Warhammer 40,000: The Wraithbone Phoenix by Alec Worley

The Wraithbone Phoenix Cover

Publisher: Black Library (Audiobook – 30 August 2022)

Series: Warhammer Crime

Length: 11 hours and 6 minutes

My Rating: 4.75 out of 5 stars

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The entertaining team of Baggit and Clodde return for another Warhammer Crime adventure in the rip-roaring and deeply exciting science fiction thriller romp, The Wraithbone Phoenix by the impressive Alec Worley.

Last week I presented a review that talked about the intriguing Warhammer Crime series that combined crime fiction narratives with elements of the iconic Warhammer universe to create some amazing reads.  While some Warhammer novels already feature some intriguing crime fiction elements, such as in Necromunda novels like Kal Jericho: Sinner’s Bounty by Joshua Reynolds, the Warhammer Crime books are a much more complete melding, with cool thriller plots and complex mysteries.  I was rather intrigued by this concept, especially as I love it when authors combine wildly different genres together, and I mentioned how I planned to try out one of those books next.  Well, that book was The Wraithbone Phoenix by Alec Worley, an awesome and captivating read set in the Warhammer 40,000 universe.  A follow-up to Worley’s 2020 full-cast audiobook, Dredge Runners, The Wraithbone Phoenix is a full-length novel that brings back the protagonists of the original audiobook and puts them in another unique and deadly situation.

In the far future of the universe, there are few places more corrupt and chaotic than the crime-ridden city of Varangantua.  Life is cheap on the mean streets of Varangantua, and death waits around every corner, especially if you have a massive bounty on your head.  Unfortunately, the most wanted in the city currently are the abhuman deserters turned criminals, Baggit and Clodde.  Baggit, a tricky ratling always looking for the next score, and Clodde, his ogryn friend with a rare facility for thought, have made an enemy of one of the most dangerous men in the city, and now everyone is after their heads.  Hiding out within one of the city’s industrial salvatoriums, Baggit and Clodde have taken on new identities until the heat dies down.  However, the twos natural inclination for getting into trouble soon breaks their cover, and they are soon forced out into the open.

Desperate to find a way to pay off their debts, Baggit hears an interesting bit of news that could change all their fortunes.  One of the nearby salvatoriums is dismantling the decommissioned Imperial Navy ship, Sunstriker, the reputed home of a long-lost treasure, a xenos artifact known as the Wraithbone Phoenix.  Guided by the rumours he heard when previously served about the Sunstriker, Baggit believes that the Wraithbone Phoenix is still hidden aboard, and its value is more than enough to get rid of their bounty.

But no secrets every remain safe in Varangantua, and as Baggit and Clodde make their preparations to sneak into the Sunstriker, news of their location and their potential treasure leaks out.  Soon every criminal, bounty hunter, treasure hunter and mercenary is on their way towards the Sunstriker, desperate to claim either the bounty on Baggit and Clodde’s head, or the Wraithbone Phoenix.  Forced to face off against the very worst killers that Varangantua and its main criminal cesspool, the Dredge, has to offer, Baggit and Clodde attempt to do the impossible, recover the artefact from the ship and get out with their heads intact.  But can even the clever Baggit and the indomitable Clodde escape the deadly wave about to crash down upon them?

Wow, now this was one of the most entertaining and thrilling Warhammer 40,000 novels I have read all year.  Worley has produced an amazing novel in The Wraithbone Phoenix that did a wonderful job blending Warhammer elements with an impressive crime fiction narrative.  Filled with a ton of action, some amazing humour, and so many outrageous characters, The Wraithbone Phoenix is an outstanding read that proves to be extremely addictive.

I had such a brilliant time with The Wraithbone Phoenix, especially as Worley pulled together an extremely impressive and intense narrative that is very hard to put down.  Set in a particularly crime-ridden and corrupt city, the novel sees the chaotic duo of the ratling (halfling/hobbit) Baggit and the ogryn (ogre) Clodde, get into all manner of trouble.  Featuring a range of character perspectives, the first third of the book is pretty firmly focussed on the main duo, with some fun scenes from the contemptable villain Lemuel Scratchwick.  Forced into hiding due to past mistakes, Baggit comes up with an ambitious plan to recover the Wraithbone Phoenix, a legendary xenos treasure that is rumoured to be hidden in a nearby ship being scrapped (the theft and hiding having been cleverly set up in some early interludes).  However, after Lemuel overhears and spills the beans in a very public way, the entire city knowns what the two are planning, and a horde of killers and thieves head towards the ship.  The book starts spreading its focus to several other outrageous figures, all of whom are interested in either the Wraithbone Phoenix or killing Baggit and Clodde.  The author does a wonderful job introducing each of the characters, and you soon become invested in their hunt, as all of them are pretty amusing in their own way.  The action ends up in the decommissioned ship, were everyone starts their search for the missing treasure, and it doesn’t take long for everyone to start fighting each other in a series of bloody battles.  You honestly have no idea who is going to survive the various encounters, and it is very fun to see the distinctive characters dying in surprisingly and compelling ways.  At the same time, the characters also attempt to solve the mystery of the hidden Wraithbone Phoenix, and the various hints about its initial disappearance are cleverly woven into the modern tale, requiring the protagonists to solve it.  Eventually, only a few characters are left, and there is a great series of twists and turns that sees everyone get what they truly deserve.  While I did think that Worley perhaps went one twist too far (the final one was a bit too metaphysical for my taste), the reader comes away extremely satisfied, and highly entertained.

I had a wonderful time with this awesome book, and I think that Worley did a great job setting the entire narrative out.  The combination of crime fiction elements and the great and grim Warhammer 40,000 setting worked extremely well, and you ended up with a high-octane thriller that saw futuristic and half-crazed killers go against each other in a deadly contest for money and treasure.  The use of various perspectives allows you to get to know the various outrageous killers and participants in a very short amount of time, and you are soon invested in them and their various personal struggles as they duke it out.  I was getting a very cool and cinematic vibe from this story that put me in mind of films and books like Smoking Aces, Snatch or Bullet Train, with big casts all working against each other for the same goal.  While you are generally rooting for the main two characters, it is also very fun to see the other players in action, and the multiple unique interactions all these crazy figures have results in an impressive and frenetic read.  Worley backs this up with a ton of brilliantly written and highly detailed action sequences, and you really won’t believe the range of destruction and deliciously devious deaths that occurs.  There are so many impressive and cleverly set up moments throughout this narrative, and the deaths of several characters are usually the result of some well-placed bit of trickery that occurred chapters ago.  All this action, intrigue and character development is perfectly bound together by the book’s overarching humour, which helps to balance out the more intense elements of the novel, while also keeping everything darkly funny.  There are so many good jokes or hilariously over-the-top moments scattered throughout the novel, and I had a lot of great laughs as I powered through it.  Heck, even the title, The Wraithbone Phoenix, is a play on the classic noir book/film, The Maltese Falcon.  Everything comes together so perfectly throughout the book, especially as Worley also includes several outstanding interludes, some brilliant flashbacks, and even some hilarious in-universe text excerpts and announcements, all of which add perfectly the funny, but grim, tone of the book.  This was an incredibly well written and captivating read, and it proves quite impossible to put down at times.

