Star Wars: The Princess and the Scoundrel by Beth Revis

Star Wars - The Princess and the Scoundrel Cover

Publisher: Del Rey (Trade Paperback – 16 August 2022)

Series: Star Wars

Length: 348 pages

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

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Outstanding author Beth Revis presents an intriguing and enjoyable new entry in the extended Star Wars canon, with the fantastic tie-in novel, The Princess and the Scoundrel.

2022 has been a rather interesting year for Star Wars fiction.  While the focus has primarily been on the High Republic sub-series, several great authors have produced some awesome reads set around the various film trilogies (such as Star Wars: Brotherhood by Mike Chen).  However, one of the most exciting recent Star Wars tie-in novels is a character-driven read that focuses on the relationship between Han Solo and Princess Leia, The Princess and the Scoundrel, which was written by exciting author Beth Revis.  Revis, who already has some experience with the Star Wars canon, having written the 2017 novel, Rebel Rising, came up with an awesome story in The Princess and the Scoundrel that I had a wonderful time reading.  Not only does The Princess and the Scoundrel explore an interesting period of the complex and inspiring Star Wars canon, but it also contained a fantastic romantic heart that will appeal to a wider range of readers.

Goodreads Synopsis:

The Death Star is destroyed. Darth Vader is dead. The Empire is desolated. But on the forest moon of Endor, amongst the chaos of a changing galaxy, time stands still for a princess and her scoundrel.

After being frozen in carbonite, then risking everything for the Rebellion, Han is eager to stop living his life for other people. He and Leia have earned their future together, a thousand times over. And when he proposes to Leia, it’s the first time in a long time he’s had a good feeling about this. For Leia, a lifetime of fighting doesn’t truly seem over. There is work still to do, penance to pay for the dark secret she now knows runs through her veins. Her brother, Luke, is offering her that chance—one that comes with family and the promise of the Force. But when Han asks her to marry him, Leia finds her answer immediately on her lips . . . Yes.

But happily ever after doesn’t come easily. As soon as Han and Leia depart their idyllic ceremony on Endor for their honeymoon, they find themselves on the grandest and most glamorous stage of all: the Halcyon, a luxury vessel on a very public journey to the most wondrous worlds in the galaxy. Their marriage, and the peace and prosperity it represents, is a lightning rod for everyone in the galaxy—including Imperial remnants still clinging to power.

Facing their most desperate hour, the soldiers of the Empire have dispersed across the galaxy, retrenching on isolated worlds vulnerable to their influence. As the Halcyon travels from world to world, one thing becomes abundantly clear: The war is not over. But as danger draws closer, Han and Leia find that they fight their best battles not alone but as husband and wife.

I had a fantastic time getting through The Princess and the Scoundrel as Beth Revis wrote a pretty awesome and captivating Star Wars novel that covered a lot of bases.  Split between the alternating perspectives of Han and Leia, The Princess and the Scoundrel takes off right after Return of the Jedi.  While the victorious Rebellion plans their next moves, Han and Leia decide to make the most of their sudden freedom to get married after their traumatic year apart.  While both are still reeling from the events of the original trilogy, they come together in a fun wedding scene, before leaving on a glamorous trip that will be part honeymoon part propaganda show.  While initially trying to enjoy their honeymoon, both quickly fall into their old patterns, with Han chafing at the formality, while Leia continues to try and do her work as an ambassador and planner.  Arriving at an isolated ice planet, Han and Leia soon discover a destructive Imperial plot and must come together as a couple to thwart it.  This ended up being a really distinctive read, as Revis worked a more romantic plotline into the always entertaining Star Wars canon.  I loved seeing this fantastic tale of Han and Leia’s first adventure as husband and wife, and Revis ensured readers got an excellent blend of action, intrigue, and character development, as you witnessed these two amazing protagonists try to come together as a married couple.  There is a little something for everyone in this great read, and I found myself getting caught up in the action and the impressive focus on two of my favourite fictional characters.  An overall brilliant book that is really easy to enjoy and appreciate.

The Princess and the Scoundrel proved to be a very interesting addition to the current Star Wars canon.  While the romance between Han and Leia was strongly explored in the previous Legends canon, the current Disney canon has not featured it as much, and as such you see some fascinating events from their lives here for the first time.  Revis paints quite a fun picture of the sudden wedding these two have, which features entertaining interruptions from several key characters, some tricky manoeuvrings from Lando to get Han into a nice outfit, and, of course, a ton of Ewoks, while the honeymoon is as chaotic as you would expect from these two.  As such, this is a pretty key book for all fans of these two iconic characters, and I think that Revis hit an excellent tone when it came to some of these key events.  The author also fits in a lot of fantastic references and moments that a lot of Star Wars fans will appreciate, most of which are covered in a very fun way.  For example, the characters finally address that infamous kiss between Luke and Leia at the start of The Empire Strikes Back, with Han and Luke having a rather awkward conversation about it, before agreeing never to bring it up again.  Revis also makes quite good use of an interesting Han Solo villain from one of the previous canon books, and it was great to see some continuation from the previous intriguing storyline.  That, and several other amusing references, help to make this quite a key book for Star Wars fans, and I had a wonderful, nerdy time getting through it.

Aside from the direct references to the book, I was personally intrigued to see more about the period of Star Wars history that occurred in the immediate aftermath of the Death Star’s destruction in Return of the Jedi.  Despite the death of the Emperor, the war between the Empire and the Rebellion (now renamed as the New Republic), is still ongoing, and indeed some of the toughest fighting is still to come.  Several authors have covered this frenetic period in the current canon with some recent books, such as the Alphabet Squadron trilogy by Alexander Freed (made up of Alphabet Squadron, Shadow Fall and Victory’s Price).  However, I particularly enjoyed how The Princess and the Scoundrel covered this period, as it shows events literally hours after the end of the film.  Quite a bit is shown of the Rebellion’s initial strategies following the battle of Endor, as well as the Empire’s reactions to the death of the Emperor and the sudden shift in power.  While some of the wider campaigns aren’t shown, you get an interesting idea of what the military and political situation was at the time, which I deeply enjoyed.  Revis also spends time examining how members of the general public reacted to the news, and there is an interesting variation of responses.  Not only did some people straight out disbelieve that the events even occurred, with many assuming it was fake propaganda from the Rebellion, others who were associated with the Empire, or who had members of their family aboard the Death Star, acted quite hostile to the change in the established status quo.  These diverse reactions not only reflected some current real-world societal issues, but also provided a compelling insight into just how much influence the Empire had, even on the way to its downfall.  Throw in some hints and previews of the upcoming Operation Cinder, and this proved to be a very interesting addition the Star Wars canon that many established fans will really enjoy.

One of the strongest elements of The Princess and the Scoundrel is its impressive focus on the two main characters, Han Solo and Princess Leia.  While this book does contain a lot of action, intrigue and fantastic Star Wars elements, at its heart it is a romance novel between two well-established and complex characters, both of whom have experienced a lot of trauma and anguish in recent years.  Revis does a remarkable job of diving into both characters throughout the course of The Princess and the Scoundrel, and you really get a sense of their feelings, concerns and traumas following their victory.  However, there is also a great focus on their relationship, and you can really see the strong bond they have, even if they are still coming to terms with their feelings and their wildly different personalities.  I felt that Revis painted a realistic view of their relationship, which contains some difficulties early on, especially with their independent streaks.  However, the author also shows that the two characters are much stronger together, and they can work through any issues that come their way.  I think that this much better than just showing them having a fairy tale relationship, and I really appreciated the authors compelling take on one of the most iconic relationships in fiction.

Aside from their relationship, Revis also did a great job of diving into the complex emotional issues facing both central characters.  For example, Revis makes sure to explore the trauma surrounding Han after being trapped in carbonite for over a year.  Not only did he miss out on a lot of key events in his friends’ lives, but at this point of the book he has only been awake again for a few days, and some of his decisions are based on his concerns and fears about being trapped again.  Leia is also going through a lot after the discovery that Luke is her brother and, more importantly, that Darth Vader was her father.  As such, Leia spends much of the book attempting to reconcile the fact that her real father was a genocidal maniac who tortured her and is partially responsible for destroying her home planet.  This proves to be quite a deep and intriguing part of her character arc, especially since, unlike her newly discovered brother, she is unable to forgive Vader for everything he did.  There is also an interesting look at Leia’s early attempts to connect with the Force, after Luke reveals her Jedi potential.  Watching her attempts at using the Force is very fascinating, especially as she battles with her feelings about Vader while doing so and is reluctant to even try to use the abilities that he could do.  All these unique character examinations, and more, really help to showcase just how complex and traumatised Han and Leia were at this period, and how much their relationship helped them get past it.

Star Wars: The Princess and the Scoundrel by Beth Revis is an amazing read that provides Star Wars fans with something a little different to the typical tie-in novel.  Featuring a continuation of one of film’s most iconic romances, The Princess and the Scoundrels is at times touching and romantic, while also exploring the grim realities of the war-torn galaxy, all topped off with some classic Star Wars action and humour.  With an outstanding focus and understanding of its two main characters, The Princess and the Scoundrel was a fantastic novel that is well worth checking out.

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All of Our Demise by Amanda Foody and Christine Lynn Herman

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Publisher: Gollancz (Trade Paperback – 30 August 2022)

Series: All of Us Villains – Book Two

Length: 470 pages

My Rating: 4.75 out of 5 stars

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After wowing the world with their first collaboration, 2021’s All of Us Villains, the superstar young adult fiction team of Amanda Foody and Christine Lynn Herman return with the second book in their impressive duology, All of Our Demise, one of the most anticipated young adult fantasy releases of the year.

For generations, seven prominent families of the city of Ilvernath have each sacrificed one of their children to a legendary death tournament, the winner of which would secure the extremely powerful high magick for their family.  However, this latest tournament has not turned out like anyone expected.  Already exposed to the world thanks to a tell-all book, some of the champions, led by the seemingly heroic Briony Thorburn, are determined to break free from the bloody tournament that has long haunted their families.  But as they attempt to break the curse that binds the tournament to them by destroying the enchanted artefacts and locations associated with their families, their actions will have unexpected consequences on all around them.

For the first time in its history, the magical Blood Veil that physically separates the participants from the outside world has been broken and now everyone can witness the tournament unfold.  As reporters and members of the public swarm into the historic battleground as witnesses, the participants can return to Ilvernath and seek help from those in town.  The destruction of the Blood Veil seems proof that Briony’s plan is working, but not everyone wants the curse to end.

After the miraculous resurrection of his murdered brother, Hendry, Alistair Lowe believes that the only way he can keep Hendry alive is by winning the tournament.  After murdering his entire evil family and after being cursed by the girl he fell for, Alistair finds himself isolated with Hendry, unsure how to proceed.  However, he soon finds himself working with a surprising new ally in Gavin Grieve, the boy no-one expected to survive, and who has his own desperate reasons for working with the Lowes.  At the same time, the formerly glamorous Isobel Macaslan finds herself drawn to the mysterious Reid MacTavish, whose manipulation of the champions has brought nothing but trouble.  Determined to help Briony destroy the tournament, Isobel will break all the rules to survive, even if that means drafting Reid in against his will.

As the battle lines are drawn and the two groups of champions attempt to path their respective courses to victory, they find unexpected obstacles blocking their way.  Not only are the champions’ manipulative families attempting to sway events to their favour, but the media is determined to make all of them infamous in their own way.  Forced to battle each other both in the tournament and in the field of public opinion, the champions will face unbelievable tragedy and despair as they all try to survive.  However, the biggest threat to all of them may come from outside the tournament, and no-one is prepared for the evils waiting for them in the wider world.

Foody and Lynn Herman have delivered quite an impressive sequel here with All of Our Demise, which presents the reader with another epic and powerful story.  Building on the elaborate narrative and character arcs of All of Us Villains, All of Our Demise takes the reader on an exceptional emotional rollercoaster as they watch four extremely complex and distinctive point-of-view characters battle in impossible circumstances.  All of Our Demise ends up being just as good, if not a little better, than Foody and Lynn Herman’s first impressive outing, and it provides readers with an outstanding and memorable conclusion to this captivating young adult fantasy duology.

I’m still reeling a little bit about how All of Our Demise’s story turned out.  Foody and Lynn Hermann did a remarkable job with this sequel and the story continues seamlessly on from the events of the first book.  Told from the perspective of the four main characters, the death tournament focus of the story has evolved due to the events of All of Us Villains and the characters are now forced to contend with outside forces as they fight in an extended battleground.  The protagonists are now split down the middle as some fight to destroy the tournament for good, while they others try to keep it alive so they can win, either for their own survival or to save those closest to them.  All four protagonists have some brilliant character driven storylines around them, and each of them is fighting for something important to them, whether it be redemption, family, reputation, or respect.  In addition, the protagonists are still reeling from the events of All of Us Villains, and no-one has been left emotionally or physically untouched from the events of the first book.  This results in an emotionally heavy storyline, especially once everyone gets a taste of betrayal, either from the other champions or from other malign figures outside of the main group.  The story evolves at a great pace, and the authors chuck in some imaginative and clever twists as each group starts to get closer to their goal.  New relationships are built while others are torn down, and there are some very intense moments as scorned friends finally confront each other over past betrayals.  Everything leads up perfectly to the big conclusion, where there are some big sacrifices and some major changes in the lives of every protagonist as they reach their endgame.  I really appreciated how this impressive story came together, and you will be left shocked, moved and very satisfied with how this outstanding duology came to an end.

