The Dark by Jeremy Robinson

The Dark Cover

Publisher: Podium Audio (Audiobook – 13 July 2021)

Series: Infinite Timeline

Length: 10 hours and 25 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Prepare for a literal journey into darkness with one of the most unique and insanely entertaining horror novels of 2021, The Dark by Jeremy Robinson.

Jeremy Robinson is a bestselling author of science fiction and horror who has been producing some amazing novels of the last few years.  Since his debut in the early 2000s, Robinson has written a massive number of novels, including several fantastic sounding series, such as his Nemesis Saga, as well as a big collection of compelling standalone novels.  I have been meaning to read some of Robinson’s books for a while, especially as one of his series, the Chess Team novels, are part of a somewhat shared universe with Jonathan Maberry’s Joe Ledger novels.  After seeing several mentions of Chess Team in Maberry’s novels, I got curious and had to have a look at Robinson’s catalogue of work.  I really love the sound of some of Robinson’s books, especially his Chess Team novels, which follow a special forces team at work against mythical threats, and the Nemesis Saga, which presents a new look at the Kaiju genre.  Before diving into these series, I thought it might be good to get an idea of Robinson’s writing style, and so I decided to read his latest standalone novel, The Dark.  I am extremely glad that I decided to check this out, as The Dark ended up being an incredible horror read that I deeply enjoyed.

Miah Gray is a messed up former army soldier, struggling with PTSD and other symptoms after his time in Afghanistan.  Now living with his mother, sister and stepfather in an upscale New Hampshire neighbourhood, Miah spends most of his time being the neighbourhood’s resident weirdo, avoiding his troubles with prescribed cannabis and holding out hopes that his crush, Jen, will notice him.  Managing to convince Jen to get high and watch a meteor shower on his roof one night, Miah thinks that his life is finally turning around.  However, nothing in his wildest dreams could prepare him for what is to come next.

Awakening the next morning, Miah and Jen are shocked to discover that the sun has been blotted out and the entire neighbourhood has been plunged into darkness.  With no communications, limited power, and no working artificial lights, Miah and his family attempt to adjust to the crazy events occurring around them.  All available evidence suggests that an obscure religious doomsday prophecy about three days and three nights of darkness is coming true, with the lore indicating that the only way to survive is to barricade yourself in your home and cover the windows.  Despite the blacked-out sun, Miah is dubious about this being a religious event, until a bright light from the heavens brands his forehead with an old Norse rune and an unholy army of demons invades.

Dark shapes are twisting their way through the neighbourhood, luring people outside and brutally dragging them away to an unknown fate, while even more terrifying figures lurk in the shadow.  Attempting to ride out the storm at home, Miah is forced into action when his parents are taken.  Leading a small group of survivors through the horrors outside, Miah attempts to save who he can while also trying to find a way to rescue those who were taken.  But as Miah and his friends flee through the surrounding demons and devils, a far more dangerous threat is waiting to assail them.  The rune on Miah’s head is starting to change him into something angry and inhuman.  Now forced to resist his own mind, Miah will need to dig deep than ever before if he wants to survive what is coming, even as it drags him straight to the gates of Hell.

Wow, now that was awesome.  When I started this novel, I strongly suspected I was going to love it, especially as it had a fantastic sounding plot, but I was unprepared for how much fun The Dark turned out to be.  Robinson has created an exceptional and dark horror novel that keeps you on the edge of your toes from the very start all the way to the finish.  I had an outstanding time listening to this book and there was no way I could give anything less than a five-star rating.

Robinson has come up with a pretty awesome story for The Dark, and I loved this unique horror tale.  The Dark has a great start to it, and the author manages to do a lot in a very short amount of time, thoroughly introducing the main character, Miah, while also setting up several of the other major supporting characters.  The novel’s big change from normal times to darkness occurs early in the novel, as soon as all groundwork has been established, so the protagonist can run right into the craziness.  It does not take long for events to go sideways, with danger and despair all around as everything goes to hell, literally.  The centre of the novel is extremely entertaining, as the protagonist meets a range of different people hunkering down through the apocalypse and slowly builds up a fun group of survivors.  At the same time, some of the characters, including Miah, are forced to face an inner evil that has been brought on by these dark events.  This internal battle for control and the elements that introduce it are very cleverly established, and it adds a fantastic new edge to the plot, especially as at times it seems like the only point-of-view protagonist is about to irrevocably snap.  All this leads up to an epic conclusion as the protagonist journeys to a very evil place and comes face to face with some startling revelations and immense horrors, as well as some interesting story threads for the future.

I felt that this was an exceptional story, and I deeply enjoyed the outstanding combination of action, horror and comedy that was expertly bundled throughout the novel.  It is rare to find a story that can alternately thrill, traumatise, and entertain in short succession, but The Dark does that in spades.  It was gloriously entertaining and there was honestly not a single moment in this book that failed to keep my attention.  The action sequences are crisp and fantastic, and you get a real sense of the intense violence happening all around the protagonist.  I also really loved the horror feel that this novel had, especially as Robinson is a master of building up tension and suspense.  Readers should be aware that there are a quite a few extremely gory scenes throughout the book, and Robinson does not hold back on the gruesome descriptions.  I liked how the author switched the tone of the novel around two-thirds of the way through, with the horror focus moving away from fear of the unknown to a more extreme and science fiction based narrative.  I did think that the sudden appearance of certain groups in the big finale were a bit coincidental and could have been telegraphed slightly better, but this really did not cut down on my enjoyment of the story, and I was still blown away with the cool action sequences that were featured in this part of the book.  This was a really good standalone horror story, and I was deeply impressed with the exceptional narrative that Robinson featured in this book.