While The Wraithbone Phoenix does have an outstanding crime fiction narrative, this book wouldn’t be anywhere near as good if it weren’t set in the grim future of Warhammer 40,000.  Worley did a remarkable job setting the book in this futuristic world, and it was great to see the various technologies and factions from the game being utilised in a crime story.  The author really works to explain many different elements from the Warhammer 40,000 lore here, and readers new to the franchise can easily dive into this book and start appreciating its clever story and settings.  I particularly loved the primary location of the corrupt city of Varangantua.  The author expands on this city a lot in this new book, giving more depth than it had in Dredge Runners, and you see more of the massive industries the planet supports, and the terrible conditions the people forced to work there endure.  Worley continues to hammer home just how much of a dark, dystopian society Varangantua, and the larger Imperium, really is for ordinary human citizens, and that their supposedly enlightened rulers are in many ways just as bad, if not worse, than the various monsters and the forces of Chaos they fight against (at least Chaos worshippers are honest about their intentions).  You can really sense the woe and control that Varangantua’s rulers have over the populace, and this is only enhanced by the various propaganda announcements that are played at various intervals throughout the book.  The propaganda posts are very obviously biased in their attempted manipulations and exhalations for service and order, that they are all extremely funny, even as they show just how bad things are by denying them.  However, Worley takes this even further by showing the darker, criminal side that surrounds the city, and it was really cool to see just how much worse things could get.

One of the most intriguing Warhammer 40,000 elements that Worley explores in The Wraithbone Phoenix is how the Imperial abhumans are treated.  Abhumans are genetically diverse humans who come in many shapes and sizes, like the small and sneaky ratlings and the gigantic, but dumb, ogryn.  Tolerated by the Imperium for their usefulness, these abhumans are treated as second-class citizens, looked down on by everyone just for the way they were born.  While this has been explored in other books, Worley really hammers it home in The Wraithbone Phoenix, especially as the two main characters are both abhumans.  You get a brilliant examination of how abhumans are regarded throughout the Imperium, both in the Astra Militarum and in general society, and the results are pretty damn grim.  Not only do all the humans treat them terribly and generally tell them they are worthless (there is an entire litany they need to learn about them being abhorred, unclean, but forgiven), but there are multiple examples of abhumans being killed or maimed, just for what they are.  Not only is this fascinating, while also enhancing the dark nature of the Imperium and the supposedly righteous humans, but it also becomes quite a key plot point throughout the book.  There are multiple scenes that focus on the protagonists struggling to deal with the prejudice they have suffered throughout their life, which defines them and drives them.  In addition, the plot around the hidden Wraithbone Phoenix is down to a mistreated ratling trying to get his revenge after being unfairly targeted and left filled with hate.  This proves to be quite a fascinating and well-written aspect of The Wraithbone Phoenix, and I loved being able to see everything from the abhumans perspective.

I also have a lot of love for the excellent characters that Worley set his story around.  There is such a great range of distinctive and captivating characters throughout The Wraithbone Phoenix, and you really get drawn into their individual tales and battles for survival and redemption.  Most of the focus ends up going around the main characters of the book, Baggit and Clodde, abhuman Astra Militarum deserters turned criminal entrepreneurs who were introduced in Dredge Runners.  Worley ensures that new readers can quickly pick up who Baggit and Clodde are, and it was so much fun to follow this ratling/ogryn combination, especially as they continued their chaotic lives of crime.  Both protagonists have their own brilliant characteristics, including Baggit’s (I assume the name is a fun homage to Bilbo/Frodo Baggins) enjoyment of plans and schemes that never work out, and the surprisingly smart and philosophical nature of Clodde (that’s what happens when you get shot in the head).  The two characters play off each other perfectly, with Baggit taking on the role of leader and carer for his big comrade, and Clodde letting him, while also not allowing him to get away with anything, thanks to the increased understanding he has.  We get a bit more history surround these two characters, including their time in the army, and while it is not fully explored yet, you get to see the fantastic bond they have.  Baggit ends up getting a bit more of a focus in this book than Clodde, mainly because the central plot point is so tightly tied to the fate of a mistreated ratling.  Baggit, who suffered his own abuse from humans while serving, becomes obsessed with the fate of this long dead ratling, and he is determined to find out what happened to him and whether he got his revenge.  Baggit really emphasises with him as the story continues, and his obsession for answers lead him to make some big mistakes, especially once he learns all the ancient ratling’s secrets.  Both Baggit and Clodde are extremely likeable, and you can’t help but fall in love with the scheming ratling and the sweet, if brilliantly weird, ogryn.

Aside from Baggit and Clodde, Worley also fills The Wraithbone Phoenix with an eclectic mix of characters, with some very diverse storylines and characteristics to them.  The most iconic and heavily featured are the various assassins, bounty hunters and other individuals who are flocking to the Sunstriker for various reasons, be it money, treasure, or a chance of redemption (sometimes all three at once).  This list of crazy characters includes a genetically enhanced killing machine, a cult of phoenix-worshiping wackjobs, a team of elite mercenaries, an ageing bounty hunter trying to regain his reputation, a sadistic archaeologist with a love of whips, another ratling with a past connection to Baggit and Clodde, a disgraced and drunk Imperial Navy officer with a dream of finally impressing his dead mother, and the mysterious hooded assassin known only as Death.  Worley did a really good job of introducing each of these unique figures, and you swiftly get drawn into their compelling personal stories and outrageous personalities, especially after witnessing several scenes from their perspective.  While I could go on for ages about all of these dangerous people, I’m mainly just going to give a shoutout to the character of Lemuel Scratchwick, a steward at the plant Baggit and Clodde were working at, who really grows to hate the pair.  Dragged down from his high perch by them, Lemuel spends the rest of the book trying to get even and comes across as the most arrogant and detestable villain.  It is so amusing to see Lemuel in action, especially as his pride often gets the better of him and nothing goes his way, much to my delight.  He forms quite an unhealthy rivalry with Baggit which draws them both into taking stupid risks.  All these over-the-top, but deeply likeable characters, really enhanced my enjoyment of this book and I can’t wait to see what impressively outrageous figures appear in Worley’s next novel.

