Throwback Thursday – Batman: Under the Red Hood

Under the Red Hood Cover

Studio: Warner Bros. Animation and DC Entertainment

Series: DC Universe Animated Original Movies – Film Eight

Director: Brandon Vietti

Writer: Judd Winick

Producers: Bruce Timm and Bobbie Page

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Welcome back to my Throwback Thursday series, where I republish old reviews, review content I have enjoyed before or review older books I have only just had a chance to read.  For this latest Throwback Thursday, I am going to keep following a recent trend of looking at animated movies and review Batman: Under the Red Hood.

Ever since I reviewed Justice League Dark: Apokolips War last year, I have been focusing a little more on one of my favourite forms of entertainment, animated films based on comic books.  Not only did I have a great time listing my favourite comic book based animated films and television shows, but I have also done some cool reviews for Batman: Soul of the Dragon and Batman: Assault on Arkham.  After I got some positive responses to my review for Assault on Arkham last week, I thought I would use this Throwback Thursday to highlight the incredibly awesome Batman: Under the Red Hood, which is probably my absolute favourite DC Comics inspired animated film.

Released in 2010, Under the Red Hood was an early entry in the DC Animated Originals Movies range, and it remains one of the best that they have ever done.  Directed by Brandon Vietti and written by Judd Winick, this film is an adaptation of the iconic Batman comics storyline Under the Hood, which was also written by Winick.  Not only does this film contain an excellent story that does an amazing job capturing the original comic but it also features an all-star voice cast and some excellent animation, resulting in a dark and exciting film that is also rich in emotion and tragedy.

Years ago, Batman suffered the greatest defeat in his entire crime-fighting career when the Joker did the unthinkable by brutally killing his sidekick, Jason Todd, the second Robin.  Despite this terrible loss, Batman left the Joker alive and continued his non-lethal mission for justice, fighting from the shadows to save Gotham City from its criminal element.

In the present, Gotham is controlled by the ruthless crime boss, Black Mask, who has managed to take over the entire criminal underworld.  But a new player in town, the mysterious Red Hood, is making moves to disrupt Black Mask’s interests and take control of the city.  With some incredible skills, brilliant manoeuvring and intense violence, Red Hood soon becomes a major thorn in Black Mask’s side, taking parts of the city from him.  At the same time, Red Hood has placed himself right in the path of Batman and his former sidekick, Nightwing, determined to test his abilities against those of the Dark Knight.

As Batman attempts to stop the latest wave of violence sweeping the city, he notices something disturbingly familiar about the Red Hood.  His skills and training are too familiar, and even more shocking, he knows that Batman is Bruce Wayne.  With Black Mask on the warpath, the mysterious Ra’s al Ghul watching from the shadows, and the Joker always a menacing presence in Arkham, Batman gets closer to finding out the terrible truth about who Red Hood truly is.  But is he prepared for the darkness and tragedy he will find under the hood, or will the ghosts of his past finally push Batman over the edge?

Under the Red Hood is a dramatic, exciting, and overall tragic animated feature, which is brought together beautifully to produce an epic and powerful film, anchored by an exceptional narrative.  The film starts in a very dark place, with a malicious and hilarious Joker brutally killing Robin just before Batman can save him.  This perfectly sets the tone for the entire film, as the story advances to modern times and shows a new brutal crime war between the Black Mask and newcomer the Red Hood.  At the same time, Batman becomes embroiled in their war, when he interrupts a ploy by the Red Hood to steal an Amazo superweapon.  This leads to an action-packed middle section of the film, as Batman and Nightwing attempt to capture Red Hood, who is also dealing with assassins sent by Black Mask.  After several impressive fight sequences, Batman learns the shocking truth about Red Hood’s identity (which is as a tad obvious, even for those unfamiliar with the comics), resulting in some extreme drama, as Batman is forced to confront the dangerous ghosts of his past.  As Batman attempts to come to terms with his discovery, Red Hood forces his opponents to make some dramatic moves, which work into his plans.  What follows is a fantastically powerful and intense final act, as Batman confronts Red Hood and finds out the tragic and touching reasons behind his motivations.  What follows is emotional blow after emotional blow, as Batman, Red Hood and the Joker have their final confrontation.  The aftermath of this is absolutely heartbreaking and will leave you breathless and utterly moved: “This doesn’t change anything; this doesn’t change anything at all!”  This is an epic and exceptional narrative that I have so much love for.

Under the Red Hood serves as an exceptional adaptation of the Under the Hood Batman comic storyline, although as the film and the comic share the same writer, that’s pretty understandable.  This film does a great job fitting all the key points of the comic into its 75-minute runtime, and you get the full enjoyable story, as well as some useful backstory, especially around Jason Todd’s death.  This is mostly a pretty straight adaption, although there are a few noticeable changes designed to make the movie flow a little better.  I think these changes work extremely well, and Winick adds several great new scenes into this film that make for a different and, in some ways, better experience than the comic source material.  This is mainly because the Under the Hood comic was set amid several other ongoing Batman storylines, as well as the major crossover event, Infinite Crisis, which impacted Under the Hood’s overall narrative.  As it would have been too confusing to include some of these elements in the film, their removal resulted in a few notable changes.  While this did result in a few fun parts from the comics being removed, such as having the opponents in the Batman/Red Hood team-up fight change from members of the Secret Society of Supervillains, such as Captain Nazi and Count Vertigo, to a group of mechanised martial artists (it’s still a great fight though), some of the other changes worked really well.  I loved the alterations to the Joker’s story, as it was clever to have the Red Hood orchestrate Joker’s release to kidnap him.  It also results in some amazing scenes, including that great cell scene with Black Mask, and the fantastic scene with the truck on the bridge.

One disadvantage that I felt the film version had was that the big reveal over Red Hood’s identity is a lot less impactful.  When the Under the Hood comic first came out, it was a major revelation and there were some great surprise elements to it.  However, by the time the film came out, every comic fan knew who Red Hood really was, so that really cut down on the surprise factor of the reveal.  In addition, even if you were unfamiliar with the Under the Hood comic, the Jason Todd death scene at the start of the film ensured that most viewers would be easily able to figure out this twist as soon as the mysterious Red Hood appeared.  This was kind of unavoidable though, as the rest of the film wouldn’t have made sense without the establishing scene.  I did think that the reason behind Robin’s resurrection was handled a lot better in the film.  The original story, in which he is brought back to life due to Superboy-Prime punching a dimensional barrier, never really worked for me, so having it purely be the result of a Lazarus Pit resurrection was a lot neater and simpler (well, as simple as a magical resurrection pit can be).  Overall, I think that Under the Red Hood proved to be a really good adaption of the original comic, and in many ways I felt that in enhanced the source material while also compensating for the changed canons.

I am always deeply impressed by the fantastic and well-crafted animation of Under the Red Hood.  This entire film features a constant stream of beautiful and amazing sequences that are an absolute joy to behold.  The action is seamless throughout, and the creative team make sure to feature several sequences that show off the various skills of the main characters, while also bringing some iconic scenes from the comics to life.  I really must call out the two excellent extended chase sequences, as Red Hood flees from Batman and Nightwing.  These scenes are full of excitement and major moments, and the fantastic running sequences, equipped with all the players using their various gadgets and tricks, are so cool, and they are just animated perfectly.  However, these chase scenes pale in comparison to some of the epic fight sequences featured throughout the film.  While I do deeply enjoy the Amazo fight sequences at the start of the film, which expertly highlights the way Batman and Nightwing work together as a team, the best ones are the two fights involving Batman and Red Hood.  The first of these, which sees the two former partners team up against the anime-inspired team of assassins, the Fearsome Hand of Four, is so deeply cool, especially as the amazingly drawn martial arts techniques are beautifully paired with the over-the-top gadgets (one guy gets thrown through the air with explosives several times).  The animators save the best for last, with a brutal brawl between Batman and Red Hood near the end of the film.  This impressive and dramatic fight sequence is teased throughout the entire film, and when it goes down it does not disappoint.  The two heroes go to war with each other, each of them bringing lethal fighting abilities and an entire arsenal of toys and gadgets against each other for some incredible action.  The fight goes from the alley where the two first met, to the rooftops, all the way to a dilapidated apartment bathroom, where bodies are brutally thrown through fixtures and walls.  There is so much intensity in this sequence, and the animators outdid themselves bringing this major and spectacular fight to the screen.  You will be so impressed by this terrific animation.

You cannot talk about Under the Red Hood without out mentioning the incredible collection of characters and the outstanding voice cast that perfectly portrayed each of them.  Unsurprisingly for a Batman film, the cast is anchored by the Dark Knight himself, who is voiced by the talented Bruce Greenwood.  This is a great portrayal of Batman and the writer really captured the complexities of the veteran version of this superhero.  This Batman has been fighting crime for a very long time, and has been struck by tragedy after tragedy, especially the death of Jason Todd.  This comes into play throughout the film, and there are some major emotional moments, especially in the final climatic scene with the Red Hood.  Watching this film, it is impossible not to see Batman as a tragic figure, always destined to experience heartbreak and trauma as the result of his relentless crusade.  I did love the amazing animation featured around Batman’s various fight scenes, and it contrasts nicely with some of the other characters, such as Red Hood, with more of a focus on his experience and placing the right move at the right time.  I also really enjoyed Bruce Greenwood’s portrayal of Batman, who brings a gruff and determined depiction of the character which really works.  Greenwood delivers several great dialogue sequences which show the depth and complexity of this iconic character, and I had a fantastic time following him in this film.

Another major character is the character of Jason Todd/Red Hood (I would add a spoiler alert, but after all these years it’s kind of redundant), voiced by Jensen Ackles.  The Red Hood featured in this film is an amazing and outstanding version of the character, and you run the entire emotional gambit with him.  I loved the fantastic and clever introduction of the character, where he manages to take over a large criminal organisation with just a bag and a machine gun.  This evolves into a very fun game of cat and mouse between Red Hood and Batman, while he also works to take over from Black Mask.  The eventual reveal about Red Hood works extremely well: “You haven’t lost your touch, Bruce,” and I loved the various chase scenes between the two, as well as their joint fight sequence against the Fearsome Hand of Four.  All this perfectly leads up to the great final confrontation with Batman, with a big elaborate fight scene and that extremely dramatic sequence opposite Batman.  Ackles adds some real cockiness to the character, and his various interactions with the supporting characters are pretty funny and really fun.  However, it is his sequences with Batman that are the best, as Ackles adds all the appropriate drama of a murdered child when encountering his former mentor.  The revelation of Red Hood’s motive is deeply captivating, and the entire scene where he, Batman and the Joker are reunited is so very tense and powerful.  You also have to love how the final scene in the film features the younger version of Robin on his first night of crime-fighting, as his innocence and childlike joy at being a hero stands in such contrast to his eventual fate: “This is the best day of my life.”  This is an outstanding portrayal of one of the most complex characters in the DC canon.

