The Dark Hours by Michael Connelly

The Dark Hours Cover 2

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

Series: Ballard & Bosch – Book Three

Length: 391 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Aurora’s End by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff

Aurora's End Cover

Publisher: Allen & Unwin Australia (Trade Paperback – 2 November 2021)

Series: Aurora Cycle – Book Three

Length: 493 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

The all-star team of Australian authors Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff present the third and final novel in their epic Aurora Cycle series, with the intense and clever young adult science fiction novel, Aurora’s End.

Over the last few years, I have been deeply enjoying the outstanding partnership of Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff.  Both Kaufman and Kristoff are accomplished authors, with several independent series to their name, such as Kristoff’s Lifel1k3 series (make sure to check out my review for the second book, Dev1at3).  However, I think that some of their strongest work has been together, as Kaufman and Kristoff have previously co-authored the acclaimed The Illuminae Files trilogy.  Their latest collaboration, The Aurora Cycle, has been a particularly amazing young adult science fiction series, and I have been really enjoying its cool story.

The Aurora Cycle novels are set in a far future when humans have expanded out into space and encountered a range of different alien species.  Peace between these species is kept by the Aurora Legion, an intergalactic collation of peacekeepers, made up of teenagers of various species (a slightly more hormonal Starfleet, slightly).  The series follows Squad 312, a group of misfits brought together thanks to the arrival of the mysterious Aurora O’Malley.  Auri is a girl out of time, who was awoken by the squad after centuries frozen in a colony ship and found herself gifted with dangerous psychic powers.  The first book in this series, Aurora Rising, introduced the squad and saw them thrust into the midst of a galactic conspiracy, as a race of plant-based aliens, the Ra’haam, who are plotting to assimilate all life, frame them as terrorists.  The second novel, Aurora Burning, expanded on the threats, the conspiracies, and the character drama, and ended with a massive cliffhanger, with all the surviving members of Squad 312 in great danger and the fate of the universe on the brink.

Following the terrible battle near Earth between the human and Syldrathi fleets, the planet-destroying superweapon was fired, but nothing turned out as expected.  Now, the various members of the galaxy’s last hope, Squad 312, have been flung throughout time.  Scarlett, Finian and Zila have been blasted back into the early days of Earth’s intergalactic travel, when there is no Aurora Legion, no friends, and a ticking clock of doom as the mysterious station they arrived at keeps blowing up.  Subsequently, Auri and Kal arrive years in the future, where the Ra’haam have won, and all hope seems lost.

Trapped in a time loop, Scarlet, Fin and Zila will initiate a desperate plan (again and again) with a new friend, but their mission may end up having unimaginable consequences.  While in the future, Auri and Kal are trapped with the only weapon that can end the Ra’haam threat, if they can get back to the present.  Forced to team up with the most dangerous being in existence, Kal’s genocidal father, Caersan, Auri and Kal embark on a dangerous mission through the Ra’haam controlled future with some unexpected help.

Back in the present, Squad 312’s leader, Tyler Jones, is also running out of time.  Still branded a fugitive by the entire galaxy, Tyler is the only person who knows that the Ra’haam are making their move to destabilise the various governments of the galaxy to start their invasion.  Forced to work alone and against the odds, Tyler needs to travel back to the one place he considers home, the highly secure Aurora Legion headquarters.  All three of these teams will need to survive impossible odds if they are to complete their missions and get back home.  But even if they succeed, can this ragtag team of teenagers really save the entire galaxy, or is the age of the plant-based parasite about to begin?

This was an outstanding novel from Kaufman and Kristoff that served as an excellent and captivating end to this impressive series.  Kaufman and Kristoff really went all out here with Aurora’s End, producing a complex and entertaining narrative that separates out the various characters and presents them with impossible temporal obstacles.  I deeply appreciate the clever narrative that the authors wove around these compelling characters, and it ended up being an exceptionally fun and enjoyable young adult science fiction book that I powered through in two days.

I absolutely loved the cool story of Aurora’s End, not only because it was really thrilling and fast-paced but because it was so ambitious.  I cannot think of another trilogy where, in the final entry, the authors decide to suddenly embark on massive time-travel adventure, with an intense narrative split across three vastly different time periods.  However, it works incredibly well, as Kaufman and Kristoff produced some epic and exciting storylines that remain mostly separate throughout the entirety of the book.  All three storylines are very distinctive, and all of them are pretty fun in their own unique way.  The storyline set hundreds of years in the past is an extremely entertaining event that sees three point-of-view characters trapped in a slowly devolving time-loop that ends every time one of them dies.  The characters are forced to work through an exploding, high-security station to find a way to travel back in time, with a substantial number of hilarious deaths and mistakes along the way.  The storyline in the present follows the Squad’s leader as he attempts to stop the entire alien invasion by infiltrating the most secure location in the entire galaxy without his squad.  Finally, you have the storyline in the future, which is an emotional and powerful post-apocalyptic narrative that sees Auri and Kal forced to contend not only with a hostile galaxy completely taken over by the Ra’haam but also with Kal’s insane and manipulative father.

I felt that all three of these storylines worked incredibly well, and each of them had their own appeal.  I honestly have a hard time faulting any of these distinct storylines, and it was one of those rare occasions in a split-storyline novel where there wasn’t a single character or timeline that I was a little less excited to read about.  If I had to choose a favourite, it would be the storyline set in the past, mainly because I loved the fun opportunities that only a time-loop story can present.  All three storylines were incredibly rich and compelling, and the authors did a good job of layering drama, excitement, character growth and humour through each of them.  While they were mostly separate from each other, the overlapping elements worked incredibly well, and the storylines ended up coming together perfectly towards the end.  The authors also do a good job wrapping up a lot of the unexplained story elements from the previous novels, with certain mysterious events and McGuffins finally revealed in their entirety.  This results in a big and epic finale where all the remaining characters are reunited to face the final threat of the Ra’haam.  It was extremely cool to see all the unique story threads finally come together.  I did think that the authors got a bit too meta-physical in the finale, especially when it came to dealing with the big-bad, but this didn’t really disrupt my overall enjoyment of the story.  I absolutely loved this wacky, clever, and well-planned out narrative, and I am still deeply impressed with how well the entire time-travel story worked.

I have really appreciated the cool and enjoyable writing style that Kaufman and Kristoff utilised throughout the Aurora Cycle, and it worked incredibly well once again in this final book.  Just like with the previous novels, Aurora’s End is told utilising six split perspectives, with each of the surviving squad members going into the final book getting multiple chapters.  Not only do these multiple perspectives help to present a rich and complex character driven narrative but it also helps the reader to really get into the heads of the main characters.  Each part of the book told by a different character has its own unique feel to it, and you really get the sense of each of the characters’ personalities and experiences.  I also love the way in which Kaufman and Kristoff layer in the action and humour throughout the entire novel, with various fun scenes featured throughout.  The action scenes are very intense, and the authors do a great job of highlighting the crazy battles that each of the characters get involved in, whether it be massive space battles, deadly close-combat fights, or sneaky attempts to move through an exploding space station.  The authors also have a great sense of humour, with many fun jokes and observations that made me laugh multiple times, especially around the fun time-loop storyline.  This made Aurora’s End a very easy novel to get through, as the natural narration and fast-paced scenes ensures that readers can power through it quickly, and with little hassle at all.  Due to this being the final entry in a series, readers are encouraged to check out the first two Aurora Cycle novels first before reading Aurora’s End.  However, those readers tempted to start and finish he series here should still be able to enjoy the story as the authors have a very inclusive writing style, and the book also features a highly detailed “stuff you should know” section at the front (very useful for both new readers and those who need a quick refresher).

Just like the previous novels in this series, Aurora’s End is marketed as a young adult read, and I would strongly recommend it to this audience.  Younger readers will deeply appreciate the use of multiple complex teenage characters kicking ass and saving the world, and I think that the authors did a good job of capturing the teenage mindset in their various protagonists.  This was also quite a mature and positive read, with multiple examples of romantic relationships, complex issues, and great portrayals of LGBT+ relationships that will be appealing to the younger audience, especially as the authors do not try to talk down to their chosen readers.  Due to some of these mature elements, I would suggest that this is a more appropriate read for older teens, and this is a series I would have really enjoyed when I was first getting into fantasy and science fiction.  Despite its marketing towards the young adult audience, this is a series easily enjoyed by older readers, and I think that most science fiction fans will have a great time with this series, if they don’t have any objections to following teenage protagonists.  Overall, I think this book will appeal to a wide range of readers and is a particularly good series for teenagers looking for a fun adventure with relatable heroes.

The last thing I want to highlight abut Aurora’s End is the excellent characters featured throughout, especially protagonists Aurora, Tyler, Kal, Scarlett, Finian and Zila.  Over the course of the Aurora Cycle, the reader has had a wonderful time getting to know all the protagonists, all of whom have grown throughout the series, while also experiencing loss, heartbreak, betrayal, and devastating revelations.  I have deeply appreciated the impressive and realistic character growth featured within, and the authors have continued this throughout Aurora’s End, with some major character moments that helped to define all of them and shown how they have grown.  Unlike the previous novels that have focused on a couple of the characters a little more, there was a much more even spread amongst the characters, with each getting their moment in the light.  Indeed, thanks to the cool time travel elements, you get to see multiple versions of one protagonist, with an older version of this character becoming a supporting figure in one of the other storylines.  I deeply appreciated the various character arcs featured throughout this novel, and Kaufman and Kristoff go out of their way to make you run the full emotional gauntlet here.  These arcs include a more comedic one surrounding the sarcastic Finian and the perhaps oversexualised Scarlett as they explore their new relationship while the world continuously explodes around them.  At the same time, the socially awkward Zila has a more serious experience in the time-loop, even as she embarks on a doomed relationship with someone who lived hundreds of years before she was born.

The other three characters also have some major and moving character arcs, especially Aurora and Kal, who are trapped in a future where the Ra’haam won, and everything has been infected by them.  This is a particularly dark storyline, and these two protagonists go through a lot, especially as they keep witnessing all manner of death and destruction around them.  Their arc is further complicated by Caersan, Kal’s father, who has similar powers to Auri and used them to destroy Kal’s home planet.  This results in some major emotional moments, as Auri and Kal are forced to work with an unrepentant Caersan, while also trying to work out their own complex emotions.  Finally, I must highlight the great development at occurred with Tyler, the team’s leader, who, after spending two novels turning Squad 312 into the ultimate team and family, ends up by himself, forced to face literal ghosts from his past with none of his established support.  Tyler really suffers in this book, and you must feel sorry for everything he goes through, even if he does start a passionate, if exceedingly violent relationship with a warrior alien princess.  All of these character arcs are really impressive, and you will be moved by everything these fantastic heroes go through, especially as not all of them will come out of it in one piece.

With this fantastic final book, the team of Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff have brought their amazing Aurora Cycle series to an epic and impressive conclusion.  Aurora’s End was an outstanding novel that perfectly wrapped up this excellent trilogy with fun, flair, and exceptional action.  Featuring some amazing characters and a very clever time-travel based storyline, Aurora’s End was an incredibly fun novel that comes highly recommended.  I deeply enjoyed this epic novel, and I really hope that these two brilliant Australian authors team up again in the future for another compelling series.

Fire Made Flesh by Denny Flowers

Fire Made Flesh Cover

Publisher: Black Library (Audiobook – 5 June 2021)

Series: Necromunda

Length: 13 hours and 29 minutes

My Rating: 4.25 out of 5 stars

Prepare to return to the violent and deadly world beneath the hive cities of Necromunda, as Denny Flowers presents an outstanding and compelling entry in the Warhammer 40,000 universe with Fire Made Flesh.

Over the last year or so I have been having fun exploring the immense extended universe that has sprung up around the Warhammer 40,000 and Warhammer Fantasy tabletop games.  I have so far read several cool entries in the Gortrex and Felix fantasy series (Trollslayer, Skavenslayer and Daemonslayer), as well as the awesome science fiction reads First and Only and Deathwatch: Shadowbreaker.  However, my favourite Warhammer novel so far was the deeply entertaining Kal Jerico: Sinner’s Bounty, which was part of the Necromunda sub-series, another tabletop game set in the gothic Warhammer 40,000 universe.

