Among Thieves by M. J. Kuhn

Among Thieves Cover

Publisher: Gollancz (Trade Paperback – 14 September 2021)

Series: Standalone/Book One

Length: 343 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Magic, betrayal and the ultimate fantasy heist await in Among Thieves by M. J. Kuhn, one of the most exciting and compelling debuts of 2021.

Welcome to the city of Carrowwick, where life is cheap and three powerful gangs fight for supremacy and control of its notorious underground.  Out of all the thieves, rogues and assassins found within Carrowwick, no one is more feared than Ryia Cautella.  Better known as ‘the Butcher’, thanks to her uncanny skill with her twin hatchets, Ryia is sworn to notorious gang-leader Callum Clem, and is the chief enforcer and hidden blade of his Saints gang.  But while she seems content to spend her time fighting, drinking, and womanizing, deep down Ryia harbours a dark secret and a hidden past.

Thanks to an incredibly rough childhood, Ryia is in hiding from the most dangerous person in the entire realm, the Guildmaster, the powerful magic user who serves as the de facto ruler of the continent of Thamorr.  The Guildmaster runs a continent-spanning organisation whose operatives locate, capture and bind every child with magical potential in order to sell them to the highest bidder.  Forced to flee from city to city, constantly changing her identity, Ryia has no chance at a future while the Guildmaster is after her, and there is only so long that she can avoid her fate.  However, a chance encounter soon reveals a potential way out of her desperate situation, although it will mean journeying to the most dangerous place in the world, the Guildmaster’s Island, to steal a powerful magical artefact.

Determined to gain her freedom, Ryia prepares to attempt the impossible and infiltrate the Guildmaster’s Island during the annual auction where the bound and brainwashed magic users are sold.  However, not even the mighty Butcher can break into this impenetrable fortress alone.  Reluctantly forced to work with a team, Ryia sets out with a motley crew of rogues and miscreants, including a forger, a conman, a fallen soldier, and a smuggler.  But can this disparate crew pull off their impossible job, or are they all marching towards their deaths?  Worse, who among the crew can really be trusted, as every member has their own reason for being there, and none of them would hesitate to stab the others in the back to achieve their goals.  Let the heist begin!

This was a brilliant and outstandingly entertaining debut from M. J. Kuhn, who has done a remarkable job with her first book.  Among Thieves has a fun and clever story that takes its fantastically motley group of protagonists on an intense and thrilling adventure.  I loved the great blend of enthralling characters, an interesting new fantasy setting and an outstanding narrative, and this ended up being one of the best debut novels I have read in 2021.

Among Thieves has a really awesome narrative that I had an absolute blast getting through.  Frankly, I was very keen to read this novel the moment I saw it was a fantasy heist novel, as I love it when dark magical settings combine with classic crime fiction heist storylines.  Kuhn really did not disappoint as Among Thieves’ narrative is extremely well set out and does a great job bringing together its disparate genre threads.  The world, the various characters, and the dark tone of the book are set out quickly in an entertaining and easy-to-follow manner in the first 100 pages.  The reader gets a great sense of all the key players of this book, especially as the author makes excellent use of a multiple-perspective storytelling device, with all five members of the heist crew narrating several chapters within the book.

Once the scenario and the characters are established, Kuhn quickly moves into the exciting centre of the novel, which sees the protagonists infiltrating the Guildmaster’s island to find the treasure they seek and steal it.  The characters face some major adversity here, from betrayals within and without, as well as the unfortunate attention of rivals, law enforcement and the forces of their target.  This leads to several intense and entertaining scenes as the protagonists attempt to overcome these obstacles while their own personal demons and ambitions come to the surface.  There is a major twist about two-thirds through Among Thieves that is not only fun and a little unexpected but which also sets up the final arc of the novel extremely well.  This final third of the book sees the various characters make their final plays for the prize (if they still want it), while several revelations and twists are brought to the surface.  I deeply enjoyed the way that the story turned out, especially the reveal of the book’s real winner, and Kuhn chucks in some great surprises towards the end.  The entire story is an amazing blend of intrigue, action, thievery and relatable character interactions, which helps to produce a fast-paced and captivating narrative that I had a really hard time setting down.  Kuhn also makes sure to leave a few storylines wide open, which would translate into a sequel extremely well.  I really hope that the author continues this storyline in the future as I cannot wait to see how this awesome narrative finishes up.