I also really must highlight the incredible version of the Joker that is featured in this film, who is voiced by the always entertaining John DiMaggio.  This is a great interpretation of the Joker, and you get to see just how vicious and ruthless he can be.  I love how the writers and actor did a great job capturing his insane mentality when it comes to the Batman, especially as his greatest ambition is to drive Batman insane enough to kill him.  I was honestly surprised at how awesome John DiMaggio was in this role, especially as the purely evil Joker is very different from the comedic characters he is best known for portraying.  However, he brings some very excellent menace to this character, and while there are a lot of humorous undertones to his actions, the sheer insanity and joy he has at other people’s suffering is more than evident.  Joker has some incredible scenes throughout this movie, which DiMaggio really enhances with his unique take on the character.  The opening sequence in which he beats Jason Todd half to death with a crowbar is pretty dark, despite the constant jokes, and his later confrontation with Batman in Arkham really captures his overall insanity.  However, his best sequences occur later in the film.  The first of these is the cell scene with Black Mask, where he accepts a job offer in the most boss way possible (never hand the Joker a cup of any variety).  The follow sequence on the bridge, where he attempts to draw the Red Hood out with a truck, some guys and some gasoline is really great, especially when it is revealed that the Black Mask is also amongst his hostages.  However, DiMaggio shines best in the final sequence where Batman and Red Hood finally have their dramatic showdown with the Joker in the middle.  The Joker revels in all the drama and emotion in the room, especially when Red Hood attempts to force Batman to kill Joker: “This is turning out even better than I hoped!”  The final bit of the confrontation where Joker, realising that Red Hood’s bomb will kill them all, joyfully attempts stop Batman, “This is perfect…. I’m the only one who’s going to get what they want tonight,” really captures the character’s chaotic mentality and is a great conclusion to his story arc.

The other major character in the film is Nightwing, former Robin Dick Grayson, who is portrayed by the legendary Neil Patrick Harris.  Mostly featured in the first half of the film, Nightwing serves as the traditional sidekick role, bringing a lighter comedic role to the dynamic duo and playing off the ultra-serious Batman perfectly.  I loved the fantastic coordination in the action sequences between these two, and the animators do an outstanding job showing how their fighting styles complement each other and they instantly know what the other one is doing.  Harris’s voice work is great, hyping up the characters comedic, banter-laden fight style, and while it didn’t fit as well as some other versions of Nightwing I have seen, this was still a pretty epic bit of casting.

Aside from these above four main characters, I deeply appreciated Jason Issacs and Wade Williams as Ra’s al Ghul and Black Mask respectfully.  Issacs does an outstanding job bringing the enigmatic and ruthless al Ghul to life, and it was great to see the respect and personal code this version of the character has, especially once his actions result in Jason Todd’s death.  Williams’s unhinged version of Black Mask is also incredibly good, and I loved the ultra-anger he brings to the role, especially as he slowly becomes more and more targeted by Red Hood and Batman.  His reactions to the crazy antics of the other characters is pretty fun, and you’ve got to love the look on his face when he sees Red Hood targeting him with a giant rocket launcher.  I also want to call out Kelly Hu as Black Mask’s assistant, Ms Li, a gender-swapped version of the assistant character in the comic.  Ms Li serves a pretty cool counterpart to Black Mask and is a constant calm presence in his chaotic administration, barely batting an eye at any of his angry or violent outbursts.  These great supporting characters compliment the main cast perfectly, and I felt the film’s entire collection of characters and actors helped to turn Under the Red Hood into something incredibly special.

While there have been some incredible DC animated movies out there, none have eclipsed the exceptional and awesome Batman: Under the Red Hood.  Featuring an impressive adaption of an iconic and cool comic story arc, this amazing film contains a fantastic narrative loaded with action, excitement, and intensity, as the characters engage in a dramatic and tragic battle.  With a perfect voice cast and some outstanding animation, Under the Red Hood is a must-watch animated film that I have seen and deeply enjoyed so many times.  An easy five-star watch that is highly recommended; if you love Batman, you need to see this film.

The Mask of Mirrors by M. A. Carrick

The Mask of Mirrors Cover

Publisher: Orbit (Audiobook – 19 January 2021)

Series: Rook & Rose – Book One

Length: 23 hours and 13 minutes

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Magic and masquerade combine into one of the most creative fantasy releases from the first half of 2021 with The Mask of Mirrors by M. A. Carrick, the first book in the Rook & Rose trilogy.

The Mask of Mirrors was a fantastic novel that caught a lot of buzz earlier in the year.  This book was written by M. A. Carrick, the joint pen name of Marie Brennan and Alyc Helms, two established fantasy authors who are teaming together for their first novel.  This debut novel was pretty impressive and the two talented authors ended up producing an exciting and complex fantasy tale that sees a young con artist attempt to change her fate.

Welcome to Nadežra, a city of iniquity and greed that forms the gateway between two warring cultures.  Many people call Nadežra home, although few truly prosper, with only the great noble houses and their supporters gaining any true wealth.  However, one young woman is about to change everything.  Ren is a former street rat of Nadežra who escaped the city years ago to seek her fortune.  Returning after several years, Ren has taken on an entirely new persona: Renata Viraudax, a mysterious and seemingly wealthy noblewoman from the capital, come calling on her long-lost relatives.  Ren hopes to con her way into the once great noble family of House Traementis and use their name and legacy to make her fortune and ensure a comfortable life for herself and her sister.  But as she begins to worm her way into the family, she soon finds that the life of a noble in Nadežra is far more complex than she ever imagined.

Despite their noble standing, House Traementis is in poor shape, and if Ren is going to make money off them, she first needs to ensure their success.  However, a powerful rival family is seeking to destroy House Traementis, and they will do anything in their power to get their way.  Forced to work with criminals and shadows to achieve her goal, Ren will find just how ugly the glittering nobles of Nadežra can be.  Unbeknownst to Ren, a far more insidious presence is lurking within the city, killing children and unleashing corrupt magic for their own goals.  Worse, this evil has a deadly connection to Ren’s past and wants to use her to destroy everything she holds dear.  Can Ren overcome this evil while maintaining her cover, or will the nobility of Nadežra eat her whole?

This was an extremely captivating first outing from this new writing team, and I deeply enjoyed the cool and compelling story that they came up with.  The Mask of Mirrors is a complex tale that expertly combines intriguing and clever fantasy elements with a thrilling confidence trick, as the protagonist attempts to work her way into high society.  Of course, nothing works out that simply, as the protagonist soon finds herself embroiled in all manner of scandals, plots and deadly feuds, producing an excellent story. 

While I did enjoy the overall narrative, the book did start off a little slow and it took me a while to get really excited about it.  I personally only got hooked when the character of the Rook was added in.  The Rook is a mysterious, Zorro-esque (perhaps more Tuxedo Mask than Zorro) character who haunts the streets of Nadežra, fighting oppression and tyranny while thumbing his nose at authority.  Following a great duel sequence, the mystery of the Rook’s identity becomes a major part of the plot, and I found myself really getting into this and the other interesting storylines.  The rest of the novel flows at a fantastic pace, especially after the authors set up so many fascinating and compelling plot points at the start of the book that slowly come to fruition.  There are some amazing moments throughout the novel, and I was really impressed by a particularly tragic moment that occurred around two-thirds of the way through, which was shocking and surprising.  The entire narrative comes together in an excellent conclusion, providing a satisfying and moving ending, while also setting up some excellent moments for the next two entries in the series.  I did think that the novel could maybe have benefited from either finishing at the big moment I mentioned above, or by trimming around 100 pages out of the middle of the book.  Some of the twists at the end of The Mask of Mirrors were also a little predictable, especially around the identity of the antagonists (it literally could not have been anyone else).  However, I think that the eventual reveal about who was under the Rook mask was handled beautifully, and I honestly did not know which direction they were going to go in for much of the plot.  I had a really amazing time getting through this story, and I look forward to seeing how these two talented authors continue it in the next two entries in the series.

The Mask of Mirrors contains a fantastic collection of characters who offer up a range of different perspectives and vantage points to tell a massive and complete narrative.  The authors behind this book spent a lot of time building up the various characters, ensuring that they had intriguing and tragic backstories, which leads to some fantastic development throughout the course of the novel and the entire series.  The most prominent character is Ren, a former local who attempts to pull off and ambitious con.  Ren is a confident, talented, haunted figure, who experienced great tragedy at an early age and is still trying to pull herself together.  She is forced to return to the city that she fled from years before to achieve greatness and make money and ends up connecting to her heritage as well as being forced to relive her greatest mistakes and traumas.  I loved the fantastic storylines surrounding Ren, and she proves to be quite a complex character.  Rather than being obsessed with money and dislike of the noble class in Nadežra, Ren grows to care for her marks and works to save them and the entire city when the antagonist makes their move.  Ren proves to be an exceptional central character to follow, especially as she provides the most insight into one of the main magical disciplines featured in the book, and it will be very interesting to see how her storyline continues later in the series, especially after she gains a mask of her own.