I think the excellent team of Foody and Lynn Herman did a remarkable job pulling All of Our Demise together, and this was an extremely well-written book.  As I mentioned above, this is a pretty epic sequel, and the authors strike off right after the cool cliff-hanger that All of Us Villains ended on.  All the great story elements from the first book are seamlessly continued here, and I really appreciated being able to jump straight into the narrative again.  While the authors do ensure that there is some exposition so that readers can remember what happened in the first book, I would say that All of Our Demise is a bit of a harder book to enjoy if you haven’t read All of Us Villains first.  There are some story and character gaps featured here that might be a bit hard to follow without having read the first book, so I would definitely recommend checking that out first.  Once you are into this story, there really isn’t a slow moment, as the characters are constantly engaged in some form of action, the enhanced intrigue surrounding the event, or a deep examination of their psyche and relationships, especially as they continue to examine the terrible events they have found themselves in.  While All of Our Demise is a bit of a brick, you honestly are never left feeling bored or stuck, and you frankly can’t help but move forward as you are drawn into this elaborate tale.  I really think that the split between the four protagonists is handled perfectly as well, and it ensures you get a well-balanced narrative and substantial time to dive into their respective and impressive character arcs.  This was one of those young adult novels that has a lot of appeal both for its target teen audience, and much older readers, as everyone will deeply appreciate its clever storylines and deeply relatable characters.  I felt that All of Our Demise came together exceptionally well, and this ended up being quite an outstanding and addictive read.

I must make special note of the cool death tournament that is such a fantastic feature of this amazing duology.  I love a great young adult death tournament scenario (who doesn’t?), and the one featured in All of Us Villains and All of Our Demise is particularly inventive, loaded with a unique history, fun magical features, and all manner of devastating tragedy.  I was really impressed with how the authors set up and featured this elaborate tournament in the previous book, and they continue to utilise it throughout All of Our Demise.  The constant fight to survive the lethal tournament becomes even more complicated throughout this second book, and it was fascinating to see how the characters deal with the pressure and the constant war they find themselves in.  There are some excellent features of the tournament that come into play in this second book, including the new magical artefacts and locations featured within that give them varying advantages.  These are generally short lived as the champions are determined to destroy them all, which not only requires them to learn more of their various family’s dark histories but forces them to engage in deadly challenges built into the tournament to destroy it.  These challenges are pretty epic, and it was great to see the protagonists involved in progressively more lethal encounters.

However, the most distinctive and entertaining change to the tournament that occurred in All of Our Demise was the sudden lack invasion of the public that occurred due to the breaking of the Blood Veil barrier.  The tournament has always historically been a private affair between the champions, but now the entire battle is a worldwide sensation being constantly reported on by the media.  It was quite fascinating and a little maddening to see the supposed sombre death tournament devolve further into a gaudy spectacle, equipped with baying fans, manipulative outsiders and a ton of paparazzi, all of whom have a very different view of the events occurring.  I particularly enjoyed seeing the ridiculous media coverage that occurred throughout this second part of the tournament, especially as various over-the-top and often blatantly false headlines and discussions of current tournament events appeared at the start of every chapter, replacing the quotes from the tell-all book that were featured in All of Us Villains.  This media coverage nearly always painted the complex characters in such a terrible light for the rest of world, which was a little hard to see, especially after you have become quite attached to the various protagonists.  However, I personally felt that it drew me into the narrative a little more, and it was a very entertaining and fun element that I had an amazing amount of fun with.  This media coverage had an interesting impact on the events of the narrative, as the characters are forced to conduct interviews and discussions with reporters to further their goals.  This entire change in the publicity of the tournament was a brilliant addition to this second book, and it altered the tone of the book in an impressive and amazing way, that really added to my enjoyment of the book.

However, the best thing about All of Our Demise was the exceptional character work featured within.  Foody and Lynn Herman did such a brilliant job setting up the four complex protagonists in All of Us Villains, and these impressive character arcs are continued seamlessly in the sequel, with each of the protagonists forced to deal with some of the further traumas that were inflicted on them in the first book.  All of Our Demise maintains the same four point-of-view characters as before, and I found myself instantly connected to them again as I remembered their compelling history and the devastating events that occurred to them in the first book.  The authors continued to perfectly build these characters throughout All of Our Demise, subjecting them to further trauma, emotional concerns and hardships, and watching them try to deal with these as they fight for their survival is a key and impressive part of this epic young adult book.

Probably the most compelling character in the entire duology is Alistair Lowe, who simultaneously plays the role of the best antagonist and an intriguing and likeable protagonist.  Alistair is the oldest son of the Lowe family, who are generally considered to be the major villains of the tournament.  Despite being raised from birth to be a monster, Alistair was hesitant about his role in the tournament and was initially a reluctant participant, even though he knew it was his destiny.  Thanks to his romantic interactions with fellow champion Isobel and the murder of his brother Hendry by his family to boost his chances, Alistair had a brief brush as being a hero and destroying the tournament with the others.  However, the apparent resurrection of Hendry by the tournament at the end of All of Us Villains caused Alistair to abandon his allies and attempt to kill Isobel as he believes their plan would result in his brother dying again.  Now fatally cursed and having taken brutal revenge on his family, Alistair is forced to re-envision himself as the villain once again to convince himself to kill the other champions, all to save the most important person in his life.

It is very hard not to appreciate Alistair as character as the authors have done an incredible job creating him and turning him into the most complex figure in the novel.  The authors really did a number on Alistair in the last book, and watching him try and work through all these issues here is extremely powerful, especially as he keeps experiencing more setbacks and traumas as he proceeds.  There is so much tragedy and emotional turmoil surrounding Alistair in this book, and the authors write an excellent arc around him for this sequel.  Watching him try to balance his desires and true nature with everyone’s perspective of him as a monster is just so damn fascinating and moving, and you can’t help but feel sorry for this fictional character.  I am glad that Foody and Lynn Herman did work in a redemption arc for Alistair in All of Our Demise, and there are some surprising, but very heartfelt relationships surrounding him in this novel that help to keep him going.  I really think that the authors handled Alistair perfectly, and he is definitely the character that everyone will remember once they finish this book.

Another character who you fall in love with Isobel Macaslan, another person who has gone through absolute hell through the course of the books.  Forced into the tournament against her will, Isobel tried to use her sudden infamy to her benefit and projected an air of confidence before the tournament, despite being terrified and used by her family.  Since then, she had an unfortunate romantic entanglement with Alistair Lowe which resulted in him murdering her.  Resurrected by a dark curse that makes her more corpse than woman, Isobel is in a very bad place during this book.  Still controlled by doubt and despair, Isobel is uncertain about whether she believes in the plan her friends are proposing and spends most of the book coming to terms with her fears and her growing attachment to another dangerous character.  Throw in some major family issues, as she continues to struggle with her selfish family, and a hostile press who produce some typical paparazzi junk about her, and you some excellent and compelling moments around Isobel that are fascinating to see.  Isobel continues to experience quite a lot of tragedy in this novel and watching her power through them and try to fix all her damaged relationships is a great part of the plot.

The third point-of-view character is Briony Thorburn, who serves quite a key role in the plot.  Briony has seen herself as the hero her entire life and was the only person excited for the tournament.  However, after her younger sister was chosen in her place thanks to the machinations of the government, Briony illegally entered the tournament by incapacitating her sister and cutting her finger off.  Now determined to destroy the tournament, Briony leads the charge to destroy the artefacts and landmarks.  However, there are some major concerns about her actual motivations, as many assume this part of her manipulative hero complex.  Briony spends most of the book trying to redeem herself after the mistakes of the first novel, a task that is complicated by her own family, who have their own sinister plans for her and the other champions.  Mentally isolated and hated by the media, Briony has a terrible time in All of Our Demise, and the authors weave some powerful moments around her.  I honestly think that Briony had one of the best and most complete narratives in the entire series, and All of Our Demise brought her character arc together extremely well.  Like the rest of the cast, it is very hard not to grow attached to Briony as you witness her complicated physical and mental battles unfold, and I really appreciated the outstanding way it ended.

The final main character is Gavin Grieve, who proved to be one of the most surprising and captivating characters from the first book.  The chosen sacrifice of the one family who has never won the tournament, Gavin always knew he was destined to die.  Full of rage and resentment, Gavin chose to make a deal with the devil and accessed a dangerous form of magick that drained his own life to gain substantial power.  Made into a lethal contender but slowly dying, Gavin is convinced by outside forces that they can save him, but they require him to work with Alistair Lowe.  Forced to overcome his own prejudices, most of which revolve from the perceived disrespect of the other champions, Gavin grows close to Alistair, and they form an interesting team.  I was really surprised by the direction of Gavin’s storylines in this book, especially as there are some fantastic reveals and changes in personality.  The authors did a great job of explaining his changes in personality, and I felt that it was quite a natural transition, especially when you consider everything he’s gone through.  Gavin rounded out the central cast of damaged, complex protagonists, extremely well, and I thought that this was a brilliant combination of characters.  Their combined complex storylines and arcs are just superb, and while you might get a little more drawn in to one or two of the characters more than the rest, there is no perspective that you are actively wanting to avoid.  I cannot highlight just how impressive these four characters were, and Foody and Lynn Herman should be commended for the exceptional character work they did here.

The wonderful and insanely talented team of Amanda Foody and Christine Lynn Herman have come up with something truly special with All of Our Demise.  Perfectly finishing the brilliant story started in All of Us Villains, All of Our Demise lived up to all the hype surrounding it and ended up being one of the best young adult fantasy books of the year.  Featuring all the great characters from the first book, Foody and Lynn Herman weave an addictive and deeply personal narrative around them that takes the reader back into the midst of a constantly evolving and deeply traumatising magical death tournament.  Intense, captivating and very complex, All of Our Demise is a highly recommended read, and I cannot have envisioned a better end for the exceptional young adult duology.

All of Our Demise Cover

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Quick Review – Conviction by Frank Chalmers

Conviction Cover

Publisher: Allen & Unwin Australia (Trade Paperback – 5 July 2022)

Series: Standalone/Book One

Length: 354 pages

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

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The Australian crime fiction debut hits keep on coming with the excellent and highly exciting first novel from Frank Chalmers, Conviction, with takes the reader on an amazing journey back into 1970s rural Australia.

Plot Synopsis:

A town ruled by fear. A cop who won’t be broken. A pulse-pounding debut thriller that pulls no punches.

A STUNNING NEW VOICE IN CRIME FICTION

Queensland in 1976 churns with corruption. When Detective Ray Windsor defies it, he is exiled deep into the state’s west. It’s easy out there to feel alien in your own country.

Royalton is a town on its knees, stricken by drought, riven by prejudice, and plagued by crimes left largely uninvestigated by the local police chief, Kennedy, and his elusive boss.

Mutual dislike between Kennedy and Ray gradually turns ugly as Ray and his new partner, Arshag, uncover a pattern of crimes that no one seems concerned about solving. But when two girls from local immigrant families are found dead and another disappears, Ray and Arshag are forced to take the law into their own hands. Not knowing who to trust, nor how deep the corruption runs, how long will it be before their lives are also threatened?

A spare and uncompromising crime thriller that pulls no punches.


Conviction
is a compelling and fun crime fiction thriller that sets a bold protagonist against a brace of criminals and dirty cops in a remote and hopeless town.  Essentially reading like a contemporary Australian western, with protagonist Detective Ray Windsor acting as the new sheriff in town, Chalmers crafts together a compelling read that is very easy to get through.

Conviction has a very interesting and complex story to it that sees the new cop arrive in the remote town of Royalton and get caught up in a series of crimes.  Not only is he forced to deal with the corruption of his peers and a local crime ring that has been stealing stock and damaging the local farms, but he is also investigating two recent violent deaths of young immigrant women.  This results in quite a fantastic series of investigation elements, as Detective Windsor attempts to solve these crimes while being constantly hampered by his colleagues.  The novel also deals with Ray’s attempt to integrate into the Royalton community, and he soon finds some unexpected connections and friends which draw him in.  Taking place over the course of several months, Conviction’s plot goes in some exciting and intense directions, and the reader is provided with intriguing plotlines that are loaded with action and excitement.  The eventual reveals lead to some big moments, and while the identity of the book’s villains is well-foreshadowed and not especially surprising, watching the protagonist attempt to overcome them is fun.  This ended up being a great and enjoyable piece of Australian fiction, and I had a good time getting through this awesome debut.

Like many impressive Australian crime fiction novels, one of the best things about Conviction is its excellent setting in a rural Australian town.  Royalton is a compelling location, which even in the 1970s, is starting to fall apart and feel the strain as more and more people left the country to live in the big cities.  Royalton has many of the best features that make up a small-town setting, from the sunburned countryside, the various surrounding farms, the neglected buildings within the town itself, as well as a colourful cast of people living in it.  I felt that Royalton in Conviction was a pretty good example of this compelling Australian setting, and the intriguing historical context makes it stand out from other recent Australian crime fiction books.  I particularly liked how Chalmers depicted the town as having a large migrant population, which is an accurate representation of most of Australia, and the stratification of classes that resulted based on nationality and culture gave the story another fascinating dimension that I felt added a lot to the story.  The farms surrounding the town are also under siege by an organised group of criminals who are working to bankrupt them for their own nefarious reasons, and this adds to the tension in Royalton.  All this proves to be rich ground for the intense and compelling crime fiction narrative that Chalmers crafted together, and I felt that this was an amazing setting for Conviction.