Unsurprisingly, I chose to listen to The Wraithbone Phoenix on audiobook, which is really one of the best ways to enjoy a great Warhammer book.  This was a moderately long audiobook, coming in at just over 11 hours, and I found myself getting through it in a relatively short amount of time, including powering through the last several hours in a day trying to get to the conclusion.  This was a very fun and entertaining audiobook, and I had a great time listening to the awesome humour and intense violence unfold, especially as the narration by Harry Myers painted quite an impressive picture.  Myers, whose work I previously enjoyed in another recent Warhammer 40,000 novel, Day of Ascension by Adrian Tchaikovsky, does a pretty epic job in The Wraithbone Phoenix, and I loved his narrative take on the captivating story.  Every character in this audiobook is given their own distinctive and fitting voice, which I deeply enjoyed, especially as it helps the listener to connect more to them and the story.  Myers clearly had a lot of fun when it came to voicing all the outrageous figures and some of the voices he came up with were very amusing.  I really appreciated the squeakier voice he used for the rattling characters, as wells as the deeper boom of Clodde, and the rest of the voices he came up with were not only distinctive and fun, but they also helped to enhance the inherent traits of the character it was associated with.  For example, he really conveyed the deep arrogance and distain contained within the character of Lemuel Scrathwick, as well as he dramatic decline in sanity as the book unfolded, and I really appreciated the narrator’s attention to detail with that.  Myers really impressed me as a narrator in The Wraithbone Phoenix, and I liked how some of his scenes, namely those depicting the in-universe propaganda, were enhanced with some serious and inspiration music and sound effects, which made the absurd declarations even more hilarious.  This was such a good audiobook, and I cannot recommend it enough as a way to enjoy this epic Warhammer novel.

Overall, this was an outstanding first Warhammer Crime novel from me, and I had such an incredible time getting through this book.  The Wraithbone Phoenix is an impressive and highly addictive Warhammer 40,000 read, and I loved the elaborate story that Alec Worley came up with for it.  Containing some brilliant characters, a highly entertaining story, and a great combination of crime fiction and Warhammer elements, The Wraithbone Phoenix comes highly recommended, and you are guaranteed to have an exceptional time reading this witty and intense read.

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Throwback Thursday – Death Masks by Jim Butcher

Death Masks Cover

Publication: Penguin Audio (Audiobook – 1 August 2003)

Series: Dresden Files – Book Five

Length: 11 hours and 17 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

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Welcome back to my Throwback Thursday series, where I republish old reviews, review books I have read before or review older books I have only just had a chance to read.  For my latest Throwback Thursday, I highlight another excellent entry in Jim Butcher’s iconic Dresden Files series, with Death Masks.

Fans of this blog will know that I have been having a magical time (pun intended) discovering and getting into the long-running Dresden Files series by acclaimed fantasy author Jim Butcher.  Set in Chicago, the Dresden Files novels follow the adventures of Harry Dresden, wizard for hire and protector of the city against any supernatural threat that comes its way.  This has been Butcher’s major series for years, but I only got into it back in 2020 when I checked out the 17th entry, Battle Ground.  Due to its exceptional plot and the all-out magical war for Chicago that it depicted, this was a pretty epic novel that was not only one of the best books and audiobooks of 2020 but also an excellent recruiting tool for new Dresden Files fans.  It didn’t take me long after reading Battle Ground to check out some of the earlier entries in the series, such as Storm Front, Fool Moon, Grave Peril and Summer Knight, as well as the novella, The Law.  I have had such an epic time with this series that when I felt like a guaranteed five-star book, I immediately decided to check out the next book in the series, with the fifth Dresden Files entry, Death Masks.

Harry Dresden, Chicago’s resident professional wizard, is once again thrust into the middle of far more trouble than he ever dreamed of when a television panel show introduces him to an array of people who want something from him.  Not only does he find himself forced into a duel against a powerful Red Court vampire noble but he is also hired by a Vatican priest to recover a revered stolen holy relic, the Shroud of Turin.

Determined to make the most of these new events, Dresden takes the case and begins to search for the shroud while also preparing for his upcoming fight to the death.  However, many people are interested in obtaining the shroud for their own use, and Dresden finds himself under attack by hitman, gangsters, criminals, and far, far worse.  The Denarians, an ancient and despicable group of fallen angels, have designs on the shroud, and not even Dresden’s most powerful and holy allies, the Knights of the Cross, may be enough to save him.

As Dresden attempts to recover the shroud, he finds that the Denarians and their deadly leader, Nicodemus, have a nefarious plot for the shroud that could destroy everything that Dresden holds dear.  Working with allies old and new, Dresden must overcome the Denarian threat before it is too late, while also managing to defeat the Red Court vampire gunning for him.  With everything on the line, has Dresden finally bitten off more than he can chew?  And what happens when the lost love of his life returns to town, battling her own demons?

Wow, Butcher just cannot strike out!  This is yet another book from him that I have no choice but to award a full five-star rating to.  Death Masks has a deeply addictive narrative that grabs your attention from the very first page and refuses to let go, and some complex and entertaining characters to match.

Death Masks has a pretty awesome story to it that got really addictive very quickly.  Starting off a few months after the events of Summer Knight, Death Masks contains several, great layered storylines, all of which are pretty exciting and intense in their own way and which cross over well to create a complete and powerful narrative.  The first of these immediately places Dresden in the path of several dangerous enemies and opponents as he is dragged into a new case, recovering the stolen Shroud of Turin.  Despite being warned off by his allies, the Knights of the Cross, Dresden naturally pursues, which sets him against established foes, like Chicago’s gangster king, and a powerful new cadre of enemies, who represent one of the biggest threats that Dresden has gone up against at this point in the series.  At the same time, the protagonist is forced to accept a formal duel to the death against a powerful vampire lord, as part of the ongoing storyline about his war with the Red Court, and he also helps the police investigate a disfigured corpse that seems to have been simultaneously infected by every disease known to man.  These events are further complicated by the re-emergence of Susan Rodriguez, his former love interest whose romance was crushed when she was partially turned into a vampire, and who he still holds a massive torch for.

