We are the Dead by Mike Shackle

We are the Dead Cover

Publisher: Orion (Audiobook – 8 August 2019)

Series: The Last War – Book One

Length: 18 hours and 6 minutes

My Rating: 4.75 out of 5 stars

Honour, loyalty, service and death! I finally get around to checking out one of last year’s hottest fantasy debuts with this review of We Are the Dead by Mike Shackle.

Generations ago, the nation of Jia was protected by powerful mages who wielded amazing magic that could shape the world around it. But when the magic faded, the people turned to the Shulka, their revered warrior caste, who held back the barbaric northern Egril tribes with their tactics, superior weapons and skills in combat. For hundreds of years the Shulka have successfully defeated the Egril raids, but their many victories have led to complacency.

During the latest raiding season, the Shulka are surprised when an organised and well-armed force marches upon them. Supported by demons and magic, the like of which has not been seen in an age, the Egril swiftly defeat the Shulka armies and conquer all of Jia in days. Their conquest is quick and brutal, and few are spared the bloody wrath of the Egril and their monsters. Those who do survive are forced in servitude and must worship the Egril’s terrible god or else suffer the consequences.

Now, six months after the invasion began, the country appears beaten, but there are always some heroes who are ready to fight back. In the capital city, Tinnstra, the disgraced, cowardly daughter of Jia’s greatest Shulka general finds herself drawn into a plot to save the royal family and soon finds the fate of the entire Kingdom resting in her hands. Elsewhere, a crippled Shulka warrior and his wheelchair-bound son attempts to lead an organised rebellion, but he soon finds that his greatest assets may be a young terrorist and a widowed mother who is trying to provide for her son. Can this unusual group of damaged heroes turn the tide against an all-powerful army or is it already too late to save their country from the control of a dark death god?

We Are the Dead is an intricate and impressive dark fantasy debut from talented new author Mike Shackle, which forms the first book in his The Last War series. This fantastic book came out last year, and it was one of the books I most regret not getting a chance to read in 2019, especially after I saw some of the very positive reviews being written about it. I really have been meaning to check this novel out for a while now, so I went out and grabbed the audiobook format of We Are the Dead a few weeks ago and started listening to it. I am extremely glad that I ended up reading this book, as I fell in love with this novel and its compelling character-driven story.

This novel contains an outstanding and exciting narrative that follows five unique and intriguing characters across eight days of rebellion and bloodshed in a conquered nation. We Are the Dead’s story starts off big; after a quick introduction to the world and a couple of the characters, everything soon blows apart as a destructive full-scale invasion occurs. The story than jumps forward six months and explores how the world has changed, and what has happened to the central group of characters. What follows is five intriguing and exciting separate storylines, each told from the perspective of a different character involved in various parts of the first major attempt from the Shulka resistance movement to strike back and restore their country. Each of these five storylines starts off by examining the unique adventures and experiences of that character and showing how they are brought into the latest round of fight. Each of the storylines starts off exclusively focusing on one point-of-view character, but they quickly start to connect as the plot of the book unfolds. All five separate storylines eventually come together exceedingly well into one extremely enjoyable and action-packed narrative that proves hard to put down. I really liked the way that all storylines all joined together, and it was fantastic to see the quicker narrative jumps between the various characters at the end of the book. I also enjoyed how the main story focused on eight days of conflict and adventure, with the various character arcs running concurrently with each other, as this allowed for a tight, powerful narrative. The various characters go through a lot of big and life-changing moments in the span of these eight days and there are some major cliff-hangers and surprising deaths that leave the reader in wild suspense. All of this makes for some great reading, and you will be on the edge of your seat for the entirety of this book.

Shackle chooses to tell his exciting story through the eyes of five separate point-of-view characters, all of whom have their own viewpoint and adventures within We are the Dead. Each of these characters have a fascinating character arcs, especially as most of the characters grow through adversity as they experience the horrors of war and learn the necessities of sacrifice, duty and loyalty.