However, the best thing about Conviction was the eclectic and troubled group of characters who can be found within.  The author comes up with some great and flawed figures throughout Conviction, and the reader soon gets some intriguing views of the sort of people who would live in such a remote and troubled town.  Naturally most of the focus is on Detective Ray Windsor, who immediately finds himself in all manner of trouble once he arrives in Royalton.  Now, I must admit that I had a hard time liking Windsor in this book, as he is a bit of an over-the-top hero who is prone to violence at a drop of hat.  While this attribute does help him out in some of the situations, I was never too attached to him as a character, especially when he flew off the handle.  Still, I liked the compelling background that Chalmers attributed to Windsor, especially his dark childhood, and the portrayal of an honest cop sent out to the country as a punishment was well explored.  There are some great moments with Windsor in the book, and I did enjoy seeing his take on the case and the corruption going on around town.  The author also did a good job setting up Windsor’s growing attachment to Royalton, especially once he gets to know the people within.  This, as well as his commitment to getting the job done, eventually win the reader over, and you are rooting for him to succeed as the story continues.  The rest of the cast are also really good, and I deeply enjoyed some of the other characters featured within Conviction.  I felt that Chalmers did a particularly good job with the villains of this book, and it was satisfying to see Windsor standing up to them and finally bringing them to justice.  An awesome group of characters that Chalmers did a good job bringing to life.

Overall, I felt that Conviction was a pretty awesome novel that the debuting Frank Chalmers should be proud of.  This fantastic novel has a great crime fiction narrative that not only crosses into historical fiction territory but which works as an exceptional example of a rural Australian story.  All these elements work extremely well together, and I had a blast getting through Conviction, which is really worth checking out.

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Recursion by Blake Crouch Review

Recursion Cover

Publisher: Random House Audio (Audiobook – 11 June 2019)

Series: Standalone

Length: 10 hours and 47 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

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Get ready for one of the most impressive and compelling science fiction books of the last few years with Blake Crouch’s outstanding 2019 release, Recursion.

Crouch is one of the more intriguing and highly regarded science fiction and thriller authors out there now, having produced a fantastic catalogue of intense and addictive novels over his career.  Best known for his Wayward Pines trilogy (adapted into a television series of the same name), Crouch’s books for the last few years have been a collection of fantastic standalone science fiction thrillers, such as the bestselling Dark Matter.  These novels often combine intense thriller storylines with high-concept science fiction elements to produce some epic and captivating reads.  So far, I have only read one of Crouch’s books, his 2019 release, Recursion, which was an exceptional and amazing read.  Unfortunately, I didn’t review it back then, even though it was one of my top books and audiobooks of 2019.  As I have just started reading Crouch’s latest book, Upgrade, I thought this would be a good opportunity to quickly give Recursion the love it deserves, as this honestly was one of the better books of 2019.

Synopsis:

Memory makes reality.

That’s what New York City cop Barry Sutton is learning as he investigates the devastating phenomenon the media has dubbed False Memory Syndrome—a mysterious affliction that drives its victims mad with memories of a life they never lived.

That’s what neuroscientist Helena Smith believes. It’s why she’s dedicated her life to creating a technology that will let us preserve our most precious memories. If she succeeds, anyone will be able to re-experience a first kiss, the birth of a child, the final moment with a dying parent.

As Barry searches for the truth, he comes face-to-face with an opponent more terrifying than any disease—a force that attacks not just our minds but the very fabric of the past. And as its effects begin to unmake the world as we know it, only he and Helena, working together, will stand a chance at defeating it.

But how can they make a stand when reality itself is shifting and crumbling all around them?


Recursion
was a powerful and deeply complex novel that perfectly brought together an impressive and thrilling narrative about choices, survival, and fixing mistakes, with some outstanding and clever science fiction concepts.  Based around the concept of memory, Recursion eventually devolves into a deeply compelling time travel narrative as its amazing two protagonists are dragged into a terrifying struggle to save the world.

The narrative of Recursion is split between grizzled cop Barry Sutton and brilliant scientist Helena Smith, both of whom have tragic pasts and memories that they would kill to get a do-over for.  Their storylines are initially kept separate, as Barry attempts to investigate a mysterious illness that is causing people to suddenly awaken with a second set of memories about a life that didn’t happen, driving them insane.  At the same time, Helena works with a mysterious corporate benefactor to develop a machine that will allow people to relive their most important memories, but her boss soon takes control of the project and morphs it into something very different with impossible knowledge.

It is soon revealed that Helena’s boss is using her memory machine to travel back to the time that the important memories were created in order to alter the timeline for his and his friend’s advantage.  The false memory syndrome is a side effect of this process, as people eventually start to remember all the changes that have been made due to the time travelling villains.  Both Barry and Helena are dragged into this conspiracy, as Barry is bribed to stop investigating by reliving and altering the memory of his daughter’s death, while Helena fights to stop it before it’s too late.  Eventually teaming up once the world starts going crazy with multiple memories, Barry and Helena are too late, with the various nations launching nukes against America to stop them ruling the world through time travel.  Helena is barely able to escape by diving back in time to a point in her personal years before the events of the book.

From there the novel turns into an intense time travel thriller as Helena works through her past and attempts to perfect her machine and stop time travel from ever existing.  Continuously recruiting a younger Barry, Helena is unable to find a solution before the world regains its lost memories and is forced to travel back again and again to avoid the inevitable arrests and nuclear strikes and ends up living multiple lifetimes.  This leads to a desperate series of attempts to save the world, which results in a fantastic and clever conclusion that fits the unique science fiction elements and characters of this book extremely well.

Recursion’s entire narrative comes together extremely well and serves as a powerful standalone read.  I loved how the story developed throughout the course of the book, and I found the second half of the novel, with the multiple examples of time travel to be some of the best parts of Recursion, especially as the stakes are raised higher than ever before.  This is a very well-written and fast-paced thriller, and Crouch brings in some fascinating concepts that work extremely well in the context of the clever narrative he pulled together.  The blend of intense action, compelling characters and complex science fiction elements is pretty damn perfect, and readers really get drawn into this narrative as a result.  I was personally addicted to Recursion very early in the game, and I had an outstanding time seeing how everything came together.

Crouch explores a lot of unique and compelling scientific elements which become an excellent part of the overall book.  The author presents a very complex and intriguing series of concepts around human memory, time travel, and everything in between, and makes some very interesting and well-researched points about them.  While most of these concepts are high-level science, Crouch takes the time to explain them carefully, and I found myself following along with the ideas fairly well.  While I did think the leap from memory experiments to time travel were a little over-the-top, it did become an incredible part of the narrative, and I really loved how well time travel was used in the story.  I love a good time travel story, and Recursion was one of the better ones that I have read, especially as it covers it in a unique way, while also highlighting the many dangers of unchecked changes to the time stream.  I loved how well the author was able to weave a compelling and powerful story around these concepts, and you will come away from this book really thinking about all the implications of this potential technology, as well as the importance of memory to the human psyche.

I also deeply enjoyed the outstanding pair of protagonists, Barry Sutton and Helena Smith, whom the story is set around.  Not only does Crouch do a wonderful job splitting the narrative between them, often in some very clever ways, but he also builds both characters up extremely well, showcasing their deep inner pain.  Both have experienced a lot of tragedy in their lives, and thanks to the technology being explored here, they are given the chance to relive it and change it.  Watching them go through these deep emotional moments, as well as witnessing the various mistakes they make as they try to fix the world, is pretty damn heartbreaking, and you really grow to appreciate their struggles, especially if you can relate to their tragic memories.  As such, you grow attached to them rather quickly, and I liked how Crouch made sure to build in a compelling, if unique, relationship between them.  While both grow close during their first meeting, their romantic relationship takes on a whole new edge once time travel is brought into it and it turns into powerful romantic bond that literally last lifetimes.  I really grew close to both Barry and Helena while reading Recursion, and they are an outstanding pair of protagonists to follow.

I must admit that I was a little wary about listening to the Recursion audiobook, as a colleague of mine who read the novel before me indicated that it might prove a little challenging to keep track of the various time periods without a physical copy to flip through.  However, I really did not have any trouble keeping track of what was going on in the story while listening to the audiobook, and indeed I found that the format helped me understand the concepts more.  I also enjoyed the combined narration of Jon Lindstrom and Abby Craden, with Lindstrom reading the chapters told from Barry’s perspective and Craden doing the same for Helena’s chapters.  This split in narration worked really well, and I liked how it changed each time the character perspective did.  With a run time of just under 11 hours, this was a fairly easy audiobook to get through, and I powered through it very quickly.  An overall excellent way to enjoy this fantastic book.

Recursion by Blake Crouch is an epic and exceptional read that really showcases the author’s impressive writing skill and ability to come up with some truly unique concepts.  This science fiction masterpiece is so damn awesome, and there is a very good reason that it was one of my favourite books of 2019.  A five-star read and highly recommended in every way possible, I loved Recursion, and I can’t wait to finish off and review Upgrade next.

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The Coward by Stephen Aryan

The Coward Cover

Publisher: Angry Robot (Audiobook – 28 April 2021)

Series: Quest for Heroes – Book One

Length: 14 hours and 50 minutes

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

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Prepare for a legendary quest with a complex and damaged hero as bestselling author Stephen Aryan presents the first book in his new fantasy duology, The Coward.

Aryan is an awesome fantasy author who has been writing some great books over the last few years.  Aryan debuted back in 2015 with Battlemage, the first book in The Age of Darkness trilogy, which focused on a brutal magical war.  After finishing this initial trilogy, Aryan released a sequel trilogy, the Age of Dread trilogy, which was set 10 years after the events of the first trilogy, which focused on the consequences of the first trilogy, especially the fear and prejudice its magical war brought on every mage in this fantasy world.  I ended up reading the second book in this trilogy, Magefall, and quite enjoyed its interesting story.  Unfortunately, I never got a chance to finish the trilogy off or go back and check out some of the earlier books, which I kind of regret.  But I did get the chance last year to read the first book in his new series, The Coward, the first instalment of the Quest for Heroes duology.

Everyone in the Five Kingdoms knows the legend of Kell Kressia, the most renowned hero in all the lands.  At the young age of 17, Kell volunteered to join a band of legendary warriors and heroes on their greatest quest ever: travelling to the far north and killing the Ice Lich to save the world.  Twelve men ventured to the north, and only Kell returned, having slain the Ice Lich, leaving the land’s greatest heroes behind in death.  Kell’s fame as a hero spread throughout the land thanks to song and story.  However, not everything you hear in stories is true.

Ten years later, Kell is living the simple life on his family’s farm, content with the peace and quiet and avoiding people where possible.  However, fate has a funny way of catching up with heroes, and when word reaches the kingdoms of further trouble in the north, Kell is called for once again.  A terrible evil is said to have taken root in the fortress of the Ice Lich, and their power threatens the entire world.

Taking up his famous sword and ready to revisit the dangers up north, Kell sets out.  However, Kell is carrying a dark and desperate secret: he is no true hero; instead he is just a lucky man broken by his experiences and with no intention of returning to hell.  However, caught up in his own legend, and with a new band of heroes forming around him, Kell has no choice but to once again venture forth, even if it means his death.  Everyone is convinced that Kell will once again save the world, but can the hero win when he doesn’t even believe in himself?

This was a fantastic and clever fantasy novel from Aryan that I had an excellent time reading.  Aryan came up with an outstanding story for The Coward, based on a complex protagonist forced to relive his worst experiences.  I deeply enjoyed this cool novel and I managed to power through its entertaining and compelling narrative in no time at all.

The Coward has an awesome and captivating plot that quickly draws the reader in and ensures that they are held captive by the compelling quest.  I was honestly a fan of this book the moment I read the first line: “Kell Kressia, slayer of the Ice Lich and saviour of the Five Kingdoms, tripped on a rake and fell into a pile of horse shit.”  This perfectly set the scene for the entire novel, and showcased Aryan’s fun and compelling take on classic fantasy quest heroes.  The story initially develops primarily around Kell and showcases his severe emotional damage, as well as the fact that the legendary events of the past are mostly false, no matter what the bards and histories say.  Quickly dragged back into the fray by an ambitious king, Kell is tasked with travelling back to the scene of his last adventure and killing whatever evil he discovers there.  Naturally Kell, having learnt his lesson the first time, graciously accepts the request, and then tries to run away the first chance he gets.  However, thanks to a starstruck young man following in his footsteps, Kell is trapped into the mission and decides the best way to survive is to recruit a new bunch of heroes, and soon pulls together a small, eclectic group of rogues and warriors to take up the quest.

Most of these events take place in the first half of the book, and you really get to grips with the central characters while also fully understanding Kell and his pain.  Interspersed with flashbacks to the true story of the original quest, Aryan does a wonderful job of painting the risks of the upcoming journey to the reader, and you know that some brutal events are in store for the protagonists in the future.  At the same time, there is an excellent subplot that shows political intrigue throughout the Five Kingdoms, as a nefarious church attempts to take control of the lands, while the kings use Kell and his quest as pawns in a great political game.  This results in some dangerous moments for the protagonists on their way to their destination, and I liked the compelling and thrilling change of pace the dive into court politics presented.