Easily one of the best things about this amazing novel was the great mixture of unique and entertaining characters.  As I mentioned above, Among Thieves’ story features five central protagonists, the members of the heist crew, each of whom has their perspective shown at various points of the book.  This includes:

  • Ryia, a hardnosed and incredibly powerful killer who parties hard, flirts mercilessly with every female character and kicks ass in some incredibly violent ways. While Ryia appears to be a fun and entertaining character most of the time, she has a very dark past, filled with regret, betrayal, and the shocking actions of her father.  Thanks to her tendency to use humour and crassness as a distraction to hide deeper pain, Ryia proves to be both an entertaining and tragic figure, and it was deeply compelling to see her storyline unfold.  I loved the focus on her twisted loyalties, especially as she initially plans to betray her crew for her own ends.  However, she goes through some major development as the book continues, and slowly establishes some emotional connections she has been missing throughout most of her life.  A brilliant and fun central character, you will fall in love with this axe-wielding maniac.
  • Tristan, the youngest member of the group and their resident sleight of hand expert, specialising in gambling, cheating and pickpocketing. Tristan is bit of a dandy who was forced into the Saints after incurring a substantial debt, later sticking around due to his unrequited love with Ryia.  Like Ryia, Tristan has a lot of secrets from his past and is also a bit of a fugitive.  Tristan ends up being forced into some very unfortunate positions as the book continues due to various betrayals (his and other peoples), and he ends up being quite a major figure in the story.  I deeply enjoyed some of the great twists surrounding him, and it looks like Kuhn has some intriguing plans for him in the future.
  • Nash, the smuggler, a ship captain of great skill and cunning who transports the gang to the Guildmaster’s Island and helps them pull off their heist. Nash is a fun character who has some interesting storylines surrounding her inconvenient relationship with gang leader Callum Clem.  While I quite liked her as a protagonist, she was one of the least developed characters in the novel, mainly because she is the only one who didn’t have a plan to betray the gang.  Kuhn does add some interesting details to her arc towards the end of Among Thieves, as she is forced to deal with her growing attraction to Ivan, her conflicted loyalty to the insane Callum, and her own ambitions and survival instincts.
  • Ivan, the forger who serves as another entertaining character with a compelling storyline around him. Ivan is ultra-talented master of all sorts of forgery, including documents, tattoos, disguises, and everything in between.  A natural charmer and brilliant actor, Ivan manages to win the hearts of many, including Nash and the reader.  However, he also has a secret past as a freedom fighter, and he sees this job as an opportunity to free his imprisoned brother and re-start his revolution.  I found Ivan to be a funny and charming figure, and like I did with Ryia and Tristan, I deeply appreciated the inclusion of a hidden past which motivates his potential betrayal.  Ivan ends up in an interesting place at the end of the novel, and it will be fascinating to see how his gamble will play out.
  • Evelyn, the former city guard of Carrowwick and Among Thieves’ final point-of-view character. Evelyn is a complex and intense figure, a former honourable officer who is dishonoured and disinherited partially thanks to Ryia’s actions.  After a massive bender, she is convinced to join the heist crew by Callum Clem in exchange for being allowed to capture Ryia, whose imprisonment would restore her honour and position.  Evelyn has one of the best character arcs in the entire novel, especially as she plays a fish-out-of-water character, as the former cop trapped among a group of thieves.  This allows her to serve as an excellent foil to Ryia, and the two have a very adversarial relationship, which naturally develops some romantic overtones as the book progresses.  I liked how Evelyn slowly became more devious and criminally minded as the book progresses, and she was an excellent addition to the story, bring some great humour, drama and integrity (briefly) to the narrative.

Overall, I felt that Kuhn did an amazing job establishing all these main characters, and each of them brings something unique and fun to the story.  There was a pretty good balance between each of these characters, and it was very enjoyable getting to know all five of them.  That being said, having five separate motivations/planned betrayals was a bit much on top of the heist storyline, and it muddied the main plot just a little.  Still, I think that Kuhn made it work and it wasn’t too overwhelming.  All five characters have great chemistry with each other, and their distinctive perspectives helped to highlight the various mad plans and ideas in a very entertaining light.  I had an amazing time following these five rogues, and I look forward to seeing what happens to them in any future novels Kuhn writes.  I am also very curious about the side character who was cleverly given a point-of-view chapter at the end of the book, and I am sure it will result in a brilliant and villainous performance in the next book.