The Necromunda games and extended universe are all set in and around the towering and immense hive city, Hive Primus, capital of the industrial planet of Necromunda.  Hive Primus is a city of billions, with the inhabitants crammed together in a massive hive structure located both above and below ground.  Necromunda fiction is primarily based in the Underhive, the foundational layers of the hive and below, made up of tunnels, habitation zones and caverns, most of which have been abandoned as the hive was built up.  The Underhive is filled with various gangs and feuding families who fight in these tunnels for riches, dominance and glory.  This unique landscape makes for some impressive stories, such as the awesome narrative of the latest Necromunda novel, Fire Made Flesh.

Deep underneath Hive Primus many secrets and treasures lay hidden in the darkness, waiting to be found by bold adventurers, but none are spoken of with more reverence than the lost habitation dome, Periculus.  Periculus was once a flourishing base of commerce where both sanctioned trade and illicit dealings were held, and vast wealth was accumulated.  However, Periculus was mysteriously abandoned years ago when its inhabitants were killed, and all knowledge of its location has been lost.  Now, after years of searching, someone has rediscovered the dome, and all hell is about to break loose.

Believing that the ruins of Periculus hold innumerable treasures and opportunities, various gangsters, Guilders, hive scum and opportunists have descended into the Underhive, hoping to stake their claim.  However, none of the people moving towards Periculus are more dangerous than the revered Lord Silas Pureburn of the Guild of Fire.  Holding a monopoly on energy production in the Underhive and gifted with a holy flame from the God Emperor himself, Pureburn inspires loyalty and religious fervour wherever he goes.  However, behind his holy facade of purity and flame lies a dark soul determined to dominate everything and everyone he encounters.  One of the few people to see the truth about Pureburn is young Guilder Tempes Sol.  Sol, a scion of the Mercator Lux, the Guild of Light, has found himself bested by Pureburn many times, and he is determined to discover the truth behind his improbable works.  After an unholy accident scars Sol and leaves him with an unusual power, he is forced to flee his guild and travel to Periculus, where his only hope of redemption lies in exposing Pureburn as a fraud.

However, upon arriving at Periculus, Sol discovers a settlement on the edge.  Pureburn has gathered around him an army of religious fanatics who control Periculus through fear, fire and bloodshed.  Determined to stop his insidious influence before it is too late, Sol attempts to forge alliances with other newly arrived inhabitants of Periculus who have been disadvantaged by Pureburn.  However, the deeper Sol dives into Pureburn’s actions, the more danger he finds himself in, as this seemingly holy man hides a dark and disturbing secret.  Worse, even more terrible dangers are affecting people within the dome, as twisted creatures roam the shadows, and the humans are struck with a dark rage that drives them to great acts of violence.  As the forces within gather for a final deadly confrontation, the fate of both Periculus and the entirety of Hive Primus hangs in the balance.

Fire Made Flesh was an interesting and impressive read that did an amazing job of bringing the twisted maze of the Necromunda Underhive to life.  This was actually the debut novel of author Denny Flowers, who has previously written some fun Necromunda short fiction and novellas but had yet to produce a full-length book.  This turned out to be a pretty awesome first novel from Flowers, and I had an outstanding time getting through the intense story, especially with its unique locales and outrageous characters, and it was a fantastic piece of Necromunda fiction.

At the heart of Fire Made Flesh lies a compelling and intense story that showcases the unique and deadly battle for control of Periculus.  After some set-up to show the rediscovery of the lost dome, Flowers starts establishing the various characters and their motivations, exploring how and why they are heading to Periculus.  Told from multiple character perspectives, the reader gets an interesting look at each point-of-view character, as well as the people they travel with.  While this was a good introduction to the many complex aspects and figures of the novel, it did make the pacing of the first third of Fire Made Flesh a tad slow, with a couple of difficult sections.  However, these pacing issues are resolved around halfway through Fire Made Flesh, once all the primary characters make it to Periculus.  From that point onward, the book really picks up, especially as the reader has grown attached to protagonists by this point.  From there the rest of the story is extremely fast, with a big moment two-thirds in, resulting in utter bedlam across Periculus and thrusting each of the characters into extreme danger.  After several intense and action-packed sequences, the entire narrative gets wrapped up extremely well in a satisfying conclusion, with each of the fun character arcs set up throughout the book coming together wonderfully.  I had an absolute blast with this narrative, and I felt that it had the right blend of action, intrigue, character development and Warhammer 40,000/Necromunda detail, to keep every reader happy.  I was really impressed by how Flowers was able to bring the disparate storylines together into one entertaining read, and I ended up powering through the last half of the novel in less than a day.  I also deeply enjoyed some of the cool twists and reveals right near the end, as they contained some excellent character moments.  Interestingly, the story is left open for a sequel, and I know I will be curious to see what happens in the Underhive next time.

Fire Made Flesh is an excellent addition to the Necromunda range of fiction, and I appreciated how Flowers attempted to examine and recreate the various elements of the unique landscape and culture featured within this fictional location.  Flowers really dived into the lore surrounding Necromunda, and the reader is soon engulfed in discussions about the social order, technology, and religious zeal of the Hive City.  While the author did a good job of trying to give context to this setting and its various features, readers may get a little overwhelmed with all the unique lore elements that are shovelled into it, especially at the front of the book when Flowers was trying to set everything up.  While I managed to keep my head around what was happening and what the characters were talking about, I could easily see a reader who has less experience with Warhammer 40,000/Necromunda lore, being a bit more confused and potentially getting lost.  Still, this ended up being a great Necromunda novel, and I loved the way in which the author featured the various gangs and controlling interests.  I especially enjoyed the in-depth examination of the Guilders, Hive Primus’s merchant class, who provide the various services to keep the settlements running.  Fire Made Flesh features members from the various guilds, each of whom have different professions, including slavers, energy providers, fuel dispensers and corpse grinders (people who process bodies to produce corpse-starch, the hive’s primary food source).  Readers get a pretty intense crash course in Necromunda lore in this book and will end up having a good understanding of how Underhive works.  There are a lot of details that will appeal to long-term fans of the Necromunda game and its associated extended fiction, and they will no-doubt love to see another entertaining and dark adventure.  While there are some connections to previous novels, including some of Flower’s short-fiction, I would say its easy enough for most people familiar with the Warhammer 40,000 universe to jump into this book without getting too lost, and even general science fiction fans should be able to have fun with this novel.

Flowers also makes great use of the dark and dangerous setting that is the Underhive throughout Fire Made Flesh.  The Underhive is already an awesome and well-established setting, but Flowers really tried to show just how hostile and unpredictable it could be.  There are some great descriptions of the tight walkways, giant caverns and isolated settlements which prove to be an outstanding backdrop to the dark narrative, and I had a lot of fun exploring some new locations in this novel.  Periculus itself is also an impressive setting, as the reader is treated to an intriguing look at a newly formed town that is slowly getting to its feet in the ruins of an abandoned settlement, and all the strife that comes as a result.  The depictions of the town surrounded by monsters, coated with powdered bone, and filled with fractious groups with enflamed personalities, really helps to set the mood for much of the novel, especially as it all comes crumbling down again.  I deeply enjoyed this cool setting and I think that it was an exceptional addition to a fun novel.

I also had a lot of fun with the compelling collection of characters featured in Fire Made Flesh.  Flowers made use of several entertaining point-of-view characters throughout this novel, including several protagonists of his previous short fiction reads, and this results in a vibrant and well set-up blend of personalities and compelling personas.  The central protagonist is Tempes Sol, the young Guilder genius who spends his days attempting to understand power, electricity, and technology.  Tempes has a rather rough journey in this novel, mostly brought on by his obsession with stopping the book’s antagonist, Pureburn, who has bested him in several prior encounters.  However, this time Tempes is suffering from the after-effects of a psychic attack, which has gifted him strange lightning abilities associated with his cybernetic upgrades.  Cast out of his guild and on the run, Tempes is a desperate figure in this novel, attempting to show the hypocrisy of Pureburn while also trying to redeem himself and understand his new powers.  I felt that Tempes had a very interesting storyline in this novel, and I found his personal growth and the exploration of his personal technology to be quite fascinating.  I wasn’t the biggest fan of his impulsive behaviour and self-righteous personality, but he did start to shed those as the novel progressed, while also developing a certain amount of savviness, especially when it came to some of his supposed allies.  It looks like Flowers is setting Tempes up for some interesting storylines in the future, and I would be quite keen to see this protagonist in another book at some point.

I was also a big fan of the antagonist of Fire Made Flesh, Lord Silas Pureburn.  Pureburn is another Guilder character who specialises in bringing fire and fuel to isolated communities, even when it shouldn’t be possible.  This, and his family’s legacy as keepers of a holy flame, sees him given religious reverence by the general population, as well a collection of devoted, if deranged, followers, who view him as a celebrated champion of the Emperor.  However, Pureburn is really a deceitful and manipulative being, who cares only for profit and his own selfish goals.  Flowers does an amazing job setting this antagonist up and the reader is soon pretty sick of his hypocrisy and arrogance, something that become really apparent after you read a few of his point of view chapters.  Pureburn ends up annoying or alienating every single protagonist in this book, which results in a loose alliance as everyone attempts to take him down.  I love a villain so evil that he brings different people together, and this was a great antagonist to hate, especially once you find out the true source of his power.

Aside from this compelling protagonist and entertaining antagonist, this novel also featured a great range of additional characters with whom the reader gets to spend time with.  My personal favourite had to be Lord Credence Sorrow, a corpse grinder contracted to bring food to Periculus against his will.  Sorrow is a lover of fine things, and his enjoyment of delicate items and gourmet food is at odds with his profession of turning corpses into edible powder.  This character has a brilliant amount of flair, and all his scenes are particularly entertaining, especially as he keeps finding himself stuck between some dangerous employers, resulting in quite a fun and fitting overarching storyline.  I also had a great time with the oddball partnership of Caleb Cursebound, the self-proclaimed ninth most dangerous man in the Underhive, and his silent Ratskin partner Iktomi.  These two make a great pair, especially as Caleb has all the bluster and personality, while Iktomi has a wicked amount of lethal skill, making them a surprisingly effective team, and I loved the entertaining odd-couple vibes that they gave out throughout the book.  I also must highlight Anquis, a member of the notorious Delaque family of spies and infiltrators.  Anguis spends most of the novel helping Tempes achieve his goals with her intelligence-gathering and manipulations.  However, it soon becomes quite clear that Anguis is playing her own games, and no one, especially Sol, knows what she is really after.  The final character I want to talk about is Virae the Unbroken, a Chain Lord (slaver) and pit fighter, who is hired to capture unlucky civilians and bring them to Periculus for labour purposes.  Despite initially appearing as a blunt and unforgiving figure, Virae soon proves to be one of the most complex and best-written characters in the entire novel.  Virae is a former slave herself, who proved herself to be tough and unbreakable, resulting in her title and her eventual promotion to slaver.  However, she really struggles with her profession in this novel, especially after many of her charges die on the journey to Periculus.  Her battles for survival, especially in the face of Pureburn’s evilness are pretty excellent, and I loved her eventually transformation into a bloody figure of vengeance.  This turned out to be an outstanding collection of characters, and I deeply appreciated how Flowers used them to enhance Fire Made Flesh’s great narrative and make it even more exciting and compelling.

I decided to grab the audiobook version of Fire Made Flesh.  This format has a decent run time of around 13 and a half hours, and I ended up powering through it in only a few days, especially once the story started to get very exciting and fun.  I had an outstanding time getting through this audiobook, and one of the main reasons for this was the impressive narration of Joe Jameson, whose work I have previously highlighted in awesome fantasy audiobooks like King of Assassins by R. J. Barker, and The Kingdom of Liars and The Two-Faced Queen by Nick Martell.  These previous works by Jameson have been some of best audiobooks of their respective release year, and Jameson is easily one of my favourite narrators.  He has an outstanding voice for fantasy and science fiction, and I love the way he can make a story move at a fast pace while also ensuring that the listener is absorbing all the detail and obscure lore with interest.  Jameson did a really good job of voicing each of the characters within Fire Made Flesh, and while some of the voices were very similar to those he used in the other books, I think that they fitted this new group of characters extremely well.  You get a real sense of the various emotions and personalities of each of these characters, and his affinity for voicing outrageous figures such as religious zealots and conniving businessmen proved very useful here.  I had a great time with this audiobook, and it was an amazing way to enjoy this dark and compelling story.

Fire Made Flesh by Denny Flowers is an exciting and captivating novel in the Necromunda series.  This is an entertaining and intense science fiction read that makes full use of the unique Warhammer 40,000 universe, the cool setting of the Underhive, and some great and memorable new characters, to produce an electrifying tale.  I had a fantastic time reading this book and I cannot wait to see what other adventures wait for this outrageous group of characters in any future Necromunda novels Flowers writes.