Everything leads up to the big trek up North that dominates the second half of the book.  What follows is a bleak and captivating series of events that ensures that Kell and his companions hit every single monster and deadly creature that the author could think off, including wraiths, cunning ice sharks and an aggressive herd of lethal arctic beasts.  These scenes are all written extremely well, and Aryan does an excellent job of showcasing the deadly stakes of the mission, and there is even a memorable, and frankly surprising, tragedy just before the final major sequence.  This sequence, which sees the heroes re-enter the Ice Lich’s fortress, is paced extremely well, and leads to a brutal and intense final confrontation with their enemy.  While I did think that Aryan was a little too mysterious when it came to who or what this antagonist was, they certainly left their mark on the story, and it was fascinating to see their impacts.  Aryan fits in a couple of concluding chapters to set up the characters for the next book, while also containing some interesting surprises that will come into play in the future.  The reader comes away from The Coward extremely satisfied, and I felt that this was a very well-crafted narrative that not only stands on its own, but which leaves the reader curious to find out what happens next.

I deeply enjoyed the way that Aryan set this entire narrative up, and I felt that all the distinctive narrative threads fell into place extremely well.  Running at a swift and enjoyable pace, The Coward’s fantastic and elaborate story quickly drags you in, especially with its focus on a damaged protagonist and his new quest.  The author was extremely good at balancing deep and damaging character insights with a fast-paced action narrative, and you really had to feel for the protagonist as he revisited his trauma, while also selfishly encouraging him to keep going with the quest.  There is an excellent layer of dark humour over the entire story, and I liked how the action and adventure of the main storyline was well balanced by the alternate scenes of political intrigue that also set up the main villain of the second book.  I also deeply appreciated the captivating and clever dive into the dark side of an epic fantasy quest, and the traumatic memories of the events really shape the protagonist and the narrative in some excellent ways, while also proving to be an interesting and fun alternate perspective of classic fantasy novels.  Aryan features several fun allusions and homages to other iconic fantasy works in this book, and I appreciated his distinctive take on how a classic fantasy story adventure would really go.

I also quite enjoyed the fantastic and impressive new fantasy landscape that Aryan introduced in The Coward.  This first book is set in the Five Kingdoms, a collection of lands who are currently experiencing hardship, especially with a poor harvest and the increasing cold.  Despite the efforts of the authoritarian Church of the Shepherd to quash them, rumours abound that the Five Kingdoms are facing a threat from the north again, just like they did years before.  Aryan does a great job setting up the Five Kingdoms, and you swiftly get an idea of the many problems and conflicts befalling them, especially as their church is slowly increasing its influence and power, attempting to undermine its kings.  This proves rich ground for the early part of the narrative, and it was amazing to get introduced to this land.  I particularly loved the exploration of the myth of the protagonist throughout the lands, and the impact it had on the people, both in terms of morale and celebration, as well as politically.  Having multiple characters recite a famous in-universe retelling of the original quest was particularly fun, especially as the inconsistencies and blatant lies attached to them soon become extremely apparent.  The best setting in the entire book, however, was easily the North, were much of the second half of the book takes place.  Although it is similar to other famous fantasy winter landscapes, Aryan works to make his fairly distinctive, especially with the unique creatures and threats that lurk within.  The author really makes the landscape seem as brutal, barren and isolated as possible, and it is very intense to see the characters travel through it, particularly when Kell encounters remnants of the original quest, and is forced to relive his previous horrors again.  I had a lot of fun exploring Aryan’s intriguing world in this book and I look forward to seeing how it is expanded out in the sequel.

While I deeply enjoyed the narrative and had a great time exploring the new fantasy realm, easily the best thing about this book is the character work.  Aryan has done a real masterclass with some of the characters in The Coward, and you swiftly get attached to the main band of heroes, especially the protagonist Kell Kressia, all of whom are damaged or hiding something.  Watching them endure through terrible hardship and come together as a group is just wonderful, and I loved how attached I ended up feeling them as the novel progressed.

Most of the focus of the plot is directed to Kell Kressia, the titular coward.  Kell is a fantastic and memorable figure who draws you in with his unique story of woe.  The lone survivor of a legendary quest he undertook as a naïve teenager, Kell suffered a lot during the previous journey, and despite the renown and love lauded upon him, Kell ended up with nothing to show for his quest and has lived a simple life ever since.  In the current story, Kell has grown up significantly and is now content to be alone.  However, when he is sent on another quest, he attempts to flee, only to be dragged in against his will.  I really appreciated the development that Aryan put into Kell, especially as I figured that the twist would be that he’s a fraud.  However, despite the title, you realise that Kell isn’t really a coward; instead he is a deeply traumatised man who is now wise enough not to repeat the mistakes of his youth.  Rather than seeking battle, he tries to avoid it, but when he is forced to complete the quest, he reveals himself to be quite competent and able to lead his companions, even if he doesn’t want to.  I had an amazing time with Kell in this book, and you really sympathise with him once you find out the whole truth behind him.  I loved seeing how much he matured since the original quest, and the canny and realistic new hero is a very understandable figure as a result.  Aryan builds in a bit of closure for Kell in The Coward, especially as he comes to terms with the dark events from his past and finally starts to move on, but he does have to suffer some more tragedy along the way.  I also liked seeing him manipulate and utilise his status as a legendary hero throughout the book, even if he doesn’t believe it, and it was fun to see people who knew in the past underestimate him, not realising how much he’s grown up.  Kell is an excellent and impressive protagonist, and I can’t wait to see what Aryan puts him through next.

Another major character I need to highlight is Gerren, a young and idealistic teenager.  Following Kell’s example from the stories, Gerren finds Kell on his quest and stubbornly follows along, attempting to become a hero in his own right, despite Kell’s many attempts to get rid of him.  Realising that Kell doesn’t want to be there and means to run away, Gerren becomes quite angry and uses Kell’s own legend to trap him in the quest.  However, the further he travels with Kell and the heroes, the more he realises that Kell was right, and he soon regrets his decision.  I loved how Aryan used Gerren in The Coward, as the character essentially ends up being a younger version of Kell, making all the mistakes that his hero did, and becoming a dark mirror to him.  Watching Gerren mimic Kell’s life is pretty moving for all involved, and I loved seeing Kell’s reaction, especially as he tries to save Gerren from all the pain he suffered, which results in some amazing scenes.  Aside from being an emotional anchor on Kell, Gerren also goes through quite a lot of development in his storyline, as he grows from naïve kid to serious adventurer.  Watching his resentment to Kell grow and then fade when he realises what Kell was trying to protect him from is amazing, and you really wish that he would turn back at some point, not just for his sake but for Kell’s.  You also grow really attached to Gerren as the book goes on, and he served as an intriguing companion to the protagonist and really helped amp up the dramatic heft of Kell’s trauma.

Aside from Kell and Gerren, I really must highlight the rest of the fantastic band of heroes that travel with him, as Aryan brings together an eclectic and complex group, each of whom are there for very different reasons.  This includes the mysterious but entertaining bard Vahli, the hilarious pairing of Bronwyn and Malormir, two outrageous heroes with many a tale behind their deeds, and the monstrous but heroic non-human character of Willow.  Willow is probably the most intriguing out of these, as her entire species is something of a mystery, with a strange connection to the events of the plot.  Willow grows to be quite a significant figure as the book continues, and I am looking forward to seeing how the author expands on her in the future.  All these characters and more (the villainous Revenant Mother Britak was a fantastic secondary antagonist), were very impressive, and their unique and powerful adventure, as well as the many deep secrets in their past, help to turn The Coward into an exceptional character driven novel.

Like many great epic fantasy books, I would strongly recommend The Coward’s audiobook format.  Narrated by actor Matt Wycliffe, The Coward flows along at an excellent pace as an audiobook, and you really get caught up in the adventure and epic fight scenes out on the snow.  Wycliffe does some amazing and fitting voices for the various characters, and you really get caught up in their personalities and emotional depths through this narration.  With a run time of just under 15 hours, this is a slightly lengthy audiobook to get through, but I found myself powering through a very short amount of time thanks to the compelling story and characters.  A wonderful way to enjoy this amazing and clever novel.

Overall, The Coward by Stephen Aryan was one of the more captivating and intriguing fantasy novels of 2021 and it is one that is well worth checking out.  I loved elaborate narrative and impressive character work in this outstanding read, and readers will find themselves getting dragged into its compelling adventure tale.  I had an exceptional time with The Coward last year, and I really regret not reviewing it sooner.  I will hopefully read the next book in this duology, The Warrior, in the coming weeks, and I have no doubt it will be just as awesome as The Coward.

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Throwback Thursday: Blood Rites by Jim Butcher

Blood Rite Cover

Publisher: Penguin Audio (Audiobook – 3 August 2004)

Series: Dresden Files – Book Six

Length: 13 hours and 5 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 keep diving into the epic Dresden Files urban fantasy series with the impressive sixth book, Blood Rites.

Last week, in my review for the outstanding fifth book in the Dresden Files series, Death Masks, I mentioned how I had also started listening to the next book in the series, Blood Rites.  I honestly had so much fun reading Death Masks last week (as I did with the rest of the Dresden Files series, such as Storm Front, Fool Moon, Grave Peril, Summer Knight, Battle Ground and The Law), that I had to immediately dive into the next book as soon as I could.  The sixth novel in the series, Blood Rites, was another epic novel which had an impressive and captivating plot to it.

Harry Dresden, Chicago’s resident wizard and protector from the paranormal, continues to eke out a deadly living through his chaotic career of odd mystical jobs while also defending the city against the worst monsters lurking in the shadows.  However, his latest job may place him in the most uncomfortable spot yet, on the set of an adult movie, which finds itself under attack from a deadly and relentless curse.

Taking the case as a favour to his vampire friend and suspicious ally Thomas Raith, Dresden goes undercover on set and attempts to discover who is responsible for cursing the movie’s cast and crew, and why.  However, Dresden’s heroics on set make him a target, and he soon finds the curse striking at him, attempting to end his investigation before he can find the magical murderer.  Worse, enemies old and new are bursting out of the shadows, as two separate courts of vampires attempt to strike Dresden down.

As Dresden continues to search for the murderer wielding the curse, he is forced to fend off attacks from the lethal Black Court.  Led by a powerful elder vampire with a serious grudge against Dresden, the Black Court will stop at nothing to destroy him and any of his friends that gets in their way.  However, the greatest threat may reside in the White Court, to which Thomas belongs.  The White Court vampires are manipulative and subtle killers, using their alluring presence to suck the life out of everyone they touch.  Caught between warring members of the White Court family, Dresden must use all his wits to escape their wrath and uncover hidden truths if he is to survive.  But what secret from the past connects Dresden to the White Court and their machinations, and is Dresden really ready for the dark knowledge waiting for him?

Whelp, it seems that it is pretty impossible for Butcher to write a dud novel.  Blood Rites is an exceptional addition to the wider Dresden Files series, and it was another one that I have no choice but to give a full five-star review to.  Featuring an intense and deeply captivating narrative, Blood Rites was an incredible read and I quickly got sucked into its unique story, compelling mysteries and dark, damaged characters.

I just loved the elaborate, dark and powerful narrative that Butcher featured in Blood Rites, as the author comes up with a complex tale that expertly brings together a dark urban fantasy with a thrilling murder mystery storyline.  Like the rest of the Dresden Files books, Blood Rites exclusively follows protagonist and point-of-view character Harry Dresden as he finds himself forced to face off against a series of dangers and threats at the same time.  The most prominent of these includes an investigation into a deadly curse aimed at the female employees of an adult entertainment studio, which sees Dresden go undercover on set to try and save the remaining cast and determine who the killer is.  This also leads him into a confrontation with the White Court of the vampires, especially when his vampire friend, Thomas Raith, requests his help.  At the same time, vampires from the Black Court are after Dresden for his actions in Grave Peril, which forces him to call in some major backup to take them on.  Unfortunately, this also leads him into conflict with his supposed allies, as well as his former mentor, when secrets from the past are revealed.  Dresden is also hit with a whole bundle of personal drama, especially when he discovers unfortunate truths about his long-dead mother, and there is an interesting growth in the relationship between him and several supporting characters.

As a result, there are many plot elements scattered around Blood Rites, which makes for quite an elaborate overall story.  Luckily, Butcher does an excellent job of introducing all these separate narrative threads to the reader, and you swiftly get drawn into all of them.  After a good and necessary bit of setup, the story roars off at a quick and captivating pace, and the reader has a great time jumping from storyline to storyline.  Everything starts to come together near the middle of the book, where you get some excellent action scenes, including a particularly funny death sequence involving a vampire and a frozen turkey, and the fallout of these scenes leads to some great dramatic moments with big personal revelations.  Following this, the story zooms along, and you soon find a partial and problematic solution to the murder case, while the protagonist is also forced to deal with an all-out assault on the Black Court, while also dealing with dark secrets from his allies.  The attack on the Black Court was one of the best sequences in the book, and the surrounding drama results in some major revelations that fans of the series will lap up.  The remaining storylines then come together perfectly for the finale, as Dresden solves the murder and faces off against its overall architect in a brilliant and extended dark sequence.  I loved how this entire narrative unfolded, and some of the concluding notes will leave you wanting to dive into the rest of the series to see what happens next.