In addition to the awesome story and complex characters, I also was quite taken by the intriguing new fantasy world that Kuhn came up with.  Among Thieves is set in the continent of Thamorr, which is made up of five kingdoms who all pay homage to the Guildmaster, who controls the supply and demand of the magically powered supersoldiers each nation relies on.  Kuhn does a great job of introducing and setting up this new fantasy world, and the reader is soon dragged into the great crime-riddled city of Carrowwick, with its warring gangs, and the eventual travel to the Guidmaster’s island, a grim and hopeless magical fortress.  The interplay of the rival gangs, the political upheaval of several kingdoms, and the creation of obedient magical beings are all fantastic and add some great depth and background to the story.  I also loved the cool magical system Kuhn works into the narrative really well, ensuring that the control of people with magical potential becomes a major plot point.  This amazing setting serves as the perfect backdrop to the fast-paced and clever narrative, and it was quite fascinating to see the characters explore every compelling aspect of it.  It looks like this fantasy world will be massively expanded in the future novels, and I cannot wait to what cool new elements Kuhn introduces next.

With her debut novel, Among Thieves, new author M. J. Kuhn has shown herself to be an outstanding and impressive new talent on the fantasy fiction stage.  Among Thieves has an awesome and captivating heist-centric storyline, and I loved the cool combination of intense fantasy and thrilling crime fiction elements.  This all results in a powerful and intense narrative based on five brilliant and complex characters, which proves to be exceedingly addictive and thrilling.  I had an excellent time reading Among Thieves and this was easily one of the best debut novels of 2021.

The Honour of Rome by Simon Scarrow

The Honour of Rome Cover

Publisher: Headline (Trade Paperback – 9 November 2021)

Series: Eagles of the Empire – Book 20

Length: 431 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

One of the best authors of Roman historical fiction, Simon Scarrow, returns with another exceptional adventure back in time with The Honour of Rome.

2021 has been a particularly good year for Simon Scarrow readers, as this acclaimed historical fiction author has released two fantastic novels.  The first of these, Blackout, was a clever historical murder mystery novel set in pre-war Nazi Germany, which contained a fantastic and impressive story.  While I deeply enjoyed Blackout, I was a little more excited for the next awesome entry in Scarrow’s long-running Eagles of the Empire series.  The Eagles of the Empire books follow two officers in the Roman army, Centurion Marco and Prefect Cato, as they fight in multiple battle fields across the Roman Empire.  I have been a major fan of this series for years and have had the pleasure of reading every prior entry in it, while also reviewing some of the latest entries, including The Blood of Rome, Traitors of Rome and The Emperor’s Exile.  As such, I was very excited when I received the latest entry in this series, The Honour of Rome, a couple of days ago, and instantly started reading it.  The Honour of Rome is the 20th novel in this series and takes its great protagonists on another intense adventure.

Britannia, 59 AD.  After retiring from the Roman Legions, former Centurion Marco has travelled back to Britannia 15 years after he helped conquer it.  Now a married man, Marco is hoping for a quiet life, enjoying the fruits of the successful inn in Londinium that he half-owns with his mother.  However, not everything is as calm as he hoped.  There are rumours about the tribes being restless once again, and the streets of Londinium are alive with criminal gangs.

Upon arriving at his mother’s inn, Marco discovers that she is being extorted for protection money by a ruthless gang.  Determined to stop this, Marco attempts to resist the gangsters, only to find himself outmatched and a potential pawn into the middle of a vicious gang war.  At the same time, Marco finds himself drawn into the defence of the colony, especially when one of the local tribes refuses to pay any more taxes.

After a bloody punitive raid with a group of veteran reserve soldiers, Marco returns to Londinium, only to face the consequences for his defiance.  Beaten and bloodied, Marco is unsure how to fight back until his old friend Cato appears.  Cato, who has left Rome without leave to hide Nero’s exiled mistress, is always willing to back Marco up in any sort of fight, and he has an ambitious plan to end the gang problem once and for all.  Will the team of Marco, Cato, and their veteran allies be enough to overcome the city’s vicious gangs, or have these proud war heroes finally met their match?

This was another awesome novel from Scarrow, who has once again produced an exciting and fast-paced historical fiction read that perfectly envisions the landscape of Roman-occupied England.  The Honour of Rome is a great read, and I loved the cool combination of historical and crime fiction elements throughout it.  I ended up reading this book in only a few short days and loved every second of it.