Other great characters contained within this novel include ruthless rising crime boss Derossi Vargo, a man with great ambition who is willing to risk anything and anyone to achieve his goal.  Vargo, a seemingly self-made man, proves to be one of the most entertaining and enthralling figures in the entire novel, and I deeply enjoyed seeing him work with Ren while enhancing his own plans.  It looks like Carrick has some major plans for Vargo, and he could be an amazing overarching antagonistic figure.  Another excellent character is Grey Serrado, a police officer and friend of the Traementis who finds himself investigating some of the major activities occurring the city.  Grey is a conflicted and damaged character, constantly torn between his duty as an officer and his heritage.  He goes through some major events throughout this novel and looks set to be a major figure throughout the rest of the series.  I also enjoyed Ren’s adopted siblings Tess and Sedge, who act as fantastic supporting figures to Ren and her plans.  Carrick develops them quite nicely and they prove to be entertaining figures who have a long and caring relationship with Ren.  I also appreciated the focus on the members of House Traementis, the people that Ren is trying to con.  The Traementis are a once great house who have fallen on hard times and are slowly falling into oblivion due to a rumoured curse.  While you initially aren’t too concerned with these characters, due to their status as patsies, the three surviving members swiftly grow on you, enough that you eventually start to judge Ren’s continued attempts to con them.  Finally, I have to say that the masked Rook was a particularly awesome character, and I deeply loved his inclusion in the plot.  It was so much fun trying to figure out who he was, and the authors utilised him to perfection to create an outstanding narrative.

You cannot talk about The Mask of Mirrors without discussing the complex and distinctive setting that is the city of Nadežra.  Nadežra is a sprawling, independent city state resting on a delta, filled with palaces, slums, massive buildings and all manner of different people.  Due to its unique history, Nadežra is home to several distinct ethnic groups, the local Vraszenians underclass and the Liganti upper class.  The two ethnic groups are opposites, and there is substantial friction between them, especially as the Vraszenians feel like second-class citizens in their own historical city.  While most of the novel shows the two groups living mostly in harmony, the lingering tension between the two groups becomes a major plot point as the novel, and I think that the authors did an outstanding job highlighting this and using it as part of the story.  Carrick provides detailed explorations of the different cultures between the two groups, and it was interesting to see how it partially paralleled some real-life political situations.  It was also quite interesting to see that, despite the cultural differences and clashes, Nadežra proves to extremely woke and tolerant when it comes to issues of gender and LGTB+ issues.  Not only are there several prominent female figures within the city but there also several homosexual, nonbinary and transgender characters.  I love the way in which most modern fantasy novels are featuring more and more of these aspects in their settings, and this was a great example of that.  The city of Nadežra proves to be a very magical place, and there is so much detail, backstory and culture contained within that the reader will feel like they are actually walking the streets.

Carrick also comes up with several distinctive forms of magic, which are as diverse and different as the various cultures contained within the city.  There are three major forms of magic shown in the book, although I had to say that I found all three of them to be a little less dramatic than you would expect in a fantasy book.  The first one of these is numinata, which is sort of a combination of geometry and astronomy, often using complex glyphs or geometric patterns.  Numinata is generally used by the Liganti and is considered a more cultured and precise form of magic.  The Vraszenian magic, on the other hand, is based on patterns and dreams, and is mostly shown through the protagonist’s pattern reading, a form of tarot card reading which gives glimpses into the past, the present and the future.  The final form of magic is imbuing, which allows the user to put a little bit of their essence into an item or product to enhance its effect.  All three magics are featured fairly prominently within The Mask of Mirrors and prove to give the novel a unique feel, while also highlighting the cultural and social differences between the ethnic groups.  While I did think that much of the magic was a little undefined in the novel, it becomes a key part of the plot, and it was interesting to see how the combination of magics could create some nightmarish results.  Overall, I deeply enjoyed the extraordinary and detailed setting that Carrick came up for The Mask of Mirrors and I found myself getting really lost in its spectacle and details.  While I would have preferred just a little more info about the universe’s magical rules, I felt that Carrick did a wonderful job pulling this together, and it was a definite highlight of this great book.

I ended up listening to the audiobook version of The Mask of Mirrors, narrated by Nikki Massoud, who has done several interesting audiobooks in the last year.  While this is a pretty long audiobook (at 23 hours and 13 minutes, it is the 17th longest audiobook I have ever listened to) I am actually incredibly glad that I ended up checking out the audiobook format of this book.  The complex narrative and immensely detailed setting really came to life, and I found myself absorbing a whole lot more of the story and the beauty of the background.  However, the real advantage of this format was the outstanding narration by Massoud.  Massoud did an exquisite job portraying the various characters featured within The Mask of Mirrors, capturing each figure perfectly and providing them with an outstanding and wildly fitting voice.  To achieve this, Massoud utilises a wide array of different voices and accents, which really help you differentiate the various characters, and which help to show their nationality or social status.  I was particularly impressed at how Massoud was able to showcase the various personas of the main character, Ren.  This was achieved by seamlessly changing accents depending on which character Ren was playing at the time.  For example, when Ren was with her sister or pretending to be a local, Massoud would use the rougher, more exotic accent that all the Vraszenian characters have.  However, when the character changed back into the persona of Alta Renata, her voice would become a lot more cultured, mimicking the nobility.  This seamless change between the various voices was perfectly done, and I really appreciated the narrator’s determination to capture the separate halves of the character.  This was some truly impressive voice work, and I think that listening to the audiobook format ended up adding to my overall rating for the novel.

The Mask of Mirrors by M. A. Carrick is an outstanding and moving fantasy novel that I had a wonderful time reading.  Featuring an excellent narrative, some complex characters and a detailed and memorable fantasy setting, this debut novel from the writing team of Marie Brennan and Alyc Helms was an immense amount of fun and I really got into this fantastic story.  The Rook & Rose trilogy looks set to a spectacular series and I am quite excited to see how all the books turn out.  The next entry, The Liar’s Knot, is set for release in December, and I look forward to continuing this great series into the New Year.

Throwback Thursday – Fool Moon by Jim Butcher

Fool Moon Cover

Publisher: Buzzy Multimedia (Audiobook – 9 January 2001

Series: Dresden Files – Book Two

Length: 10 hours and 6 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

In my Throwback Thursday series I republish old reviews, review books I have read before or review older books I have only just had a chance to read.  For my latest Throwback Thursday, I continue my exploration of one of the most highly regarded urban fantasy series out there, Jim Butcher’s The Dresden Files, with the awesome and deeply captivating second entry in the series, Fool Moon.

The Dresden Files are an outstanding collection of novels that follows professional wizard and private investigator Harry Dresden in modern-day Chicago as he battles magical creatures and practitioners that threaten innocent people.  Generally considered the gold standard of the urban fantasy genre, The Dresden Files have been going for over 20 years and currently consist of 17 novels and a massive collection of short stories and novellas.  While I have been meaning to check this series out for a while, I only started reading them last year when I received a copy of the latest entry in the series, Battle GroundBattle Ground was an epic and extraordinary read that featured a mass-supernatural war in the middle of Chicago.  I absolutely loved Battle Ground and it was easily one of my favourite books and audiobooks of 2020, while Butcher was one of the best new-to-me authors I read last year.  Because of how incredible I found Battle Ground to be I have decided to go back and start reading the series right from the beginning.  I started with Butcher’s first Dresden Files novel a couple of months ago, Storm Front, which proved to be another impressive read, and I am now extremely hooked on this series.  So when I was in the mood for a fun book to break up my reading schedule, I decided to start listening to Fool Moon, and boy am I glad that I did.

Business has been slow for Harry Dresden, Chicago’s only professional wizard, after his last investigation led to all out chaos and destruction.  However, his life is once again about to get very interesting when he is dragged to a murder scene.  One of the bodyguards of a notorious crime lord Dresden has dealt with in the past has been brutally torn to shreds.  With a full moon in the sky and bloody wolf prints surrounding the victim, Dresden comes to the only conclusion he can: there is a killer werewolf stalking the city.

Diving once more into a supernatural case, Dresden attempts to find the killer before the moon rises again.  However, this may prove more difficult than he initially believes, as Chicago is currently rife with wolf-based magic practitioners, enhanced criminal gangs and monsters, each of whom could be more than capable of committing the crime.  Worse, when an associate of his turns up dead, Dresden finds himself under suspicion for the murders by the police and the FBI.

Now on the run with his reporter girlfriend and a mysterious ethereal shifter, Dresden needs to find out who or what is responsible for the murders and why they have involved him.  But with the most bestial elements of Chicago’s criminal elements coming after him and an uncontrollable and seemingly unkillable monster hunting through the night, can Dresden stop the killers before it is too late, or will the next full moon be his last?

Wow, now this was a pretty awesome second entry in the outstanding Dresden Files series.  Butcher has crafted together something really special in Fool Moon, thanks to its compelling and intense story, amazing characters, great humour and impressive fantasy additions.  I had an absolute blast getting through this book in a few short days and it was so good I have no choice but to give it a full five-star rating.

At the centre of this incredible novel is a complex and exciting narrative that sets the protagonist on a deadly journey filled with murder, mystery and monsters.  Starting with an intriguing investigation into an apparent werewolf serial killer, Fool Moon’s story eventually devolves into a survival story for the protagonist as he finds himself on the wrong side of the law, the true killers and several different groups of criminals and werewolves.  This proved to be a really impressive and addictive narrative, and I loved the outstanding blend of a detective story with magic, wizards and wolves.  The mystery angle contained within Fool Moon is particularly good, and while the culprit is revealed about two-thirds the way through for excellent story reasons, it was still a fantastic and twisty case that I enjoyed.  Butcher really invested in several excellent and memorable extended sequences in this novel that were a lot of fun to get through, including a particularly intense brawl between several antagonistic groups with Dresden in the middle, and a fantastic high-stakes final confrontation where no one is safe.  However, my absolute favourite sequence occurred in the middle of the novel and saw Dresden forced to contend with a rampaging monster in the middle of a police station.  The sheer carnage and destruction that occurred in this sequence was really cool, and readers are left on the edge of their seats as the fates of several characters hang in the balance.  I deeply enjoyed this intense scene, and it absolutely cemented Fool Moon’s place in my dark heart.  This was an incredible and powerful story, and readers who check it out are in for a thrilling and captivating treat.

A particular strength of The Dresden Files as a series is the way in which the author makes it very accessible to new readers who can easily slip into any of the books in the series, even some of the later instalments, and easily follow what is going on.  Fool Moon is a great example of this, and I felt that people unfamiliar with the rest of the series should be able to enjoy this book without any problems.  All the recurring characters in the narrative are quickly and effectively reintroduced, often in a similar manner to how they appeared in the first book, and any relevant storylines, magical abilities or prior adventures are also covered in some detail.  As a result, new readers should have no trouble enjoying this great book, and indeed this will probably turn them into a fan of the series and ensure that they check out some of the other books.  However, there are some cool connections to the first novel that dedicated readers will notice, and I liked the underlying story thread of someone plotting and planning behind the scenes to mess with the protagonist.  Overall, this a great book for all fantasy and mystery fans, especially those who like a complex, multi-genre narrative.