The Housemate by Sarah Bailey

The Housemate Cover

Publisher: Allen & Unwin (Trade Paperback – 31 August 2021)

Series: Standalone

Length: 454 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Impressive Australian author Sarah Bailey returns with The Housemate, an outstanding and intense murder mystery that takes a complex protagonist through a dark journey as they attempt to solve an infamous murder.

It was the crime that shocked all of Australia: one night, after a fractious party in the suburbs of Melbourne, three female housemates would become infamous for all the wrong reasons.  In the morning, one of the housemates is found brutally murdered, another is found covered in her blood, while the third goes missing and her body is never found.  Dubbed the Housemate Homicide, the unexplained murder, the mysterious disappearance, and the subsequent controversial court case has baffled and enthralled the country for years.  This includes Olive Groves, a journalist who got her first big break covering the murder and who then became obsessed with cracking the case.

Nine years later, the body of the missing housemate is found in a remote property in the Victorian countryside.  Despite dealing with her own dark personal issues, Olive is assigned to cover the story, and soon finds herself once again dragged into her deepest obsession.  Teamed up with millennial podcaster Cooper Ng, Olive begins to immerse herself in the details of the murder, reigniting her fiery obsession.

As Olive and Cooper work to uncover new details about the case and the three women at the heart of it, they start to make some startling discoveries.  None of the housemates were what they seemed, and all had dark and terrible secrets that have remained hidden for years.  What really happened to these three friends, and what secret was so terrible that they would kill to protect it?  Olive is about to discover that there is a dark conspiracy at work throughout this case, one whose roots may lay far closer to home than she ever imagined, and whose discovery may end up breaking her.

This was an incredible and extremely clever dark murder mystery from Sarah Bailey, who has previously produced some impressive and compelling pieces of Australian fiction.  The Housemate was pretty exceptional read and I quickly found myself getting really caught up in this remarkable and well-written piece of crime fiction.  The author weaved together a dark and compelling tale of betrayal, murder and tainted love, featuring an extremely damaged protagonist and multiple epic twists.

The Housemate has a pretty amazing and memorable murder mystery narrative that follows a reporter as she attempts to uncover the truth behind an infamous cold case.  Bailey does a great job setting up the plot of this book in the early pages, showing the protagonist’s involvement in reporting the initial discovery of the murder, before initiating a time skip nine years in the future.  Once there, the author spends a little time exploring how the protagonist’s life has changed in the intervening years, before swiftly starting the next stage of the mystery, with the discovery of a body out in the Victorian countryside that has connections to the murders.  The rest of the book flows by at a quick pace after this, as the reader gets stuck into the re-opened investigation.  Bailey starts the various twists flying early, and the reader is soon struck with a series of theories, leads, potential suspects and connected side characters, all of which add to the overall tapestry of the mystery, while also serving to keep you guessing about who is responsible for the murder, and that isn’t even mentioning the compelling flashbacks from the surviving housemate.

As the investigation continues, The Housemate’s story continues to get even more complex, as the personal life of the protagonist, Olive, gets dragged into the plot, especially as Olive is in a complex relationship with the widower of the primary police investigator of the original case.  This results in some extremely intense moments as Olive begins to suspect everyone, which has a major impact on her grip on reality.  I deeply appreciated the psychological thriller aspects that were worked in, as the reader starts to really question Olive’s grip on her sanity, and it helped to make the story even darker and more unpredictable.  Everything really kicks off in the final third of the novel, especially after the case becomes even more potentially convoluted and connected to a wider conspiracy.  There were some great reveals in this final third of the novel, and a pretty major and surprising event that really changes everything.  I found myself absolutely glued to this book in the final stages, as I couldn’t wait to see what happened.  While I did think that the author was a little too heavy handed when it came to suggesting that one particular character was the murderer, I thought the eventual reveal of who was behind everything was extremely clever.  The solution to the historic murder was very impressive, especially as some of the elements were set up extremely early in the novel and you didn’t even realise it.  I really loved the impressive way the case was wrapped up, although the end of the final confrontation was a tad too coincidental for my taste.  Still, it was a really great way to finish the novel, and I was well and truly hooked by this awesome and dark tale of murder.

You can’t talk about The Housemate without mentioning the author’s great characters, especially protagonist, Olive Groves (a fun name).  Olive is a complex and damaged woman, who has been obsessed with the novel’s central case ever since she saw the suspected killer and the various family members emerging from the house during the initial media coverage.  Years later, Olive now has a complex life, as she is living with the controlling widower of the cop who was originally investigating the crimes, something she is immensely guilty and conflicted about.  Her already fragile mental state is put at risk when she starts working on the latest developments in the Housemate Homicides case, which reawakens her long-dormant obsession.  This obsession drives her to investigate the case by any means and takes her to some dark spaces as she tries to get into the head of the three housemates and figure out what happened to them.  Olive slowly goes downhill as the novel progresses thanks to a combination of stress, obsession, anger, and multiple personal reasons, such as the actions of her emotionally abusive partner and her own massive guilt for sleeping with him while his wife was still alive.  Olive has a big breakdown towards the end of the novel, especially after a major surprise event, and it was fascinating to see such a dramatic and powerful burst of emotion.  This compelling personal crisis is perfectly worked into the plot of the book, and it really helped to enhance the main murder mystery storyline, especially as you become really concerned for Olive’s mental and physical safety.  I appreciated the way in which Bailey wrapped up Olive’s character arc by the end of the novel, and I cannot emphasise what an impressive bit of character work Bailey did around her.

Aside from Olive, there is a great collection of complex side characters throughout the novel, each of whom play a vital role in the case.  The main one is Cooper Ng, the socially shy tech expert and social media whiz who is assigned to help Olive investigate, with the two required to develop a new podcast for their paper.  Cooper is a fun and energetic figure who stands as the complete opposite to Olive’s gruffer and irritable personality.  Cooper and Olive make for an interesting partnership throughout the book, and it was fun to see them combine their vastly different skills and experiences.  The author also spends a bit of time examining each of the three housemates who were at the centre of the book’s mystery.  It initially appears that all three were bright and optimistic students when the fateful night occurred.  However, as the book progresses you begin to see that they are a lot more complex than that, with all three involved in something dodgy.  Seeing how they were driven to the events that occurred the night of the killing is pretty fascinating, and I really appreciated the dark and intense storyline that Bailey weaved around them.  All these characters, and more, added a lot to the story, and I loved the fantastic and realistic interactions that occurred within.

The final thing that I wanted to highlight about The Housemate was its interesting examination of Australian journalism.  I have always rather liked journalist protagonists in fiction, due to their less formal way of investigating crimes, and this worked very well in the context of The Housemate, with Olive employing some interesting methods to get answers.  The focus on obtaining information for a story rather than attempting to bring someone to justice is very compelling and I loved seeing the protagonists setting up stories and podcasts.  I also quite enjoyed the interesting examination of the evolving form of journalism that was represented by the two main characters, Olive and Cooper.  Olive is the more old-school reporter, who just wants to do good journalism without resorting to popular gimmicks.  Cooper, on the other hand, is the flash new kid, focusing on social media and podcasting, which he sees as the future of journalism.  This fun comparison between reporting styles formed an interesting basis for their partnership, especially as they are brought together to do a podcast on the murders, and I felt that this was a great inclusion to an already exciting and entertaining narrative.

The Housemate by Sarah Bailey was an exceptional and captivating read that I had an outstanding time reading.  Featuring a dark and thrilling mystery storyline, this Australian murder mystery was incredibly addictive, especially once you get caught up in the unique investigation and complex personal life of the protagonist.  I really enjoyed seeing this fantastic story come together, and I was really impressed with how Bailey tied her brilliant mystery together.  Easily one of the best pieces of Australian fiction I have read all year, The Housemate gets a full five-star rating from me and is a very highly recommended read.

Throwback Thursday – Skavenslayer by William King

Skavenslayer Cover

Publisher: Black Library (Audiobook – December 1999)

Series: Gotrek and Felix – Book Two

Length: 10 hours and 30 minutes

My rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Welcome back to my Throwback Thursday series, where I republish old reviews, review books I have read before or review older books I have only just had a chance to read.  The adventures of my two favourite Warhammer Fantasy protagonists, Gotrek and Felix, continues, with the second incredible and extremely fun entry in their series, Skavenslayer.

After their previous escapades throughout the Empire and beyond, wandering adventurer, outlaw, and writer Felix Jaeger is still reluctantly following the Dwarf Slayer Gotrek Gurnisson on his quest to find a glorious death.  After travelling to the Imperial city of Nuln, the two heroes attempt to make some money to support their travels.  However, danger is always around the corner, as the heroes find themselves thrust into the middle of a vast conspiracy when they take on a menial job.  The chittering and evil hordes of the Skaven are amassing beneath Nuln, determined to conquer the city by any means necessary.  Led by a dangerous and ambitious leader, the rat-men have several sinister plots to kill all the humans above and appropriate their city and technology for their own glorious purposes.  The only chance the city has to survive this chaos appears to be Gotrek and Felix, who are constantly dragged into the middle of the Skavens’ plots, thanks to fate, Skaven pettiness or terrible bad luck (both Felix’s and the Skaven’s).  Can the two heroes save Nuln from the Skaven hordes, or will Gotrek finally find the death he always seeks?

Wow, this is such a fun and entertaining series.  Skavenslayer is the second entry in the Gotrek and Felix series, which follows the two titular heroes as they journey throughout the Warhammer Fantasy world, battling all manner of monsters, demons and creatures.  After enjoying some of the excellent Warhammer 40,000 fiction out there (Deathwatch: Shadowbreaker and Kal Jerico: Sinner’s Bounty), I recently dove into the first Gotrek and Felix novel, Trollslayer, which contained several exciting and compelling short stories.  I loved the fantastic mixture of action, world-building and fun characters featured within Trollslayer, and within a couple of weeks I had started listening to SkavenslayerSkavenslayer proved to be another excellent novel, and I honestly think it was a slightly stronger novel than Trollslayer, thanks to its much more connected plot.  This was an outstanding read that has many amazing elements to it.

Skavenslayer contains an outstanding and deeply addictive narrative that follows Gotrek and Felix as they attempt to stop the Skaven plot to destroy the city of Nuln.  Skavenslayer is made up of several short stories linked together by Felix’s journal entries.  Unlike the previous novel, all six stories and the epilogue are linked, forming one continuous narrative and resulting in a tighter and more comprehensive read.

Skavenslayer’s first short story is Skaven’s Claw, which sees Gotrek and Felix employed as sewerjacks, guards who patrol the vast catacombs underneath Nuln.  On patrol, they chance upon a clandestine meeting between a Skaven and a human noble, placing Gotrek and Felix in the middle of a conspiracy involving the head of Nuln’s secret police.  Skaven’s Claw is an excellent first story that does a wonderful job establishing most of Skavenslayer’s plot details and introducing several key characters, including recurring antagonist Grey Seer Thanquol.  I loved the combination of action, world building and intrigue that was contained within Skaven’s Claw, and it results in an awesome, fast-paced story.  The Nuln sewers prove to be a claustrophobic and memorable setting for most of the battles.  I also enjoyed the use of secondary antagonist Fritz von Halstadt, a fanatical human who has been manipulated by the Skaven, as his story arc was very well established and quite compelling.  This is an awesome entry that gets Skavenslayer off to an impressive start.

Next up we have Gutter Runners, which sees the Clan Eshin assassin, Chang Squik, lead a group of Skaven Gutter Runners on a mission to kill Gotrek and Felix at the inn where they are working as bouncers.  This was a quick and action-packed story which proved to be a lot of compelling fun.  The action is swift and deadly, as the protagonists are attacked on multiple fronts, and there are several great battle scenes throughout.  This is a fun story that you can easily power through in one short sitting, and I felt that it did a great job keeping the reader’s attention after the fantastic introductory story.

The third entry is the fantastic and funny Night Raid, which focuses on the members of Clan Skyre, the insane Skaven engineers and weapon designers.  The leader of the Clan Skyre contingent, Heskit One-Eye, plans a raid on the Nuln College of Engineering to appropriate the latest human weapons and technology and obtain glory.  However, the jealous Grey Seer Thanquol organises a significant roadblock in the form of Gotrek and Felix.  This is another outstanding entry in the novel, and I consider it to be the most comedic and entertaining of the bunch.  Not only do you get to see amazing examples of Skaven backstabbing and betrayal but you also have an extremely funny and exciting sequence at the college, where all hell breaks loose when a Skaven gets stuck in a Steam Tank.  This story also serves as an excellent introduction to the various Skaven side-characters, and a lot of elements from Night Raid have major impacts on the rest of Skavenslayer’s story.