Each of these storylines is quite interesting on its own, and Butcher writes some interesting scenes around all of them, with the primary focus being on the search for the shroud and the fight against the Denarians.  These storylines start pulling together about hallway through the book, and Butcher really raises the stakes for the protagonist, especially when he experiences some major and heartbreaking setbacks.  I really loved the unique blend of character development, fantasy and urban crime that is utilised throughout most of this story, and it is always so much fun to see the protagonist attempting to understand the complex plots arranged against him as he tries to save his friends and city.  Everything leads up to an extremely exciting final third where Dresden and his allies are thrust into a series of battles with massive stakes involved that leave them broken and nearly beaten.  I honestly could not stop listening to the final few hours of this book, and I pretty much powered through the entire second half in less than a day.  There are some epic and very moving moments featured in the big conclusion, and Butcher did a brilliant job of bringing everything together and ensuring that the reader will come back for future instalments of his work.  I particularly loved the final little twist that saw the book’s major villain get one over the protagonist, and I am extremely keen to see what happens with that storyline going forward.

I have so much love for Butcher’s writing style when it comes to the Dresden Files novels, and Death Masks was a particularly good example of this.  Like the rest of the series, Death Masks is told exclusively from the perspective of its central character, Harry Dresden, and this places you right into the midst of all the action and investigations, and you see all the steps as Harry tries to outwit his various foes.  This use of Dresden as the central figure also ensures that the reader gets quite a lot of humour in the story, and the continuous jokes and funny insights really help to make the story that much more fun to enjoy.  There is a great focus on character development and introductions in this novel that I deeply enjoyed, and this works really well with the mystery elements and established fantasy setting to create an excellent narrative.  Butcher keeps the pace of the book sharp and fast here, and all the big events quickly and effectively fall into place where needed.  I liked how the protagonist dealt with multiple problems and cases simultaneously, and Butcher did a good job of balancing and combining these initially separated storylines and threats where necessary.  I did think that Butcher did go over the top in places when it came to the romance sequences, and some of the scenes were a little questionable at times.  Still, this didn’t impact my overall enjoyment of the Death Masks, and I had a blast seeing everything unfold.

Death Masks proved to be a particularly significant entry in the Dresden Files series, and it is a must-read for all fans as a result.  Butcher perfectly sets up several ongoing storylines here while also successfully continuing some established character arcs and introducing a whole new batch of great and interesting characters.  There are so many key events and interactions going on in Death Masks, many of which will be vital for the rest of the series, and I know it helped to give some additional context for some of the events in the later books I have read.  However, like most Dresden Files novels, Death Masks is extremely accessible to new readers, and Butcher always makes a point to expand on the existing storylines and characters in a way that new readers can understand and follow without boring the existing fans.  As such, this is a book with a lot of appeal to many readers, and all fantasy fans can dive in extremely easily.

Death Masks is also a major book for character work, and readers who love the impressive and exciting Dresden Files cast are in for a great time here.  I felt that Butcher presented a great balance of established and new characters in this novel, and there is an excellent focus on development and the emotional issues impacting the protagonist.  Many of the new characters will become major recurring figures in the series from now on and deeply enjoyed seeing how their story started.  Most of the character work hinged on protagonist Harry Dresden, who is the true heart and soul of the book.  I always enjoy quirky and rebellious protagonists in novels with a first-person perspective, and the Dresden Files are a great example of this.  Dresden was his usual funny and disrespectful self for the entirety of Death Masks, and it was so much fun seeing him sass every person he encountered, especially when it enrages the villains.  There is also a great emotional component to Dresden in Death Masks that I enjoyed, as he is still going through a lot of issues.  His already complicated feelings about his past failed romance come full circle here when the girl that got away (well, got turned into a vampire) returns and he is forced to finally confront his repressed feelings for her.  There are also some major moments where Dresden is forced to confront the consequences of his mistakes, especially when they cost other characters, and I loved some of the interactions that occurred as a result.

One of the big returns for Death Masks is the character of Susan Rodriguez, Dresden’s love interest who has been missing for a couple of books.  Susan was partially turned into a vampire during her last appearance and left Dresden as a result.  This book sees her return, and there is a complete change of character because of her transformation, being a lot more confident as well as some more notable abilities.  I liked most of the Susan storyline in this book, not only because fans finally get some closure for the romance between her and Harry but also because she now has some mysterious connections and is working as a covert anti-vampire agent.  There are some great moments with Susan in the book, although I did find one scene to be pretty ridiculous, even though it was supposed to be the sequence that served as the climax of the Dresden/Susan romance arc.  Who knew that all you needed to cure vampiric thirst was a bondage session (I’m barely joking here, that happened).  I mostly ignored this awkward scene (try listening to it whilst on your lunch break at work) from my overall grading of Death Masks, just because it was so much of an outlier, but it was a little weird.  Still, I’m glad we got a return from Susan, and it was interesting to see how much she had changed since the last book.

I also enjoyed the use of the Knights of the Cross in Death Masks, and they served as excellent comrade characters for Dresden.  The Knights of the Cross are three modern day crusaders who wield legendary holy swords and serve as God’s fist on Earth.  We had previously met one of them in Grave Peril, Michael Carpenter, and I loved seeing him again, especially as he is essentially a badass Ned Flanders with a sword and a mission from God.  His mentorship of Harry is a key part of his character arc in the series, and it is really interesting to see him serve as a conscience to the rebellious and faithless Harry.  The two other knights introduced in this book also add a lot to the plot.  The rookie knight, Sanya, was really fun, and I liked his more refreshing take on the role and responsibilities he wields.  However, the best of them was Shiro, the elder knight who acts as the group’s guiding light and who has stood against evil for decades.  I love the depiction of this Japanese badass who literally has fallen angels quaking in their boots, and he was a wise and brilliant character that did a lot in a few short appearances.  Shiro was probably my favourite of the three in this book, and his fantastic dialogue with Harry, especially that description of how he became a Christian, was some of Butcher’s best writing.

Finally, I must talk about the villains, who added a great deal to the story.  Readers are spoiled for choice in Death Masks when it comes to villains, as there are several different groups and individuals who turned up looking to kill Dresden throughout the book.  The first of these is Don Paolo Ortega, a Red Court vampire who seeks to end the war between his people and the wizards of the White Council by killing Dresden in a duel.  Ortega appears to be a mostly reasonable and honourable figure despite his desire to kill Dresden, and I liked the fun banter he had with the protagonist.  I was also glad to see more of Chicago gangster Johnny Marcone, who is one of the best recurring figures in the series.  Marcone always serves as such an excellent foil to Dresden, and their constant sparring and back and forth is a lot of fun to see.  It was particularly interesting to see Marcone become even more involved in the mystical world in this novel, mainly due to the respect he has for Dresden’s abilities, and this serves as a major step towards his current incarnation later in the series.