I love all the awesome fantasy elements that Butcher slips into his novels, and it is always great to see the weird and magical in the midst of modern-day Chicago.  Fool Moon is no exception, as Butcher has a lot of fun expanding out some of the rules of magic in this book, as well as highlighting a few additional magical denizens and powers.  While this is very cool, the real magical highlight of Fool Moon has to be the werewolves.  Most fantasy authors who feature werewolves in their story would choose just one specific type that they like and leave it at that.  Butcher, however, is not the sort of person to do stuff by half measures (check out the massive fantasy war featured in Battle Ground) and instead features five separate subtypes of werewolves, all of whom are potential suspects for the murders.  I deeply enjoyed this use of multiple werewolves throughout the novel, not only because it really helped to enhance the book’s already fantastic mystery, but because it was awesome and fascinating to see the different creature subtypes.  Each werewolf or wolf-based magic user has their own unique abilities, source of power and personalities which Dresden has to learn about and overcome if he is to survive.  These wolves include shapeshifters, demon talisman powered wolves and humans with wolf-like mentalities that make them act like berserkers.  The standout, however, is the loup-garous, a cursed individual with no control over their actions; essentially a more monstrous version of wolf man from film.  Butcher paints his loup-garous as a particularly dangerous being which is practically invincible to everything and anything it encounters, including the protagonist’s most destructive magic.  This loup-garous causes some real carnage in this book, and watching Dresden attempt to defend himself from it is pretty crazy and makes for some excellent and intense scenes.  I deeply, deeply enjoyed the epic use of werewolves in this novel and Butcher really does the old lore surrounding them justice.

It is impossible to talk about a Dresden Files novel without discussing the incredibly well-developed characters featured within.  The most prominent of these is central protagonist Harry Dresden, Chicago’s resident wizard for hire.  Dresden is an exceptionally entertaining and likeable protagonist who provides pretty much all of the book’s great humour thanks to his outrageous personality, disrespect for authority and witty observations about the events going on around him.  As such, he is a fantastic character to follow, and you really appreciate his knowledge and insights into the supernatural and the people around him.  While much of the book shows Dresden as a confident and amusing being, we do get to see more of the character’s darker side as he deals with dark and dangerous magic.  Thanks to the author’s outstanding writing style, the reader is front and centre for all of the protagonist’s slips towards darkness and despair, especially as he encounters tragedy, loss and insane opposition.  I really appreciated this examination of the protagonist’s fragile psyche, and Butcher makes sure to take him to the edge in Fool Moon.  The author also makes some additional intriguing references to Dresden’s past which hint at some traumatic events and betrayals.  Fool Moon also shows of Dresden’s full magical potential, especially as he launches some incredible attacks here, even if they do leave him very drained.  It also shows the character at his most vulnerable, as he is forced to go it alone with only the bare amount of resources and abilities.  All of this makes for an intriguing and powerful character and I really enjoyed seeing more of this awesome protagonist.

In addition to Dresden, Butcher also makes excellent use of several great supporting characters, each of whom add some fun and compelling elements to the plot.  The most prominent supporting character was probably Karrin Murphy, Dresden’s liaison in the Chicago police.  Murphy, a hardnosed professional who is one of the few police officers to believe in the supernatural, has an intriguing character arc in this novel.  This is mostly because of Dresden’s actions in Storm Front, as well as his somewhat chauvinistic determination to protect Murphy from magic, both of which ruined have Murphy’s trust in him and placed her in some hot water with the police brass.  This fractured relationship becomes a key story point in Fool Moon, especially as it leads to Murphy being quick to jump on Dresden as a potential suspect in the crimes.  This adds some compelling difficulties for the protagonist in the story, and I really appreciated the excellent drama that emerged between the two as Murphy and a repentant Dresden attempt to work out their issues.

Aside from Murphy, you have the return of Susan Rodriquez, Dresden’s love interest and a reporter for a tabloid newspaper.  Susan is an interesting counterpoint to Dresden, being an ambitious reporter determined to find out the truth of the arcane no matter what.  She has a fun and fiery relationship with Dresden in this novel, and it was interesting to see her more involved with the story, especially as she sees Dresden at his darkest and most dangerous point.  I also loved seeing more of Gentleman Johnny Marcone, the sly and powerful gangster who Dresden has previously gone up against.  Macone is a fantastic villainous character, and I love the antagonistic relationship he has with Dresden, even when the two are on the same side.  You also have to have a laugh at Bob, a guiding spirit who resides inside a skull in Dresden’s basement, as he adds some intriguing exposition and laughs in his scenes.  There were also some intriguing new characters added in this book, although I will not go into too much detail about them as it could spoil some parts of the story.  None the less, they were all really fun additions to the plot, and having so many different new magical or shapeshifting beings ensured the reader was constantly trying to work out who was the actual villain.  All in all, a fantastic group of characters, and I felt that they really helped to turn Fool Moon into an excellent and first-rate read.

One of the reasons I have been enjoying The Dresden Files books is because they have some really awesome audiobook formats.  Each of these audiobooks I have listened to have been extremely amazing, and I love the way in which they portray these fun stories in a concise and exciting manner.  The Fool Moon audiobook has a runtime of just over 10 hours, and listeners will power through this in no time at all, especially as it is really easy to become addicted to the fantastic story.  However, the main thing that I love about these audiobooks is the perfect choice of narrator in actor James Marsters (Spike from Buffy and Angel).  Marsters does an outstanding job with his narration, imbuing the various characters with some fantastic and fitting voices that expertly convey their personality, emotions and actions.  I am particularly impressed by the way in which he portrays the story’s narrator and main protagonist, Harry Dresden, and the tone he uses for him perfectly represents the sarcastic and entertaining rogue wizard.  This is one of the best examples of an audiobook narrator matching their protagonist, and it makes for some fantastic listening.  I also appreciated the way in which Marsters started really getting into his narration of certain key events in this second novel.  While he did an excellent job in Storm Front, I felt that Marsters stepped up his game in Fool Moon, and while it was not quite at the level of enthusiasm and volume that featured in Battle Ground (he was really getting caught up in the action there), it was noticeably more exciting.  This enthusiasm added a lot to the enjoyment I felt while listening to Fool Moon and I strongly recommend this format to anyone who wants to check this book out.

Fool Moon by Jim Butcher ended up being another exceptional and spectacular addition to the author’s legendary Dresden Files series.  I had an outstanding time listening to the clever and exciting narrative that Butcher came up with for his second novel and I think that the author actually stepped up his game a little with Fool Moon.  Featuring some great characters and an addictive and thrilling mystery surrounding werewolves, Fool Moon is an incredible read that I powered through in no time at all.  I can think of no higher praise for this book than to say that the moment I finished it I immediately started the next novel in the series, Grave Peril, as I still had not gotten my fill of Dresden Files goodness.  I am already making some amazing progress with Grave Peril and I am planning to review in the next week or so.  Until then, readers are strongly encouraged to check this awesome second entry in the series out, as you will not regret it.

Firefly: Life Signs by James Lovegrove

Firefly Life Signs

Consulting Editor: Joss Whedon

Publisher: Titan Books (Hardcover – 15 March 2021)

Series: Firefly – Book Five

Length: 377 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

One of my favourite tie-in series returns with another awesome Firefly novel by bestselling author James Lovegrove.  This time, Lovegrove digs up an intriguing unaired plotline for the epic science fiction series and crafts an outstanding story out of it for Firefly: Life Signs.

Set between the events of the Firefly television series and the Serenity film, Captain Malcolm Reynolds and the crew of Serenity are still scraping by, earning a living from barely legal jobs while also dealing with the consequences of their previous capers.  Life seems to be normal (well, normal for this motley crew) until they receive some shocking news: former crewmember Inara is dying from a terminal illness.

Rushing to her side, a devastated Mal learns that Inara is suffering from Kiehl’s Myeloma, an incurable form of cancer.  With only a few short weeks until Inara’s time is up, Serenity’s crew look set to lose one of their own, until a rumour reaches them of a potential cure.  Esau Weng, a maverick scientist, was rumoured to be working on a medical breakthrough that could potentially treat Inara’s condition.  However, the unethical and secretive nature of his work landed him in trouble with the Alliance, who arrested him and bundled him off to their most notorious prison.

Tracking Esau’s location, the crew are disheartened to learn that he has been sent to the prison planet of Atata, a dangerous and harsh place where the worst criminals and dissidents the verse has to offer are housed.  Inmates are abandoned on its surface and are forced to survive with no guards, no protection, and limited resources.  Worse, the planet is a frozen wasteland, nearly uninhabitable thanks to its failed terraforming, with its snow-covered surface filled with mutated animals.  Determined to save Inara no matter what, Mal organises a desperate infiltration of the prison with Zoe, Jayne and Simon.  However, finding Weng will prove to be harder than they imagined, as they are forced to deal with the deranged ruler of the prison.  Can Mal and his team find Weng before it is too late, and even if they can, will his supposed cure be enough to save Inara?

Over the last couple of years, there has been an excellent resurgence in Firefly/Serenity tie-in fiction as new publishing companies have taken charge of producing content for the franchise.  One of the best examples of this has been the new collection of Firefly novels that introduced some compelling original stories surrounding various members of Serenity’s crew.  All of these novels have been pretty awesome so far, and I have really enjoyed the awesome and impressive stories they have created.

While other authors have been lined up for these books, such as Tim Lebbon (who wrote Firefly: Generations), the MVP of this series has been James Lovegrove, who has written four out of the five novels (including this one).  His previous books have included Big Damn Hero (with Nancy Holder), The Magnificent Nine and The Ghost Machine, all three of which have been exceptional tie-in reads.  In my opinion, each of Lovegrove’s Firefly novels has been better than the last, and this continues to be the case with Life SignsLife Signs was an outstanding and clever read that explores some of the most interesting and compelling aspects of the Firefly universe while also getting to the very core of some of its iconic characters.