Up next, we have the disgusting and captivating story, Plague Monks of Pestilens.  In this story, a brewing plague strikes quick with deadly consequences.  However, this is no ordinary plague; it is a deadly concoction dreamt up by the demented plague monks of Clan Pestilens, led by the terrible Vilebroth Null.  Warned again by Thanquol, Gotrek and Felix attempt to stop the plague monks before it is too late.  Plague Monks of Pestilens is an amazing middle story that is pretty memorable.  Rather than the pure hack-and-slash narrative of the previous story, King works in an interesting mystery element, as Felix tries to work out where the plague monks are attacking from.  Once battle is joined, you are in for a dangerous and gruesome fight, especially as the author goes into full horror mode when describing the grotesque plague monks and their malformed, diseased bodies.  This is an extremely intense and disturbing story which really enhances Skavenslayer’s overall narrative and gives it the more serious edge it needed.

The penultimate story of Skavenslayer is Beasts of Moulder, which sees Gotrek and Felix attempt to stop the master mutators of Clan Moulder, led by Izak Grottle, try to unleash their latest creation.  This was a decent addition, although if I am being honest, it was probably the weakest entry in the entire book.  Not only are the stakes a little lower, but it repeats the pattern of the previous two entries.  I did quite enjoy the scene where Felix visits the palace, especially as everyone there assumes he is some sort of master monster hunter, but the rest of the story fell a little flat, especially the Elissa subplot.  Still, it fits into Skavenslayer’s narrative well and does a good job setting up the final story.

The last entry in Skavenslayer is the major concluding storyline, The Battle of Nuln.  In this story, both the citizens of Nuln and the Skaven army hiding beneath the streets have been afflicted by plague and famine.  In order to achieve victory, Thanquol leads a daring raid on the Countess’s palace during a ball, while the rest of the Skaven army attacks the city.  With Gotrek and Felix stuck in the middle of several Skaven plots, can they save the city before it is overwhelmed by rats, disease and vile Skaven magic?  The Battle of Nuln is an incredible and captivating entry that serves as the action-packed conclusion to the entire book.  King brings together all his fantastic storylines, and the readers are rewarded with an intense and extended war sequence, as the full wrath of the Skaven force is unleashed.  I deeply enjoyed this final story, and it did an outstanding job of providing satisfying, if occasionally lethal, conclusions to all the character arcs and storylines.  There is so much action going on in The Battle of Nuln, and I loved seeing the consequences of all the previous short stories finally come to the fore for both sides in the war.  An excellent and exciting conclusion that will put you in the mood for even more Gotrek and Felix.

I had an outstanding time getting through each of the short stories above, and not only are they fantastic reads on their own but together they form an impressive and intense overarching narrative.  King did a wonderful job crafting together all six stories, and I felt that the use of a single location and overarching antagonists worked extremely well, especially once you are introduced to the four iconic Skaven clans.  While some of the middle stories do suffer from plot repetition, this is still a great book which is extremely fun to read.  King ensures each story has a great combination of action, character development and humour, and each of the stories can easily be read on their own without a lot of context from the others.  This is also a very good Warhammer Fantasy novel, and readers only need minimal prior knowledge of the franchise, especially as King provides a great amount of detail and self-contained lore.  I felt that it came together perfectly, and readers are in for an exceptional time when they check this novel out.

One of the more entertaining and fun parts of this novel was King’s use of the Skaven as the villains of the story.  The giant rat-men known as Skaven are chaotic beings who, thanks to their spiteful nature, massive ambitions and weird array of abilities, weapons, magic and fighting techniques, are one of the most entertaining and recognisable races in the Warhammer Fantasy canon.  I think that King did a particularly good job bringing the Skaven to life in Skavenslayer, and they proved to be a very intriguing and memorable group of antagonists.  Not only does the author showcase several unique Skaven clans (each of them is covered in a short story), but he also captures the Skavens’ treacherous nature, speech pattern and insane pettiness.  While the Skaven have an elaborate plan, their own paranoia and self-serving mindset gets in the way of its success, and it is wonderful to see the various backstabbing, betrayals and plots that occur throughout the course of the book.  Despite this, they still prove to be a dangerous group of enemies, and they manage to hit the protagonists and the rest of the humans in Nuln in a big way.  I really enjoyed the way that King utilised the Skaven throughout this novel, especially as their duplicitous or cowardly actions are the catalyst for most of the book’s humour, and Skavenslayer is a fantastic and detailed introduction to this impressive Warhammer Fantasy faction.  That being said, there are only so many times you can hear a scared Skaven getting ready to “squirt the musk of fear”, and some different wording might have been better.

Another highlight of this book is its complex characters.  The most notable and prominent of these are titular protagonists, Gotrek and Felix, and it is still incredibly fun to see the unusual partnership of a doomed Dwarf Slayer and a former wealthy poet turned notorious adventurer.  Due to his position as the book’s main point of view character, much of Skavenslayer’s focus lies on Felix.  While there are still hints at his somewhat cowardly past, especially as he seems apprehensive before every single fight, Felix has become a much more fearless and dangerous being in this book, and he leads the way in several battles throughout Skavenslayer, proving himself a fantastic hero.  There are some interesting character moments for Felix throughout this book, especially as he encounters his brother, Otto, the first member of his family to reach out to him since his banishment.  There are some great comparisons between the wealthy Otto and the more adventurous Felix in Skavenslayer, and it was intriguing to see what Felix might have turned into if he was not bound to Gotrek.  I also liked how Felix developed more into his role as the sane straight man to Gotrek, and his dry humour really adds a lot of comedy to the books.  Overall, Skavenslayer is quite a strong outing for Felix, and he proves to be an outstanding central character.

Aside from Felix, the other main character is Gotrek, the mad, death-hungry Dwarf Slayer, who is constantly denied his desired doom in glorious combat due to his own unnatural skill.  Gotrek is his usual crude and disrespectful self throughout Skavenslayer, and it is an absolute joy to see him in battle, even if his portrayed as way too overpowered.  While he is a great character, Gotrek was underutilised in Skavenslayer, and he was mainly just a supporting player in the Felix-based stories, only appearing when there is a need for fighting.  Still, it was great to see him, and he does get a lot more attention in the next novel.

While Gotrek was a bit overlooked, King does a wonderful compromise by introducing an exceptional primary antagonist in the form of Grey Seer Thanquol, a powerful Skaven sorcerer who goes on to be a major recurring figure within the Gotrek and Felix novels and the wider Warhammer Fantasy universe.  Thanquol is an impressively entertaining character who represents the absolute best (or worst, depending on your point of view) of Skaven society.  He is insanely ambitious, arrogant, power-hungry and dangerous, and rose to power thanks to an unfortunate “accident” involving his predecessor, a loaded crossbow and an exploding donkey.  Due to his ambition and an unwillingness to share any glory, Thanquol spends just as much time plotting against his equally aspiring subordinates as he does attempting to conquer Nuln or kill Gotrek and Felix.  Indeed, several conflicts with the Skaven are due to Thanquol himself informing the protagonists about his rival’s plots, often through some hilarious letters which are clearly written by a Skaven (despite Thanquol’s own belief that they are masterful forgeries).  The sheer overconfidence, deluded self-belief and inability to take responsibility for his failings make Thanquol a particularly nasty antagonist, however, it is just so entertaining to see him strive and then fail, that you end up wanting him to live and succeed against his Skaven opponents.  Thanquol proves to be an excellent antagonist, and I really enjoyed seeing his alternative point-of-view which highlights the Skaven plans.  King really outdid himself coming up with this villainous rat-man, and he is one of the best things about Skavenslayer and the overall Gotrek and Felix series.

King has also filled Skavenslayer with an interesting collection of side characters who add a lot to the plot.  The author does a good job of introducing these major side characters throughout the various stories, and he manages to build them up and flesh out their personalities in a short amount of time.  There are great human supporting characters, such as Heinz and Doctor Drexler, and several fun and amusing Skaven.  The majority of these Skaven characters are leading members of the main clans who not only serve as secondary antagonists for the novel, but who are also cast as rivals to Thanquol’s rise to power.  I had a fantastic time seeing each of these Skaven characters in all their treacherous, self-serving glory, although my favourite had to be the aptly named Lurk Snitchtongue, who is a very fun and cowardly character.

If I had to make one major criticism, it would be about the complete lack of any decent female supporting characters.  While you can forgive some older fantasy books for their lack of gender diversity, it is a painfully obvious problem in Skavenslayer.  There are literally only two female characters of note within the novel, and both are badly written.  The first is Felix’s romantic partner, Elissa, who quickly becomes a major burden to the story by forming conflicts with Felix.  Their romance is thankfully over before the end of the book, and you cannot feel anything but relief as she leaves.  The other character is the ruler of Nuln, Countess Emmanuelle, who gets only a couple of lines at the end of the novel.  While her one scene does shine her in a good light, the rest of the novel hints that she is a vapid, lustful and incompetent ruler.  The underuse of female characters is probably going to be a major feature of Gotrek and Felix series in the future (for example, Daemonslayer only has one female character), however, I really hope that any who feature are written a lot better than the ones featured in Skavenslayer.

Just like I did with Trollslayer before it, I chose to listen to Skavenslayer on audiobook rather than grab a physical copy of the book.  I have a lot of love for the Warhammer Fantasy audiobooks, especially as they always perfectly capture the excitement, grim horror and elaborate fantasy of this franchise.  Skavenslayer was another great example of this, and I had a wonderful and thrilling time listening to this amazing novel in this format.  Much of the reason for this was the excellent narration by Jonathan Keeble, a brilliant narrator who has lent his voice to most of the Gotrek and Felix novels.  Keeble has an outstanding voice for dark fantasy stories such as this, and I loved the grim tone he gives to several of the characters, particularly Gotrek, as well as the sheer excitement that infects his tone whenever there is a fight sequence or dangerous scene.  Keeble also a lot of fun voicing the various Skaven characters, and he expertly mimics their high-pitched, whiney tones, which helps highlight their fickle and cowardly nature.  This excellent voice work helps turn the Skavenslayer audiobook into an absolute treat to listen to, and with a runtime of only 10 and a half hours, listeners will power through this in no time at all.

William King’s second Gotrek and Felix novel, Skavenslayer, was another outstanding and wildly enjoyable novel that I had an incredible time listening to.  Featuring a compelling connected narrative filled with intense action and fun villains, this is an amazing fantasy tale that is perfect for all Warhammer Fantasy fans.  I can think of no higher compliment for this book than to reveal that the moment I finished Skavenslayer, I immediately grabbed the next novel in the series, Daemonslayer, which proved to be just as much fun.

Skavenslayer 2

The Shadow of the Gods by John Gwynne

The Shadow of the Gods Cover

Publisher: Orbit (Audiobook – 4 May 2021)

Series: The Bloodsworn Saga – Book One

Length: 18 hours and 13 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Prepare to dive into a dark and powerful Norse-inspired fantasy with the incredible and addictive new novel from superstar fantasy author John Gwynne, The Shadow of the Gods.  Gwynne is highly regarded fantasy author who has been making some major waves since his 2012 dark fantasy debut, Malice, the first book in The Faithful and the Fallen series.  Gwynne has so far written two major fantasy series, the four-novel long The Faithful and the Fallen, and the sequel Of Blood and Bone series.  His latest novel, The Shadow of the Gods, is the first book in The Bloodsworn Saga, which will follow a group of epic protagonists in a bloody and grim Norse-inspired fantasy world.

I must admit that until recently I had not had the pleasure of reading any of John Gwynne’s novels.  This has always seemed like a major oversight on my behalf, especially as most fantasy reviewers massively talk up Gwynne’s existing series. While my attention was drawn to this book thanks to its baller cover (I mean look at it, so awesome), it initially was not a major reading priority for me.  However, this changed once the reviews for The Shadow of the Gods started pouring in.  Within a day of its release, my inbox was getting blown up with glowing reviews, as nearly every member of the fantasy fiction community started singing the praises of Gwynne’s new book.  While I generally like making my own reading decisions, after seeing so many different reviewers claim it was one of the best books of the year, I honestly had no choice but to check it out, and boy was I glad that I did.