Scarrow has come up with another amazing and entertaining story for this compelling book, which takes his long-running protagonists on another intense and bloody adventure.  One of the things that I have always enjoyed about the Eagles of the Empire series is the range of different subgenres that can be blended with its historical fiction elements.  The Honour of Rome is a great example of this as Scarrow utilises a crime fiction based storyline that blends with the overarching historical elements extremely well.  The protagonist is swiftly drawn into a vicious confrontation with two warring gangs of criminals upon his arrival in Londinium, which proves to be an outstanding basis for the main storyline.  At the same time, he once again becomes involved in the Roman garrison’s ongoing conflicts with the local Britons.  This combination of crime and military elements is very effective throughout the novel, and I liked seeing the conflicts with both gangsters and rebellious natives.  This also allows Scarrow to bring in several solider characters into the main crime-fiction storyline as backup as the story progresses, and it was pretty fun to see a bunch of retired soldiers taking on the antagonists.  The author really sets up everything extremely well in this book, and there isn’t a moment of calm or quiet throughout the entire novel, as the protagonist gets involved in several intense and well-written fights and battle sequences.  I found the last third of the novel to be particularly exciting, especially as the protagonists attempt an ambitious and risky strategy.  This results in the predictable satisfying, if bloody, conclusion, and Scarrow has made sure to set up some cool new storylines that will no doubt be the basis for the next few books.  An enjoyable and action-packed thrill-ride from start to finish, I had a fantastic time reading this latest historical adventure.

One of the more interesting things about The Honour of Rome was the noticeable change in character focus that helped set it apart from the other Eagles of the Empire books, namely that it spent most of the narrative focusing on only one of the series’ protagonists.  This is not too surprising, especially as the previous book in the series, The Emperor’s Exile, focused on Cato to such a degree that I kind of assumed that Scarrow was planning to permanently retire Marco.  However, I’m pleased to say I was wrong about this, as two-thirds of this latest book is exclusively told from Marco’s perspective.  I had a great time following Marco in this novel, and it is always a lot of fun to see the gruff and hard-headed Centurion in action.  There are some great moments surrounding Marco in this novel, from being out of his depth when it comes to combating criminals rather than enemy soldiers, to his great camaraderie with the fellow veterans in the colony.  You also have to love the fun interactions that occur around him as he finds himself stuck between his strong-willed wife and his equally strong-willed mother.  This ended up being a really good Marco novel, and I deeply enjoyed it.  Of course, Cato does show up towards the end of the book, and the novel is soon back to its typical dynamic, with Cato taking tactical lead.  There are also some interesting long-term storylines surrounding Cato, especially as he has fled from Rome with the Emperor’s exiled mistress.  It was great to see this team in action once again, especially as they enact another madcap scheme, and I had another fun time following them.

I also rather enjoyed the cool historical setting featured within this great novel, as the protagonists once again return to Britannia.  Historical Britannia is a well-utilised setting in the Eagles of the Empire books, having been the location of several of the earlier novels, including the first five entries in the series.  It made me a little nostalgic to see this damp and gloomy setting once again, especially as it proves to be just as chaotic and violent as ever.  This book makes full use of its clever move from the more traditional battlefields of Britannia to the city of Londinium, and I loved the inclusion of a crime-ridden, early London, especially as Scarrow tries his best to show it in all its dark and rapidly expanding glory.  I also enjoyed the inclusion of the veterans’ colony that was a major secondary setting for much of the book.  It proved to be fascinating to follow these characters who have chosen to settle in this harsh country and spending time conquering it, and I liked their inclusion in the novel.  It was pretty cool to see these retired soldiers in reserve taking on enemies, both on a proper battlefield and against the criminal element, and I thought it was a fun and compelling inclusion to the story.  I also appreciated that, after several books, we finally get a continuation of the Boudica storylines that were set up in some of the earlier novels.  Scarrow is also clearly setting up Boudica’s rebellion for later in the series, and I cannot wait to see how our protagonists, with their established history with Boudica and her people, will fit into it.

With this awesome 20th entry in his amazing Eagles of the Empire series, Simon Scarrow continues to highlight why he is one of the absolute best authors of historical fiction in the world today.  The Honour of Rome has a brilliant and compelling story that perfectly blends historical and crime fiction elements together into one thrilling tale.  I had a wonderful time reading this great book, and I deeply appreciated the way in which Scarrow continues the adventures of his compelling characters by once again returning them to the familiar setting of occupied Britannia.  The Honour of Rome is another highly recommended historical read, and I cannot wait to see what happens next in this series.

The Housemate by Sarah Bailey

The Housemate Cover

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

Series: Standalone

Length: 454 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Throwback Thursday – 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.