For his latest Firefly novel, Lovegrove comes up with an awesome narrative that is both exciting and emotionally powerful, as the crew engage in a prison break to save one of their own.  Like the rest of the Firefly books that I have had the pleasure of reading, Life Signs is an extremely fast-paced novel, which makes great use of multiple character perspectives, including all the members of Serenity’s crew as well as several new characters, to tell a complete and intriguing story.  The novel starts at pace, with the crew receiving the devastating news about Inara’s upcoming death, which hits all the characters, especially Mal, extremely hard.  From there the story splits into two linked but separate story arcs: one on the planet and one in space.  The storyline set on the prison planet is pretty good, and it was a lot of fun to see the more criminally minded Mal, Zoe and Jayne attempt to blend in, along with a faltering Simon.  Their attempts to infiltrate the criminal inhabitants of the prison ends up producing several interesting issues that they need to overcome, and they eventually engage in a desperate battle for survival out in Atata’s snowy wasteland.  There are some great twists associated with this part of the story, including a clever one surrounding an inmate who joins their team, and this was a fantastic part of the book.  At the same time, the three other members of the crew are out in space aboard Serenity and must deal with a fanatical Alliance captain who is determined to capture them, resulting in some amazing space exploits which push River to the fore.  Both these separated arcs are pretty awesome, and they come together extremely well, ensuring the reader gets a fantastic blast of action and character development.  I also enjoyed the additional emotional weight that the life-or-death storyline surrounding Inara has, and it was definitely a powerful and compelling narrative that readers are guaranteed to want to finish off as quickly as they can.

Life Signs is an intriguing and clever addition to the wider Firefly canon.  While the story is quite open to new readers or those who are unfamiliar with the franchise, this is definitely a novel best enjoyed by fans of the Firefly television show and additional tie-in media, as there are a number of fun references and major character moments that they will find particularly appealing.  One of the most interesting parts of this book is the storyline surrounding Inara having cancer.  As some Firefly fans may be aware, members of the show’s creative team have revealed that they initially planned a whole major storyline around Inara suffering from a terminal illness, which would have appeared in a future episode of the show.  They even layered a few hints about this in the first season, such as her mysterious syringe and the reasons why she was travelling on Serenity rather than a more luxurious ship.  I was very excited to hear that parts of this storyline were being used in Life Signs and I think that Lovegrove did a great job examining this interesting character thread surrounding Inara.  Not only does this result in some brilliant and dramatic moments, but Lovegrove makes sure to make mention of several of the hints that were shown in the television series, which fans will deeply appreciate.  Lovegrove provides several additional references that eagle-eyed fans will appreciate, such as the very start of the book containing a fun follow-up to one of the crew’s previous adventures.  Lovegrove also subtly ties Life Signs into some of the previous Firefly novels he wrote, including through a key supporting character, and I quite liked the continuity of the novels.  As a result, this is a perfect read for Firefly fans, although general science fiction buffs or those who enjoyed the show will have a great time with this novel as well.

As usual with Lovegrove’s Firefly novels, one of the most impressive highlights of this book is the fantastic depiction of the fantastic characters from the show.  Lovegrove has always done an amazing job of bringing these great characters to life within his novels and I really love his attention to character detail, emotion and their inner selves.  Life Signs continues this trend by thoroughly examining several members of the crew and I deeply enjoyed the emotional and enjoyable inclusions to the plot.

You can probably guess that Inara gets a bit of focus in this novel, due to the reveal that she is dying.  As I mentioned above, I really enjoyed that Lovegrove utilised this story arc in Life Signs, and the author leverages this plot to provide a fantastic and powerful dive into Inara’s character, a re-examination of her actions during the television show, as well as an exploration of her relationship with the other people aboard Serenity.  This serves to be one of the more intriguing portrayals of Inara in this series of novels, although it is rather brief as Inara spends most of the novel in a near-death state.  Due to Inara’s illness keeping her out of much of the plot, a lot of the story’s emotional weight fall to Mal, who ends up getting most of the focus of this novel.  While you do get his typical cocky attitude, fun humour and ability to annoy anyone around him, you also get to see Mal on the emotional edge during this book.  Mal is naturally devastated by the news that his unspoken love interest is dying, and he quickly latches on to any hope for her survival.  As a result, he dives into the hunt for a cure with reckless abandon and ends up taking some big risks.  Lovegrove did an amazing job portraying Mal as a bit deranged in this novel, and it was fascinating to see the usual conscientious captain seemingly prioritise Inara’s survival over the safety of his crew.  There are some amazingly dramatic and moving moments throughout this book as Mal struggles to deal with the emotions surrounding Inara’s potential death, and Firefly fans will be left on the edge of their seats as Lovegrove provides some new angles to their complex relationship.

While a good portion of the novel focuses on Mal and his concerns for Inara, the rest of Serenity’s crew also appear throughout the novel, as each of them has at least one chapter shown from their point of view.  Interestingly enough, both Tam siblings get a decent chunk of focus, with their storylines not as connected to each other’s as usual.  Simon has a great arc down on the prison planet after he is dragged along to determine if Weng can actually help Inara.  Due to his lack of criminal believability, Simon ends up having a very interesting time in the prison, especially after he befriends a seemingly innocent female inmate, who forms a romantic attachment to Simon.  This ends up causing many problems with Simon, due to his poor lying abilities and conflicted feelings over Kaylee, and it was really interesting to see how his arc ended up.  On the other hand, River spends her part of the story aboard Serenity, and is called into action when the ship is threatened by Alliance military vessels.  I loved that Lovegrove spent time exploring River’s piloting Serenity, something that is shown at the end of the Serenity film, and it was really cool to see her do some complex and insane manoeuvres.  The chapters shown from River’s point of view are amongst some of the most entertaining parts of the book, and it is always great to see this crazy genius in action.

Zoe, Wash, Kaylee and Jayne round up the main cast of this book, although each of them has more of a supporting role.  Zoe does have an intriguing storyline that sees her bond with a fellow former soldier in the prison, and there were hints back at her past as a Dust Devil, something that was initially introduced in one of Joss Whedon’s comic books.  All these characters are portrayed in exquisite detail however, and Lovegrove does a good job replicating their personalities and characteristics throughout the story.  Overall, fans of the franchise will love the way that each of the characters are utilised throughout Life Signs, and I cannot wait to see which characters are featured in the next Firefly novel.

Firefly: Life Signs is another exceptional and clever Firefly tie-in novel from the impressive James Lovegrove.  Lovegrove has come up with an exciting and clever tale that successfully utilises a planned storyline from the show and produce an addictive and memorable narrative with it.  Readers will love the awesome call back to this iconic science fiction show including the excellent portrayals of the main cast of characters.  I had an amazing time reading this book and Firefly fans are going to love every second they spend reading it.  While I cannot wait to get my hands on the next entry in this series, which looks set to be Carnival by Una McCormack, Life Signs is an outstanding novel to check out now and comes highly recommended.

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

City of Vengeance Cover

Publisher: Macmillan (Trade Paperback – 9 February 2021)

Series: Cesare Aldo – Book One

Length: 402 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

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

Synopsis:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hollow Empire by Sam Hawke

Hollow Empire Cover 2

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

Series: Poison War – Book Two

Length: 560 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Star Wars: Doctor Aphra written by Sarah Kuhn and performed by a full cast

Doctor Aphra Audio Cover

Publisher: Random House Audio (Audio Drama – 21 July 2020)

Series: Star Wars

Script: Sarah Kuhn

Cast: Emily Woo Zeller, Jonathan Davis, Sean Patrick Hopkins, Sean Kenin, Nicole Lewis, Carol Monda, Euan Morton, Catherine Taber and Marc Thompson

Length: 5 hours and 35 minutes

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

The most brilliant and conniving archaeologist in the entire Star Wars canon gets her own audio drama as author Sarah Kuhn and an exceedingly talented cast of audiobook narrators present Star Wars: Doctor Aphra, the audio drama.

Throughout the galaxy Doctor Chelli Lona Aphra is renowned as a criminal and bringer of chaos without peer, but in her own eyes she is simply an archaeologist and technology enthusiast, albeit one willing to sell her findings to the highest bidder.  However, her latest venture is about to get her into the worst type of trouble, the sort that will haunt her for the rest of her incredibly short life.  Attempting to steal a dangerous weapon from a restricted alien vault, Aphra finds herself surrounded and slated to die, that is until Darth Vader, Dark Lord of the Sith and overall badass suddenly appears and saves her. 

Vader is engaging in a high-risk power play against the Emperor and Aphra has just become his most useful pawn, whether she likes it or not.  Working as his agent, Aphra must utilise her skills as a con-woman, genius technician and criminal mastermind to help Vader achieve his goals: depose the Emperor and find his new obsession, the pilot who blew up the Death Star, Luke Skywalker.  Determined to stay on Vader’s good side, Aphra, with the help of her two friendly murder droids, Triple-Zero and BT-1, helps her new master engage in all manner of shenanigans across the universe, including kidnappings, torture and elaborate heists.  However, Aphra knows that all it will take is just one mistake or slip-up to earn her new employers’ deadly wrath.  To avoid her inevitable appointment with Vader’s crimson lightsaber, Aphra will need to pull out every trick in her impressive arsenal if she is to survive.  But can even the great Doctor Aphra outsmart Darth Vader and the entire Empire, or has the smartest woman in the galaxy finally met her match?

Well this is an exceedingly fun and entertaining entry in the Star Wars expanded universe which provides a new angle to the tale of Doctor Aphra.  Doctor Aphra is an incredible and complex character who has only been recently added into the canon.  Introduced in the opening issues the 2015 Darth Vader comic book series, Doctor Aphra served as a major supporting character for much of the series run, entertaining readers with her antics and ability to survive working for Darth Vader.  Aphra proved to be an extremely popular character, and this resulted in the character getting her own comic book series (which ironically lasted more issues than the Darth Vader series she was introduced in).  The Doctor Aphra series ended up being an amazing hit thanks to some exceptional writing and it is one of my favourite pieces of Star Wars tie-in fiction (make sure to check out my reviews for the last two volumes in the series, Unspeakable Rebel Superweapon and A Rogue’s End), and there is even a second Doctor Aphra series on its way.  It seems that Aphra’s popularity has continued to grow as earlier this year this Doctor Aphra audio drama was released, written by talented author Sarah Kuhn.  This proved to be an exceptionally impressive audio release that does an amazing job bringing this fantastic character into an entirely new format.  This audio drama has a run time of around five and a half hours, which listeners are able to breeze through in no time at all.