Hundreds of years ago, the gods fought in a brutal and fatal war in the lands of Vigrið for power, vengeance, and pride.  When the fighting stopped all the gods lay dead, the land was shattered, and hordes of monsters and demons were unleashed upon the world.  Now, after barely surviving the carnage of the god’s war, humans dominate Vigrið, with powerful jarls fighting for control of the towns while mercenary war bands quest after monsters and the most feared inhabitants of Vigrið, the Tainted.  The Tainted are human descendants of the gods who bear small remnants of their savage power, and who are now hunted out of fear and a desire to harness their power for the wars to come.

While life is always bloody in Vigrið, times are especially bleak now with war looming on the horizon, monsters roaming the wilds and sinister forces gather out of sight.  In these dark times, three dangerous people will find the fate of Vigrið resting in their hands.  These new heroes include Orka, a hunter and trapper who lives a quiet life in the wilds with her family, attempting to avoid her troubled past while raising her young son.  Meanwhile, Varg, an escaped thrall seeking answers, finds unexpected friendship by joining the legendary Bloodsworn mercenary company.  Finally, Elvar, a young noblewoman running from her family, seeks glory and battle fame as part of the Battle-Grim, another mercenary band who specialise in capturing Tainted humans.

Soon, all three of these fighters are faced with new and life-changing challenges.  Orka is forced to embark on a bloody mission of vengeance when her peaceful life is shattered and her son is taken from her.  Varg attempts to reconcile his responsibilities to the Bloodsworn and his own personal oaths, as the war band march into the wilderness to face a mysterious foe.  Elvar and the Battle-Grim embark on a legendary quest to find the final battleground of the gods.  However, all three will be unprepared for the revelations, lies and bloodshed about to be unleashed before them.  A dangerous conspiracy is forming in Vigrið that will shatter the very land and bring untold chaos to humanity.  Not all the gods are dead, and those that survive are very angry!

So, a little life lesson for me here: when the entire reviewing world says a book is good, then you can be damn sure that it will be an amazing read!  In this case, The Shadow of the Gods turned out to be an exceptional and captivating novel which provides an intense and clever story with great characters exploring a harsh and broken world.  Gwynne did an incredible job with his latest novel, and this was easily one of the best fantasy books I have read so far this year, earning an easy five-star rating from me.  The Shadow of the Gods has an incredible and powerful narrative that becomes even more addictive and exciting the further you get into it.  This is an outstanding and dark fantasy story which cleverly Gwynne has anchored to three separate point-of-view characters, Orka, Varg and Elvar.  I really liked how Gwynne came up with three separate narratives that are fun and memorable in their own unique way, and The Shadow of the Gods is stronger because of this.

The first one of these independent storylines revolves around Orka, a skilled and deadly warrior who has taken to living as an isolated hunter with her husband and young son.  Initially attempting to stay out of the politics and battles of Vigrið, and with a mysterious past surrounding her, Orka is eventually forced into action when her home is destroyed and her son is kidnapped.  What follows is a bloody and brutal revenge story, as Orka traverses the landscape in search of her son, killing everyone in her way.  Accompanied by two inexperienced fighters, Orka cuts a fantastic path of vengeance and despair throughout the world, eventually revealing just how dangerous she can be.  Orka’s story is really fantastic, and I loved seeing her on her quest for vengeance, blood and her son.  Gwynne weaves an incredible narrative around the character and takes her to some dark and dangerous places, as she is forced to contend with conspiring jarls, rogue warbands, vengeful fighters and dangerous Tainted with unknown agendas.  The author also puts some very impressive character work into Orka.  Initially shown as a mysterious being who is haunted by her past and is only just keeping her aggressive instincts in check for the sake of her family, Orka soon displays increasing violence and prowess as her storyline continues and she loses more control.  This was a fantastic and epic story, which has an outstanding ending with some extremely fun, if slightly predictable, twists to it.

The next storyline follows the amazing Varg, a former thrall who has run away after killing his owners.  In desperate need of magic to avenge his dead sister, Varg attempts to join the Bloodsworn, a highly regarded mercenary company, to make use of their seiðr-witch.  After impressing the Bloodsworn, Varg travels with them as an apprentice mercenary, unable to use the seiðr-witch until he proves his worth.  His first quest with the Bloodsworn takes him to a remote part of Vigrið to investigate missing villagers.  As Varg struggles between fulfilling his oath to his sister and starting a new life, he will experience betrayal, despair, and terrible revelations.  This is another excellent storyline which has a lot of awesome elements to it.  Not only is there a lot of action and intrigue as the Bloodsworn find themselves in the middle of the chaos infecting Vigrið, but it also serves as a fantastic tale of friendship, redemption, and camaraderie.

Varg proves to be a really good central protagonist and readers will quickly become attracted to his resilience, natural battle prowess and deep inner tragedy.  A former slave, Varg is unused to friendship or support from those around him, as the only person he could ever count on was his sister, whose death he seeks to avenge.  However, when confronted by the easy friendship of his fellow Bloodsworn brothers, Varg finds himself suffering from some dramatic inner conflict, especially as he believes himself undeserving of support and kindness, and his happiness feels like a betrayal to his dead sister.  This is an amazing bit of character work here, and I really appreciated Varg’s impressive personal story.  His background as a slave also ensures that this storyline features more background about this world than some of the other stories do, and you also get a series of training montages as Varg learns how to fight as a member of the Bloodsworn.  This storyline is further enhanced by a great band of supporting characters, especially as Varg finds himself fighting side by side with an eclectic group of unique and outrageous warriors.  There are several fantastic and enjoyable side characters featured amongst the Bloodsworn, although my favourite must be the cocky and entertaining Svik, a skilled warrior with a love of cheese and a funny tale to back it up (trust me, it is worth reading just to see him tell his cheese tale).  These supporting characters help to make Varg’s storyline the most entertaining and humorous parts of the book and it is near impossible not to fall in love with the various members of the Bloodsworn.

The final character arc featured in The Shadow of the Gods follows the young warrior, Elvar.  Elvar is the daughter of a powerful jarl who gave up a life of comfort and forced marriage to join the Battle-Grim, another notorious mercenary warband who specialise in killing monsters and trapping Tainted to sell them for profit.  After capturing an unusual family of Tainted, Elvar and the Battle-Grim embark on a quest of epic proportions that will change the world.  This was another impressive and captivating storyline which has some very unique differences from the other character arcs.  Elvar is an excellent point-of-view character with a complex past, who presents an interesting counterpoint to the other two protagonists.  While Orka and Varg and primarily motivated by family and vengeance, Elvar is primarily concerned with proving her worth to her crew, her commander, and her overbearing family, and is determined to win enough battle fame to outshine her father.  I also loved the comparisons between the Bloodsworn and the Battle-Grim, and it was interesting to see how the similarities and differences between the warbands, especially as the Battle-Grim are more concerned with wealth and reputation.  This storyline is a particularly ambitious and contains some amazing battle sequences, especially one at the start against a troll, and there is much more of a focus on fighting within a shield wall as a unit.  This storyline also has one of the best twists in the entire novel, as well as an extremely impressive ending that will have major implications for the rest of the series.

The three narratives are generally kept very separate right up until the end with only a minimal amount of crossover.  This means that the readers end up getting three distinct stories with a unique group of characters set within the same book.  I think that this was a pretty cool way to start the wider series off, especially as it let the reader see more of the universe, while also expertly establishing the main protagonists and their storylines.  At the same time, limiting the narrative to only three major characters (I understand that Gwynne usually uses more), also ensures that the story does not get too fractured, and that the reader has time to get properly invested in each storyline.  I had a wonderful time reading each of the three storylines, and I honestly enjoyed each of them pretty much equally.  This is pretty rare for novels that use multiple POV characters, as there is usually one narrator or storyline that the reader enjoys more than others.  I will admit that Elvar’s storyline did take me a little longer to get into, but I become extremely hooked on it after a few chapters.  If I had to choose an absolute favourite storyline, I would say that the Varg chapters were really appealing to me, and I enjoyed seeing his cool story of redemption, as well as his fun companions.  While the stories were primarily kept separate, a few overarching plotlines and a couple of supporting characters are shared between the three arcs.  While subtle, it does perfectly set up an overarching conspiracy that has major implications for the entire plot and which sets up the next novel perfectly.  This makes for a pretty epic novel, and it is one that no fantasy fan will be able to easily put down.

I was deeply impressed by the clever and memorable fantasy universe that Gwynne came up with for The Shadow of the Gods.  The world of Vigrið is a thrilling dark fantasy setting, filled with all manner of dangerous monsters, dead gods and roving warbands, all of which proves to be an amazing backdrop to the overall story.  I loved the beautiful combination of fantasy elements with Norse historical inspirations, and it was pretty damn cool to see Viking-esque warriors facing off against monsters and magically enhanced beings.  The author does a great job capturing the intricacies of these Norse elements, and the reader is treated to detailed depictions of Viking tactics, weapons and fighting styles, such as a several brutal shield wall sequences.  Gwynne really tries to enhance the authenticity of these elements by using the Norse names for various things, such as brynja for a coat of mail, and I really appreciated this attention to detail.  I am not entirely sure he needed to describe someone’s head as a thought-cage every single time, though, as it that was a tad annoying.  In addition to the cool Norse elements, I loved the whole concept of a land of fallen gods where their human descendants are hunted and enslaved.  This opens some great storylines, especially around how the Tainted are treated, and it proves to be rather interesting to see which characters are secretly empowered (some are more obvious than others).  I think that Gwynne did a good job of introducing all the key elements of his universe throughout the course of the book, and the reader is never unsure or confused about what is going on.  This truly was an impressively inventive new setting, and I look forward to seeing what chaos and destruction occurs throughout it in the next novel, especially after that ending.

I ended up listening to The Shadow of the Gods’ audiobook format, which turned out to be an amazing and captivating production.  The Shadow of the Gods has a substantial run time of just over 18 hours; however, listeners are guaranteed to power through it in no time at all.  I found myself really enjoying into this book’s audiobook format, especially as it really helped to bring the excellent story to life for me, with many fantastic details and thrilling fight scenes become so much clearer.  One of the main reasons that this format works so well is the excellent narration from Colin Mace, a man who has lent his vocal talents to some great novels in the past, including The Black Hawks by David Wragg (as well as its upcoming sequel, The Righteous).  Mace has a very gruff and commanding voice that perfectly fits the dark, Nordic tone of The Shadow of the Gods.  Mace does an awesome job moving the story along at a quick pace, and there is never a single slow spot for the listeners to get stuck in.  At the same time, he produces some rough and damaged voices for the various characters featured within the book which I felt fit each of them perfectly and which helped to highlight their distinctive personalities.  This results in an exquisite and memorable audiobook production, and I would strongly recommend this format to anyone interested in checking this impressive novel out.

With his latest incredible novel, the impressive John Gwynne once again shows why he is one of the leading authors of dark fantasy fiction.  The Shadow of the Gods is a fantastic and captivating read that takes the reader on thrilling adventures with some exceptional characters.  Featuring a powerful narrative and an intricate and grim new fantasy setting, The Shadow of the Gods is an outstanding and addictive novel that is one of the best fantasy books of 2021.  A highly recommended read for anyone looking for their latest dark fantasy fix, I cannot wait to see where Gwynne takes The Bloodsworn Saga next, but you have to know it is going to be something particularly epic.

Artifact Space by Miles Cameron

Artifact Space Cover

Publisher: Gollancz (Ebook – 29 June 2021)

Series: Arcana Imperii – Book One

Length: 568 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

After already conquering the world of thrillers, historical fiction and fantasy fiction, bestselling author Miles Cameron presents his very first science fiction epic, the outstanding and brilliant Artifact Space.

Far in the future, humanity has spread out amongst the stars, expanding its influence and bringing trade and technology across multiple planets.  The success of humanity’s current expansion can primarily be attributed to xenoglas, a strong and mysterious material that forms the basis for trade, construction, and the economy.  Xenoglas is obtained from a mysterious alien race known as the Starfish, who can be found at the Trade Point, a massive structure at the edge of human space that only the most sophisticated and powerful ships are capable of reaching.  Humanity has created the greatships, kilometre long ships with massive city-sized cargo holds, capable of transporting all manner of human goods the long distance between the greatest human orbital cities to Trade Point and bring back vast hauls of xenoglas.