However, the best villains in the story are probably the group known as the Denarians, a collection of fallen angels possessing desperate or evil humans.  The Denarians are some of the most dangerous beings in the entire Dresden Files, and Butcher gives them an impressive introduction in this novel, showing them as agents of chaos determined to cause as much grief as possible.  Their leader, Nicodemus, is probably one of the most intriguing and sinister figures I’ve yet see Butcher write, and he pretty much always had Dresden on the ropes.  I particularly loved his first major interaction with the protagonist, especially as he was able to completely rattle Dresden, who could barely do anything in response.  The characters were barely able to survive his machinations throughout the book, and he truly showcased how much of a threat he could and would be.  A masterful villain, I cannot wait to see more of him in some of the future books.  All these characters, and more (future superstar Butters has an interesting introduction this book), really add to the captivating story, and I loved how well Butcher developed and featured them in Death Masks.

Unsurprisingly, I chose to enjoy Death Masks on audiobook, which was another excellent and impressive experience.  I really love the Dresden Files audiobooks and Death Masks was another good example of why.  Not only does the format really capture the essence of the story and help the listener become immersed in the urban fantasy world, but it also features some of the best voice work you are likely to find in an audiobook.  That is because Death Masks is narrated by actor James Marsters, who always does a spectacular job brining this series to life.  After providing narration for the first four books in the series, Marsters really knows what he is doing when he gets to Death Masks, and he swiftly dives in and gives the epic narrative everything it needs.  All the characters are voiced perfectly, with some extremely fitting and powerful voices given to them that expertly portray their personalities, ethnicities and mentalities.  Due to the great range of characters in Death Masks, Marsters is required to play a range of figures, from an evil fallen angel, three ultra-good holy knights, a gangster, multiple vampires and more, all of which come out really well.  However, the best work is saved for protagonist and point-of-view character Harry Dresden.  Marsters perfectly inhabits the role of Dresden, and you get the full breadth of his complexities, inner pain, and weird sense of humour, as Marsters narrates the book through his eyes.  You really get the best understanding of Dresden through Marsters’s voice work, and that really adds to the quality of the entire read.  As such, this format comes extremely highly recommended, and you need to try Death Masks’ audiobook as soon as you can.

Another Dresden Files book down, another five-star rating from me.  Death Masks was another epic and exceptional entry in this amazing series, and I continue to be impressed by how well Jim Butcher writes these great books.  Thanks to its excellent and utterly addictive narrative and brilliant character work, Death Masks is probably one of the best Dresden Files novels I have read so far, and I had such a great time with it.  I can think of no higher compliment than to say it made me so happy, I instantly started listening to the next book in the series, Blood Rites, the moment I finished Death Masks.  Make sure to come back next week to check that Throwback Thursday out.

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Star Wars: The High Republic: Tempest Runner written by Cavan Scott and performed by a full cast

Star Wars - Tempest Runner Cover

Publisher: Random House Audio (Audio Drama – 31 August 2021)

Series: Star Wars – The High Republic

Script: Cavan Scott

Cast: Jessica Almasy, Dan Bittner, Orlagh Cassidy, Sullivan Jones, January LaVoy, Kathleen McInerney, Tara Sands, Vikas Adam, Jonathan Davis, Neil Hellegers, Saskia Maarleveld, Soneela Nankani, Marc Thompson and Shannon Tyo

Length: 6 hours and 5 minutes

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

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The epic High Republic era of Star Wars fiction continues in Tempest Runner, the brilliant and captivating full-cast audio drama written by impressive author Cavan Scott.

Ever since its beginnings in early 2021, I have been having a lot of fun with the cool new focus of the Star Wars extended universe known as The High Republic.  Set hundreds of years before the Skywalker Saga, The High Republic has featured several impressive novels, comics and other media releases that tell a grim story of destruction and strife in the golden age of the Republic and the Jedi.  One of more interesting pieces of this fiction from late 2021 was this fantastic full-cast audio drama, Tempest Runner, which focused on one of this era’s best villains, the Nihil Tempest Runner, Lourna Dee.  This awesome audio drama was authored by the exceedingly talented Cavan Scott, who not only wrote my favourite High Republic book so far, The Rising Storm, but also a great previous Star Wars audio drama, Dooku: Jedi Lost.

Synopsis:

The Nihil storm has raged through the galaxy, leaving chaos and grief in its wake. Few of its raiders are as vicious as the Tempest Runner Lourna Dee. She stays one step ahead of the Jedi Order at the helm of a vessel named after one of the deadliest monsters in the galaxy: the Lourna Dee. But no one can outrun the defenders of the High Republic forever.

After the defeat of her crew, Lourna falls into the hands of the Jedi – but not before she hides her identity, becoming just another Nihil convict. Her captors fail to understand the beast they have cornered. Just like every fool she’s ever buried, their first mistake was keeping her alive.

Lourna is determined to make underestimating her their last.

Locked onto a Republic correctional ship, she’s dragged across the galaxy to repair the very damage she and her fellow Tempest Runners inflicted on it. But as Lourna plans her glorious escape, she makes alliances that grow dangerously close to friendships. Outside the Nihil – separated from her infamous ship, her terrifying arsenal, and her feared name – Lourna must carve her own path. But will it lead to redemption? Or will she emerge as a deadlier threat than ever before?

Tempest Runner ended up being an entertaining and captivating piece of Star Wars fiction.  Featuring another excellent story from Scott that not only dives into the past of great character Lourna Dee but continues the story set up in several of the past High Republic novels.  Perfectly told using a full cast of narrators, this was an outstanding audio drama that I had a wonderful time listening to.

It was clear that Scott was on quite a roll last year when it came to fantastic storytelling.  Tempest Runner is set after the events of The Rising Storm and continues several interesting storylines from this novel, as well as other pieces of High Republic fiction such as Light of the Jedi and Out of the Shadows.  Starting off with Lourna’s capture by the Jedi, the story shows her successfully hide her identity and get imprisoned aboard a Republic prison ship doing hard labour as punishment.  Trapped with some of the worst criminals in the galaxy, as well as former Nihil members who utilise her identity for her own good, Lourna is forced to survive while also coming to terms with who she is, what drives her and what she wants from the future, especially when she connects with one of the prison guards.  However, an enemy from her past has found out where she is and is determined to kill her no matter what.  This leads to several intense and brutal confrontations as Lourna is forced to once again bring out her inner monster to save herself and defeat her opponents, while also setting her path for future endeavours in the High Republic universe.