To bring Blood Rites’ great story to life, Butcher utilises his typical style and techniques, which I always immensely enjoy.  The entire narrative is paced perfectly, and you quickly get drawn into the various plotlines, especially with their great combination of characters, intriguing plots, fantasy elements, and dramatic moments.  All of this is overlayed with Butcher’s distinctive humour, most of which is expelled through his cocky point-of-view protagonist, and it helps to enhance the overall powerful and entertainment of the book, especially when the protagonist tries to deflect from his many issues with comedy.  The narrative pretty much goes non-stop, and you get bounced through multiple excellent and powerful scenes, all of which are very fun to see.  I loved how the author balanced out action, character growth, universe building and more in each of the sequences, and there is something quite entertaining and fun for all manner of readers.  I wasn’t as keen on Butcher’s continued attempts to spice up the story with more adult themes, such as the adult film set or the lust-inducing White Court vampires, although it was pretty tame compared to some of the scenes in the last book (that bondage scene, yikes!), and Butcher wove some very compelling narratives around all of them that I deeply enjoyed.  I did enjoy how inclusive Butcher made this novel to new readers, and anyone could easily jump into Blood Rites and enjoy it, even if they haven’t read a Dresden Files book before.  However, there is also a lot to appeal to established fans of the series, especially as there are multiple major reveals and secrets featured here, many of which will lead to big story moments down the track.  As such, I deeply appreciated how this story came together, and pretty much everyone will have a great time getting through it.

I really enjoyed some of the cool fantasy elements featured throughout Blood Rites as Butcher seeks to expand on the lore and magic of his unique universe.  There are some great and intriguing fantasy inclusions here, with the obvious focus being on the various Vampire Courts.  The three main factions of Vampires have all been featured in previous books, although most of the focus has been on the Red Court, whom Dresden is at war with.  Blood Rites, however, has a far bigger spotlight on the two of the other courts who have major differences in powers and appearances.  Most of the focus is on the White Court, who are essentially this universe’s version of succubi, extremely beautiful and seductive creatures who feed off the life energy of those who desire them.  The White Court go on to become a major faction in the Dresden Files series, but this is one of the first books that fully explores them in substantial detail.  As such, you quickly get across their unique abilities, strengths, weaknesses and powers throughout this book, and they come across as quite a distinctive group as a result.  You really get to understand their entire society and worldview, as well as seeing some very different members of the factions, and Butcher writes some compelling storylines around them, while also putting in some very vivid depictions of their powers in action.  I loved how sinister and villainous members of the White Court appear at times, and there is something quite insidious about their abilities that creeps out the protagonists and reader.  A truly complex and excellent group that I had a lot of fun exploring.

Almost in direct comparison to the White Court is the Black Court.  The Black Court are a completely different group of living dead, portrayed more like the classic vampires from Bram Stoker’s novel (indeed, the Dracula novel was an elaborate propaganda attack by their enemies).  Shown as ugly, decaying, blood-hungry creatures that are more monsters than their original human forms, the Black Court are a much more obvious threat with much clearer motives.  There are some brutal and powerful scenes featuring the Black Court in this book, and it was really interesting to see Dresden and his allies go up against them with some classic vampire-hunting weapons, albeit with some fun modern twists to them.  I also deeply appreciated the fantastic parallels between the Black Court and the White Court vampires featured in the Blood Rites; whilst they are both extremely dangerous, their diverse methods and powers troubled Dresden in different ways.  These cool vampires, plus some other great new supernatural threats, added a lot to the complexity of the narrative and I loved the excellent detail and lore that Butcher imbued them with.

As usual, one of the highlights of this Dresden Files book is the compelling and impressive characters the story revolves around.  Butcher features an intriguing and fantastic group of characters in this book, with a compelling blend of established supporting characters and several new figures, many of whom will go on to have substantial roles in the rest of the series.  I had a brilliant time with all these characters, especially as Butcher endeavours to write some outstanding and distinctive storylines around them.

As usual, the most prominent character is Harry Dresden, the wizard protagonist and point-of-view character of the series.  Like most of the recent books, Blood Rites is an emotionally damaging book for Dresden.  Not only is he forced to deal with another harrowing case that racks his sanity, but he also finds out some long-buried secrets that prove quite damaging to behold.  In particular, there is a deep dive into his past and his missing family, both of which are hard subjects for him, and he finds himself with some unexpected connections that he has long been missing.  It was truly fascinating to see this long buried and painful part of Dresden’s past explored, and Butcher ensures that the reader gets struck in the feels with some of the powerful scenes that are explored.  Other interactions and reveals see Dresden re-evaluate some of his relationships in this novel, and there were some intriguing and harsh discussions between him and other characters as a result.  I did think that Butcher is over-playing the whole chivalrous-to-a-fault aspect of Dresden, as he continues to be a tad sexist and constantly underestimates woman, usually to his own detriment.  It’s honestly getting a little old, and I hope it gets phased out a bit in future books.  Still, I deeply enjoyed the fantastic development around Dresden in Blood Rites, and it greatly enhanced the narrative.

This book also featured a great appearance from previous supporting characters Karrin Murphy and Thomas Raith, who both play a major role in Blood Rites.  This proved to be quite a pivotal novel for both characters, and I really appreciated the way that Butcher built on their previous appearances and used them to write some impressive and powerful storylines around them.  This proves to be one of the more intriguing looks at Murphy so far in the series, especially as it dives into her complicated family life, and I liked the early hints here about the future relationship between her and Dresden.  Murphy gets dragged far further into Dresden’s magical activities than ever before here, and she is forced to balance her responsibilities as a cop with the necessity of killing monsters, something she has great difficulty with.  An overall badass character, Murphy has some brilliant and action-packed scenes in Blood Rites, and I love how well she serves as a foil to the more ridiculous Dresden.

Thomas, on the other hand, gets quite an intense and deeply personal storyline here as you get the most in-depth look at this elusive and compelling vampire character.  Not only do you get a great look at the rest of his family as the book explores the White Court, but you finally find the reasons why he is always helping Dresden, which leads to some emotional and compelling scenes.  A lot of time is also spent exploring the battle between Thomas’s humanity and the monster within, especially when it comes to feeding on those around him.  This comes to a head when his need to feed and survive hurts someone close to him and he has trouble coming to terms with what he’s done, especially when Dresden harshly confronts him.  Throw in his complicated family and intense daddy issues, and Thomas goes through the emotional wringer in this book, which proves to be very illuminating.  Butcher sets Thomas up as quite a substantial supporting character in this book, and I look forward to seeing more of him in the future.

Aside from these main characters, there is also a great collection of supporting characters who add a lot to the story, and there are some awesome appearances here.  I really enjoyed seeing more of mysterious mercenary Kincaid in this book, especially after his fun appearance in Death Masks.  Kincaid is a badass killer who is hired by Dresden to kill the Black Court, only to end up being a bigger threat to Dresden when the wizard lacks to money to pay him.  Kincaid has some excellent and action-packed scenes, and I was intrigued by his backstory, especially the hints at his dark, dark past.  I also loved the use of Dresden’s mentor, Ebenezar McCoy, an older wizard who raised him and taught him magic.  Butcher writes some amazing scenes around McCoy, especially once Dresden finds out just how many secrets the old man has been keeping from him.  Throw in a batch of great vampire characters (including the sinister Lord Raith and the compelling Lara Raith), some entertaining members of the adult film industry (including the fantastic diva Trixie Vixen), and the first appearance of Mouse, Dresden’s puppy, and you have an amazing cast of characters here that Butcher gleefully and impressively wraps the story around.  Each of these characters is very fun and intriguing in their own way, and I loved the elaborate and moving scenes that they star in.

Naturally I chose to check out Blood Rites on audiobook, which I maintain is the absolute best way to enjoy the Dresden Files books.  The captivating story and excellent characters really fit into this format extremely well, and I find myself absorbing the narrative and the author’s fantastic style a lot better this way.  With a runtime of just over 13 hours, Blood Rites is the noticeably longer than the previous books in the series (they get progressively longer and longer as the series goes, with some later books like Cold Days reaching nearly 19 hours in length).  Despite the increased run time, I still found myself knocking this audiobook off in no time at all, especially once I got stuck into the excellent and powerful story.  I must also highlight the incredible voice work of the always awesome James Marsters, who did another spectacular job narrating this fantastic novel.  At this point in the series, Marsters has really hit his stride when it comes to narrating, and he voices each audiobook with some impressive passion, effortlessly bringing the dark events and complex characters to life and ensuring that everything sticks in the listener’s mind.  All the characters are voiced extremely well, with the highlight again being protagonist Harry Dresden, who Marsters inhabits effortlessly.  He really understands the character’s anguish, pain, and dark humour, and this comes across in his narration perfectly.  Thanks to his epic performance in Blood Rites, and the other Dresden Files audiobooks, Marsters remains one of my favourite audiobook narrators, and I cannot recommend the Blood Rites audiobook enough as a result.

My dive into the early Dresden Files novels continues to be incredibly epic, as I once again fell in love with one of Jim Butcher’s unique reads, Blood Rites.  This fantastic novel has so much going for it, and I had a brilliant time exploring the powerful urban fantasy/crime fiction based narrative.  Featuring a deeply compelling mystery, a ton of intriguing parallel storylines, and some impressive and emotionally charged character development, Blood Rites is another exceptional book that is so much fun to get through.  Honestly, if I didn’t have such a backlog of awesome recent audiobook releases, I would probably be diving into the seventh Dresden Files novel right now, but hopefully I will get a chance later this year.  If you haven’t checked out the Dresden Files books after my previous glowing reviews, then you really need to get your butt into gear and start reading them now!

Hide by Kiersten White

Hide Cover

Publisher: Penguin Random House Audio (Audiobook – 24 May 2022)

Series: Standalone/Book One

Length: 8 hours and 9 minutes

My Rating: 3.75 out of 5 stars

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Get ready to run and scurry for cover in the intriguing new horror thriller from Kiersten White, Hide.  Kiersten White is a captivating author who is known for her young adult and tie-in fiction novels.  I best know her for her work on the extended universe of franchises like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, where she recently wrote a series of novels about a new Slayer, which started with the 2019 release Slayer.  White is also making some waves this year with the new Star Wars young adult novel, Padawan, which follows a young Obi-Wan Kenobi and which is pretty high up on my to-read list.  However, her 2022 release that intrigued me the most was the thriller release, HideHide had a great concept to it and I couldn’t resist checking it out in the last week to see what it was all about.

Mack is good at hiding.  She’s spent her whole life doing it after it worked so well to save her life as a child while her family died around her.  However, after years of avoiding people, Mack is running out of options and money.  So when a strange challenge arises, Mack has no choice but to accept, even if it brings back terrible nightmares from her past.

A mysterious corporation is sponsoring a new and unique reality competition with a prize of $50,000 to the winner.  The challenge is simple: survive a week hiding in a creepy abandoned amusement park and don’t get found.  The last person left hidden is crowned the winner and gets enough money to change everything.

Competing against a group of similarly desperate and determined young people, each of whom is hoping that this game will turn their life around, Mack thinks the odds are in her favour to win.  However, there is something far more sinister going on than any of the contestants know.  As the people around her start disappearing, one by one, Mack and the rest of the competitors begin to realise that something else is in the park with them, something that is hungry and unrelenting.  Come out, come out, wherever you are.

This was an intriguing and fun book from White that I managed to get through in a few days.  I loved the excellent premise behind Hide and I think that the author produced a pretty good story that appeals to both horror and thriller fans.  While the book has a slightly slow start to it, once the competition starts I found myself getting pretty into it as I was very keen to see what happened.  White ratchets up the tension day by day as the competition continues, and I think that the increased level of threat and uncertainty that occurred helped to keep my attention and make me want to figure out what is going on.  There are some interesting revelations about halfway through the book that I thought were pretty clever, especially the reveal about what exactly is chasing them and why.  Once that happens, it’s a pretty high-octane fight for survival that results in some fantastic and compelling moments.  While there were still a few questions left over by the end of the book, I think White ended Hide pretty well and everything came together in interesting way.  I do wish that there the competition was a bigger part of the plot, as that could have been pretty cool, but I guess you can’t have everything.

White utilised an interesting storyline telling method to get Hide’s narrative across, which worked for the most part but had a few issues.  While the story is primarily focused around Mack, the book does quickly jump between the other characters in the book, giving some brief insights into their thoughts and history.  While this worked to keep you in the loop about every contestant, it was a bit random at times and I felt that it impacted the pacing of the story, especially when it jumped between multiple perspectives in a very short amount of time.  I also felt that the use of jumps resulted in some missing details in places, such as when some characters are removed from the contest without you realising it.  I did think that White did a good job inserting the background lore behind the events of the book into the story through a series of journal entries, and that part of the book was quite fascinating, although I wouldn’t have minded a bit of a deeper dive.  There is also quite a bit of social commentary chucked into the mix as well, especially when it comes to exploring the motives of the unsurprising villains, plus you must appreciate the strong LGBT+ elements thrown in as well.  The story itself had a mostly fine flow to it, and you do feel the fear and terror of the contestants once they realise what is going on.  All of this worked pretty well in the end, and I think that the story came across in a pretty accessible and compelling way.