Marca Nbaro has always dreamed about venturing into space aboard a greatship and escaping her harsh upbringing in the notorious Orphanage.  However, after getting on the wrong side of the corrupt Dominus, Nbaro is forced to flee with few possessions, scandals dogging her step and an incomplete education.  Pawning everything for some forged records, Nbaro boards the greatship Athens as a junior officer as it prepares to depart on the multi-year journey to Trade Point.

Despite being constantly terrified of her sordid past being discovered, Nbaro is soon able to gain friends and standing aboard the greatship, and for the first time ever her future looks bright.  However, Nbaro’s dreams of mercantile success are soon blown out of the water when news of the destruction of two other greatships reaches the Athens.  It soon becomes apparent that the Athens is also at risk of from whatever mysterious forces have suddenly appeared.  Involuntarily brought into the midst of a dangerous conspiracy, Nbaro is recruited by Athens AI and the greatships’ security office to protect the ship.  As Nbaro works to safeguard her new friends and home, she finds herself facing an insidious and dangerous enemy that is determined to stop the Athens and its crew by any means necessary.  Can Nbaro and her friends protect the Athens as it makes a hurried journey towards the Trade Point, or will her first flight end in ruin and destruction?

Genuine question: is there any genre that Miles Cameron cannot write amazing novels in?  Well, after reading Artifact Space, it looks like Cameron really can do it all, as his latest novel is an exceptional and captivating read.  Cameron, who also writes as Christian Cameron and Gordon Kent (a joint pseudonym shared with his father Kenneth Cameron), is an author who I have been a fan of for a while.  I deeply enjoyed some of the great historical fiction reads he released as Christian Cameron, such as Tyrant and Killer of Men, as well as his more recent release The New Achilles.  I am also a major fan of the awesome fantasy novels he released as part of his Master and Mages series, including Cold Iron and Dark Forge.  Both of these awesome novels were exceptional reads that got five-star reviews from me, with Dark Forge being one of the best books and audiobooks I enjoyed in 2019.

Due to how much I enjoyed his great fantasy and historical fiction novels, I was very intrigued when I saw that Cameron was writing Artifact Space, his debut science fiction novel set in his newly created Arcana Imperii universe.  After featuring Artifact Space in a Waiting on Wednesday article, I was lucky enough to receive an advanced proof from Cameron, which I managed to read last week.  I am a little annoyed with myself for taking so long to get to Artifact Space, as it turned out to be an exceptional and deeply compelling epic that takes its reader of an exciting adventure out into the depths of space.  I had an amazing time reading Artifact Space and it is yet another of Cameron’s incredible novels to get a five-star rating from me.

Artifact Space contains a powerful and engrossing science fiction narrative that follows a complex and damaged protagonist as she engages in a dangerous and thrilling adventure out into the stars.  Cameron starts his novel off without much preamble, with the protagonist engaging in a dangerous race to the Athens to escape her past.  Once aboard, Nbaro becomes enfolded in the day-to-day life aboard the Athens, which swiftly teaches her, and by extension the reader, much about Cameron’s new setting.  The first half of the novel is pretty intriguing, as Cameron not only sets up his fantastic protagonist, great supporting characters and fantastic universe, but he also features some compelling adventures in space as the protagonist finds her feet aboard the ship while also dealing with some lethal personal problems.  While I really enjoyed this cool start to Artifact Space, the novel enters a completely new gear towards the second half of the book, especially after it becomes clear that a shadowy conspiracy has plans to destroy the Athens, with the protagonist stuck right in the middle of the key events.  Following a particularly intense and exciting sequence near the middle of the book, the rest of Artifact Space flows across at an extremely brisk pace, as several key storylines are resolved, and the Athens finds itself under increased attack from a variety of places.  All of this leads up to an impressive and captivating conclusion that sets up the following novel perfectly while keep the reader wanting more.

I really enjoyed the clever and powerful story that Cameron came up for Artifact Space.  There is something deeply compelling about seeing a great character getting an in-depth lesson in something new and fantastic, and I loved all the cool sequences of spaceship life, piloting and control that formed a great part of this book.  I am also a massive fan of how exciting and suspenseful the second half of the book turned out to be, as Cameron installs an excellent and thrilling storyline with plenty of threats, revelations and twists, which constantly leaves the reader on the edge of their seat.  Cameron also features several intense and exciting action sequences both aboard the ship and out in space, all of which are fantastically written and deeply enhance the cool and compelling narrative.  I quite liked how Cameron also adapted his writing style to suit the science fiction genre.  While the author maintains his propensity to feature an immense amount of detail in his story, I found that the writing was a lot more fluid and a little less formal than how he writes his historical fiction and fantasy novels.  I think this worked well for Artifact Space, as not only did it fit the futuristic setting a lot better, but it also ensured that the reader could get through the novel a little quicker.  I had an amazing time getting through this incredible narrative and it honestly did not take me long to become completely engrossed in Artifact Space’s story.  I absolutely flew through the second half of the narrative as I could not wait to see what obstacles the protagonist would experience next, as well as how the novel would end.

I was deeply impressed by the fantastic and impressive science fiction setting that was featured in this novel.  Cameron has come up with a compelling and detailed universe for Artifact Space, and it was one that I had a lot of fun exploring.  The story is set hundreds of years in the future and features a period of human exploration and expansion after a historic dark age which forced people to leave Earth.  Much of humanity’s current economy and progress is due to its xenoglas trade with the Starfish, and much of the book’s plot revolves around this trade, featuring the greatships, the alien Trade Point and the various human planets that lie between the Trade Point and the human population centres.  Each of these locations is very cool, and Cameron expertly brings them to life with his detailed and descriptive writing, which produces some excellent backdrops for the narrative.  Cameron also spends a lot of time describing the fantastic setting that is the greatship itself.  The greatship, an immense vessel filled with a unique collection of crew, cargo, rooms, and technology, all of which are needed to take the assembled characters from one end of the galaxy to the next.  Most of the story is set aboard the greatship Athens, and it proves to be a fantastic setting to explore.  Thanks to the author’s use of a new crewmember as the narrative’s point-of-view character, the reader is given an in-depth view of the ship and everything that makes it tick and it really will not take them long to fall in love with the Athens and all its unique features and quirks.  I think that Cameron did an exceptional job introducing all the elements of this universe throughout Artifact Space, and I never found myself getting lost of confused about what was going on.  There are so many exciting, fascinating, and clever universe details featured throughout this novel and I look forward to seeing how Cameron populates this universe in the future.

I also really enjoyed the great selection of characters.  The most prominent of these is central protagonist and point-of-view character, Marca Nbaro, an orphan from a formerly wealthy family who cons her way aboard the Athens.  Due to her hard early life at the Orphanage, a terrible state-run institution, Nbaro is an extremely damaged character.  Forced to spend most of her life looking over her shoulder and expecting betrayal, Nbaro is unfamiliar with the easy camaraderie and friendship she experiences aboard the Athens and is generally suspicious of everyone she encounters.  She is also terrified that the rest of the crew will find out about her forged grades, which would see her chucked off the ship, while also harbouring a low opinion about her own abilities and skills, believing that she did not really earn her place aboard the ship.  This is a fantastic basis for a character, and I really appreciated the way in which Cameron examined the mentality and deeper concerns of his protagonist, especially as it ensures that you really care for Nbaro and want to see her succeed.  I liked the way in which Nbaro grew as a character throughout the course of the novel, especially as she gains a sense of self-worth thanks to her natural abilities and the connections she forges.  The character soon finds herself in a variety of unique and dangerous situations as she puts everything on the line to save her new friends and home, and it was great to see the character enter hero mode and succeed.  I am really looking forward to seeing how Nbaro continues to develop in the next novel, as well as where her personal story ends up.

Cameron has also filled Artifact Space with a wide range of intriguing and likeable supporting characters who the protagonist engages with during her adventures.  There is a fairly large collection of supporting characters in this book, especially as Nbaro makes friends and collections throughout the entire greatship and beyond.  I had a lot of fun getting to know some of the characters throughout this novel, and I was a particular fan of the weird and brilliant Dorcas, Nbaro’s friendly roommate Thea, and the ship’s clever and sarcastic AI, Morosini.  All these characters, and many more, added a lot to Artifact Space’s story, especially as most of them form a unique relationship or friendship with Nbaro.  While a few interesting supporting characters don’t survive to the end of the novel, the remaining swath of fun characters should help to make the next entry in this series very special.  I enjoyed seeing several of these characters develop alongside the protagonist, and they were great additions to this fantastic novel.

With Artifact Space, outstanding author Miles Cameron has shown the world that he is more than capable of writing science fiction, as he produces a compelling, character-driven epic, set deep in the future with aliens, giant spaceships and galaxy spanning conspiracies.  This was an amazing and captivating read which quickly drags the reader in with its intense and exciting story and exceptional science fiction setting.  I had an absolutely incredible time reading this impressive novel, and Artifact Space comes highly recommended to anyone who wants a great science fiction read.  I cannot wait to see how this series continues in Cameron’s next book, but in the meantime I need to make tracks to finish his Master and Mages series, as I cannot get enough of Cameron’s incredible writing.

Quick Review – Rabbits by Terry Miles

Rabbits Cover

Publisher: Macmillan (Trade Paperback – 8 June 2021)

Series: Standalone/Book One

Length: 422 pages

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Are you ready to check out one of the most unique and creatively complex debuts of 2021?  Then buckle yourself in and get ready to play the Game, as new author Terry Miles presents his weirdly compelling science fiction thriller, Rabbits.

Synopsis:

What happens in the game, stays in the game…

Rabbits is a secret, dangerous and sometimes fatal underground game. The rewards for winning are unclear, but there are rumours of money, CIA recruitment or even immortality. Or it might unlock the universe’s greatest secrets. But everyone knows that the deeper you get, the more deadly the game becomes – and the body count is rising. Since the game first started, ten iterations have taken place… and the eleventh round is about to begin.

K can’t get enough of the game and has been trying to find a way in for years. Then Alan Scarpio, reclusive billionaire and alleged Rabbits winner, shows up out of nowhere. And he charges K with a desperate mission. Something has gone badly wrong with the game and K needs to fix it – before Eleven starts – or the world will pay the price.

Five days later, Scarpio is declared missing.

Two weeks after that Eleven begins, so K blows the deadline.

And suddenly, the fate of the entire universe is at stake.


Rabbits
is a fascinating and complex novel that I was lucky enough to receive a copy of a few weeks ago.  I have to admit that when I first received this novel I had no idea what I was in for as I was expecting something a little simpler, like a computer game giving out unique challenges.  However, Rabbits was a much more insane and complicated science fiction story than I ever imagined, as the protagonist and his friends find themselves falling down a deep rabbit hole.  The Game, also known as Rabbits, leads the protagonist into a world of shifting patterns, strange coincidences and slightly different alternate realities, as they attempt to get to the heart of the Game and the people trying to manipulate it.

In reviewing this book, I found that Rabbits is a rather hard novel to describe, especially as Miles has gone out of his way to make his narrative as unique and complex as possible.  The entire story appears at times to be a mass of convoluted ideas that revolve around the somewhat ill-defined game which forms the centre of the entire book.  As Rabbits progresses, the reader is subjected to a weird array of storylines, which mix strange patterns and coincidences, with journeys into alternate realities, overarching conspiracies and complex tale surrounding point-of-view character K.  While the plot of Rabbits is a little confusing at times, there is a really intriguing and compelling story behind this book that becomes rather addictive the more you dive into, very much like the game it describes.

Miles sets up his novel beautifully, and the reader is quickly introduced to some of the key concepts of the Game and the personal history of K.  This introduction proves to be a good grounding to the rest of the novel, and readers will quickly find themselves flying through the rest of the book, especially as they become invested in the protagonist’s quest to learn about the Game, as well as the great conspiracy that is being formed around it.  Rabbits proves to be a very fast-paced book, and I found myself getting really attached to K and his friends, who are a fun group of conspiracy obsessed nerds.  This entire story comes together with a fascinating and high-stakes conclusion, which does a good job wrapping up the entire narrative and providing the reader with some closure.  An overall fun, if unpredictable story, readers who check this one out will be in for a very interesting time.

One of the most entertaining elements of this book is the constant stream of pop-culture references that Miles loads into his story.  The plot of Rabbits is filled with mentions of all sorts of movies, games, novels and famous figures, many of which are associated in some way with the Game, either directly (such as having a code hidden within it) or indirectly (details about them are changed in a new reality).  Video games, particularly old arcade games, are strongly featured within Rabbits, and Miles provides so many different references or depictions of classic games or technology that will no-doubt appeal to game aficionados.  Other cultural items, such as the film Donnie Darko (which has its own breed of rabbit in it) and the actor Jeff Goldblum (who appears in a very disturbing video that may or may not have happened), are also worked into the story, and it was fascinating to see the various connections they potentially have to this wide-reaching game.  I really enjoyed the way Miles worked in all these references, cultural items and figures into his story, and readers will have fun recognising everything the author includes.

