollow Empire).  While this was a fun city to explore in the first novel, especially as it was besieged for most of the book, I quite like how the author has altered the setting for Hollow Empire.  There is a significant focus on how Silasta has changed since the ending of the siege two years previously, especially on the attempted reconciliation efforts between the somewhat elitist citizens of Silasta and the Darfri, who were previously treated as second-class citizens doing the menial jobs.  While there have been changes to this relationship since the end of the first book, much is still the same and the difficulties in reconciling these two groups becomes a major and intriguing plot point within Hollow Empire.  Hawke also adds in an intriguing crime element to the novel, as several criminal gangs have used the chaos following the siege to build power within the city, peddling new drugs to the populace.  These new elements make for a different city than what the reader has previously seen, and I really liked how Hawke explored the negative elements of the aftermath of the first book and implemented them in Hollow Empire’s narrative, creating a fantastic and intriguing story.

In addition to focusing on the changes to the main city setting, I also really enjoyed the way in which Hawke decided to expand out her fantasy world.  This is mainly done by introducing emissaries from several of the nation’s neighbouring Silasta and bringing them to the city, resulting in the protagonists learning more about their respective histories and cultures, especially as they are convinced that one of them is responsible for the attack against them.  The story also explores the history of Silasta itself, with several storylines exploring how the city came into existence and its hidden past.  The author also worked to expand the magical system present within her universe by examining the spirit magic that was introduced in City of Lies and exploring more of its rules and limitations.  This results in several intriguing scenes, especially when one of the major characters, Hadrea, finds new ways to manipulate her magic.  In addition, some new forms of magic are introduced within the book.  These new magics have an origin in some of the new realms that are further explored in Hollow Empire and included an interesting and deadly form of witchcraft that differs wildly from the magical abilities that the characters utilised in the first book.  Not only are these new and inventive world-building elements quite fun to explore, but their inclusion becomes a key inclusion to the narrative.  All of this results in an enjoyable expanded universe, and it looks like Hawke has plans to introduce further lands and histories in the next Poison Wars book.

Another great part of Hollow Empire is the complexity of the characters, all of whom have evolved in some distinctive and compelling manner since the first novel.  As mentioned above, the main protagonists are the Oromani siblings, Jovana and Kalina, who serve as the book’s point-of-view characters.  Jovana is the Chancellor’s poison proofer, his secretive bodyguard who prepares his food and ensures that everything he eats is poison-free.  However, since the events of City of Lies, Jovan has become a lot more well-known throughout the city due to the role he played during the siege.  This requires him to adjust his role in society, especially as many people are now questioning how he and his family gained such prominence.  Jovan is also a lot more cautious when it comes to the Chancellor’s security after several near misses in the first novel, so that he appears almost paranoid at points throughout Hollow Empire.  This paranoia serves him well as he is forced to fight against an assassin who is using some clever means to attack his family and allies.  Jovan has also entered into a mentoring role within this book as he takes his young niece, Dija, as his new apprentice, teaching her the ways of proofing and ensuring that she has an immunity to toxins by poisoning her himself, in a similar way to how his uncle raised and taught him.  All of these add some intriguing new dynamics to Jovan’s character, and I really enjoyed seeing how he has changed since the first book.  Kalina also proves to be an excellent character throughout Hollow Empire, and I quite enjoyed reading her chapters.  Like her brother, Kalina has become a much more public figure in Silasta, although she is seen more as a hero than a suspicious poisoner like her brother.  Kalina’s chapters mainly focus on her attempts at finding out the truth through diplomacy as she interacts with the foreign delegations visiting the city.  Her investigations are just as dangerous as Jovan’s, and I really enjoyed seeing how her distinctive narrative unfolded, as well as how her character has also evolved, including with a fantastic new romance.  Both protagonists serve as excellent centres for the story and I look forward to seeing how they progress in later books in the series.

Hollow Empire also boasts a raft of fantastic side characters, many of whom have some exceptional arcs throughout the book.  The main two supporting characters are probably Chancellor Tain and Hadrea, both of whom were significant figures in City of Lies.  Like the main protagonists, Tain has also changed a lot since City of Lies, where he was the young and bold ruler thrust into a chaotic position.  Now he is a much more measured and cautious man, especially after narrowly avoiding death by poisoning in the first novel.  Tain continues to be the focus of the protagonist’s advice and protection throughout the novel, and the friendship he has with Jovana and Kalina becomes a major part of the book’s plot, resulting in some dramatic and powerful moments.  Hadrea, the young Speaker whose spirit magic saved the city in the first novel, also gets a lot of focus throughout Hollow Empire and is quite a major character.  In addition to being Jovan’s love interest, Hadrea also serves as the protagonist’s magic expert as they attempt to understand some of the mystical elements attacking them.  Hadrea’s magical power ends up becoming a major story element of Hollow Empire as she attempts to find new ways to use her magic while also chafing under the instruction of her superiors.  It looks like Hawke has some major plans for Hadrea in the future books, and I am curious to see what happens to her next.  These characters, and more, end up adding a lot to the story, and I quite enjoyed the way that Hawke portrayed them.

Hollow Empire by Sam Hawke was an impressive and deeply enjoyable novel that serves as an excellent sequel to City of Lies.  Featuring a thrilling and clever main narrative, great characters and an inventive, if damaged, fantasy setting, Hollow Empire was an epic read from start to finish that proves exceedingly hard to put down.  I had a wonderful time reading Hollow Empire and it ended up being one of my favourite books of 2020.  A highly recommended read, I cannot wait to see how the series continues in the future.

The Black Hawks by David Wragg

The Black Hawks Cover

Publisher: Harper Collins (Audiobook – 3 October 2019)

Series: Articles of Faith – Book One

Length: 12 hours and 9 minutes

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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