White focuses the story on an interest group of protagonists, each of whom has their own reason to be there.  Due to the way that the narrative jumps around to examine different characters, you get a decent look into the heads of each of the competitors, as well as some other characters, and you soon get some insights into why each of them is there.  It soon becomes apparent that each contestant is pretty desperate and broken in their own way, which I felt added to the drama and intensity of the story.  However, due to the quick-fire change in perspective, the reader isn’t given a lot of time to bond with most of the characters, and their eventual fates aren’t too shocking or moving as a result.  The main exception to this is Mack, who you do spend quite a lot of time with.  Mack has a very tragic backstory (it reminded me of last year’s book, The Final Girls Support Group by Grady Hendrix), which becomes a major part of her motivations and trauma in Hide.  Watching her attempt to overcome her dark past and her reservations for being there is pretty intense, and there was some interesting character work there, as well as a potential for new friendships and romance.  A couple of other characters who survive towards the end of the book (I won’t mention who) are also developed to a decent degree, and I felt that some of the story arcs around them were pretty intense as well.  It was a little obvious which of them was going to survive and who was going to die, even with a few twists thrown in, although I did appreciate a few surprise changes in motivations that worked really well.  An overall interesting group of characters, I do wish that we could have gotten to know a few of them a little better though.

I ended up listening to Hide on audiobook, which worked as an excellent format to enjoy this interesting horror read.  Hide has a pretty short runtime of just over eight hours, so if you get caught in the story you can get through it rather quickly.  I felt that this format did help to emphasise the tension and the rising panic of the protagonists, especially as narrator Emma Galvin does a good job telling the story.  Galvin had an excellent voice that was pretty fitting to this setting and story genre, and she ended up doing a good job personifying the main characters.  I rather enjoyed the tone and intensity that Galvin brought to this audiobook, and I felt that this was a fantastic format to check out Hide on.

Overall, I had a lot of fun with Hide and Kiersten White came up with a great story that I really enjoyed.  While I do think that there were a few missed opportunities and pacing issues in places, this mostly came together pretty well and I think fans of exciting novels with horror elements to it will have a great time with Hide.  An interesting book that is worth checking out.

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Star Wars: The High Republic: Midnight Horizon by Daniel José Older

Star Wars - Midnight Horizon Cover

Publisher: Disney Lucasfilm Press (Audiobook – 1 February 2022)

Series: Star Wars – The High Republic

Length: 10 hours and 5 minutes

My Rating: 4.75 out of 5 stars

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The first phase of The High Republic Star Wars novels continues to come to an intriguing end with the phase’s third young adult entry, Midnight Horizon, a deeply exciting and fun novel from the talented Daniel José Older.

Since the start of 2021, fans of Star Wars fiction have been granted a unique treat in the form of The High Republic books, a Star Wars sub-series set hundreds of years before the events of the films.  Set at the height of the Republic, the High Republic era is loaded with dangers for the Jedi, particularly that of the Nihil, dangerous raiders who seek to raid, pillage, and destabilise order, while their mysterious leader attempts a far more ambitious plan: the destruction of the Jedi.  Broken down into three phases, the first phase was pretty epic and set up the entire High Republic premise extremely well.  This phase has featured a great collection, including the three main adult novels, Light of the Jedi, The Rising Storm, The Fallen Star; some intriguing young adult books; the audio drama Tempest Runner; two awesome comic book series; as well as some other media releases.  However, this first phase has come to an end, and I just managed to finish off one of the novels that served as its conclusion with Midnight Horizon.

Midnight Horizon is the third young adult fiction novel set within the first High Republic phase, and it is probably the best.  This book was written by Daniel José Older, who has authored several great Star Wars novels over his career, including Last Shot, which was one of the books that started my recent obsession with Star Wars extended fiction, and who has been one of the key contributors to The High RepublicMidnight Horizon is set around the same time as the last adult book of the phase, The Fallen Star, and continues storylines from some of the previous books, including the other two young adult books Into the Dark and Out of the Shadows, as well as the Star Wars Adventures comic series and the junior novel Race to Crashpoint Tower.

Following the devastating Nihil attack on the Republic Fair, the Nihil raiders are finally on the run from the Jedi of Starlight Beacon.  However, not everything is as it seems, and several mysterious events and attacks are beginning to occur around the galaxy.  One of the more alarming rumours of Nihil activity has been sent from the planet of Corellia, home of the galaxy’s premier shipyards, where a now missing diplomatic bodyguard was attacked by mysterious killers wearing Nihil garb.

Determined to ensure that the chaos of the Nihil does not spread to the core planets of the Republic, the Jedi dispatch the small team of Jedi Masters Cohmac Vitus and Kantam Sy, as well as Padawans Reath Silas and Ram Jomaram, to investigate.  All four Jedi have substantial experience dealing with the Nihil, but each of them is going through their own personal internal battles as they struggle to deal with recent losses.  Nevertheless, the Jedi embark upon their investigation into Corellia and soon find unusual help from young security specialist Crash, the employer and friend of the missing bodyguard.

While Cohmac and Kantam attempt to investigate through official channels, Reath and Ram work with the chaotic Crash and her unusual security specialists to infiltrate Corellia’s high society.  Crash believes that one of her elite clients has knowledge about the Nihil infiltrators and embarks on an ambitious plan to draw them out, setting up Jedi associate Zeen as a famous singer.  However, nobody is prepared for the Nihil’s plans, both on Corellia and at Starlight Beacon, and chaos is about to be unleashed upon the Jedi and all of Corellia.  Can the Jedi stand against their foe when all hope seems lost, or will the Nihil continue to sweep across the entire galaxy?

Midnight Horizon was an exceptional entry in the High Republic series, and I was particularly impressed with the cool and epic story it contained.  Older came up with a brilliant and powerful narrative that combines a fast-paced story with great characters and some interesting High Republic developments.

This entry in the High Republic range had a very distinctive and compelling young adult story that sees all manner of chaos and action befall its protagonists.  Older wrote a very fast-paced, character driven narrative that takes the reader to the world of Corellia.  Drawing in an interesting team of entertaining and chaotic protagonists, all of whom are going through some major issues, Older sets them on a path to a major confrontation, while all of them try to come to terms with their roiling emotions.  The author sets most of the story up extremely well at the start of the book, and the reader soon gets quickly invested in seeing the Jedi investigate the Nihil on Corellia.  The story goes in some very interesting directions as everyone tries to identify the Nihil plot, with the best ones following the two Jedi Padawans as they team up with young bodyguard Crash.  Crash has some elaborate and over-the-top plans that she drags them into, including tricking a rare species eating diva named Crufeela, and this proves to be a lot of fun, while also setting up the final act of the story.  At the same time, Older also throws in some intriguing flashbacks to one of the character’s pasts, as well as showing a few scenes outside of Corellia, all of which adds some greater context to the story as well as adding to the amazing emotional depth of the novel.

Everything comes together brilliantly in the final third of Midnight Horizon, where the Nihil plot on Corellia is revealed, simultaneously occurring at the revelation of the fall of Starlight Beacon (which you knew was coming).  I must admit that until this final third, I kind of found Midnight Horizon to be a bit by the numbers, although undeniably fun, but the way everything came about near the end was pretty awesome, as the characters are thrust into an all-out war.  There are multiple pitched battles, tragic deaths and surprise reveals occurring during this part of the book, and you are constantly hit with big moment after big moment as it continues.  I honestly couldn’t stop at this point in the book, as I desperately wanted to see what happened next, and I was sure that I was seconds away from bursting into either tears or cheers.  My determination to continue really paid off, as Older saved the best revelation for right near the end as there is a really big moment that changes everything and is sure to get every Star Wars fan deeply excited.  Older leaves everything on an exciting and powerful note, and readers will come away feeling deeply moved.  It will definitely keep them highly interested in The High Republic as a whole.

The author really worked to give Midnight Horizon an extremely fast pace, and it is near impossible not to swiftly power through this book as it blurs around you.  Shown from the perspective of all the key protagonists, you get a great sense of all the impressive events occurring throughout the book, while also getting some powerful and intense examinations into their respective heads.  Older presents the reader with an excellent blend of universe building, character work, humour and action throughout Midnight Horizon, and there is a little something for everyone here, guaranteeing that it keeps your constant interest and attention.  I do think that the story as a whole could have benefited from greater development of the book’s villains.  They honestly came a bit out of nowhere towards the end and you really didn’t get an appreciation of who they were (some of it is explored in some of Older’s other works).  I really wish that Older would have shown a few more scenes from the villain’s point of view, highlighting the establishment of their plans a little better, and I felt that really would have increased the impact of the book, but I still had a lot of fun with it.

Midnight Horizon also proved to be a pretty good young adult novel, especially as it shows multiple compelling and well-written teenage characters in dangerous situations, and I loved the powerful exploration of their unique issues, especially the constant uncertainty and doubt about what they are doing.  There are also some major LGBT+ elements scattered throughout this novel, which I thought were done really well, as you get a range of different relationships, orientations, sexualities and fluid genders throughout the book, and I loved seeing this sort of inclusivity in Star Wars.  I also liked the easier flow that Older featured in the novel, which I felt was associated with the younger characters, and it worked quite well to quickly and efficiently tell this book’s fantastic narrative.  While this is a young adult book, there are some great darker themes that all readers will appreciate, and I loved how it developed into a brutal and powerful war at the end.

Midnight Horizon proved to be an interesting entry in the wider High Republic series, as it served as one of the last books in the first phase.  Since it is set alongside The Fallen Star, the readers get a whole other side of this key tragedy in Midnight Horizon, as the established characters all witness the fall of Starlight Beacon and the corresponding changes to the galaxy.  At the same time, it does some interesting exploring of the key planet of Corellia during this period, gives some hints about some events that will appear in the upcoming second High Republic phase, while also setting up some other key moments for the future.  However, the most significant thing that Midnight Horizon does for the High Republic is continue and conclude multiple key storylines and character plot lines that were started in other bits of work, such as the other High Republic young adult books.  It also provides an intriguing sequel to Older’s junior fiction novel, Race to Crashpoint Tower, and actually serves as the conclusion to The High Republic Adventures comic series, also written by Older.  The High Republic Adventures was one of the major comic lines for this phase of the sub-series, and fans of it really need to check this book out as it details the fates of several of its main characters.  I had a great time seeing how some of these storylines continue in Midnight Horizon, and Older did a great job of bringing everything together in this novel, while also making it quite accessible to newer readers who haven’t had a chance to read the comics.  That being said, good knowledge of the preceding High Republic works is probably a good thing to have for this novel, although Older does make sure to give as much background as possible as he goes.

As I have mentioned a few times throughout this review, Midnight Horizon was highly character focused, as the author brings in an interesting collection of main characters to base the story around.  All the major point-of-view characters have been featured in previous pieces of High Republic fiction before (mostly in Older’s work), and the author ensures that they all get detailed and compelling storylines in this novel that not only revisit their complex appearances in previous books, but also brings all their storylines to an intriguing close for this phase.  Older also spend a substantial time diving into the minds of these protagonists, which added some impressive emotional depth to the book, as all the characters experience deep traumas or regrets, especially after fighting the Nihil for so long.  This resulted in quite a moving read, and while I do think that Older might have used a few too-many supporting characters, this ended up being an exceptional character focused novel, and I really appreciated the clever way the author explored his protagonists and showed the events of this book through their eyes.

The best two characters in this book are the two Jedi Padawans, Reath Silas and Ram Jomaram, who serves as Midnight Horizon’s heart and soul.  I was particularly keen to see Reath Silas again, as he has been the constant protagonist of the High Republic young adult books and is a pretty major figure as a result.  Older is the third Star Wars author who has featured Reath as one of their main characters, and I do like how consistent the various authors have been while showcasing his growth and emotional damage.  Reath is going through quite a lot in Midnight Horizon, as he continues to try and balance his duty as a Jedi with the mass trauma he has experience in the last two books, his conflicted emotions, penchant for personal connections, and general uncertainty about what he is doing.  Despite this, he proves to be a steadfast and dependable character, and it is hard not to grow attached to his continued story, especially as he has developed so much from the first book from scholarly shut-in to badass warrior.  Reath’s narrative comes full circle in Midnight Horizon, and fans of this character will really appreciate how Older features him in this book.

I also had a lot of fun with Ram Jomaram, who was such a joy to follow.  Ram is an eccentric and unusual Padawan who first appeared in the concurrently released The Rising Storm and Race to Crashpoint Tower.  A mechanical genius with poor social skills and who is always accompanied by a group of Bonbraks (tiny sentient creatures), Ram brings most of the fun to the book with his antics and complete lack of situational awareness.  While I initially didn’t like Jam (mainly because I found out he was the Jedi who first came up with calling cool things “Wizard”), he really grows on you quickly with is exceedingly perky personality.  It was so much fun to see him in action throughout the book, and he gets into some unusual situations as a result.  Despite mostly being a friendly and cheerful figure, Ram is also going through some major emotions in Midnight Horizon, as he witnessed his home planet get ravaged by the Nihil in The Rising Storm, and he is now very uncertain about the emotions he feels while getting into battle.  This sees Ram form a great friendship with Reath throughout the book, and the two play off each other extremely well, bringing not only some fun humour but an interesting mentor-mentee connection.  Ram ends up showing everyone just how much of a badass he is towards the end of the book, and I honestly had an amazing time getting to know this character.