Rabbits ended up being a very interesting and memorable debut from Terry Miles, and I am glad that I checked it out.  I really enjoyed the complex and thrilling narrative that Rabbits which will appeal to a wide range of readers.  That being said, Rabbits will definitely not be everyone’s cup of tea, and I can see some readers struggling with it.  But I felt that Rabbits was worth making the effort to get through and I look forward to seeing what unique novels Miles comes up with in the future.

Inscape by Louise Carey

Inscape Cover

Publisher: Gollancz (Trade Paperback – 27 January 2021)

Series: Inscape – Book One

Length: 426 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

The future is a cyperpunk nightmare in Inscape, the fantastic and clever science fiction thriller debut from amazing author Louise Carey.

Years after an apocalyptic event, the world is now run by corporations who battle for control and influence.  One of the most powerful corporations is InTech, which sits on the cutting edge of a variety of technologies and advances and which does not take any prisoners in their war for dominance.  When a valuable piece of information is stolen, InTech sends a team of agents into the unaffiliated zone to retrieve them.  However, only one agent will return alive and unharmed.

Tanta has spent her entire life training to work and fight for InTech.  An orphan who was raised solely because of the company’s good will, Tanta is crushed when her first mission ends in near failure.  Attacked by a mysterious enemy agent with advanced weapons technology, Tanta is barely able to survive and is subsequently tasked with retrieving the information that the thief stole.  Teaming up with an unconventional technical genius, Cole, Tanta begins her investigation, only to discover that someone is attacking InTech’s interests around their city.

Believing the culprits to be working for a rival corporation, Tanta and Cole attempt a dangerous infiltration into their city.  However, their mission quickly runs into problems when their contact is captured and Tanta’s tech appears to be compromised.  Attempting to survive in enemy territory, the two InTech agents engage in a risky heist to find answers.  But with all evidence pointing to a traitor high up in InTech’s ranks, can Tanta and Cole survive their dangerous mission, or will secrets from both their pasts destroy them and everything they love?

I am really glad that I decided to check this cool debut out as it ended up being a pretty impressive science fiction read.  Inscape was the first solo novel from author Louise Carey, who has previously written several novels and comics with her father, comic author Mike Carey, and her mother, Linda Carey.  Carey has come up with an exciting and compelling read in her first novel, especially as it combines an excellent science fiction thriller storyline with some great characters and an inventive and unique cyberpunk setting.

At the centre of this fantastic debut is an outstanding narrative that combines an electrifying spy thriller novel with some compelling science fiction.  Carey starts Inscape off quickly, with Tanta and her comrades brutally attacked by a dangerous enemy agent out while trying to recover some stolen files.  After this great opening scene, which sets up most of the narrative perfectly, Tanta is chucked into the midst of a massive conspiracy which sees her beloved corporation under attack, and which requires her to find who stole the files and for what purpose.  The rest of the novel is captivating and clever, as readers become engrossed by Inscape’s fantastic thriller elements as the protagonists attempt to get to the bottom of the conspiracy, which includes an extended undercover sequence where they infiltrate a rival corporation’s city to discover what they know.  This entire awesome sequence, which takes nearly a third of the novel, is extremely exciting, as Tanta and Cole are forced to rely on the minimal of resources to not only survive but to also pull off a daring prison break.  I really fell in love with this novel during this part of the story, and Carey makes sure to end it with an amazing conclusion which sees some major secrets come out and significant developments moments occur for the main characters.  I felt that the author wrapped Inscape up perfectly and readers will deeply enjoy where the story leaves off, especially as there are some great hints as to where the series will go from here.

One of the key things that I really loved about Inscape was the amazingly inventive and distinctive cyberpunk themed world that Carey created as a background to her awesome story.  The world of Inscape is set several years after an apocalyptic technological event which left much of the world in ruins.  Most civilisation now revolves around massive corporations who manage cities and safe zones while monitoring their citizens and assigning resources to the most useful.  There were also some intriguing pieces of technology introduced in this novel, such as the communications and information devices built into everyone’s heads, known as scapes, which serve as a key part of Inscape’s story.  This was an impressive and well-designed science fiction setting, and I enjoyed the cool blend of advanced technology, changing social norms and predictions of future corporate control.  I felt that Carey did an amazing job of introducing information and key points about the setting and advanced technology as the novel progresses, and it proves to be an excellent backdrop to Inscape.  I also appreciated the way in which technology like the scapes are utilised throughout the story as the instantaneous communication and information they contain help to enhance some of the action orientated scenes as well as amp up the intrigue and connections between characters.  You also occasionally get the opposite effects where this technology is deactivated and the protagonists are forced to rely on their own senses, which can be rather jarring for them.  Carey works in some compelling discussions about over-reliance on technology, free will and corporate greed throughout Inscape, all of which adds a darker and fascinating edge to the entire story.  All of this makes Inscape a very intriguing read that fans of science fiction and cyberpunk will deeply enjoy.

Another wonderful aspect of Inscape was the fantastic characters featured within, particularly the three main point-of-view characters.  Carey makes excellent use of multiple character perspectives throughout the novel to provide compelling alternate viewpoints of key events and character actions, which I felt really added a lot to the overall narrative.  In addition, the author introduces several amazing characters, most of whom either have a compelling base to their unique personalities or who go through some substantial development throughout the course of the novel.

The most prominent of these is central protagonist Tantra, a young woman who was raised by InTech since she was orphaned and who has been training all her life to be an agent for them.  Tantra starts the novel as a particularly zealous and passionate character who is unquestionably loyal to her corporation and her handler, Jen.  A skilled survivor, fighter and intuitive investigator, Tantra serves as a great protagonist for the early part of the novel, as she swiftly and efficiently begins the hunt for the person who is attacking her beloved InTech.  However, as the novel progresses, Tantra goes through some substantial changes, especially after she discovers some harsh truths about InTech and herself.  While this turns her into a much more likeable and free-spirited person, it does raise certain questions about Tantra’s true self and her motivations, which is rather intriguing and captivating to see.  Tantra is a fairly badass character throughout the entirety of Inscape, and I deeply enjoyed her intensity, intelligence, capacity for violence and acting abilities, the last of which results in a couple of fun scenes.  I also enjoyed how Carey made her a lesbian character, and she has a nice and touching relationship with a fellow orphan, Reet, although certain aspects of the narrative make Tantra contemplate how and why their relationship occurred.  This was a fantastic central protagonist, and I am curious to see what happens to her in the future.

The next major character in the novel is Cole, an InTech scientist who finds himself partnered with Tantra on the case to find the missing information.  Cole is a great character, a brilliant man who has recently lost his memories due to a technological mishap.  As a result, he spends much of the novel attempting to work out who he is, which impacts much of his personality and motives.  Cole ended up being a rather fun and interesting addition to Inscape, and I loved the unusual team that he forms with Tantra.  In many ways, Tantra and Cole are complete opposites, as Cole has a bit of an anti-authoritarian streak and sees the other characters and corporations in a different light to his partner.  Cole is also far less trained as a corporate operative and finds himself extremely overwhelmed when out in the field.  In several great sequences he is shown to be very out of his depth and is forced to rely on Tantra’s skill and knowledge, which is particularly jarring for him as he is substantially older than her.  I very much enjoyed seeing Cole finding his feet throughout this book and getting a crash course in espionage and survival from his teenage partner, and I liked the fun and substantive friendship he formed with Tantra.  Several great secrets and reveals come out about Cole as the novel progresses, and it results in some great discussions about whether he is the same person that he was before he lost his memories.  These reveals are likely to have a major impact in some future novels and should result in some intriguing story arcs.

The final major point-of-view character in this novel is Jen, Tantra’s handler at InTech, who Tantra views as a mentor and mother figure.  Jen is an ambitious and driven woman who is determined to climb the InTech ranks, and who sees her control over Tantra as the way to do it.  I really liked the way that Carey portrays Jen through the various perspectives as you get a very different viewpoint of who and what Jen is.  For example, in Tantra’s eyes Jen can do no wrong, and is one of the few people that she loves and respects.  However, when Cole sees her actions, he realises just how manipulative Jen is and how little she actually cares for Tantra.  Jen’s true ruthlessness and uncaring nature is further explored in some of the scenes shown from her perspective, and it is fantastic to see the differing viewpoints about her motives and actions.  Jen serves a great role throughout the novel as Tantra’s motivation and as a dangerous controlling figure and I really enjoyed seeing the entirety of her storyline unfold.  Each of these three main characters were written pretty perfectly and I loved the fantastic development and exploration that Carey did with them in Inscape.

Inscape by Louise Carey was an incredible and addictive debut novel that ended up being a really fun and compelling read.  Carey did a wonderful job of blending an excellent thriller narrative with some great science fiction elements, amazing characters, and a clever examination about humanity’s over-reliance on technology.  I look forward to seeing how this series continues in the future, especially after this amazing first novel, and Inscape is really worth checking out.

The Two-Faced Queen by Nick Martell

The Two-Faced Queen Cover

Publisher: Gollancz (Audiobook – 25 March 2021)

Series: The Legacy of the Mercenary Kings – Book Two

Length: 20 hours and 6 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Following his epic 2020 debut, one of the fastest rising stars in fantasy fiction, Nick Martell, returns with the second entry in his The Legacy of the Mercenary Kings series, The Two-Faced Queen.

Last year I was lucky enough to listen to a copy of Martell’s incredible first novel, The Kingdom of LiarsThe Kingdom of Liars was a gripping and impressive fantasy read set in Hollow, a crumbling city surrounded by an army of rebels, which followed the misadventures of the infamous Michael Kingman.  Michael is the scion of the legendary Kingman family, a noble clan of heroes and leaders who have guided Hollow for generations, serving as both supporters to the royal family and a check on their power.  However, the legacy of the Kingman family has been severely tarnished in recent years as Michael’s father was executed for the murder of the heir to the throne.  With their family disenfranchised, Michael grew up as an outcast in his own city, acting out against authority.  This changed when a chance encounter allowed him to investigate who was responsible for his family’s downfall and the death of the prince of Hollow.  While he was eventually able to discover the true murderer, his investigation also resulted in the King’s suicide, which subsequently saw him tried for regicide and sentenced to death.  The end of the book saw him manage to escape his execution, while also setting up several of the storylines for future entries in the series.  I deeply enjoyed the cool story of this first entry in The Legacy of the Mercenary Kings, and The Kingdom of Liars ended up being one of my favourite novels, audiobooks and debuts of 2020.  As a result, The Two-Faced Queen was one of my most anticipated reads of 2021.

Michael Kingman is a dead man walking.  Still accused of killing the King of Hollow, Michael is now under the protection of the Orbus mercenary company, serving as an apprentice under the mysterious mercenary Dark.  However, even with Orbus’s protection, everyone in Hollow still wants to either kill him or use him for their own dark ends.  The deadliest of these is the one person Michael is sworn to protect above all others, the heir to the throne, Princess Serena.  After spending years away, a vengeful Serena has returned to claim her throne and end Michael’s life.  Wielding great power, a lethal attitude and holding the keys to Michael’s heart, nothing will stand in the way of her wrath.

To restore his family’s position, save his home and convince Serena of his innocence, Michael needs to unravel the various conspiracies that have encircled Hollow and uncover the true motivations of the various power players in the city.  However, to succeed, Michael is forced to go up against a magnitude of foes, from the Corrupt Prince, the unhinged Rebel Emperor besieging the city, enraged royal guards, conspiring nobles, a scheming immortal, an insane serial killer, dangerous assassins and his former foster father, the man responsible for all his family’s ills.

But the more Michael attempts to understand Hollow’s hidden past and the dangerous plots surrounding his city, the more it becomes apparent that his is a mere pawn in a very dangerous game.  Immortals, monsters and mercenaries are all present in Hollow, and each of them has their own nefarious designs for Michael and his family.  Can he save everyone he loves before it is too late or has the Kingman family finally breathed its last?  Michael’s rise to become a Mercenary King continues, but who will truly wield power when the dust settles?