One of the things that I really appreciated about The Dark were the cool monsters and horror elements that Robinson came up with.  The entire concept of the novel revolves around dangerous creatures who come out during an eclipse of the sun that covers the entire setting in darkness, while also wreaking havoc on human technology.  Not only are these monsters pretty freaky and deadly, but Robinson builds up an intriguing mythology around them.  Because the protagonists have no idea what they are facing, the entire phenomenon is attributed to a religious event, especially as there is a coincidental Christian prophecy about three days and three nights of darkness which will purge those who leave their house.  Once the monsters appear, the characters initially identify them as demons, due to their unique look, ability to replicate voices and their dark and disturbing laughter.  I found these attempts by the protagonists to understand what is happening to them to be really fascinating, and it involves some fun looks at mythology and ancient lore.  The character’s understanding of these creatures evolves and changes over time, as there are some new freaky bits of context, and I thought it was pretty cool the way that Robinson was able to adapt these horror elements.  I also must highlight the terrifying setting of Hell, where the protagonists eventually end up.  There are some pretty dark and excessively gruesome aspects to this location, and it was a very fitting location for the big finale.  Overall, I really liked the cool creatures and mythology that Robinson brings to The Dark and it was so much fun to see these monsters tear through a typical suburban neighbourhood.

Easily one of the best things about The Dark were the complex and impressive characters that the narrative was set around.  The most prominent of these was central protagonist and point-of-view character, Miah, a former soldier who returned from the war even more messed up then before.  Initially a bit of a weirdo loner, Miah soon evolves into a more heroic figure, especially as he takes the lead during the demonic invasion, saving several people he comes across and leading the survivors to either safety or battle.  Miah is a very deep protagonist, and I really enjoyed the impressive and powerful examination of his inner trauma and the mental burdens he carries after his time in the army.  Robinson really tries to make Miah as complex as possible, and he even works some of his own personal experiences with trauma into his protagonist’s psyche.  It was great to see him evolve throughout the course of the book, especially once he has the fate of several other people on his hands, and these events help him grow and overcome his previous experiences.  Miah is also an extremely entertaining protagonist to follow, especially as he has a great sense of humour, is constantly high and initially does not take anything seriously, even when all the lights go out.  This combination results in Miah doing some unusual things, including wearing one of his sister’s skirts for the first third of the novel (it’s weird, but it works).  Most of the book’s humour comes from his flippant narration of the weird events occurring around him, and even once stuff gets really serious, he still has plenty of fun jokes or odd observations about what he encounters.  I loved his outrageous outlook on the world, and I ended up really appreciating Robinson’s fantastic choice of protagonist.

Aside from Miah, Robinson also comes up with some other fantastic characters who go through these apocalyptic events with him.  All these characters are set up extremely well when they are introduced, and Robinson does a great job quickly examining their personalities and expanding on them throughout the course of the book.  There are several fun characters featured throughout The Dark, although my favourite two are probably Bree and Emma, two younger girls who end up part of Miah’s group.  Despite their youth, these two characters are extremely capable and quickly adapt to the weird new world that they live in.  This is in part due to them being branded like Miah, which slowly changes their personalities, turning them into something different.  Both characters react to their branding in different ways, with the eight-year-old Bree more swiftly losing her humanity.  It was pretty fun to see this young kid become more and more bloodthirsty as the novel progresses, and there are some great moments where Miah tries to control her.  It looks likes Robinson has some plans for both Miah and Bree in the future (Demon Dog and Laser Chicken for the win), and I look forward to them turning up again.

While I was checking out some of Robinson’s novels, one of the things that stood out to me was that all his novels have been converted to my favourite format, the audiobook, and that a good proportion of these were narrated by R. C. Bray.  Bray is a very talented and entertaining narrator, whose work I have previously enjoyed in some of Michael Mammay’s science fiction novels, Planetside and Colonyside (the latter being one of the better audiobooks I have listened to so far this year).  After seeing Bray’s name attached to The Dark, there was no way that I was not going to grab it on audiobook, which proved to be a very, very smart decision.

The Dark audiobook has a runtime of just under ten and a half hours, although I found myself absolutely powering through it, especially once I got into the story.  I felt that the audiobook format worked extremely well with The Dark’s first-person perspective, and the audiobook was able to progress at a really quick pace.  Bray really shined as a narrator in The Dark, and I loved the way that he presented the horrifying and intense events occurring around the characters.  Bray does an excellent job voicing the various characters in The Dark, and I particularly liked the way that he dove into voicing central protagonist Miah.  While I was initially a little dubious that Bray, who I have only previously heard voicing tough military characters, would manage with a more immature character like Miah, it ended up working really well.  Bray expertly gets inside the head of the main character voicing, and he quickly portrays Miah in all his doped-up, entertaining glory.  I think that Bray had a lot of fun voicing Miah (despite certain comments that the character makes about fancy audiobook narrators), and he did a great job presenting both the goofy side of the character and his more serious nature.  This ability to dive into Miah’s personality really enhanced the character and the overall story and I really enjoyed all the emotion that Bray threw into him.  I also liked some of the other voices that he did for The Dark, with all the characters ending up with some distinctive and fitting voices, even the younger ones.  This excellent voice work really helps to turn The Dark into an outstanding audiobook production, and I would strongly recommend this format to anyone interested in checking out The Dark.  Also, it has bloopers at the end, which were pretty damn fun.

While The Dark is a standalone novel that can be read with no prior knowledge of Robinson’s other works, it does have interesting connections that I need to mention.  There is a big reveal at the end of the book which ties The Dark together with a previous standalone novel that was a released a couple of years ago.  While I have not read this previous novel, it was a fun connection, and, after deeply enjoying The Dark, it got me in the mood to check out some of Robinson’s other books.  I also looked at Robinson’s website after finishing The Dark and there was a very interesting post about this that has made me appreciate this novel a little more.  Apparently The Dark is an entry in a wider joint universe, known as the Infinite Timeline, which already features several novels that Robinson has released in recent years.  The Dark is part of a sub-series within this universe, and it is linked together with the above-mentioned previous novel and an upcoming novel, Mind Bullet.  This sub-series will continue to become even more linked, eventually leading to another novel, Khaos, before it, and two other sub-series, made up of 11 novels in total, will have a big crossover in the 2023 novel, Singularity.  While this does not impact who can check out The Dark, I think it is pretty awesome that Robinson is attempting to create this massive joint universe, and it has really got me intrigued.  I am now extremely tempted to try and check out the rest of the entries in this joint universe before Singularity is released, and it should be a very interesting couple of years if I do.