There is also an interesting focus on the two Jedi Masters, Cohmac Vitus and Kantam Sy.  Both go through some interesting and major moments in Midnight Horizon, and you really get some powerful insights from both.  Cohmac’s story is an intense and intriguing examination of trauma as you see this Master continue to struggle with his history and inability to process emotion.  These issues have been building within Cohmac since his introduction in Into the Dark, and it was fascinating to see them continue to impact him here, especially once he discovers what happened at Starlight Beacon to one of his closest friends.  Kantam Sy is a nonbinary character who has been primarily featured in The High Republic Adventures comic.  You get a much more in-depth look at Kantam in this book, especially as Older spends time developing several flashbacks around him that examine his complex past as one of Yoda’s students.  Kantam’s team-up with Cohmac proves to be an intriguing part of the book’s plot, and it was compelling to see the more balanced Kantam witness Cohmac’s building anger and frustration.

The final two major characters are Zeen and Crash, both of whom have some interesting storylines in this book.  Zeen, a Force-sensitive teen who assists the Jedi, is one of the main characters from The High Republic Adventures comic, and many of her storylines are finished off here a little abruptly although in some interesting ways.  Most of her storyline is focused around her growing romantic relationship with Padawan Lula Talisola, who she has been close with during the series, and the resultant internal conflict as she tries to decide whether to act on it.  There are also some more damaging emotional moments for Zeen as she comes to terms with the actions of her old friend Kamerat and the tragedy of Starlight Beacon.  The other character is Alys Ongwa, better known as Crash, a diplomatic protection officer who specialises in protecting Corellia’s fractious and deadly political elite.  Crash is an interesting character who was first introduced in a one-shot comic written by Older, Crash and the Crew Do What They Do, and it was interesting to see her brought back here.  A skilled bodyguard and leader, Crash is an intense and highly motivated figure who enacts multiple crazy schemes to get what she wants, while also trying to be a good friend and boss.  Crash hits some major crossroads in Midnight Horizon, especially when she is forced to balance her oath as a bodyguard against justice for her friend and the safety of her city, and she is constantly forced to keep her own intense emotions in check.  I found Crash to be one of the most entertaining and enjoyable figures in Midnight Horizon and watching her and her chaotic crew of bodyguards in action is a lot of fun, especially when she plays of all the other protagonists really well, bringing out the recklessness in all of them.  However, Crash is also quite emotionally vulnerable, and it was nice to see her try to become a better friend while also working on her romantic attachments to a beautiful alien singer and lifelong friend.  I had a wonderful time with all these major characters in Midnight Horizon, and Older did a remarkable job highlighting them and ensuring the reader was aware of their many issues.

As with most Star Wars novels I read, I chose to grab a copy of Midnight Horizon’s audiobook format, which was the usual exceptional experience.  Featuring a short run time of just over 10 hours, Midnight Horizon is a quick and fun audiobook to get through, and I loved the various ways this format enhanced the fantastic story.  As usual, Midnight Horizon features all the amazing Star Wars sound effects for lightsabers, blasters and ships, which are used to punctuate the story elements being described and perfectly bring listeners into the moment.  It also made good use of some of the classic Star Wars music, which, even though it was used a little more sparingly in Midnight Horizon, deeply added to the atmosphere of the book and perfectly enhanced the emotional impact of several key scenes.

While the sound effects and music where as cool as always, the thing that really impressed me about the Midnight Horizon audiobook was the great choice of narrator in Todd Haberkorn.  I didn’t realise that Haberkorn was going to narrate this book until I started listening to it, and I was pretty blown away the second I realised that I got to listen to an audiobook read by Natsu himself.  I am a massive fan of Haberkorn’s work as the English voice actor for dubs of awesome anime like Fairy Tail and Full Metal Alchemist Brotherhood, so it was really cool to have him narrate this audiobook.  Not only that, but Haberkorn did an outstanding job bringing the various characters to life in Midnight Horizon and moving the story along at a blistering and fantastic pace.  Haberkorn’s voice perfectly fit the frenetic energy of this story, and I loved the distinctive and very fitting voices he gifted to the novel’s eccentric characters.  He also had a lot of fun voicing some of the unique alien creatures featured in the book, such as the Bonbraks, and he got to do a particularly good Yoda voice as well.  I had an absolute blast listening to Haberkorn narrate this awesome audiobook, and when combined with the great music and impressive sound effects, this was an exceptional way to listen to Midnight Horizon.  I would highly recommend this format as a result, and it probably added a few points to my overall rating because of how impressive it was.

Overall, Midnight Horizon was an excellent High Republic young adult novel that was a real treat to read.  Daniel José Older came up with an outstanding and fun story that was both exciting and powerful as he dives into his various fantastic and damaged protagonists.  Loaded with some awesome moments and epic developments, this was a great addition to the Star Wars canon, and I loved every second I spent listening to it.

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The Accomplice by Steve Cavanagh

The Accomplice Cover

Publisher: Orion (Trade Paperback – 26 July 2022)

Series: Eddie Flynn – Book Seven

Length: 323 pages

My Rating: 4.75 out of 5 stars

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The murder trial of the year is in session as brilliant legal thriller author Steve Cavanagh returns with his latest Eddie Flynn novel, The Accomplice.

Last year I had the great pleasure of reading a very fun and compelling thriller novel with The Devil’s Advocate, which was the sixth book in the Eddie Flynn series by talented author Steve Cavanagh.  I had heard of Cavanagh before last year, and indeed I already had a couple of his other books currently sitting on my to-read shelf, but this was the first real chance I had to read one of his novels.  I ended up being really impressed with The Devil’s Advocate, which pitted the series’ conman turned lawyer protagonist against a murderous southern prosecutor in a story that was wildly entertaining, extremely clever, and highly addictive.  As such, I have been rather eager to see what Cavanagh would write next, and his next book, The Accomplice, had been high on my upcoming books list for a while.  Well, I just received an advance copy of The Accomplice a couple of days ago and I immediately picked it up and started reading because it had such an awesome story idea behind it.

Carrie Miller is the most hated woman in America!  A seemingly normal and unassuming housewife, the world was shocked to discover that Carrie’s husband, Daniel Miller, was the notorious and brutal serial killer known as the Sandman.  After terrorising New York for months and killing 14 people, the Sandman suddenly vanished just as the police arrived to arrest him.  While the Sandman may have been gone, Carrie was still there, and everyone, including the police, FBI, media, and the entirety of America, believes that she knew about her husband’s crimes and helped to cover them up.

As the start of her trial begins, a desperate Carrie turns to the one defence attorney that could save her, former conman and legal genius Eddie Flynn.  Convinced of her innocence and determined to help, Flynn reluctantly takes on her case.  However, this will be the most difficult case of his life, as he must convince a jaded jury and the rest of the world that Carrie had no knowledge of her husband’s crimes and took no part in the murders.  But with Carrie already convicted by the media, and no evidence or witnesses that can back up her story, Eddie will have a real fight on his hands.

As Eddie prepares for the case, a dangerous new problem enters the picture.  After a lengthy absence, the Sandman has returned to New York, and he’s determined to save his wife from a life sentence.  Even with the police, FBI and rogue serial killer specialist Gabriel Lake on his tail, the Sandman begins a new reign of terror, targeting the prosecution’s witnesses and members of the FBI.  With the stakes higher than ever, can Eddie prove Carrie’s innocence before the killer strikes again or will he and everyone he cares about face the wrath of the Sandman?

Cavanagh hits it out of the park again, providing readers with a brilliant and intense thriller that is dark and fun at the same time.  Combining fantastic legal elements with a gripping psychological narrative about a dangerous killer, The Accomplice was another impressive read from Cavanagh that was well worth the wait.

This seventh Eddie Flynn novel has a really awesome and intense story to it that takes the reader on an impressive ride that is near impossible to stop.  Starting off with a great introduction to the case, the story quickly loops in Eddie Flynn and his team, while also bringing back the great villain in the Sandman.  Following some subsequent exposition and background to the case, Eddie gets into planning the defence, only to have a substantial shock hit him as the Sandman strikes in several different directions.  As the various characters attempt to deal with the issues surrounding the Sandman’s new attacks, Eddie is forced to defend his client in impossible circumstances as the trial starts.

Thanks to his great use of multiple character perspectives, which follows everyone including Eddie, his team, and even the Sandman himself, you get a great view of the events occurring throughout the book.  The middle of this impressive novel is filled with some excellent sequences depicting the killers’ current brutal actions, the desperate search for him that envelopes several main characters, and Flynn’s always impressive legal scenes.  I loved the awesome changes in tone and focus that occurred between these various chapters, and there is an intriguing and powerful contrast between the intensive cat-and-mouse games surrounding the killer and the more legal focused scenes.  All the perspectives come together in a big way towards the end of the book, and The Accomplice has a fantastic and wildly entertaining finale.  There are some pretty cool twists loaded up here and Cavanagh does a great job setting them up throughout the narrative.  I was kind of able to predict how one of the main ones would turn out, but I was pleasantly surprised by the other, and looking back it was cleverly set up and then hidden by the other secrets.  The author ends The Accomplice on a great note, and readers will come away wildly entertained and very impressed with how everything was so neatly wrapped up.

Cavanagh was in the zone when he was writing The Accomplice, and I deeply enjoyed how the entire story came together.  Like most of Cavanagh’s novels, the pacing in The Accomplice was spot on and the reader is never really given a chance to relax or put the novel down, which ensures that they try really hard to get through everything in one go (it worked on me).  There was an excellent blend of styles throughout The Accomplice, and Cavanagh once again did a great job of combining the darker subject matter of a disturbed killer, with the lighter scenes that focused on Eddie Flynn’s outrageous behaviour.  The scenes focused on the Sandman were particularly dark and gripping, especially as you get to see directly into his diseased mind, and the use of them throughout the novel really helped to amp up the drama and threat, while also moving the narrative along in some impressive directions.  Likewise, you get some intriguing and powerful character driven scenes from some of the other major characters, such as Flynn’s investigator Bloch and newcomer Gabriel Lake, as they get obsessed with finding the Sandman and bringing him to justice.

However, my personal favourite scenes in the book are those that deal more with the legal thriller aspects of the book.  I am always a sucker for a good legal battle in fiction, and Cavanagh, a man who knows a thing or two about the law, does a brilliant job of showcasing trials, legal prep work, and the formation of a defence case throughout his novels.  The court sequences scattered throughout the novel are very well written, and it was fascinating to see the author’s take on certain prosecution and defence strategies (some of the names for the strategies were quite amusing) as the protagonists do their darndest to blow a hole in the seemingly airtight case against their client.  I really loved how Cavanagh once again let Eddie go wild during the court case, and he uses all his knowledge and flair for the dramatic to manipulate the court in some inventive and often hilarious ways.  Most of Eddie’s appearances in the court are wildly entertaining, and his over-the-top shenanigans so much fun to behold, especially when he takes down every smug opponent and obstacle in a big way.  The author has a lot of fun setting up some of these events throughout the book, and it is really entertaining to see the protagonists coming up with their eccentric plans, as the hints about what they are going to do are left purposely vague to capture the reader’s attention.  I have so much love for Cavanagh’s ability to bring some wacky ideas into the court setting, and I can’t wait to see what convoluted and hilarious strategies the protagonist employs in any future books.

On top of the great story and distinctive sequences, Cavanagh also excels at character creation and development, which adds an extra impressive layer to the narrative.  The Accomplice features an interesting complement of characters, from the established cast of the previous books to some exceptional new figures whom the current case revolves around.  Naturally, most of the focus falls on the protagonist of Eddie Flynn, who is once again brought into an impossible case.  Flynn has another strong turn in The Accomplice and gets up to all his old tricks to win.  This results in quite a few entertaining and hilarious moments, and most of the book’s strong humour is because of Flynn’s more outrageous behaviours.  However, parts of this case do really get to Flynn and show that deep down he’s a good and flawed figure who lets his work dig into him.  Watching certain stresses and griefs take their hold on him really adds to the drama and intensity of the book, and I really appreciated how Cavanagh portrayed him throughout this latest novel.

On top of Eddie, the author brings back the central legal team, who are very strongly featured throughout this seventh book.  This includes Eddie’s mentor and advisor, Harry Ford, who continues to be a solid and calming presence for much of the book.  Harry serves as an excellent foil to the more outgoing Flynn, and they work well together as a team, especially during some scenes that see Harry have a bigger impact on the story than usual.  The other two key members of the staff are the firm’s other associate, young lawyer Kate Brooks and investigator Blotch, who are well utilised throughout The Accomplice.  Both bring something very different to the story, whether it be Kate’s relative innocence and determination to help wronged women, such as their client in this book, or Blotch’s investigative knowhow, capacity for violence, and general determination.  Both prove a good match for Flynn throughout this book, and I really liked the major impacts they have on the story, as it resulted in a much more varied and fun narrative.  There is also a great look at their strong friendship, which has lasted since childhood, and it was fun to see more examples of Blotch’s overprotective nature, especially when it comes to a thieving neighbour.

Finally, there are also some excellent new characters utilised in The Accomplice, who each bring something very different to the table.  Due to their stronger involvement with this particular case, be it suspect, perpetrator or hunter, Cavanagh does spend a bit more time introducing and developing these new characters than the existing cast, and you end up getting to know them extremely well.  This includes Flynn’s new client, Carrie Miller, the wife of the infamous Sandman, who finds herself under attack from pretty much the entire country in this book.  Carrie cuts a fascinating figure as a result, and while you are constantly wondering just how innocent she is, you get to see her at her most vulnerable as everyone she knows has turned against her.  I particularly enjoyed some of her insights (her choice of favourite film is excellent), and the journal entries that the author scatters throughout the novel really enhances her tale and gives greater context to her present actions.