The character who got the most focus within this novel was Tinnstra, the daughter of a legendary Shulka warrior who has a lot of high expectations weighing on her shoulders. Despite her heritage and her skill with a blade, Tinnstra starts the book dropping out of the Shulka academy, because she is a blatant and obvious coward. Managing to flee from the invasion, Tinnstra attempts to forge a new life for herself in the conquered capital, but eventually finds herself in the midst of the Shulka rebellion, with a particularly important package that could change the course of the war. At the start of this book, I really did not like Tinnstra, mainly because every second sentence in her chapters involved her pathetically doubting herself or calling herself a coward. Thankfully, this led to a rather good storyline about finding one’s courage and stepping up in a big way, and she eventually came across as a real badass with some fantastic and enjoyable chapters towards the end of the book.

Another great character is Jax, a former Shulka general who, after losing his arm during the initial invasion, becomes a determined resistance leader with his wheelchair-bound son. Jax is probably the most consistent protagonist throughout most of the book, serving as a steady and wise figure who is forced to face the reality of failing his country. Jax is an extremely likeable character, which makes it really hard for the reader when he goes through some incredibly dark moments that have the potential to break him.

Next up we have Dren, a teen terrorist who, after witnessing his family dying during the invasion, becomes a rabid killer, brutally attempting to take out any Egrils (or Skulls, as they are known, due to their distinctive helmets), not matter the collateral damage. Dren is a pretty unlikeable kid at the start of the book due to his overwhelming anger towards the Egrils, any Jian who associates with them and the Shulka resistance, who he hates just as much as the Egrils due to the way that they treated the peasants before the invasion and because of their failure in stopping the slaughter. However, as the book progresses, the reader gets more and more invested in Dren’s compelling story, especially when he starts spending time with Jax. Jax is a terrific mentor figure for Dren, who eventually learns the error of his ways and starts to take more responsibility for himself and the band of child terrorists he has recruited.

The final Jian character who the book focuses on is Yas, a single mother who attempts to earn a living working as a maid for the invaders. Yas is recruited as a spy by the Skulka resistance and ends up becoming more and more involved in their plots and schemes. Yas’s storyline is another fantastic arc, and there are some interesting similarities to Tinnstra’s arc, in that she finds her courage to fight back and do what is right. However, Yas’s story is more tied into the love of her family and her son, and how she wants a better world for her child to grow up in.

In addition to Jian characters, Shackle also tells a portion of the book from the perspective of Darus, an Egril Chosen, an officer who has been granted a magical ability by their powerful leader. Darus is a psychotic torturer with severe sister issues, who delights in causing pain and torment and who is determined to win glory and power. Darus’s powers are ironically that of healing, meaning that he is essentially an immortal antagonist who can also heal people that he comes into contact with. He uses this power throughout the book to heal his victims, bringing them back from the brink of death, so that he can torture them again and again in order to break their spirits. As you can probably guess, Darus is a rather reprehensible and unredeemable character, but one who offers an intriguing counterpoint to the protagonists. It is always cool to see something from the villain’s point of view, and I felt that Darus was a perfect antagonist for this dark and twisted novel.

All five of these characters proved to be extremely interesting to follow, and I really liked where all of their arcs went. Shackle does an impressive job making their portrayals and emotions seem realistic, and you can almost feel the fear, anger and hatred that several of the characters exude. I appreciated how none of the protagonists were perfect heroes, and most of them are victims or products of the war and the circumstances they find themselves in. I found it rather interesting to see how the various characters saw each other throughout the course of the story, such as when some of the characters viewed Tinnstra for the first time and mistake her expressions of terror and apprehension for looks of determination and impatience to get towards the enemy. I also have to highlight the raft of cool and likeable side characters featured throughout the course of the story, many of whom steal several scenes from the point-of-view characters. These are a fun collection of side characters, although readers really should not get too attached to them, as they tend to have a rather short lifespan within the course of the book. Overall, We are the Dead contains some excellent and enjoyable characters, and I really appreciated the complicated and captivating storylines that Shackle wove around them.