Overall, The Dark by Jeremy Robinson was an epic and relentlessly exciting horror novel that I had an incredible time reading.  Thanks to its captivating story, complex characters and unique horror elements, The Dark was an outstanding book and it ended up being one of the most entertaining and compelling audiobooks I have enjoyed all year.  A definite must-read for anyone in the mood for a fun and intense horror novel, The Dark comes highly recommended and gets a full five stars from me.  I think I will end up trying some more of Robinson’s novels in the future, especially in their audiobook format, and I cannot wait to see what other crazy adventures and outrageous events he features in his books.

The Enemy Within by Tim Ayliffe

The Enemy Within Cover

Publisher: Simon & Schuster (Trade Paperback – 28 July 2021)

Series: John Bailey – Book Three

Length: 353 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

One of Australia’s fastest rising crime fiction authors, Tim Ayliffe, returns with another impressive and brilliantly relevant novel, The Enemy Within.

Ayliffe is a great author whose work I have been really enjoying over the last couple of years as he sets some fantastic stories around contemporary Australian subjects.  Debuting in 2018, this journalist wrote a compelling and intriguing first novel with The Greater Good, which looked at political corruption and the growing influence of China in Australia.  He followed it up in 2019 with State of Fear, which looked at Islamic terrorism and featured a dramatic and impactful story.  Now Ayliffe checks out the complete opposite end of the political spectrum in The Enemy Within, which features a look at growing right-wing radicals.

As the smoke from devastating January 2020 bushfires covers Sydney, investigative reporter John Bailey is covering a far more dangerous threat in the suburbs.  Barely recovered from the traumatic events that took the love of his life from him, Bailey is now working for a news magazine.  His first story will cover the re-emergence of right-wing nationalists and white supremacist groups in Australia.  Attending one of their meetings, where a controversial American social media star whose entrance into the country has gained much political opposition and protest, Bailey attempts to gain the pulse of this movement, only to face violence and an anti-media mentality from the crowd.

Working on his story, Bailey has no idea of the chaos that is about to rain down on his life.  After he meets with an old contact and informant, Bailey’s house is raided by the Australian Federal Police.  The police are investigating him for a story he ran back while he was a war correspondent that highlighted the alleged war crimes Australian soldiers committed in the Middle East.  Armed with a warrant granting them access to his phone, computer and all his files, the police tear through Bailey’s life and throw him in gaol for attempting to impede their search.

With the entire nation’s media covering his plight, Bailey is released from prison and soon discovers that someone orchestrated the police raid to delete evidence from the rally.  Attempting to investigate further, Bailey is shocked when his contact ends up dead in mysterious circumstances and the police fail to investigate.  With Sydney on the verge of a race war, Bailey continues his investigation and soon uncovers proof about a dangerous conspiracy that aims to shake the very foundations of Australian life.  With only his old friend CIA agent Ronnie Johnson as backup, Bailey attempts to stop this plot before it is too late.  But with a seemingly untouchable enemy targeting him from the shadows, has Bailey finally met an opponent even more determined than he is?

This was an awesome and captivating novel from Ayliffe who once again produces an intense, character-driven narrative.  Set around some very relevant and controversial topics, The Enemy Within is a powerful and exciting novel that takes the reader on a compelling ride.  I had a fantastic time reading this clever book and I loved the fascinating examinations of one of the more insidious threats facing Australia.

Set in the blistering, smoke covered streets of early 2020 Sydney, this story starts with protagonist John Bailey engaged in a controversial story about the rising far-right wing.  After a predictably violent confrontation, the narrative takes off like a shot, with the protagonist investigating a series of concerning events, including several murders, racial attacks, and a re-opened investigation into an old story of his that sees the AFP raid his house.  Each of these separate investigative threads are drawn together as the book progresses, and the reader is treated to an impressive and deadly conspiracy with several clever allusions to real-world issues and events.  This was a very exciting and captivating novel to get through, and I found myself reading it extremely quickly, nearly finishing it off in a day.  The story leads up to an awesome and intense conclusion, where Bailey uncovers the entire scope of the plot and races to stop it.  While the identity of some of the participants is very clear since the character’s introductions, their full plan, methods, and reach are more hidden and it was great to see the protagonist uncover them all, especially as several were cleverly hidden in innocuous moments earlier in the novel.  There is even an excellent twist towards the end of the book that reveals a well-hidden antagonist, which I particularly enjoyed as it was so skilfully inserted into the story.  I ended having an excellent time getting through this amazing narrative, and this might be one of the best stories that Ayliffe has so far written.

One of the things that I have always enjoyed about the John Bailey novels is the way in which so much of the amazing story was tied to how extremely damaged the titular protagonist is.  John Bailey is a veteran reporter whose previous life as a war correspondent has left him extremely broken, especially after being tortured by a dangerous terrorist leader.  This eventually led to him becoming an alcoholic, which ruined his career and separated him from his family.  However, since the start of the series, Bailey has shown some real character growth, although this is usually accompanied by some traumatic events or tragic moments.  In The Enemy Within, as Bailey is still recovering from the loss of his lover at the end of State of Fear.  Despite making some strides to recover, Bailey is still reeling from the loss, and this becomes a major aspect of his character in this latest book.  This is especially true as Ayliffe does an outstanding job of highlighting the grieving process and showing Bailey’s feelings of despair.  It was really moving to see Bailey in this novel, and I was glad to see him continue to recover from all the bad events of his life, including stopping drinking and getting a dog.  However, Bailey still has an unerring knack to annoy the subjects of his stories, and he ends up getting into all sorts of danger.  It was great to see him getting to the root of this story by any means necessary, and I continued to appreciate his impressive development.