In addition, Cavanagh also introduces the character of Gabriel Lake, a former FBI agent turned private investigator who specialises in catching serial killers.  A brilliant man with interesting ideas about the way to hunt killers which goes against the established theories of the FBI, Lake is an integral part of the plot, as he helps Flynn with his case in the hope of catching the Sandman.  However, there is also a deep well of anger within Lake, due to both his past and his personal connection to the Sandman case, and this becomes a major problem for the protagonists as the book goes on.  You never quite know what Lake’s motivations or intentions are, and he ends up adding an entire extra layer of complexity to an already twisty plot.

The final character I need to mention is the killer known as the Sandman.  While I won’t go into too much detail here about them to preserve some plot details, they serve as a sinister and threatening figure throughout the story, and their presence really impacts the events of the narrative.  Cavanagh goes out of his way to make the Sandman appear as deadly and deranged as possible, and it was fascinating to get a glimpse into his mind, especially as he truly believes that the Sandman is his true persona.  Watching him work his deadly skills in several disconcerting point of view chapters really adds to the intensity of the narrative, and he ended up being a particularly impressive literary villain.  I really had a great time with all these amazing and complex characters, be they old and new, and Cavanagh has once again really showcased his excellent skill when it comes to writing damaged people.

Unsurprisingly, I had a wonderful time with The Accomplice and Steve Cavanagh continues to impress me as one of the more entertaining thriller authors out there today.  This latest Eddie Flynn novel has all the series trademark flair as Cavanagh presents the reader with another unique and captivating case.  I loved how The Accomplice featured a great combination of a dark killer, hilarious legal scenes, a twisty thriller plot, and some well-established characters, which result in an incredible and addictive narrative.  A deeply enjoyable read, I really must go back and check out some of the earlier Eddie Flynn novels when I get a chance.  Highly recommended!

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Armored by Mark Greaney

Armored Cover (2)

Publisher: Sphere (Trade Paperback – 12 July 2022)

Series: Standalone/Book One

Length: 497 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

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Bestselling thriller author Mark Greaney presents one of the most exciting and action-packed novels of 2022, the high-octane thriller Armored.

Over the last few years I have been really getting into the awesome thriller novels of impressive author Mark Greaney, who is having a very big 2022.  Not only has he released two separate novels but he also has a film adaptation of his iconic series coming out later this week, The Gray Man.  I am really looking forward to this film, especially as I am now a pretty big fan of The Gray Man novels, having enjoyed both the first book, The Gray Man, and some of the latest entries, such as Mission Critical, One Minute Out, Relentless and Sierra Six.  However, Greaney’s year is far from done as the novel version of his 2021 Audible Original release, Armored, has just come out.  Converted into book format, Armored tells an impressive and over-the-top tale of survival and destruction that has already grabbed the attention of legendary director Michael Bay, who plans to adapt it into his next major blockbuster.

Joshua Duffy used to be one of the best close protection agents in the world, working with teams of private military contractors as security for elites in some of the most dangerous countries.  But after his fateful last mission in Lebanon cost him his team, his client and his lower left leg, Joshua finds himself suddenly and violently out of the game.  Forced to work as a mall cop to support his struggling family, Joshua’s future seems shot.  However, opportunity is about to come knocking with a deadly offer he cannot turn down.

Following a chance encounter with an old colleague, Joshua is given the opportunity to work one last job that promises to solve all his financial issues.  A violent and highly organised drug cartel has risen to power in the Sierra Madre Mountains of Mexico, and its recent actions have greatly infuriated the Mexican government and army.  To save the large civilian population living in the Sierra Madre Mountains, the United Nations is sending a peace mission in to ease tensions and attempt to negotiate a truce before it is too late.  However, the only way to reach the cartel’s base of operations is by road, and that means travelling through one of the most dangerous and lawless areas on the planet, the Espinazo del Diablo, the Devil’s Spine.

Joining up with the notorious Armored Saint company and hiding his injury, Joshua is recruited as a team leader in the convoy assigned to keep the UN dignitaries safe.  Even loaded up in advanced armoured vehicles and working with a team of elite operators, Joshua has no allusions that his chances of success are slim, but even he is unaware just how dangerous this mission is going to be.  The other Mexican cartels are determined that the peace talks fail and are willing to pay any price to see the UN team killed and their rivals destroyed in the aftermath.  Worse, someone else is working behind the scenes to manipulate events to their advantage, and they are willing to kill everyone in the convoy to get what they want.  Can Joshua and his new team survive the deadly onslaught about to be unleashed upon them, or will they end up another victim of the Espinazo del Diablo?

Greaney continues to shine as one of our leading thriller readers with this highly entertaining action saga.  Armored is pure pulse-pounding excitement from start to finish, and I ended up powering through this substantial novel in very short order, especially once I got lured into its amazing narrative and impressively written fight scenes.

Armored Cover

I had a lot of fun with the awesome story that Greaney came up for this impressive release that is based around an intriguing and epic premise of a small team of mercenaries caught up in the violence and backstabbing of the Mexican cartels in a remote and dangerous area.  Armored has a great start to it that sets up complex protagonist Joshua Duffy extremely well, showcasing his last mission as a conventional private security contractor in a massive and deadly confrontation.  After this action-orientated introduction, you see a very desperate Duffy as he attempts to get on with his life, only to be dragged into the main mission of the book.  Greaney sets up many key parts of Armored’s plot in the early pages, introducing the main characters, showing the desperation surrounding the central protagonist, and introducing all the substantial opposition that they are likely to face.  Thanks to the use of mysterious antagonist Oscar Cardoza, you see just how rigged the situation is against the protagonists as the villain manipulates and deals with multiple cartels to ensure that they are all set against the peace mission.  As such, you know pretty early on that you are in for a wild thrill ride later in the book and Greaney does not disappoint.

Once Armored’s main story gets underway, the book moves at an extremely fast pace to match the convoy of armoured cars it is following.  The protagonists immediately face opposition, obstacles and attacks as they continue on their way, ignoring the multiple warnings about the even greater threats to come (seriously, they get so many warnings).  After surviving an increasingly deadly barrage of ambushes, betrayals and personal dramas, the story takes a whole new turn as a big twist switches the entire narrative on its head.  This twist was a fantastic game changer that was well set up during the earlier parts of the book, and it was really cool to see it fully unfold, introducing some intense new problems and opportunities.  Thanks to this twist, the second half of Armored essentially becomes one continuous battle for survival.  There are some really awesome and over-the-top moments during this second half, as several key characters die, the odds become more and more stacked against the protagonists, some final twists come into play, and new players are drawn into the fray.  This all leads up to the big conclusion, which unsurprisingly contains more action and excitement, before bringing everything to an awesome end.  I came away feeling pretty satisfied with how the story came together, and I think that Greaney wrapped up everything really well.

I quite enjoyed how Greaney wrote Armored as he brought his typical style to this later thriller.  The story was expertly told using multiple character perspectives to show the various viewpoints of the key protagonists and antagonists.  Not only does this result in a much richer story with various intriguing characters, but Greaney ensures that it ramps up the novel’s tension, especially when the reader can see betrayals and traps being formed in advance of them being unleashed upon the characters you are rooting for.  The author uses these alternate perspectives to also hint at hidden motivations in some of the supporting characters and it does a good job mostly disguising who the culprits are, while ensuring that the reader knows something big is about to go down.  There are even some intriguing flashback sequences thrown in for greater context, which help to highlight the bond two key characters have.  The entire story is very well paced, with Greaney doing a good job evenly spreading out the big action moments and the intriguing character development to ensure a continuous story that never has any slow points.  I also liked the way in which Greaney adds in some intriguing commentary about certain real-world issues, including around private military contractors, the issues surrounding wounded veterans, and the current political and criminal situation in Mexico, especially regarding the volatile cartels.  All this comes together extremely well, and the reader has a very hard time turning away from the story as everything unfolds before them.

Unsurprisingly, the real star of Armored is the action sequences, as Greaney really goes all out to provide the reader with all the high-octane gun fights they could ever want.  This thriller novel is packed to the gills with battle scenes as every major character is dragged into a series of brutal and bloody fights as they attempt to achieve their goals and survive.  I have always been really impressed with how realistic Greaney can make his fight sequences in The Gray Man novels, and this awesome attention to detail and realism continues over into Armored.  Greaney clearly knows what he is talking about when it comes to gun battles, and you really get drawn into the intense battles, as well as the detailed descriptions of proper military tactics and strategies, especially in the first half of the novel.  However, I did think that Greaney went a little too far with some of the action scenes in the second half of the book, as the already over-the-top action started to get a little insane.  Greaney was clearly trying to set up some big Hollywood moments for the announced adaptation here (to be fair, Michael Bay is going to love bringing some of these sequences to the big screen), even though it was a little too much at times.  I was especially bemused by one scene that saw several characters shooting guns out the back of a small plane, which resulted in one of the most ridiculous things I have read about in a serious thriller read.  While these crazy moments honestly did not detract too much from my enjoyment of the novel, it did give Armored a bit of an unfortunate sillier edge that it really did not need.

Finally, I need to highlight the characters featured within Armored.  Greaney has a good knack for creating large groups of likeable and distinctive characters, and most of the protagonists and antagonists in Armored were extremely good, adding some great elements to the overall story.  I particularly liked main protagonist Joshua Duffy, the wounded veteran contractor who is dragged back in for one last dangerous job.  Greaney does a lot with Duffy in this novel, showcasing him at his emotional height, slamming him down hard, and then slowly building him back up through the course of the main story.  As such, Duffy serves as an excellent central figure for most of the story, and watching him try to escape the ghosts of his past and bring his new team together to complete the mission proves to be deeply captivating in many ways.  I really enjoyed watching him being a major badass, even with one leg, and Greaney wrote a fantastic storyline over his attempts to take on a leadership role in this mission, despite dealing with a group of disrespectful and arrogant soldiers.  A definite standout character for me, it will be very interesting to see who is cast to play Duffy in the movie adaptation, and whoever it is will have a great role to fill.

Aside from Duffy, Armored featured a pretty large and fun cast of characters, with a decent focus being on the team members in Duffy’s armoured vehicle.  Made up of six members, Charlie team proves to be a solid group of protagonists, and Greaney writes a good story about them slowly coming together as a team, despite being gradually picked off.  While I enjoyed them, I did find them to be a little stereotypical in ways, with most of them being classic disrespectful and uncontrollable soldiers.  This is especially true for the characters of Wolfson, the arrogant former seal; Frenchie, the weathered veteran acting as the voice of reason; Squeeze, the extremely angry African American former Marine; and Tony Cruz, the talented but token Spanish-speaking soldier.  All of the above filled overused action tropes to a degree, and it felt a little lazy, especially when compared to some of the other characters in the book.  Luckily, this group of soldiers were well balanced out by their final member, NASCAR, the team’s driver and the book’s comic relief.  NASCAR, a former race driver turned military contractor with a history of crashing his vehicles, was an excellent addition to the cast, and his entertaining antics helped to distract from some of the blander figures in the team.

I also need to mention Duffy’s wife, Nikki, a former Army officer who has taken to cleaning houses to support her family and wounded husband.  While initially just a supporting role to help motivate the protagonist, Greaney ends up bringing Nikki into the main story in a big way as she attempts her own rescue mission.  I deeply enjoyed the determined narrative around Nikki, and it was a fantastic addition to the plot, even if it resulted in more problems for the protagonist.  I also enjoyed the other major female character in the novel, Dr Flores, a Mexican anthropologist who is assigned to the peace talks as a cultural advisor and interpreter.  Despite being a bit of a preachy figure, Dr Flores is pretty much the only character that has any common sense or idea of what they are walking into, and her knowledge and passionate personality slowly bring the main cast around.  I really enjoyed Dr Flores’s scenes throughout the novel, and you really feel for her as she keeps trying and trying to talk some sense into the soldiers or diplomats, only to be knocked back by their arrogant and dismissive attitudes.  The final character I need to highlight is Oscar Cardoza, who serves as the book’s main antagonist.  Billed as a cartel consultant who works for the highest bidder, Cardoza is a mysterious and dangerous figure for most of the book, visiting the various cartel leaders and working them to his advantage, before getting closer to the action halfway through.  I instantly enjoyed Cardoza from his first scene, especially after some fun, if ineffective, small talk with some cartel guards, and it was fantastic to watch him flit around the various cartels and play them to his advantage.  He also serves as a great foil to the main band of protagonists, and once he gets involved in the hunt for them, he really shines as a villain, especially once some secrets about him are revealed.  The cast of Armored ended up being a fantastic and captivating band of character, and I ended up becoming really invested in their unique and powerful storylines.

I cannot emphasise how exciting and enjoyable Armored turned out to be and I am really glad that I got the chance to read it.  Mark Greaney obviously had a ton of fun turning his latest novel into the most action-packed adventure he could, and Armored really lived up to its plot potential, providing the reader with wall-to-wall fire fights and intense combat.  While the novel did get a little over-the-top in places, this was a solid and impressive read that is really worth checking out.  An excellent and fast-paced thriller designed to entertain anyone who reads it; the Armored adaptation is going to end up being a pretty awesome movie that Michael Bay will have a wonderful time making.

Armored Cover 3

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