In addition to the impressive story and excellent characters, Shackle has come up with an awesome new fantasy world for We are the Dead. The entirety of the story is set within the nation of Jia, a cultured land with a proud warrior tradition, which is somewhat reminiscent of feudal Japan. Shackle does a fantastic job of setting up this landscape in the initial couple of chapters, before everything changes thanks to the invasion. The new Jia, six months after the brutal conquest, is a vastly different place, filled with hunger, fear and desperation as the survivors are forced to adapt to their new way of life. Shackle did an amazing job portraying a nation completely under enemy occupation, and I was put in mind of Nazi-occupied France, due to the round up of civilians, the inclusion of collaborators and snitches, retaliations against the populace and the careful resistance movements relying on help from a nation across the sea to survive. The Egrils also proved to be a great antagonistic nation for the plot of this book, and I loved how they were able to fool the conceited Shulka warriors by pretending to be tribal savages for years, before invading with an organised and advanced army, utilising magical and demonic assets to perfection. There were some distinctive Nazi elements to the Egrils, such as the way that they swiftly conquered all of Jia in a few days with Blitzkrieg-like tactics, their absolute devotion to their anointed leader (who is totally going to turn out to be the lost brother of the mage Aasgod, right?), their stormtrooper-like appearance and tactics, as well as the fact that the narrator of the audiobook format gave all the Egril characters a distinctive Germanic accent. All of this proved to be an excellent background for We are the Dead and I loved seeing the story unfold in this recently conquered fantasy nation.

Those readers who like some action in their stories will be extremely satisfied with We are the Dead, as Shackle has loaded his book with all manner of fights, battles and gratuitous violence (the best type of violence). This is an extremely action-packed novel, and I personally enjoyed all the cool fight sequences, from the small-scale battles between trained warriors, the brutal hit-and-run tactics of Dren’s fighters, and several larger fight sequences between opposing forces. Shackle proved to be very adapt at bringing these action sequences to life, and I found myself quite pumped up as a result of reading this book. Readers should be warned however that We are the Dead does feature a number of vivid and disturbing torture sequences, which are made even worse by the fact that the torturer, Darus, can heal his victim and keep inflicting pain, over and over again. As a result, if intense torture scenes make you uncomfortable, then you are probably better off avoiding this book.

As I mentioned above, I chose to listen to an audiobook version of We are the Dead, rather than grabbing a physical copy. The audiobook format has a run time of just over 18 hours, and it is narrated by Nicola Bryant. This is a lengthy audiobook and it took me a little while to get through it. Part of this is because the story is a tad slow at the start of the book, although I did end up absolutely powering through the last six hours extremely quickly in comparison to the first two thirds of the novel. I really enjoyed the audiobook version, and I found it to be an incredible way to absorb We are the Dead’s clever and detailed narrative. I was also impressed with Bryant’s narration, as she brought some real passion to the audiobook. You could hear the intense emotions in Bryant’s voice as she narrated the story, and you can tell that she was trying to emulate what the characters were feeling with her narration. Bryant also utilised a fantastic and distinctive set of voices for the various characters featured within the novel, and I think that she had an excellent grasp of their personalities and emotions. This proved to be an exception audiobook, and I would definitely suggest checking out this format of We are the Dead.

We are the Dead is an outstanding and deeply enjoyable fantasy novel from Mike Shackle, who really hit it out of the park with his debut novel. I had an amazing time listening to this book, and I loved the blend of compelling story, fantastic setting, complex characters and intense action sequences. This book comes very highly recommended, and I am regretting not picking up a copy of this book last year. I will not be making the same mistake later this year when Shackle’s sequel book, A Fool’s Hope, comes out in December, and I am looking forward to seeing where the story goes next.

Skyward by Brandon Sanderson

Skyward Cover.jpg

Publishers: Gollancz

                        Audible Studios

Publication Date – 6 November 2018

 

Legendary fantasy and science fiction author Brandon Sanderson once again delivers an incredible five-star read with Skyward, a brilliant young adult science fiction story that follows the journey of an energetic young protagonist at she attempts to claim the stars.

As of right now, I have only had the opportunity to read one of Sanderson’s novels, the epic fantasy book, The Way of Kings, which was easily one of the best fantasy reads of the last decade and which I gave a five-star review here.  After enjoying The Way of Kings I was keen to see how Sanderson’s writing ability translated to the young adult science fiction genre.  I have to say I was in no way disappointed, as Sanderson once again creates an amazing and exciting piece of literature, all set within an incredibly detailed new fictional landscape.  Skyward is the first book in Sanderson’s planned Skyward series, which is to be made up of a total of four books.  The second book in this series, Starsight, has apparently already been written, with a release planned for November 2019, while the third and fourth books, both yet untitled, already have tentative release dates in 2021 and 2022.  Starsight is already on my must-read list for next year, and will appear in my Waiting-on-Wednesday series of blog posts the moment the cover gets released.