I also love the way that the each of Ayliffe’s novels feature some fascinating contemporary issues facing Australia or the wider world.  In The Enemy Within, the main issue is the rise of Australian right-wing and white supremacist groups in recent years.  Like in the rest of the world, these groups have been becoming a bit more prominent recently in Australia, and Ayliffe does an excellent job analysing this issue throughout his novel.  The author does a deep examination of the movement as the story progresses, and the reader is given a good insight into their concerns, motivations, and the reasons why the movement has been gaining progress in recent years.  There are some clever parallels between the events or people portrayed in the novel and real life, which was interesting to see.  Examples of this include the government allowing controversial right-wing figures into the country despite protests, and the reactions of certain right-wing media groups.  I liked how Ayliffe once again featured the character of Keith Roberts, a right-wing commentator who is a pastiche of several Australian radio personalities.  It was also quite fascinating to see how the concerns and motivations of the right-wing groups were extremely like some of the Islamic terrorists featured in State of Fear, with both groups feeling disconnected from and attacked by mainstream Australian society.  Not only is this extremely fascinating and thought-provoking but it also serves as an amazing basis for Ayliffe’s narrative.  The author does a fantastic job of wrapping his thrilling story around some of these elements, and it makes the overall narrative extremely relevant.

I also must highlight another significant contemporary inclusion that was featured in The Enemy Within, and that was the Australian Federal Police’s raids on Bailey’s house.  This police raid is a direct reference to a series of controversial raids that occurred on several media organisations, including ABC News (who Ayliffe works for), in relation to articles they published.  Ayliffe uses these real-life examples to really punch up what happens within The Enemy Within, and he produces some realistic scenes that were comparable to this.  The subject of the articles that prompt the raids are also very similar and feature another topic that is quite controversial in Australia in the moment, that of alleged war-crimes by Australian soldiers fighting in the Middle East.  Just like with the other divisive topics featured in this novel, Ayliffe did a fantastic job re-imagining these events in his novel, and it produces some excellent inclusions that will particularly resonate with an Australian audience.  I deeply appreciated the way in which he was able to work these events into his story, and I think that it made The Enemy Within a much more compelling and distinctive read.

I have to say that I also really loved the author’s use of setting in The Enemy Within.  This latest book is set in early 2020, when Sydney was surrounded by some of the worst bushfires in Australian history and the entire city was covered in smoke for months.  Ayliffe does an excellent job portraying these terrible conditions, no doubt drawn from his own personal experiences, and the reader gets a good idea of how difficult life was under those conditions (it certainly brought me back to that time, although we didn’t have it quite as bad down in Canberra).  Ayliffe uses this unique setting to full effect throughout the book and it provides some fitting atmosphere for the narrative, especially as the landscape reflects the simmering tensions flaring up within the city.  This was one of the more distinctive features of The Enemy Within, and I really appreciated the way the author used it to enhance his great story.  I also quite enjoyed the throwaway references to COVID-19, with none of the characters particularly concerned about it considering everything else that was happening, and I have no doubt that Ayliffe’s next novel will make great use of the pandemic in some way.

With his latest novel, The Enemy Within, Tim Ayliffe continues to showcase why he is one of the best new writers of Australian crime fiction.  The Enemy Within had an awesome and incredible story that perfectly brings in amazing contemporary Australian issues and settings, which are expertly worked into a thrilling novel.  I had an outstanding time reading this fantastic read and it comes highly recommended.

Prisoner by S. R. White

The Prisoner Cover

Publisher: Headline (Trade Paperback – 31 August 2021)

Series: Hermit – Book Two

Length: 421 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out 5 stars

Prepare for a twisty and dark Australian murder mystery novel as author S. R. White presents the compelling and powerful Prisoner.

Deep in rural Northern Australia, a dead body has been found in the middle of a dank and dangerous swamp.  The corpse is staged to appear like a crucifixion, with the man’s arms and legs tied to poles, and his chest caved in with several blows.  Called to the scene of the crime, Detective Dana Russo soon discovers that the victim was a convicted rapist who had only been released from prison a few hours earlier and whose crime occurred only a short walk away from his murder site.

Determined to get to the bottom of this unusual murder, Russo and her team swiftly begin tearing apart the victim’s life in prison and find that he had been in communication with two local sisters who offered him a place to stay once he was released.  Investigating the sisters, they discover a unique pair of siblings who have been irreparably damaged by trauma and abuse and who live separate from the rest of society.  Believing that the solution to the mystery may lay with them, Russo brings them both in for questioning, but finds them uncooperative and elusive.

Under pressure to solve the crime, the detectives slowly unwind an intriguing case, concerning corruption, drugs and prison gangs.  However, the further they dig, the more apparent it becomes that the sisters are hiding some dark secrets about themselves and the victim.  Forced to dig deep within herself, Russo uses the memories of her own traumatic childhood to analyse the suspects and find some common understanding with them.  Can Russo break through these two unlikely suspects, or will the solution to this murder never be revealed?

This was a pretty cool and captivating novel from former British Police officer turned author S. R. White.  Prisoner is White’s second novel and serves as a sequel to his 2020 debut, Hermit.  This proved to be a fantastic read and I deeply enjoyed the intriguing and powerful narrative, especially as White loads his book with a complex mystery and some deeply damaged characters.  I got pretty hooked on this book as it progressed and ended up finishing it in only a couple of days.

Prisoner contains a very impressive and compelling narrative that I really found myself getting drawn into.  The novel mostly starts off focusing on the murder, with the discovery of the body in the first few pages, and then the protagonists immediately jump into the investigation, including the interrogation of one of the main suspects.  As the story progresses, you get some other interesting elements thrown in, mostly around Dana Russo and one of her other colleagues as they deal with some dark personal history.  There is also a captivating subplot regarding internal police politics that produces a real shakeup in the department and has some potential series-wide ramifications.  However, most of the story remains on the mystery, and I really appreciated the creativity and darkness that the author fits into the case.  Despite being a sequel to White’s first book, Prisoner can easily be read as a standalone novel, and no prior knowledge of the characters or the setting is needed.  I felt that the entire narrative progressed along at a great pace, and there were no slow bits throughout the book, as the reader was either reading about the case or dealing with the intense personal demons of the various characters.