Now that was one hell of a sequel!  Martell absolutely crushed this second entry in this outstanding and exceptional fantasy series, producing a five-star novel that is extremely compelling, intense and so damn exciting.  I was absolutely enthralled with this book the moment I started listening to it and I loved every second.  The Two-Faced Queen is easily one of the best books I have read in 2021 and I think that any other fantasy novel coming out this year is going to be extremely hard-pressed to outdo it.

Martell has come up with a pretty incredible and intense narrative for The Two-Faced Queen, one that proves to be extremely addictive and insanely good.  Starting shortly after the events of The Kingdom of Liars, this novel starts fast and hard, with Michael following up on a number of storylines and revelations from the previous novel.  There is already so much going on right from the start of the novel, as the protagonist finds himself surrounded by enemies and conspiracies, both old and new.  While several secrets were revealed at the end of the first novel, there is still so much that Michael needs to understand.  However, as he attempts to learn these additional secrets, he must also try to avoid the deadly attentions of his beloved princess, end the rebellion plaguing the city, restore his family, defy a dangerous immortal, and make up with his betrayed friends.  While this is already a substantial amount of story, Martell keeps adding to it, as Michael also soon encounters a deadly assassin with a contract on him, and a deranged and unnatural serial killer.

While this may seem like too many story elements for one novel, it actually works extremely well, and the reader quickly becomes engrossed in Michael’s various adventures throughout the city.  I loved the inclusion of the serial killer storyline, as not only does it add some fantastic mystery elements, but it also proves to be a gateway to some intriguing world building, revealing more of the dark, immortal forces manipulating events from the shadows.  This storyline also results in several epic action scenes that place the protagonist and his friends in mortal danger from some unusual foes.  I had an outstanding time getting through this complex and well-constructed narrative, especially as every single scene has an intriguing revelation, intense character development or subtle clue to the future of the series.  Several key mysteries and secrets from the first novel are answered, partially or wholly, in this novel, although many more are introduced.  This really helps to keep the reader’s attention focused on The Two-Faced Queen’s plot, and I am not exaggerating when I talk about how addictive the secret-ridden narrative proves to be.  Readers are hammered with large amounts of lore and history in places, so I would recommend reading the first novel in the series, The Kingdom of Liars, before reading this book, although binge-reading this series is hardly a chore.  Overall, The Two-Faced Queen’s narrative is epic story writing at its best, and readers will love this terrific tale.

I absolutely must highlight the awesome and well-developed characters featured within The Two-Faced Queen.  The most prominent is series protagonist Michael Kingman.  Michael is an intriguing and distinctive figure through whose eyes most of the plot unfolds.  I have to admit that Michael was not my most favourite character in the first book, mostly because of his impetuous nature and selfish behaviour at times.  However, it was revealed that the reason for some of his annoying behaviour was due to some magic affecting his memories and personality.  As a result, Michael’s behaviour is substantially changed in The Two-Faced Queen and he comes across as a more considerate figure in this book.  He still has quite a few flashes of recklessness and stubbornness, but many of the rougher edges from the first novel are worn away here.  Still, a lot of people call Michael out for his crap in this book, including his friends and family, and it was great to see him finally heed their words.  There was also some additional exploration of how Michael deals with the legacy of being a Kingman; he is forced to live up to some big expectations.  There is a rather good scene where Michael is exploring the crypt of his ancestors with some of his friends, describing why some of them are famous and others are considered failures because they never achieved anything remarkable but just lived a normal life.  Seeing this, Michael’s friends, both of whom have been some of his greatest critics, start to understand just how much pressure he is under.  I really appreciated the way in which Martell continues to develop his protagonist, and it will be very fascinating to see how Michael’s story continues in the future novels.

Aside from Michael, there is an impressive collection of interesting supporting characters, each of whom have some fascinating storylines, as well as secrets or details from their past which helps to move the story along.  They also have their own motivations and plans to shape Hollow and the rest of the world to their advantage, which results in additional plots and conspiracies that the protagonists have to overcome.  The most prominent supporting character is probably Serena, the titular Two-Faced Queen.  Serena is Michael’s childhood friend and the royal he was sworn to, meaning that he was always destined to be her protector, advisor, and conscience.  However, after the death of her brother and Michael’s family were declared traitors, their relationship effectively ended.  Now returned, Serena is determined to destroy Michael for the apparent murder of her father, even if it leads to her own ruin.  The novel starts up with Michael visiting Serena only to find that she has hand-dug a grave for him, showing her resolve for killing him.  This forces Michael to attempt to change her mind, which is no easy prospect, and results in great calamity.  Naturally, these two characters share thorny romantic feelings for each other, which complicates Michael’s plans to stay alive, as Serena is a major blind spot in his defences.  Their entire joint character arc in this novel is extremely good, and I really appreciated the author’s take on their complex relationship.

Another key character is Dark, Michael’s mercenary master, who, aside from having his own mysterious past and motivations, is the son of Michael’s nemesis, Angelo Shade.  Due to Michael and Dark working together closely, the protagonist learns several of Dark’s secrets, especially those related to his troubled childhood and his encounters with the Heartbreaker serial killer.  While you don’t learn everything about Dark’s past in this novel (Martell is the master of dolling out just enough character detail to keep you interested, while also keeping plenty back for future novels), you do find out quite a lot, and what is revealed is extremely memorable.  Dark has a real dark side to him, no pun intended, and while Michael initially believes that Dark is his ally, he is soon faced with the possibility that he might have placed all his trust in a monster.  This results in a very interesting mentor/student relationship between the two, filled with much conflict and mistrust.  I really enjoyed learning more about Dark in The Two-Faced Queen, and it will be fascinating to see how the rest of his story unfolds in the future.

Other intriguing characters in this novel include Michael’s best friend Trey, who is attempting to forge his own path and take down both the nobles and the rebels, even if this leads him into conflict with Michael.  Trey has a fantastic arc as dangerous antihero in this book, taking control of the city’s criminal element in order to protect its citizens.  While a lot of his hostility towards Michael has ended, Trey and the protagonist still have a strained relationship, although Trey does go out of his way to help his friend.  Despite their friendship, it is clear that there is a major schism between the two planned in the future, which no doubt will result in all manner of pain and regret.  The ruthless immortal Charles Domet is still a firm favourite of mine, and it was fun to see his attempts to manipulate Michael, especially as Michael is now well aware of his true nature.  There are some interesting hints to Domet’s past in this novel, and he is clearly working up to something big.  The ambitious social climber Naomi also returns, although now she is suffering from a bad drug addiction which makes her even more entertaining, especially as she decides to torment Michael through embarrassment.  I also quite liked the expanded use of the chronicler, Symon.  Symon, who is determined to record and analyse every secret of Michael and his family, has taken to stalking them by living at the Kingman family home, and it is always entertaining to see his take on the events occurring before him.  He ends up actually narrating several interludes in The Two-Faced Queen, which are laid out as parts of his in-novel chronicles as part of a very clever and amusing supplement to the main story.  Symon really endeared himself to me in this novel, especially after his insulting descriptions of Michael in his proposed history book, and I deeply appreciated his increased presence.

I honestly could go on and on about the various characters featured within this novel; indeed, I have only just scratched the surface of the support cast in the paragraphs above.  However, it is more than clear that Martell does an excellent job in introducing and developing complex characters, and I loved the detailed and intriguing depictions of them throughout the novel.  Nearly every character featured within The Two-Faced Queen gets at least one big moment, and there are plenty of revelations and compelling backstories that are really cool to uncover.  I will say that you should probably not get too attached to the characters; however, I am very much looking forward to seeing what happens to each of the survivors, especially as Martell has set up some deeply captivating and powerful character arcs around them.

In addition to the fantastic story and amazing character work, Martell has also invested a lot of time in expanding his enthralling fantasy world.  The first entry in The Legacy of the Mercenary Kings did a great job setting up the key elements of Hollow, such as the noble families, the people of the city and the various problems they faced.  This unique setting of a besieged city filled with scheming nobles and set on a world where pieces of a shattered moon fall to the ground was so cool, and The Two-Faced Queen continues to expand on these previous elements, while also adding to the history and geography of the city and its surrounding nations.  Not only do you learn of several outside nations and locations but you also get to see how the key characters of this novel, or their ancestors, have impacted them, as well as the various dangers these realms represent.  However, some of the most substantial world-building revolves around some of the unusual creatures residing in this world, including a range of dangerous and destructive immortal creatures.  In the previous novel we only encountered one immortal (that we knew of), whose plots and schemes were a major part of the book’s plot.  This second novel, in contrast, is loaded with many more immortals, each of whom has their own unique abilities and plans for the world.  Martell introduces the lore around these immortals extremely well, and their various traits and schemes are worked into the plot extremely well.  It sounds like we are going to encounter a whole raft of intriguing and monstrous immortals in the future of this series, and I am very much looking forward to seeing what happens there.  The next book also looks like it will be set in a whole new location, and I will be extremely intrigued to see how that impacts the narrative.

One particular bit of world-building that I really enjoyed was the excellent expansions of Martell’s unique magical system.  The main magic of Hollow is known as Fabrication, which allows its users certain control over certain elements or phenomena at the cost of their own memories.  This is a really cool magical system, and Martell uses it to great effect throughout his novels, ensuring that there is all manner of destruction and manipulation throughout the narrative.  The Two-Faced Queen features multiple new Fabrication types, as Martell introduces unique Fabrications throughout the story, including several that even the protagonists have never heard of.  Examples include a particularly dangerous telekinetic Fabrication, which forces everyone to their knees (perfect for its user), while I was also very impressed with the disturbing blood Fabrication that one of the supporting characters pulled out.  In addition, Martell also introduces some different forms of magic from some of the other countries in his fantasy world.  While you only get to see one or two of these new magical abilities, they are still fun to see and they stand as an intriguing counterpoint to the already established magical abilities.  It looks like Martell is setting up some sort of mystery around the origins of all these different powers and it should prove pretty interesting to see how that turns out.

Martell also does an incredible job fitting the downsides of this magical Fabrication into the plot, as several characters experience memory loss, which affects their plans, reactions and relationships.  This is most obvious in Michael; as narrator, he loses several days of his life, resulting in him being unaware of plans he puts into motion or certain secrets that he learnt in these missing days.  Because the reader does not see these missing pieces of time either, this adds an extra amount of mystery and uncertainty into the narrative, as you try to work out both what is being deliberately hidden from Michael and what he has simply forgotten.  These bigger lapses in memory are a fantastic part of The Two-Faced Queen’s narrative, and it helps to make the flow of this book unique and compelling.  However, you also have to appreciate some of the smaller examples of memory loss throughout the book, some of which are quite heartbreaking in nature as the characters forget elements of their friends and families without realising it.  There is one extremely poignant scene in which Michael confesses to forgetting something very important to him, with the reader only then realises that a certain normal-sounding character description was evidence of memory loss all along.  Some of these subtle details are really impressive, and I deeply enjoyed seeing the hurtful side effects of this magical system.

To enjoy this awesome book, I ended up grabbing its audiobook format, mainly because I had such a great time listening to the first novel.  There were actually two audiobook versions of The Two-Faced Queen, and I ended up grabbing the Joe Jameson narrated version.  Jameson is a fantastic audiobook narrator who has previously lent his voice to amazing fantasy novels like King of Assassins by RJ Barker.  I loved his narration for The Kingdom of Liars last year and I was really keen to continue to listen to him in this sequel.  Jameson has a great voice for this complex fantasy read, and you swiftly become enthralled by the way he narrates the events occurring, as well as the fantastic voices he comes up with for his characters.  All the characters are given a unique voice in a variety of different accents, and each of them really helps to capture the character’s emotions and personality perfectly, whether it is the constant confusion and hurt in Michael, the raging anger of Serena, the cold menace of Dark or the calculating and manipulative voice of Charles Domet.  All this voice work is perfect and spot on and I really appreciated the effort that Martell put into this book.  Despite its runtime of 20 hours, I got through this audiobook in no time at all and I honestly wished it was a lot longer by the end.  This was another outstanding audiobook, and this format comes highly recommended to anyone interested in this fantastic novel.

With this epic and captivating second novel, Nick Martell has cemented his position as one of the best new fantasy authors out there.  The Two-Faced Queen was absolutely incredible, and I loved the complex and addictive story, set in a unique fantasy world.  There are just so many cool elements to this awesome novel and it really does not take long for the reader to become hooked on every single mystery, secret and hidden past that Martell features within this great read.  I cannot wait to see what happens next in this series, but it is already perfectly clear that The Legacy of the Mercenary King books are going to be one of the defining fantasy series of the next few years.

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