The Doctor Aphra audio drama contains an intriguing and captivating story that follows the character as she engages in all manner of adventures in service to Darth Vader and her own survival.  Told entirely from the perspective of Aphra as she makes a series of recordings to an unknown person, and set shortly after the events of Star Wars: A New Hope, this story follows Aphra through the entirety of her ill-fated association with Darth Vader.  This employment places her in all manner of danger, as she completes a series of tasks important to Vader, including an elaborate heist; gets in the middle of a deadly conflict between Vader, one of his rivals in the Empire, and the protagonists of The Original Trilogy; and finds herself a prisoner of the Rebel Alliance before eventually attempting to manipulate the Emperor for her own ends.  At the same time, Aphra is constantly balancing on a knife’s edge, as her beloved boss has made it abundantly clear that he will kill her the moment she displeases him.  This forces Aphra into a number of tense and dangerous situations as she needs to convince Vader to keep her alive throughout the entire book.  This struggle to stay alive adds a substantial amount of suspense to the audio drama, as the listener really wants this entertaining character to survive, and it eventually leads to an outstanding and epic conclusion.  All of this proves to be an exceedingly captivating adventure, and listeners are in for an exciting and hilarious time, especially with Aphra’s entertaining and over-exaggerated narration of the events occurring. 

While I did really enjoy the story contained within this audio drama, I do need to point out that it is not actually an original tale; instead it is an adaption of several canon comic book series, namely the comics that featured Aphra’s early adventures.  The first part of the audio drama adapts most of the first two volumes of the 2015 Darth Vader comic series, Volume One: Vader and Volume Two: Shadows and Secrets.  From there the story follows the course of the crossover limited series, Vader Down, before moving on to the events of the fourth volume of the 2015 Star Wars comic, Rebel Jail.  Finally, the story returns to the Darth Vader comic, utilising parts of the fourth and final volume, End of GamesDoctor Aphra proves to be an exceptional adaptation of these comics although they only show off the events that Aphra herself witnessed or was a part of.  I had an amazing time listening to this adaptation and I really enjoyed seeing several of the amazing events that originally occurred on the page being brought to life by this enjoyable performance. 

People interested in listening to this audio drama do not need to have read the adapted comics first, as Kuhn provides Aphra with a great deal of narration that explains her role in the story and all the events leading up to the comics.  As someone who has read the comics before listening to this audio drama, I found that there was a lot in this production for fans of the comic.  I personally really enjoyed seeing these events from Aphra’s perspective (as the original comics mostly followed main characters such as Vader, Luke, Leia, and Han), and it was extremely interesting to see her thoughts on the various events occurring.  The author also comes up with a lot of additional backstory that helps to enrich Aphra’s involvement in the narrative, which fans of the character will really appreciate.  While I had a great time listening to this audio drama, I did notice that several events were glossed over, mainly because Aphra did not witness them occur in the comics.  For example, you have no idea who is behind several of the battles or attacks that Aphra finds herself in the middle of, with Aphra herself giving limited explanations for them.  While I knew full well what was going on, people who haven’t read the comics are going to be full of questions and this may make the audio drama a little confusing at times.  That being said, this was still an outstanding and deeply enjoyable production, and perhaps it will encourage listeners to check out some of the adapted comics (trust me, they are awesome).

One of the best things about this audio drama was the way in which the narrative explored the complex and exceedingly likeable character of Doctor Chelli Aphra.  Aphra is a clever, impulsive and chaotic rogue archaeologist who is obsessed with ancient technology, particularly unusual droids and dangerous weapons.  Aphra is a wildly entertaining character who is essentially an amoral version of Indiana Jones that has no problems cheating or betraying people who she encounters, as long as she gets to hold onto the valuable antiques or can sell them for vast amounts of money (none of her loot belongs in a museum!).  Aphra appears to have a relentlessly positive personality, providing the listener with a string of continual jokes and funny observations with an infectious amount of enthusiasm.  However, deep down Aphra is actually a deeply damaged individual who has suffered a number of losses and betrayals that impact her current outlook on life and other people. 

Despite the fact that Aphra is the very definition of an unreliable narrator (she literally deletes or edits the parts of the story she does not like to suit her agenda), I felt that this audio drama does an amazing job exploring this wily protagonist.  Having Aphra’s inner monologue about the events occurring during this story proved to be not only entertaining but also very enlightening, and it showed some fascinating glimpses of her inner personality and emotional state.  While much of Aphra’s story was previously explored in the comics that Doctor Aphra is based on, this adaptation does go a little further, pulling in some backstory that was introduced in the later Doctor Aphra comics and expertly working it into this narrative.  Kuhn also comes up with some additional history that is unique to this production, including a number of scenes that explore her previous romantic relationship with Sana Starros.  While this relationship has been mentioned and discussed in several of the comics, this is probably the most in-depth examination of it in the canon and it becomes an important part of the overall plot.  I really enjoyed the way in which Doctor Aphra examined its titular protagonist and I felt that the story really captured her essence and outrageous personality.

This audio drama sports an amazing voice cast and each of them does a fantastic job in this production.  However, I really must highlight the performance of Emily Woo Zeller, who portrayed the titular character.  Zeller is an experienced and talented narrator who has contributed to a huge raft of audiobooks, including several I am quite interested in checking out, such as Cyber Shogun Revolution by Peter Tieryas.  Due to how the audio drama is written, Zeller’s voice is the one we hear the most throughout Doctor Aphra, as she recounts all of the characters dialogue and the overall narration of this book.  I really loved the way that Zeller portrayed the character of Aphra in this audio drama and I thought she got all the aspects of the character down perfectly.  Zeller gives a particularly energetic performance throughout this adaption, and listeners get a real sense of the mischievous and over confident outer shell that Doctor Aphra portrays to everyone she meets.  However, Zeller also captures the vulnerable nature of this complex protagonist, showing off the character’s full range of emotions when she is scared, angry or contemplating her many regrets.  This rich and amazing performance from Zeller really helps to make this audio drama something special, and I am really glad that she was able to bring Doctor Aphra to life in such an exceptional way.

Doctor Aphra also makes use of several other impressive voice actors throughout this audio drama, each of whom are portraying major Star Wars characters who Aphra interacts with through the course of this adventure.  This audio drama features a who’s who of Star Wars audiobook narrators, many of whose works I have previously enjoyed in a range of productions including the previous Star Wars audio drama, Dooku: Jedi Lost.  These additional narrators include Jonathan Davis (who I previously enjoyed in Star Wars: Master and Apprentice and Lords of the Sith), Sean Kenin (Death Troopers), Euan Morton (Tarkin), Catherine Taber (Queen’s Peril and Queen’s Shadow), Marc Thompson (Thrawn, Thrawn: Chaos Rising, Dark Disciple and Scoundrels), Sean Patrick Hopkins, Nicole Lewis and Carol Monda.  Each of these voice actors did an exceptional job of bringing their various characters to life throughout Doctor Aphra.  I particularly enjoyed Marc Thompson’s Darth Vader and Euan Morton’s Emperor, as both voice actors brought some realistic menace to these iconic villains.  Catherine Taber, who is best known for her portrayal of Padme Amidala in The Clone Wars animated series, does an excellent Princess Leia in this production, and I really appreciated the choice to cast her.  Sean Patrick Hopkins does a really cool Luke Skywalker, and I was really struck by how close he got to a younger Mark Hamil’s voice.  I also really enjoyed Sean Kenin’s Triple-Zero, and I felt he really captured the essence of this crazy character.  Each of these side characters added a lot to the production as a whole and, while they were not as heavily featured as Aphra, each of them had their own entertaining moments and interactions.  I particularly loved the threatening aura that Darth Vader exhibited towards Aphra, and there is also a very entertaining interaction between Aphra and Han Solo that results in some of the best jokes in the entire production.  You also have to love the fact that Aphra ends up with a posse that essentially reflects the main characters from The Original Trilogy, with a protocol droid (Triple-Zero), an Astromech (BT-1) and a Wookie (Black Krrsantan).  Of course, Aphra’s friends are all dangerous killers, which makes for some extremely entertaining and deadly encounters.

In addition to featuring an impressive voice cast, Doctor Aphra also features the full range of iconic Star Wars sound effects and musical scores that were made famous in the movies.  Pretty much every action that occurs within the book is accompanied by a sound effect, whether it be blaster fire, the sound of engines or even a susurration from other people in a crowded room.  I always love how these sound effects helped to create an atmosphere throughout the course of a Star Wars novel, and I felt that they were particularly useful for this audio drama format due to the lack of narration that a standard audiobook would have.  I also have to talk up the excellent use of the incredible Star Wars musical score that features during several key scenes of the novel.  Hearing this music during some of the most pivotal, dramatic or action-packed sequences makes the narrative seem that much more epic, and I absolutely loved hearing this music throughout this production.  The use of the sound effects and music enhances the story in immeasurable ways, and it helps to turn this audio drama into an exceptional treat for the ears. 

Star Wars: Doctor Aphra is an impressive and deeply enjoyable audio production that brings fan-favourite character Chelli Aphra into a whole new light.  Cleverly adapting several amazing Star Wars comics, the Doctor Aphra audio drama features an interesting story from author Sarah Kuhn that shows the events from the perspective of the chaotic and duplicitous titular protagonist.  Featuring an exceptional voice cast, Doctor Aphra proves to be an extremely entertaining and exceedingly addictive listen that I had a very hard time turning off.  I personally think this was one of the best audio productions of 2020 and it comes highly recommended both to general Star Wars fans and to those who have read the adapted comics.  I had an amazing time listening to this audio drama and I hope that they think about adapting the later Doctor Aphra comic book series next as there are some impressive storylines featured in there.

The Law of Innocence by Michael Connelly

The Law of Innocence Cover

Publisher: Allen & Unwin (Trade Paperback – 10 November 2020)

Series: Mickey Haller – Book six

Length: 421 pages

My Rating: 4.75 out of 5 stars

The master of the modern-day crime fiction novel, Michael Connelly, presents his second release of 2020, The Law of Innocence, which sees the return of one of his most iconic protagonist, the Lincoln Lawyer, Mickey Haller, who is forced to defend his most important client yet: himself.