I must highlight the fantastic writing style that White featured throughout this novel.  While most of the focus of Prisoner is on central character Russo, the author makes good use of multiple perspectives, mainly of the other detectives on the investigation team, to move the story along and provide some alternate points of view and different investigative threads.  White utilises a very detailed writing style, which encourages a slower reading pace to make sure you don’t miss anything, and I felt that enriched the mystery and increased the realism of the plot.  I also must highlight the incredibly detailed descriptions of the swampy landscape that surrounded the crime scene and the Northern Australian town where the plot is set.  White paints a grim picture of small, isolated community on its last legs, where even the landscape has turned against it.  You can really feel the stickiness and deadliness of the swamps, and it proves to be quite a haunting background to several scenes.  I also must mention the really fun and unique take that several of the characters had on the film Signs.  This film, which I personally rather enjoyed, is brought up several times and becomes a key plot point.  While that does sound a little strange, its inclusion worked surprisingly well, and the subsequent discussions and insightful analysis of the film and its themes, ended up fitting into the overall narrative quite seamlessly, helping to create quite a unique tale.

I also deeply enjoyed the crime fiction/mystery elements of Prisoner, which really helped to turn this into quite a compelling and exciting story.  White crafts together a really clever and psychologically intense mystery for this book, and I had a wonderful time seeing the protagonists unwind it.  The author sets up a great methodical criminal investigation, with the characters slowly uncovering clues, backstory and various suspects throughout the story.  While the police do achieve an impressive amount in just a couple of days, there is a gritty sense of realism to much of the story, and I really enjoyed seeing the police in action.  The best part of the investigation is easily the focus on interrogations as the protagonist engages two uncooperative suspects in several separate interviews throughout the course of the book.  These interrogation sequences are among some of the best parts of the entire book, as Russo really dives into the pasts and minds of her suspects, which also requires her to reach back and harness some of her own trauma to break through to them.  This, combined with the rest of her team’s investigation, proved to be quite fascinating, and I really enjoyed seeing the cooperative work and professional skills involved.  I also quite enjoyed the solution to the murder, especially as White comes up with quite a unique and dark motivation for the crime.  There are several good suspects and motivations for the murder, which at times made me question who the killer might be.  However, I thought the overall resolution of the mystery was extremely clever, and it really made great use of the dark psychology of some of the characters.

One of the biggest highlights of this book were the damaged and traumatised central characters, who White spent a substantial amount of time exploring throughout the course of the story.  This includes a mixture of characters who previously appeared in Hermit and some new characters brought in for Prisoner.  This includes central protagonist Dana Russo, the detective in charge of the investigation.  Dana had a very traumatic childhood, brought on by an abusive mother who beat and emotionally tormented her following her father’s death.  While this was revealed in the previous novel, it was recounted once again in Prisoner, especially as details of the case end up mimicking parts of Dana’s life.  The protagonist is forced to dive deep into her prior experiences to help solve this case, and it was fascinating to see how she could instantly spot signs of abuse, as well as rationalise the various reasons behind it and the impacts it can have on a young person.  The protagonist also uses her experiences to get into the minds of her two main suspects, resulting in some intense and extremely powerful interrogation scenes, where both suspect and interrogator are broken down at the same time.  White also produces some more revelations about Dana’s terrible childhood, including a certain reveal on the last page that was pretty memorable, and I really liked the compelling picture he painted around this impressive leading character.

The other characters who proved to be extremely compelling were the main suspects of the murder case, Suzanne and Marika Doyle.  The Doyle siblings are instantly identified as persons of interest in the case due to their house’s proximity to the crime scene and the fact that they wrote to the victim in prison and helped to organise his parole, despite having never met him.  Upon examination of their history, as well as an insightful look at their house, it soon becomes apparent that both siblings had a hard childhood because of their controlling mother.  Their life story becomes a key part of the overarching plot as Russo attempts to uncover their full history and personalities, as she believes it is important to solve the case.  The eventual reveals about the siblings and their relationship, their past and their emotional states is extremely captivating, and White paints quite a dark and troubled narrative around them that was really fascinating.  The way that this ties into the murder and their relationship with the victim is very clever, and White really outdid himself making these two sibling suspects.

I also must give a quick shout out to the character of Lucy Delaney, one of Dana’s co-workers and an invaluable resource in the case.  Dana and Lucy got quite close to each other in the previous novel, with Dana revealing some of her childhood trauma to her, something she rarely does.  In this novel, you get a much closer look at Lucy, who reveals some of her own personal issues, and the shared grief becomes a major part of her connection to Dana.  Unfortunately for Lucy, she gets dragged into some internal police politics, which impact her and her secrets quite severely and will likely become a recurring issue in the series, especially if the relationship between Dana and Lucy progresses.  Aside from Lucy, I felt that the police characters represented an interesting blend of personalities and skills, such as the wily veteran Mike or the similarly damaged officer Ali, who helped to give the film more personality.  It will be interesting to see how these characters are featured in the future, and I look forward to learning more about them.

Prisoner by S. R. White is a clever and moving piece of Australian crime fiction that proved to be a real treat to read.  White has produced a deep and compelling murder mystery narrative that focuses on a fantastic group of damaged protagonists and suspects, and who have some dark stories to tell.  I really loved the more methodical and grounded police investigation angle of this book, especially the inclusion of some powerful interrogation sequences, and I was impressed with how the narrative unfolded.  An excellent and captivating murder mystery, Prisoner comes highly recommended, and you will have a great time getting through the latest book from this fantastic Australian author.

The Final Girl Support Group by Grady Hendrix

The Final Girl Support Group Cover

Publisher: Penguin Random House Audio (Audiobook – 13 July 2021)

Series: Standalone

Length: 13 hours and 55 minutes

My rating: 4.25 out of 5 stars

Bestselling author Grady Hendrix presents one of the most unique and intriguing novels of 2021, The Final Girl Support Group, a compelling thriller that brilliantly explores the slasher movie genre.