Far in the future and on another planet, humanity has been under constant attack for hundreds of years.  A mysterious alien race known as the Krell pursued the human fleet across the stars, forcing it to crash on a desolate planet.  Those humans that survived were forced to flee below the planet’s surface, hiding in caves and only re-emerging when they gained the ability to create space fighters capable of fighting off the alien craft.  Now the Defiance Defence League (DFF) fights a constant war against the Krell, who are determined to wipe out the DFF’s main base and the production facilities beneath it.

Since she was a young girl, Spensa Nightshade has always dreamed of becoming a DDF pilot, the elite defenders of humanity, in order to claim the stars.  However, years ago, her father deserted during the most famous battle in DDF history and was shot down by his comrades.  Having been forced to live for years as a daughter of a coward, Spensa is eager to forge her own heroic destiny, but the DDF will never accept her into their flight program.

But with the war going badly and new pilots needed, Spensa is given a chance to join the DDF, thanks to the actions of her father’s old wingmate.  Joining a class of misfit cadets who dub themselves Skyward Flight, Spensa learns to fly the DDF’s ships against the Krell and quickly shows her determination and skill.  However, her father’s legacy is constantly weighing her down, whether by the sabotage of the DDF or the constant fear that deep down she might also be a coward.  With the Krell attacks getting worse, will Spensa find her place as a pilot, or will a terrible secret from the past come back to haunt her?  And through it all, what role will the ancient spaceship Spensa discovers have on the fate of humanity?

I not only received a physical copy of Skyward from Hachette Australia, but I also listened to a copy of this book in its audiobook format, which is narrated by Sophie Aldred and goes for just a little over 15 hours.  Both versions are pretty cool.  The trade paperback version of this novel contains a couple of great maps at the start of the novel that some readers may find useful when it comes to navigating around the story.  There is also a series of intriguing drawings throughout the book that show off several of the ships, both human and alien, that are featured in the story, all of which are juxtaposed against the main ships that the protagonist and her wingmates train and fight in.  The later parts of the book also contain some fantastic illustrations of flight manoeuvres and abilities, which prove informative when utilised with Skyward’s many aerial flight sequences.  I personally preferred the audiobook format of Skyward to the physical copy, as it allowed me to enjoy the many action-packed aerial scenes a whole lot more.  I also loved the narration by Aldred, who was able to create a number of excellent voices for the book’s various characters.

The reason I am giving Skyward such a high-star review is because it is an incredible piece of young adult science fiction that not only has an amazing story but which also contains several outstanding characters and some of the best ship-to-ship action sequences I have ever seen, all of which is combined with Sanderson’s trademark knack for large-scale world building.

I had a lot of fun with the story contained within this book, as Sanderson sets forth a layered and powerful narrative for the reader to enjoy.  Told primarily from the point of view of the protagonist, Spensa, Skyward contains a fantastic coming-of-age storyline set within a flight academy where the cadets learn how to fly in defence of their planet.  I always love a good school based learning narrative, and Sanderson has created an outstanding version of this, where the main characters spend most of the story learning the theory behind flying, while also engaging in real-life combat situations as they train.  As a result, there are heartbreaking losses, great emotional connections forged, and secrets and hints about the overall story slowly released to the reader, all while the protagonist is forced to contend with the machinations of a biased authoritarian figure who even gets to narrate a few chapters to highlight the reasons for her actions.  Overall this is an addictive and exciting story that will really stick in the reader’s imagination.

Sanderson has once again created a detailed and captivating new world in which to set his new series.  The book is set within a new planet that humans from Earth crashed upon years ago in the past, fleeing from a mysterious alien force.  For years the humans lived a nomadic lifestyle in the caves beneath the planet before finally fighting back using newly fabricated fighter craft.  Sanderson has created a fantastic world to host this story, exploring a society forced to live in caves and eventually creating a military base on the surface.  I love how the author has created a ton of new societal rules and features, as well as a world above and beneath the surface of this alien planet.  There is also some really cool and unique technology that comes into play throughout the book, especially in the many aerial combat sequences.  The aliens are mostly a mystery for the entirety of the novel, although I did really enjoy the reveals about them.  I imagine Skyward’s fictional universe will be expanding out in the future instalments of this series and I am very excited to see where this goes.