Defence lawyer Mickey Haller is flying high after a series of high-profile wins in court.  However, his life is about to come crashing down around him when he is pulled over by police and the body of a former client is found in the trunk of his Lincoln.  Haller is swiftly charged with murder and slapped with an unpayable $5 million bail that forces him to stay in the infamous Twin Towers Jail in downtown Los Angeles.

Determined to prove that he has been framed, Haller chooses to defend himself and starts to construct his case in prison.  With the help of his expert team, including his half-brother, Harry Bosch, Haller attempts to discover who is really behind the murder and why he is being targeted.  However, the answers and a viable alternate suspect seem elusive, and Haller soon finds himself the target of everyone in the criminal justice system that he has managed to alienate throughout his career.

With the trial quickly approaching and a vengeful prosecutor angling to get Haller the death sentence, the defence will need every trick at their disposal if they are to save Haller’s life.  However, this entire case sits at the centre of an elaborate conspiracy, one where anyone who knows anything is at risk.  Can Haller survive the case and his dangerous prison sentence, or will this be the last trial for the Lincoln Lawyer?

The Law of Innocence was an impressive and enjoyable book from Michael Connelly, who has once again written a top-notch crime fiction novel.  I have really been getting into Connelly’s work over the last couple of years and I have had an exceptional time reading his last three novels, Dark Sacred Night, The Night Fire and Fair Warning.  Due to this, and the fact that I really liked its plot synopsis, The Law of Innocence was one of my most anticipated reads for the year, and I have been looking forward to it for a while.  This is the sixth novel to feature Mickey Haller as its protagonist and point-of-view character, and the 35th overall novel to be set in Connelly’s overarching crime fiction universe.  I had an amazing time reading this book, another fantastic outing from Connelly.

Connelly has come up with an exceptional story for this excellent book, and it is one that I really enjoyed.  Indeed, I actually got so caught up in The Law of Innocence’s awesome narrative that I managed to read the entire book in just one day, not even realising that I had stayed up till 3am to finish it off (work the next day was not fun, but staying up was worth it).  The story that Connelly utilises in this novel is extremely compelling and intriguing, as it forces the protagonist to not only solve a murder but also prove to the court that he did not commit it.  This leads to an intense, emotional and clever story that combines a fantastic murder mystery plot with some excellent legal thriller elements, while also placing the protagonist in significant danger while being held in prison.  There were a number of amazing elements to this book, and the story flows at an extremely fast pace whilst following a crafty but likeable protagonist.  Connelly makes sure to continue to explore Haller’s personal issues at the same time, featuring the supporting characters and family members from the previous Mickey Haller novels, including an old flame with whom Haller finally gets some closure.  The Law of Innocence also featured Connelly’s most iconic protagonist, Harry Bosch, who attempts to help Haller clear his name.  While Bosch was a little underutilised, especially considering how much he was featured in some of the pre-publishing advertising, it was great to see him in another book and it was interesting to see more of the relationship between these estranged half-brothers.  The Law of Innocence also contains some interesting connections to previous Mickey Haller novels, and fans of this protagonist will be intrigued to see which characters make a return.  While I really enjoyed most of the story, I did feel that ending was a little weak.  The entire conclusion to the case occurs rather suddenly towards the end of the book and it feels a little forced and simplistic.  It also lacked the excitement of the rest of The Law of Innocence, and I would have much preferred something a little more shocking or some major courtroom shenanigans to really round out the book.  While this ending was a bit disappointing, I still think that The Law of Innocence’s story was still substantially strong, and I had an exceptional time getting through it.

One of the things that impress me about Connelly’s writing is his ability to create substantially different crime fiction novels based on the protagonist he is featuring.  For example, his Renee Ballard and Harry Bosch novels are excellent police procedurals, while his Jack McEvoy books feature clever investigations by a journalist.  The Law of Innocence, on the other hand, was written as a legal thriller, due to it being a Mickey Haller novel.  This proved to be an interesting change of pace from the previous Connelly novels I have read, but I really enjoyed it, mainly due to the sheer amount of legal detail that the author fits into the novel.  Connelly does an amazing job fitting an entire fascinating legal case into this book, going all the way from the arrest to the conclusion of trial.  Along the way, The Law of Innocence covers everything from case preparation, pre-trial hearings, bail, jury selections and the main trial, while also containing a lot of descriptions and discussions about the criminal justice system in Los Angeles.  Due to the fact the book is told solely from Haller’s point of view, there is a natural focus on the art of defending a client, with a number of the tricks of the trade being featured.  I found all of the legal aspects of The Law of Innocence to be extremely fascinating, and Connelly makes sure to explain all of these legal details in a comprehensive and easy to follow way.  I loved seeing Haller work his legal magic throughout the book, especially as the reader gets to see into Haller’s mind and find out what he was actually planning and how successful his various gambles actually are.  It was also particularly cool to see him forced to deal with the handicap of defending himself whilst being stuck in jail, especially as he was not able to investigate the crime himself or have access to his usual resources.  Overall, my first experience of one of Connelly’s legal thrillers turned out to be very enjoyable and I thought that the author wrote an awesome story around it.  I look forward to seeing what cool legal cases Connelly comes up with the next time he utilises Haller as a protagonist, and I am sure it will make for another fun read.

Another interesting part of this book that I quite enjoyed was the clever inclusion of COVID-19 into the plot.  The plot of The Law of Innocence is set over the course of a couple of months, from late 2019 to March 2020, with the coronavirus slowly becoming more prevalent as the book proceeds.  This starts with some throwaway mentions of the virus and Wuhan in the parts of the book set in November, which the reader would initially attribute to a cute mention that was not going to go anywhere.  However, as the book progresses, the references to the virus become more and more numerous, until it actually becomes a major part of the plot, with the protagonist suddenly facing the reality of it when his legal team walk into prison wearing face masks.  I found it deeply fascinating to see the author utilise the coronavirus in his book and it was rather compelling to see the impacts it had on the central plot, with elements of the court case, such as jury selection, fast-tracked to ensure that the case could be held before everything got shut down.  Connelly was actually quite subtle with how he featured the coronavirus in his story, and I felt that the growing levels of concern that the characters show in this book realistically matched what people felt in real life, with excellent depictions of the shift from mild indifference to panic buying.  This was honestly one of the first books I have read that mentioned the coronavirus (although I imagine quite a few books next year will have it as a central plot point), and I felt that Connelly handled it extremely well, being an accurate and impactful part of the book, without overly distracting the reader from the central case or overwhelming them with details or experiences everyone is currently extremely familiar with.  This excellent inclusion of real-life elements into a great fictional story is one of the reasons I always enjoy Connelly’s writing, and I look forward to seeing how he addresses the coronavirus in some of his future books (for example, how it might impact murder investigations in a Renee Ballard or Harry Bosch novel).

The Law of Innocence by Michael Connelly is another captivating and awesome crime fiction novel that comes highly recommended.  Featuring the antics of defence lawyer Mickey Haller, The Law of Innocence is an amazing legal thriller that readers can really sink their teeth into.  Fun, exciting and compelling, The Law of Innocence is an excellent novel, and both established fans of Connelly and newcomers to his work will be able to dive into this book extremely easily.  I had an amazing time reading The Law of Innocence and I look forward to Connelly’s next exceptional read.

Hidden in Plain Sight by Jeffrey Archer

Hidden in Plain Sight Cover

Publisher: Macmillan (Hardcover – 27 October 2020)

Series: William Warwick – Book Two

Length: 304 pages

My Rating: 4.25 out of 5

Bestselling author Jeffrey Archer returns with the second book in his William Warwick historical crime fiction series, Hidden in Plain Sight.

London, 1986.  Following the failed attempt to put his nemesis, expert art thief Miles Faulkner, behind bars, William Warwick has been promoted to Detective Sergeant and now has a whole new focus: drugs.  William and his team have been assigned to take down a notorious drug kingpin, one who has all of South London in his pocket and who takes great pains to hide his identity and methods.  However, despite their focus on catching this mysterious drug lord, known only as the Viper, Warwick is still determined to take down Faulkner.

When William coincidently arrests an old acquaintance from his school days, Adrian Heath, it unexpectedly provides him with the opportunity that he has been looking for.  Not only does Adrian have information about the identity of the Viper, but he also has a connection to Faulkner that could be exploited to finally throw his adversary behind bars.  As William attempts to close the net around his targets, he must also counter the moves of his enemies, even when they attempt to ruin his life or his upcoming marriage to Beth.  However, it will take more than personal attacks and clever setbacks to discourage William, and he soon has Faulkner and the Viper exactly where he wants them.  But even in defeat, Miles Faulkner is a dangerous opponent, especially now that he has his vengeful eyes fully set on William and everyone he loves.

Hidden in Plain Sight was another exciting and clever novel from Jeffery Archer featuring a compelling historical crime drama set around the life of a fun fictional character.  The protagonist of this series, William Warwick, actually first came into existence in Archer’s iconic Clifton Chronicles series of historical fiction books, where he was introduced as the in-narrative fictional protagonist of a series of detective books written by the Clifton Chronicle’s main character, Harry Clifton.  After Archer concluded the Clifton Chronicles a couple of years ago, he decided to provide his fans with a more detailed exploration of this fictional detective, and this series is the result.  The William Warwick series looks set to be Archer’s next major long-running series and it will explore the entire career of Warwick, from eager young recruit to hardened and brilliant detective.  This is the second William Warwick novel following last year’s Nothing Ventured, and Archer has come up with an enjoyable new tale that proved really hard to put down.