Hendrix is an interesting author and screenwriter whose name I have been hearing a lot in the last couple of years.  The author debuted in 2012 and has gone on to write several fun horror-based novels, including Horrorstör, We Sold Our Souls and The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires.  Each of Hendrix’s previous novels had some fun concepts, and while I have not had the opportunity to check them out myself, I did read some very positive reviews for the previous two novels.  Hendrix’s latest book is The Final Girl Support Group, which caught my eye a few months ago.  What I found was a cool and clever novel that proved to be a compelling and addictive read.

We all know who the final girls are.  They are the only survivors of the vicious horror killers and slasher fiends in the movies, who manage to kill their monsters, avenge their friends, and walk off into a bloody sunset.  However, what happens to these final girls after they survive the worst days of their lives?  How do the final girls move on?

For Lynnette Tarkington, the horror of her defining moment never truly left her.  Twenty-two years since surviving terrible experiences, she is still barely able to leave her apartment, with paranoia and fear forcing her to see unimaginable danger around every corner.  Her only solace is the long-running support group she shares with five other final girls who have gone through their own traumatising events.  Together these women have slowly begun to put their lives back together one way or another, until the fateful day that one of their number fails to show up to group.

It soon becomes clear that their missing member has been murdered, a victim of one of the monsters they all fear.  As the remaining final girls go to ground, Lynnette finds herself under attack by someone who knows all about her and her escape plans.  Forced to improvise outside of her comfort zone, Lynnette discovers proof that other final girls are also being targeted.  When evidence suggests that Lynnette is responsible for some horrendous actions, she goes on the run to find out who is framing her.  Desperate, terrified, and still bearing the scars from all those years ago, Lynnette’s situation looks grim, but her latest monster is about to discover that you never count a final girl out.

As you can probably guess from the awesome plot of this book, The Final Girl Support Group is a very interesting novel that has some excellent elements to it.  Hendrix has come up with a clever narrative for this book, especially as it contains a very fun and compelling take on the classic slasher films.

The Final Girl Support Group has an excellent and deeply entertaining narrative which tells a very unique tale of a plot to kill the survivors of classic horror killers.  Hendrix does a really good job setting up each of the characters and the different world they lived in.  From there the story moves fast, as the protagonist experiences a variety of attacks on herself and her friends from all manner of directions.  The middle of the novel slows down a little and is extremely heavy, really examining the psychology of the protagonist and her friends, while also containing some excellent reveals and dark moments.  This all leads up to a very exciting conclusion, which was extremely intense and reminiscent of the films Hendrix is emulating and honouring.

Despite its roots, this novel was written more like a character-driven psychological thriller rather than a pure horror read, which I think worked extremely well.  The entire novel is loaded up with some cool twists, and the eventual reveal about who is behind the plot is pretty awesome and has some clever set-up behind it.  I loved the author’s inclusion of certain in-universe fictional articles and other inclusions, such as horror movie reviews, listicles and police transcripts, which helped to enrich the universe while also providing some interesting context to the various characters.  While I did have some issues with the middle section of the novel, mostly because of my feelings towards the main character, I felt that the entire narrative came together extremely well, and the outstanding conclusion really enhanced the entire overarching story.  An overall compelling and addictive read.

Easily the best part of this entire novel was the author’s examination of the horror/slasher genre as part of the plot.  Hendrix is obviously a massive fan of the horror genre, which is not too surprising considering he has actually written a couple of horror screenplays, such as the weird and disturbing sounding Satanic Panic, which I’m kind of keen to check out.  This love of horror is very clearly shown throughout The Final Girl Support Group, as this book acts as a major homage to some of the most famous slasher films of the last century.  The five other members of the support group are all strongly inspired by the final girls from Friday the 13th, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Halloween, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Scream.  Each of these characters has a very similar backstory to the characters from these movies, and Hendrix takes the time to describe the events that made them famous, which are near matches to the films, with similar characters, events and sequels.  Even Lynnette’s story, which is shown in the most detail, bears a very strong resemblance to the controversial 1980’s slasher film, Silent Night, Deadly Night and its sequel (a somewhat more obscure film that I had never heard of).

As a result, this novel is chock full of references to these various films, as well as some other horror/slasher entries (there was one that sounded a lot like Leprechaun).  I must admit that I am not the biggest fan of the horror genre, and my knowledge of slasher films is limited, however, even I was able to pick up and appreciate most of the references, which was really cool.  Hendrix does a wonderful job of deconstructing the various films, and it was extremely compelling and fascinating to see the author explore the aftermath of the event, the psychology of the killers, and the concept of crazy film fans.  I deeply appreciated the way that Hendrix structure this unique world where all these slasher movies occurred, and it was very interesting to see stuff like the final girls getting the film rights to their experiences, or the acceptance that a killer will come back in one form or another for a sequel.  The author also explores the negative sides of the slasher genre, such as the fact that they can be rather sexist and exploitative, and that author manages to cleverly tie some of the violence of the novels into the alt-right and men’s rights movements.  I did think that the underlying message that all men are evil was plastered on a little too thickly (having every single male character be an ass was a bit much), but I suppose that was a pretty significant theme of these slasher films.  This examination of the horror and slasher genre was pretty damn amazing, and fans of these movies are going to absolutely love seeing all the subtle references and compelling homages.

While I loved the story and all the amazing slasher film references in The Final Girl Support Group, I did feel that the novel was rather let down by the characters.  I was not the biggest fan of protagonist and point-of-view character, Lynnette, and I am in two minds about how much I liked her.  I did appreciate the author’s depiction of her as extremely paranoid and traumatised, which felt very realistic and deep.  I also enjoyed her survivalist mindset, which reminded me of Jamie Lee Curtis’s character in the 2018 Halloween film.  However, what annoyed me was at how incompetent the character was.  While I understood that the author was building towards the character having a breakthrough and becoming more dependable, I honestly think he really overdid the hopelessness.  Despite all her training and disaster planning, she manages to mess up every single action, interaction, or plan that she engages in, and is constantly outsmarted by the most obvious ploys or traps.  It was so frustrating to see her screw up again and again, and I found myself nearly yelling at the book every time she made a mistake.  Honestly, if Hendrix had dialled back these traits just a little, I probably would have enjoyed this novel a little more.  That being said, I did really appreciate the changes to the characters that did occur, and it was great to see her get some wins eventually.  I also enjoyed some of the twists that Hendrix set up around the character, which proved to be extremely compelling and place new light on her story.