Tempest Runner’s narrative ended up being pretty intense, and I loved the cool and intriguing plot, especially as there are several fun twists and reveals, including that great one towards the end.  While this is a mostly self-contained piece of Star Wars fiction, there are multiple intriguing connections to other High Republic novels and comics.  I particularly loved how several of the best villains from the main two novels were used here, and it also sets up Lourna’s storyline for the next book in the series.  Scott employs an interesting and roundabout way of telling Tempest Runner’s story, utilising a series of flashbacks and interludes to continue the main plot which occasionally helps compensate for the lack of descriptive words that is characteristic of the audio drama format.  I really need to highlight the book’s great opening section in which the capture of the protagonist is recounted in compelling detail to the novel’s main antagonist, with the storyteller and his audience providing questions and commentary during the dramatisation of the events being discussed to provide context.  The storyline has a great blend of elements, and I loved the fantastic prison story, the intrigue of the Nihil, the fantastic revenge plot surrounding the antagonist, as well as the massive amount of character development that occurs around the main character.

Scott really went out of his way to explore the character of Lourna Dee in Tempest Runner.  Despite being one of the most distinctive and entertaining villains in the High Republic canon, very little was known about Lourna Dee before now, except that she is an unassailable badass who is even capable of hanging with a Jedi in a fight.  Tempest Runner, however, dives deep into the heart of this cool character, and I liked the complex and intriguing development and history around her.  Most of the story is dedicated to the modern Lourna, who, after being captured, attempts to turn over a new leaf in the prison system to survive.  This provides some interesting insights into her mind and motivations, especially as she is not as mindless a killer as some of the previous books would lead you to believe.  Instead, she is quite a complex and tragic figure, something that is made clear when you see the various flashbacks to her past that Scott comes up with.  These flashbacks tell a captivating tale of betrayal and heartbreak, showcasing what led an innocent girl to a life of hardship and crime.  This backstory is extremely fascinating, with some powerful moments of love, loss, and revenge.  In addition, the story also dives into how she became a member of the Nihil and rose in its ranks.  This interesting background weaved into the main plot extremely well, and I think that Scott showcased the character’s past perfectly, ensuring that it explains her current mentality and motivations.  I am deeply happy that we finally got to see this character’s backstory, and it really did not disappoint.

While most of Tempest Runner’s focus was on Lourna Dee, a couple of other characters really stood out to me.  This included Tasia, the former Nihil member who blackmails Lourna to help her survive in prison.  Tasia is a fun secondary antagonist, and it was very entertaining to see her try and make a power play on Lourna once she was no longer in control.  I also loved seeing more of Pan Eyta, a former Nihil Tempest Runner who was betrayed by Lourna in The Rising Storm.  Pan, who is dying thanks Lourna, goes on a big revenge mission here and ends up being the major antagonist of this novel.  I personally thought this was an amazing conclusion to his compelling character arc established in the previous novels and it was great to see him and Lourna have several aggressive and deeply personal confrontations throughout Tempest Runner.  I also enjoyed seeing a young version of High Republic arch-antagonist Marchion Ro, before he took control of the Nihil, as well as a glimpse of his often-discussed father Asgar Ro.  Several other supporting characters in this novel were also pretty fun, and I had a great time seeing some of their storylines unfold.

While I had to highlight Tempest Runner’s cool narrative and great characters, you can’t talk about this amazing piece of Star Wars fiction without mentioning the awesome audio drama format.  I have a lot of love for Star Wars audiobooks and audio dramas (such as Doctor Aphra), and this was a particularly good one.  The team behind this epic audio drama did an amazing job of combining Scott’s great story with a team of brilliant voice actors, as well as the typical Star Wars sound effects and music.  With a run time of just over six hours, this is a very easy audio drama to quickly power through, and I think I managed it in just over a day myself.  While some people unfamiliar with the format might have some issues regarding the full reliance on descriptive dialogue and sound effects rather than expositional text to describe action, I thought that Tempest Runner was adapted extremely well and I had an absolute blast getting through it.

I must highlight the exceptional cast of voice actors that were featured in this awesome audio drama, as the team behind it pulled together a great group of narrators, including several actors well known for their work bringing Star Wars audiobooks to life.  The most prominent actor in this group is probably Jessica Almasy, who voiced main character Lourna Dee.  Almasy brings a great deal of complexity to the role and I loved the semi-French accent she utilised throughout Tempest Runner, which was reminiscent of how Twi’lek characters speak in shows like Star Wars: Rebels.  I thought that Almasy did a brilliant job of highlighting Lourna’s true feelings and personality in this audio drama, and it was great to see her transform the character in several intense, emotional scenes.  This was some brilliant voice work and it was an amazing highlight of this exceptional production.

I also deeply appreciated the great work that the other actors contributed to Tempest Runner and its characters.  While there were a few new narrators here whose work I enjoyed, the ones that impressed me the most were established narrators from other Star Wars audiobooks.  This includes January LaVoy, who voiced the character of Tasia, providing her with some much-needed depth and spite.  LaVoy, who I loved in works such as Star Wars: Victory’s Price (one of my favourite books and audiobooks of 2021) and Star Trek: Discovery: Die Standing, was just great here and I really appreciated the characterisation her voice added to Tasia.  Marc Thompson, who has previously narrated all the main High Republic novels, as well as the Thrawn Ascendancy books (Chaos Rising, Greater Good and Lesser Evil), was another standout narrator, especially as he voiced three characters, including antagonists Pan Eyta and Marchion Ro.  Having this cool continuation from Light of the Jedi and The Rising Storm for these great villains helped me enjoy their appearances in Tempest Runner a lot more, especially as Thompson has come up with some extremely sinister and fitting voices for them.  I also had a lot of fun with Jonathan Davis (who previously narrated Master & Apprentice, Lords of the Sith and Maul: Lockdown), who voiced two characters here.  I particularly enjoyed his work on the mysterious Asgar Ro, and the calm and wise tone he utilises for him (which is reminiscent of another major Star Wars character), works perfectly to give him some great depth.  An overall exceptional collection of narrators, I had an amazing time listening to this audio drama.

With a great cast, a brilliant story and a great focus on an incredible central character, Tempest Runner was an outstanding addition to the High Republic range of Star Wars fiction.  The always impressive Cavan Scott came up with an awesome narrative for Tempest Runner and I loved learning more about fun character Lourna Dee.  A must-listen for all fans of The High Republic, you really won’t regret checking out Tempest Runner.

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The Colonial’s Son by Peter Watt

The Colonial's Son Cover

Publisher: Macmillan (Trade Paperback – 26 October 2021)

Series: The Colonial Series – Book Four

Length: 367 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

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One of Australia’s best historical fiction authors, Peter Watt, returns with The Colonial’s Son, the first book in a new series that follows on from his exceptional Colonial trilogy.