This second entry in the William Warwick series contains another intriguing and exciting character driven narrative that sees the protagonists engage in a game of wits with some despicable criminals.  This proved to be an excellent historical crime fiction novel that not that not only continues the compelling narrative set up in the previous book in the series but which also sees the protagonist go after an entirely new foe.  Archer presents a great recreation of 1980s London and takes the story in an interesting new direction by having William attempt to combat the city’s crippling drug trade.  However, the story still has a fascinating focus on the world of art and antiquities and its associated criminal underbelly, thanks to the amazing returning antagonist from the first novel.  This story proved to be really exciting and fast-paced, and I enjoyed the variety of different crime fiction elements that Archer included in the plot, as the protagonists attempt to take down their quarry in a number of different manners.  Readers are treated to a range of great sequences, from pulse-pounding police raids, detailed investigations, cunning undercover operations and even a very entertaining courtroom sequence.  Archer has loaded Hidden in Plain Sight’s story with all manner of twists and turns, so much so that the reader is often left surprised at who ends up on top and where the story will go next.  This was a really enjoyable narrative that I found to be extremely addictive, resulting in me powering through the entirety of Hidden in Plain Sight in just over a day.  Fans of the previous entry in the series (as well as the Clifton Chronicles) will have a great time continuing the fun story started in Nothing Ventured, while new readers will also be able to quickly dive into this novel and become engrossed in the story.

Like all of Archer’s books, the narrative of Hidden in Plain Sight is strongly driven by the excellent characters that the plot follows.  Archer utilises a range of different character perspectives to tell his story, presenting a rich and multifaceted narrative that explores the lives of several intriguing protagonists, as well as a couple of great villains.  Most of the story focuses on the series’ titular character, William Warwick, the determined, ambitious and righteous police officer who has dedicated his life to fighting crime.  Warwick continues to grow as a detective throughout Hidden in Plain Sight, losing more of his “choir boy” personality and gradually becoming more addicted to the job and the danger.  Despite that he still maintains his strong moral code and proves to be a very likeable central character, especially as Archer spends a lot of time exploring his personal life and his various relationships.  In addition to Warwick, Archer also dedicates a large amount of the book to several key side characters including Warwick’s police colleagues, the major antagonists and members of Warwick’s family.  These various additional characters and perspectives really added a lot to the story’s flow, and it was a much more effective way to tell this narrative than through the eyes of Warwick alone.  Most of these characters are only featured for a small amount of time throughout the book, but I felt that Archer made the most of their appearances, showcasing their personalities and motivations in an excellent manner and making sure that the reader was concerned for their various story arcs.

While these books are mostly focused on the exploits of William and his crime fighting associates, the character I have the most love for is the villain, Miles Faulkner, who is a constant highlight of each book.  Faulkner is a debonair and brilliant criminal mastermind who specialises in elaborate art thefts and forgeries and who gained the attention of the protagonists in Nothing Ventured.  Faulkner serves as a brilliant foil to William and the other police, continually outsmarting them at every turn and thoroughly acting as the cocky master villain.  Faulkner pretty much steals every scene he appears in, and you cannot help but enjoy his antics, even when you are pulling for the protagonists to knock him off his pedestal.  Archer introduces a number of entertaining and clever twists around Faulkner throughout Hidden in Plain Sight, and it was extremely entertaining to see the various ways in which this antagonist manages to manipulate everyone around him and generally come up on top, even when it appears that he has lost.  I personally liked the more vindictive streak that appeared as part of Faulkner’s character in this book, following his various losing encounters with William and the other protagonists.  Not only does this result in a number of clever and elaborate revenge ploys but it also gives a harder edge to Faulkner as the overall antagonist of the series, and hints that he may have some diabolical plans for William in the future entries of this series.  I had a lot of fun with this excellent antagonist and I cannot wait to see what villainy he unleashes next.

Hidden in Plain Sight is another fun and clever novel from Jeffery Archer that comes highly recommended.  Archer has done an excellent job of continuing his William Warwick series, and readers are in for an exciting and enjoyable time with this book.  I really liked where Archer took the story in Hidden in Plain Sight and I am looking forward to seeing how the series will continue next year.

Blunt Force by Lynda La Plante

Blunt Force Cover

Publisher: Zaffre (Trade Paperback -25 August 2020)

Series: Tennison – Book Six

Length: 415 pages

My Rating: 4.25 out of 5 stars

The leading lady of crime fiction, Lynda La Plante, returns with another compelling entry in her excellent Tennison series, Blunt Force.

Lynda La Plante is a talented screenwriter and author who has been a leading figure in crime fiction since the 1980s with her combination of enjoyable novels and popular television shows and movies.  Some of her notable works include Widows, which has been alternatively a novel, a television series and a film, the Trial and Retribution television series, and several other novels that have been inspired by La Plante’s various television shows, specials or films.  Perhaps her most impressive piece of fiction is the iconic British television series, Prime Suspect, which ran in the early 1990s (with follow-up seasons running in 2003 and 2006), starring Helen Mirren as the lead character, Jane Tennison.  This show was immensely popular, and in recent years La Plante has started revisiting the character by doing a series of prequel novels that follow a young Jane Tennison in the 1970s and 80s, starting with 2015’s Tennison.  Not only did Tennison inspire the Prime Suspect 1973 television series but it was also resulted in several sequel novels.  I have been rather enjoying this series over the last couple of years (check out my reviews for Good Friday, Murder Mile and The Dirty Dozen), and I was excited when I recently received my copy of the sixth book in the series, Blunt ForceBlunt Force is set in the early 1980s and continues to follow Tennison on her journey to become the respected investigator we see in the original television show.

After being unfairly kicked out of the high-profile Flying Squad, Detective Sergeant Jane Tennison’s career is on a downward trajectory.  Assigned to the sleepy police station of Gerald Road in London’s affluent Knightsbridge area, Jane must content with working petty crimes and minor offenses.  However, a good murder is always just around the corner for Jane, as a gruesome and bloody crime scene is discovered on her beat containing a brutally disembowelled body.

The victim, Charlie Foxley, was a well-known celebrity agent, representing a multitude of the richest and most influential actors, models and writers on the planet.  However, he was also a cruel and vindictive man whose ruthless business practices, sordid personal life and complicated familiar bonds leaves behind a raft of potential suspects who each had a very real reason to kill him.  In order to catch this murderer, Jane and her colleagues will need to dive into the dazzling world of show business to find out more about their victim.  But not everything is as innocent or glamorous as it first appears, and Jane must get to the bottom of Foxley’s dodgy dealings if she is to solve the case.

La Plante has once again produced an exciting and compelling crime fiction novel that explores the earlier life of her long-running protagonist.  This a particularly great read that combines a fantastic and clever murder mystery with an intriguing historical period and La Plante’s trademark examination of sexism in the London police force.  Just like the prior books in the series, Blunt Force is an extremely accessible novel and readers who are unfamiliar with the previous Tennison novels or the Prime Suspect television series can easily dive into this story without any issues.  That being said, established La Plante/Prime Suspect fans will no doubt really enjoy seeing how Jane’s character continues to evolve throughout the course of the series as well as witnessing her investigate another significant case from earlier in her career.

Blunt Force mainly revolves around the brutal murder of a celebrity agent who is found butchered in his apartment.  This leads to quite an intense and elaborate murder investigation as Tennison and her colleagues dive into the life of the deceased agent and attempt to find out who killed him.  The case goes into some very interesting directions as La Plante loads up the book with a ton of plausible misleads, multiple potential suspects with compelling motives, conflicting police politics and a whole load of misdirects.  This includes a collection of duplicitous celebrities and rival agents, shady characters who the victim had dealings with and a particularly unhinged ex-wife who is definitely hiding something.  The story follows Tennison and several of her fellow detectives as they methodically examine each new lead that comes up.  I liked the realistic and evenly paced investigation storyline, with police slowly working their way through suspects by questioning them multiple times, collecting and analysing new evidence and looking for inconsistencies in stories and claims.  The eventual solution for the murder turned out to be quite clever, and I liked how it required Tennison to dive deep into the victim’s life and profession to come up with a hidden motivation.  The author ensures there is some decent foreshadowing about who the killer is, although I did not see the eventual reveal coming, and I was quite satisfied with the result.  Overall, this was a fantastic murder mystery storyline and I had an amazing time seeing it all come together.

As with the rest of the novels in the Tennison series, La Plante uses Blunt Force to explore and critique the historical institutional sexism that existed within the Metropolitan police.  This is always a fascinating and relevant element to the story, and La Plante does a fantastic job showing both overt and more subtle examples of what Tennison has to go through as one of the few female detectives in the force at this time.  There are several notable inclusions in this novel, from Jane being unfairly dismissed from the Flying Squad, the condescension of her peers, rumours of the reasons why she left the Flying Squad being spread around the office and some new superiors doubting her ability and observations as a result.  However, one of the most noticeable elements of this is the disconnect between Jane and her colleagues over investigating elements of the motive for the murder.  Through the course of her work, Jane is able to identify the real reason Foxley is killed and wants to further investigate that, as well as attempting to help/find another potential victim.  However, her male colleagues, more concerned with the big, glamorous murder, ignore this part of the case, leaving Jane frustrated and a little disenchanted with her colleagues.  I really appreciated these scenes within Blunt Force, especially as La Plante writes them extremely well and it was a distinctive and compelling part of the story.

In addition to this there is also a rather intriguing subplot that deals with Tennison getting involved with the infamous Operation Countryman.  Operation Countryman was an anti-police-corruption investigation that ran in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and featured members of rural police forces investigating the London police.  This investigation has been mentioned and discussed several times in the previous Tennison novels, especially in the prior book The Dirty Dozen, and it finally comes to a head in Blunt Force.  Throughout the course of this book Jane is approached and recruited by members of Operation Countryman due to her work with the Flying Squad and some of the corruption that was implied in the prior books.  This proves to be a really fascinating part of the story, especially as La Plante cleverly brings in events from previous Tennison adventures, revealing some fantastic forward planning on her part, as well as tying this storyline into some of the real-life targets of the operation.  I also liked how this tied into the rest of the narrative contained within Blunt Force, as much of the protagonist’s motivation to help remove a certain corrupt cop could be attributed to her frustrations with the main investigation.  This was a very interesting part of the story, and I look forward to seeing if La Plante features more of Operation Countryman in her future novels, perhaps showing what sort of backlash Tennison faces from her colleagues for assisting the operation take down a fellow cop.

The always impressive Lynda La Plante has once again delivered an exciting and captivating novel with Blunt Force.  This was a fantastic book that not only contains a gripping and clever murder mystery but which continues the dramatic and intriguing tale of one of La Plante’s most iconic protagonists, Jane Tennison.  This was an amazing entry in the Tennison series, and I look forward to seeing what crime the protagonist finds herself involved with next year.