Other members of the support group include Dani (whose story is like Halloween), Marilyn (Texas Chainsaw Massacre), Julia (Scream), Heather (Nightmare on Elm Street) and Adrienne (Friday the 13th).  Hendrix spends a bit of time exploring these characters, and it was cool to see the exploration of all these classic final girls and the aftermath of their horrors.  I really enjoyed seeing how each of them moved on with their lives after their experiences, with the characters running the gauntlet from inspirational to depressing.  It proved to be extremely captivating to learn more about these characters, and I grew to like several of them, although Heather was pretty annoying (her issues relate to her more psychological experiences, and the character does redeem herself by the end of the book).  I did find myself getting frustrated with each of these characters at times, as they also make some classic horror movie heroine mistakes, such as not performing a double tap (rule one in a horror situation), and being so quick to disbelieve Lynnette, even after all their experiences.  There were also some noticeable issues when it came to portraying the character’s ages.  Despite each of these characters having their traumatic event occur in the 1980’s when there were teenagers, none of them act like middle-aged women, which seemed really odd to me.  However, in the end I was able to overlook some of these flaws, and I ended up enjoying each of the characters’ stories and development.

While I was tempted to grab a copy of The Final Girl Support Group as an ebook for a quick read, I ended up getting the audiobook version, which has a runtime of just under 14 hours and which took me about a week to get through.  One of the more interesting things about this audiobook format is the narrator, Adrienne King, who horror/slasher fans will recognise as the final girl of the original Friday the 13th and who also had a subsequent appearance in Friday the 13th Part 2.  I felt that this was a pretty brilliant choice, not only because King portrayed a final girl but because her own real-life experiences with stalkers mirrors what happens to the characters in this novel.  However, while I did think it was a very fitting choice, I have to admit that I was not amazingly impressed with King’s narration.  She did a good job keeping the novel going at a quick pace and providing some emotion and feeling to the story, but I didn’t like the way she voiced the characters.  There is some variation between some of the final girls, but I honestly found that King’s voice work highlighted some of the character’s annoying tendencies and it never fully drew me in.  Still, this audiobook format is a fine way to enjoy this novel, and it is worth checking out.  I am also sure that Friday the 13th fans will enjoying hearing King’s take on the novel, especially when she describes the various homages to her own film, including the similarities in the deaths between one of the characters and King’s final girl in Friday the 13th Part 2.

The Final Girl Support Group was a fantastic read and is one of the more memorable and inventive novels of 2021.  Grady Hendrix does an outstanding examination of the final girl phenomenon in this novel and manages to craft quite an impressive and enjoyable thriller narrative around it.  While I wasn’t the biggest fan of every aspect of The Final Girl Support Group, it is still a great novel to check out, and horror fans will love the excellent examination of the genre.  I am very glad I decided to check this novel out and I will have to keep an eye out for whatever unusual book Hendrix writes next.

Throwback Thursday: Batman: Assault on Arkham

Assault on Arkham Poster

Studio: Warner Bros. Animation and DC Entertainment

Series: DC Universe Animated Original Movies – Film 20

Director: Jay Oliva and Ethan Spaulding

Writer: Heath Corson

Producer: James Tucker

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Welcome back to my Throwback Thursday series, where I republish old reviews, review content I have enjoyed before or review older books I have only just had a chance to read.  For this week’s Throwback Thursday I go back and check out one of the more intriguing DC animated movies, with Batman: Assault on Arkham.

As I mentioned in a recent Top Ten Tuesday, I have been in a DC mood ever since I saw The Suicide Squad on the weekend, which was easily the best film focusing on the titular Suicide Squad.  While people only familiar with the live-action films might think that this is a low bar, those who know about the awesome catalogue of DC Comics animated films will know that there are several awesome and outstanding films that perfectly capture the feel and tone of the supervillain team and are pretty fun to watch.  Therefore, this week I will look at one of these great animated films, with Batman: Assault on Arkham.

Assault on Arkham is an amazing and fantastic film that came out in 2014 and is set in the same universe as the Arkham video game franchise (set between Arkham Origins and Arkham Asylum).  Directed by Jay Oliva and Ethan Spaulding, written by Heath Corson and produced by James Tucker, this was a memorable and fun DC Universe Animated Original Movie, which contains some of the best comic book based animated films out there.  Despite the name, Assault on Arkham is really a Suicide Squad movie, with Batman strongly featured but acting more as a side character.  This was an excellent and impressive film, which makes use of a darker tone and more adult animation to create a fitting Suicide Squad experience.  Heck, this was a much better Suicide Squad movie than the 2016 live-action film as it embraced the team’s darker side and their propensity for violence, while also featuring an impressive and clever story.

Two years before the Joker took over Arkham Asylum, the Clown Prince of Crime terrorises Gotham City, this time by threatening it with a dirty bomb.  With the Joker locked up in Arkham Asylum and refusing to talk, Batman stalks the streets of Gotham, searching for those who helped him.  His mission leads him to save the Riddler from a black-ops team of soldiers, sent by shadowy government agent Amanda Waller.  With Riddler now locked up in Arkham Asylum, Waller assembles the one force capable of breaching Arkham’s walls to find him and the information she desires, Task Force X.

Task Force X, also known as the Suicide Squad, is made up of some of the most deadly and skilled villains in the world, each of whom have been forcibly drafted onto the team and offered reduced sentences if they complete their mission.  Recruiting a team made up of Floyd Lawton (Deadshot), Harleen Quinzel (Harley Quinn), George Harkness (Captain Boomerang), Eric Needham (Black Spider), Nanaue (King Shark) and Louise Lincoln (Killer Frost), Waller sends them into Arkham with bombs implanted in their necks.