Peter Watt is a fun and talented author whose work I have been deeply enjoying over the last few years.  Watt specialises in historical fiction novels with a focus on Australian characters and has so far written three great series.  This includes his long-running Frontier series, which followed two rival Australian families throughout the generations as they got involved in some of the defining moments of Australian history (check out my reviews for While the Moon Burns and From the Stars Above).  He also wrote the fantastic Colonial trilogy that followed an Australian blacksmith who joined the British army as an officer during the mid-19th century.  This was an amazing and action-packed historical series, and featured three great books, The Queen’s Colonial, The Queen’s Tiger and The Queen’s Captain.  Watt’s most recent novel, The Colonial’s Son, is a direct sequel to the Colonial series, set several years after the conclusion of The Queen’s Captain.

Sydney, 1875.  After leaving the army and returning to Australia, former British army captain, Ian Steele, better known by the moniker his troops gave him, the Colonial, has settled down and started a successful business empire.  Now the father of three children, Ian is hoping for a quiet life, but is still facing several problems, including the fact that his oldest son, Josiah Steele, is determined to follow in his footsteps and join the British army as an officer.

When an old friend from his army days requests his help, Ian takes Josiah to Queensland to visit the notorious goldfields near the Palmer River.  There, Josiah gets his first taste for action as he and his father find themselves beset by bushrangers, hostile Indigenous tribes and warring Chinese criminal organisations.  Despite experiencing the terrors and tragedies of combat, Josiah is more determined than ever to join the army and travels to England to enrol in a prestigious military academy.  However, rather than gaining a formal training, he is immediately drafted into England’s latest war as a junior officer.

Travelling to Afghanistan, Josiah and his men engage in a series of bloody battles to hold onto the dangerous land for the empire.  Gaining the attention of his commanders, Josiah is chosen for a different sort of mission and sent to the newly united Germany where an old friend may hold the answer to the future of British/German relations.  Back in Australia, Ian Steele finds himself fighting a new enemy, one whose insidious ways could bring down everything he has struggled to build.  Can Ian survive this latest threat, especially when it drives him to do the unthinkable, and will Josiah be able to live up to the impossible military legacy of the Colonial?

This was another exciting and very enjoyable novel from Watt, who has proven himself one of the best authors of Australian historical adventure novels.  The Colonial’s Son is an amazing sequel to Watt’s prior series, and I really enjoyed seeing all the characters, both new and those from the prior series, engage in this latest series of adventures.  I ended up getting through this entire novel in one day, and I had a wonderful time reading it.

This latest novel has a very Watt narrative to it, utilising his typical style of multiple character perspectives to tell a compelling overarching tale of adventure and intrigue.  The Colonial’s Son primarily follows new protagonist Josiah and previous protagonist Ian as they find themselves in all manner of dangerous situations, together and separately.  This includes facing dangers and criminal conspiracies out in the goldfields, deep personal attacks in Sydney, or the various battles and political intrigues Josiah encounters once he joins the army.  At the same time, multiple other perspectives from side characters are utilised to enrich the narrative, with everyone from villains, love interests and friends adding to the story.  Watt tells a very interesting tale in this novel, combining a coming-of-age tale with the dynastic style of his previous Frontier books, and I really appreciated the way in which the author continues several storylines from the previous trilogy.  The combination of military action, criminal activity and intrigue makes for quite a fun narrative and The Colonial’s Son proves to be extremely addictive and easy to read.  I loved the many intense fight sequences featured throughout this novel, and Watt has a real flair for bringing brutal battles to life.  While fans of the Colonial trilogy will probably get a bit more out of this book due to the connected storylines, The Colonial’s Son is very accessible to new readers.

Just like he has done with all his prior novels, Watt makes sure that The Colonial’s Son features a range of intriguing and dangerous historical locations serving as fun backdrops to this awesome story.  There is a bit of a time skip between this novel and the previous Colonial trilogy, which opened up some different wars and settings for Watt to explore.  I particularly enjoyed the scenes set in the goldfields of North Queensland, a particularly grim and unforgiving bush setting full of fun antagonists.  The second half of the novel contains several other historical locales, all of which are shown in quick succession.  This includes Victorian London, Afghanistan, Germany and even Africa, all of which are the setting for some form of conflict.  The scenes set in Afghanistan during the British occupation of this land are very interesting, especially when you consider contemporary events, and there are some noticeable similarities between the historical conflict and more recent battles.  There is also a very fascinating look at Germany, which in 1875 had only just recently been unified into a single country with a more militaristic outlook.  Watt also ensures that The Colonial’s Son contains several hints about future conflicts that the protagonist may find himself involved in.  For example, the inclusion of several prominent Chinese characters in the first half of the novel will probably result the characters getting involved in the Boxer Rebellion, which would be pretty fascinating.  Overall, there are some great historical settings in this novel, and I cannot wait to see what conflicts the characters venture into next.

Watt makes sure to feature a ton of intriguing and memorable characters throughout The Colonial’s Son, each of whom adds some interesting details to the story.  This latest novel contains a great combination of new characters and protagonists from the Colonial series.  I rather enjoyed this cool mixture of characters, especially as you get to see new protagonists develop, while also learning the fate of the surviving characters from the original trilogy.  I particularly appreciated seeing more of original protagonist Ian Steele, and it was fun to see what happened to him after all his adventures in the Colonial books.  I was honestly surprised how much of a focus Ian got in this new trilogy, but I wasn’t complaining too much as I had gotten invested in his development in the original trilogy.  New protagonist Josiah also proved to be a great addition to the plot, even if there are a lot of similarities between him and the younger version of his father from the previous trilogy.  It was kind of fun to see history repeat itself, and I like the interesting developments that occur around Josiah attempting to live up to the legacy of his father, while also making all the same mistakes he did.  There were some other fun new characters featured in this book, including a charismatic young man of Chinese descent on the road to becoming a revolutionary and a young German countess who Josiah befriends.  I also appreciated some of the compelling and unlikable antagonists featured in the novel, as Watt has a real talent for writing scummy villains for the reader to root against.  I deeply enjoyed getting to know this new batch of characters, and I look forward to seeing what happens to all these excellent figures, both new and existing, in the future books.

With his latest novel, The Colonial’s Son, Peter Watt continues to highlight just why he is the leading author of Australian historical adventures.  Featuring an incredibly fun and action-packed plot, The Colonial’s Son does not slow down throughout its entire length, and readers are treated non-stop battles and intrigue.  I loved how this latest novel continued the cool storylines from Watt’s Colonial series, and I cannot wait to see what battles and character developments occur throughout the rest of this series.

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Quick Review – Breakout by Paul Herron

Breakout Cover

Publisher: Headline (Trade Paperback – 9 March 2021)

Series: Standalone

Length: 291 pages

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

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Prepare yourself for one of the most exhilarating and action-packed novels of 2021 with the ultra-exciting thriller novel, Breakout by Paul Herron.