Some of the best things about this book are the excellent characters that the author has populated his story with.  Of particular note is the main protagonist and point-of-view character, Spensa, who is a really fun and complex character to see this story through.  Spensa is a great character whose life has always been defined by her father’s legacy.  As a result, she puts on an extremely brave and aggressive front to everyone she meets as she tries to convince people she is not a coward.  Because of this, Spensa is quite an eccentric character, spouting out long expositions about how she will harm her opponents, which is quite amusing at times.  However, as the reader gets further into the book, they find out how vulnerable she truly is, as deep down her father’s actions and legacy have had quite an impact on her.  As she progresses into flight training and becomes more and more like her father, she must content with the trials of war, emotional issues with her friends and loved ones, the DDF’s indoctrination against cowards and the secrets that have been kept from her.  The internal conflict and fear that follows is really well written by Sanderson and forms a captivating emotional centre for this amazing narrative.

Quite a lot of time is spent looking at the other cadets that make up Skyward Flight.  Each member of this flight has a unique personality and is given a callsign to make them more distinctive.  There is a fun camaraderie between these characters, and they form quite a close-knit team.  Sanderson spends significant time building up several of these characters, and Spensa, much like the reader, gets quite attached to them.  As a result, when tragedy hits the team, there are some significant emotional blows that come with it.  I liked how the different friendships and relationships help Spensa grow as a character, as she started out the book a bit of a loner.  These side characters are absolutely fantastic, and add another great emotional feature to Skyward’s story.

While Spensa and Skyward Flight are all great characters, my favourite character in all of Skyward had to be the sentient spaceship, M-Bot.  M-Bot is an advanced spaceship who, for various reasons, is obsessed with mushrooms, spends much of the book cracking bad jokes and forms a close relationship with Spensa, the human who discovers it.  M-Bot has to be one of the funniest and quirkiest characters in the whole book, providing several of the book’s best jokes and funniest lines.  The ship’s relationship with Spensa is really well written, as it attempts to balance its existing command code with its new friendship.  This results in some amazing scenes, and I never thought before this book that I would get emotional about a spaceship.  M-Bot is particularly great in the audiobook version, as Aldred gives the ship an excellent Irish accent that really fits the character’s personality perfectly and makes M-Bot stand out throughout the book.

Easily my favourite thing about Skyward has to be the insane and incredibly well-written aerial combat sequences that fill this book.  All of the battles take place within the planet’s atmosphere among falling debris fields, resulting in some elaborate and exciting dog-fights between the DDF fighters and the Krell.  Quite a number of battles feature throughout Skyward, as the protagonist and her companions attempt to stop the Krell destroying humanity’s only hope of leaving the planet.  The author spends significant time exploring the physiology of these aerial fights, including the various tactics, training and technology utilised by the DDF and the Krell.  In particular, Sanderson has created some unique technology to help create some truly amazing combat sequences, including light-lances, which are energy beams that the DDF fighters use to not only throw Krell fighters around but to also help their ships do precise and elaborate manoeuvre around the falling debris.  I also loved how Spensa and her flight got better as the book progressed, reflecting their training and their ability to work together as a team.  All of these battle scenes are fast paced and incredibly well written, and the reader constantly finds themselves placed into the middle of these epic battle sequences.  I found that the audiobook version of Skyward was particularly effective at bringing me into these combat scenes, and I was often on the edge of my seat as I listened to them.  There are a number of these amazing sequences throughout the book, whether they were real battles or simulations.  Highlights for me have to be a high-speed chase through a giant, ancient factory crashing down to the ground, or the final high-stakes battle that serves as an epic conclusion to the whole story.  These battles are truly an amazing feature of Skyward, and I cannot wait to see what incredible aerial battles feature in the future books of this series.

Skyward is one of my favourite books of 2018 and is definitely one of the best young adult books I have read this year.  Brandon Sanderson once again cements his legacy as one of modern fiction’s best fantasy and science fiction authors, as readers are treated to an epic science fiction read set in a rich and detailed new world.  Featuring some amazing characters and outstanding depictions of aerial combat between humans and aliens, this book comes highly recommended.  I have made no secret about how much I am looking forward to future entries in this series and cannot wait to see where Sanderson takes this story next.

My Rating:

Five Stars