Breakout is an intriguing and fantastic novel that caught my eyes earlier this year.  This fun book was written by Paul Herron, the pseudonym for established author and screenwriter Paul Crilley.  Crilley, whose body of work includes his Delphic Division, The Invisible Order and The Chronicles of Abraxis Wren novels, appears to have taken this opportunity to dive into the thriller genre in a big way with Breakout.  While I have not read any of Herron/Crilley’s books before, I found myself really drawn to this latest novel due to its outrageous and fun-sounding plot.

Synopsis:

As explosive as a Hollywood blockbuster, this high-concept thriller is perfect for fans of James Patterson, David Baldacci and Gregg Hurwitz.

A LETHAL STORM. THE MOST DEADLY PRISON. WHO WILL SURVIVE THE NIGHT?

Jack Constantine – a former cop who killed one of his wife’s murderers in an act of vengeance – is serving his time in Ravenhill penitentiary, a notorious ‘supermax’ home to the most dangerous convicts in the country.

When an apocalyptic superstorm wreaks havoc across the USA, the correctional officers flee the prison…but not before opening every cell door. The inmates must fend for themselves as lethal floodwaters rise and violent anarchy is unleashed.

Teaming up with Kiera Sawyer, a Correctional Officer left behind on her first day of work, Constantine has one chance of survival – he must break out of a maximum security prison. But with the building on the verge of collapse, and deadly chaos around him, time is running out…

Breathless, exhilarating and brilliantly original, this high-octane thriller is perfect for fans of Gregg Hurwitz, Lee Child and David Baldacci – and blockbuster action movies like John Wick.

As you can imagine, the idea of a supermax prison with all the inmates loose and a destructive superstorm on the way was something that sounded pretty damn awesome and it was one of the main reasons that I wanted to read Breakout.  There were so many cool things that could happen with such a narrative and Herron made sure to produce an epic and fast-paced narrative that is guaranteed to keep your attention through every electrifying scene.

The best way to describe Breakout is that it is very similar to the most insane action movie script you have ever seen.  Herron has essentially written nearly 300 pages of wall-to-wall excitement and movement, as the protagonists are thrust into an unthinkable situation with very little chance of survival.  The author does an incredible job setting up the initial threads of this great story, with compelling and detailed introductions of the troubled central character, Jack Constantine, the prison, the storm, and the other personalities contained within the prison.  The author also makes good use of some flashback sequences at the start that not only tell Jack’s story but also set up some major plot points, such as two characters the protagonist really wants to kill and a major antagonist.  All of this set up ensures that when the mayhem begins, it can go on at a continuous pace, with Jack, the trapped rookie prison guard, Keira Sawyer, and other associates running into problem after problem without any additional background information.  These obstacles include rival prison gangs, flooding, insane winds, collapsing buildings, impromptu fight clubs, a deranged cult leader, and a vengeful gangster.  These inclusions ensure that the reader can barely take a breath without something cool happening, and it is extremely easy to read this novel in one sitting.  All this leads up to big conclusion as the protagonist has to make some big decisions, as well as deal with the consequences of a few good twists that Herron added.  I deeply enjoyed this entire narrative, and action lovers everywhere are going to have an absolute blast getting through this fun book.

Breakout contains an intriguing array of characters, although I must admit that I was not taken by central protagonist, Jack Constantine.  Constantine is a bit of an ass at the best of times, as he is very arrogant and selfish.  I honestly had a hard time feeling any sympathy for the character at times, mainly because he brings all his problems on himself.  However, the deficits of this lead character are more than made up for in some of the supporting characters and antagonists featured throughout the book.  The most prominent of those is Keira Sawyer, a first-day prison guard who finds herself trapped in the prison and needs to work with Constantine to survive and escape.  I felt that the author did a great job with Keria, a strong and passionate character with a hidden backstory.  While Herron could have written Keria as a damsel in distress, he instead showed her to be a tough and resourceful figure, capable of holding her own and gaining the respect of the inmates.  I also really have to highlight Constantine’s friend and cellmate, Felix, the fantastic teller of tales.  Felix is an intensely funny character with a very unique outlook on life and the prison system.  This character is insanely likeable, and together with Constantine and Keria, Felix helps to form an excellent central trio of protagonists who you cannot help but cheer for as the action commences.

I was also quite impressed by the antagonists of this story.  Herron ensures that the protagonists have to face off with a huge raft of different criminals and gangsters as they attempt to make their escape, and it was really cool to see the range of personalities that emerged.  The main antagonist is Malcolm Kincaid, a dangerous and sadistic Miami crime figure who was able to get away with terrible acts of violence for years until Constantine framed him for murder.  Kincaid is rightfully pissed and spends much of the novel trying to brutally kill Constantine and his friends, while also causing general mayhem around the prison, including initiating an involuntary Russian roulette tournament.  Kincaid was an excellent main antagonist, and I loved some of the twists that were revealed around him.  The other villain I really liked was Preacher, a demented serial killer with a major religious bent who convinces some of the prison’s more insane members to join him in a fun little murder cult.  Preacher was a pretty intense baddie, and I loved the inclusion of a murderous cultist and his friends to an already fun story.  The final antagonist I want to talk about is the superstorm itself.  The storm, Hurricane Anna, is an absolute beast that wrecks the entirety of Florida, as well as several other states.  Herron does an amazing job bringing this crazy storm to life throughout the book, and you get to experience a number of powerful scenes where characters encounter Anna in all its windy glory.  The entire storm was an insane and fantastic addition to the plot, and it was so cool to see the character attempt to escape its pure destructive power.

Overall, I felt that Breakout was an extremely fun and exciting novel that was an absolute treat to read.  Due to all the incredible action, crazy villains and major set pieces, this is an outstanding thriller that readers will have a fantastic time getting through, especially as the action never ends.  It honestly would not surprise me if this was turned into a major blockbuster film in the next few years (perhaps with Dwayne Johnson), and it is one that I know I would deeply enjoy.  Highly recommended to anyone who wants to increase their heart rate, Breakout is an incredibly awesome read!

Call of the Bone Ships by RJ Barker

Call of the Bone Ships Cover

Publisher: Orbit (Trade Paperback – 24 November 2020)

Series: The Tide Child – Book Two

Length: 491 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Hidden in Plain Sight by Jeffrey Archer

Hidden in Plain Sight Cover

Publisher: Macmillan (Hardcover – 27 October 2020)

Series: William Warwick – Book Two

Length: 304 pages

My Rating: 4.25 out of 5

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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