Forced to work together despite their innate distrust and dislike of each other, the Suicide Squad arrive in Gotham and make their plans to infiltrate the asylum.  However, it doesn’t take long for petty rivalries, massive manipulations, and dangerous outside influences to put all their schemes in disarray.  Working their way through the most dangerous place on the planet, the Squad soon learns a deadly secret that will change everything and set them on a bold new path.  But with Batman wise to their presence, can the Squad achieve their goals and make their escape, or will they find themselves locked up in Arkham instead.  Worse, someone far more dangerous is stalking the halls of the asylum, someone with an insane sense of humour and a desire to claim back what is his.  The Joker is loose, and he wants to play!

This is an awesome film that really does the chaotic and dangerous Suicide Squad justice.  Featuring an excellent story and serving as a clever adaption of the Suicide Squad comics and other pieces of media, this is an extremely fun movie.  Throw in an exceptional voice cast, some great interpretations of iconic characters, and some powerful animated sequences, and you have a great and impressive movie that I have long been a fan of.

At the heart of this great movie is a very compelling and exciting narrative that takes its various characters on a wild and dangerous ride to hell in back.  Assault on Arkham starts off with an excellent scene, which sees Riddler being attacked by Waller’s goons, only to be rescued by Batman in an intense and brutal fight sequence.  This then leads into an entertaining introductory sequence for the various members of the squad, with a fun reel of shots with no dialogue showing each member of the Squad showing off some of their skills before getting captured by various law enforcement groups.  These dark and sometimes gruesome introductory scenes really set the tone for the entire movie, while also providing great summaries of each of the main characters.  What follows is a fun and captivating character-driven tale as the members of the Squad arrive in Gotham and make their play to break into Arkham.  There are some fantastic clashes of personality and deep personal moments in this early part of the film, as the team initially comes together, despite their crazy differences.  This leads to an intriguing central part of the film, where the characters begin their assault on the asylum, performing a reverse prison break.  After some great scenes, the team are at large in the asylum, which leads to even more chaos, destruction, and big fight moments.  All of this leads to an explosive and dangerous final act, as the characters need to escape while being pursued by Batman and the Joker.  Caught between these extremely dangerous forces, the fractured Squad attempts to escape, facing some major defining obstacles which really bring the entire film together.  I loved the fantastic and darker story that this film featured, and the writing team did an excellent job combining brutality, humour, character development and pure craziness into one enthralling tale.  There are so many fun and thrilling moments to this outstanding film, and viewers will found themselves really getting drawn into the cool story.

The animation in Assault on Arkham is very impressive, and the creative team behind it did a great job bringing the various characters to life and placing them in some outstanding action sequences.  The movement and action in this film is pretty damn seamless, and you are in for some very fast-paced scenes that look pretty superb, especially as they feature a great mixture of lighting and multiple unique characters.  Highlights include the opening shadowy encounter between Batman and the special forces soldiers, the massive fight between Batman and the entire Suicide Squad, and the final two confrontations that occur after a big helicopter crash.  I loved the cool character designs of the various characters, especially as they mix some new looks with classic drawings.  I also felt that the creative team combined this cool animation with the excellent musical score well, and the various tunes really helped to set the scene.  There is something very dark, bloody, and adult about the designs in the film, and the end result is definitely not a kid’s cartoon.

Part of the design that I really enjoyed was the way in which the creative team attempted to emulate the style from the fantastic Batman: Arkham video games.  This film serves as a canon entry between Arkham Origins and Arkham Asylum, and the team did a great job capturing the cool style and themes that the games are famous for.  This is particularly seen in the various scenes featuring Batman, the playable character of the games, and you get to see him whip out the various gadgets and viewscreens that appeared in the games.  I particularly enjoyed the opening scene where Batman takes out a squad of soldiers in much the same way that a player would in the games, from the flips to the use of a batline.  There are also several references to the games throughout the film, from a character trying to hide in a vent, to the layout of Arkham Asylum, where you spend significant time in the first film.  Despite all these references, this film can easily be enjoyed by comic fans who have not played the video games.  Assault on Arkham is very much framed as a standalone film, and no matter your familiarity with Batman or the Arkham games, you will have a fun time watching this movie.

As I have mentioned above, this awesome film contained a really impressive and memorable take on the Suicide Squad, producing a truly great movie.  Part of this is the choice of team, as it features a compelling blend of characters that are inspired by the team first introduced in the New 52 range.  Anchored by team leader Deadshot and wildcard Harley Quinn, it also features long-time Suicide Squad member Captain Boomerang, as well as a fantastic combination of Black Spider, King Shark and Killer Frost.  While the team structure is similar to the team in the first live-action film, Assault on Arkham actually predates this film by a couple of years, and also utilises them a lot better, really showing off some more complex aspects of their personality, mainly thanks to the excellent voice cast.  This animated film also takes itself a lot less seriously than the first live-action film did, and is less afraid to show blood, sex and death.  While some of this is a tad over the top (some of the female characters are way too sexualised), I really wish that the subsequent live-action film had taken some cues from how successful this animated feature was, as that would have resulted in a much better experience.

Easily the best part of this film is the amazing characters and sensational voice cast, which really help to make it stand out.  While it does feature a lot of Batman and Joker, the main characters of this film are the Suicide Squad.  The most prominent is team leader an assassin extraordinaire, Deadshot.  Voiced by the talented Neal McDonough, a man who has voiced quite a few villains in his day, this version of Deadshot is near perfect, and contains a lot of elements from the comics that the live-action version was lacking.  While the overriding love for his daughter is still there, this version of Deadshot is a lot colder and a lot quicker on the trigger, happily massacring everyone who gets in his way.  McDonough really captures the character’s menace, killer instinct, and determination, and this Deadshot serves as the tough and often exasperated leader of the Squad.  I loved that they captured Deadshot’s crazier side (he has a massive death wish in the comics), especially as this leads to one of the best scenes in the entire film: “Mate, you just out-crazied the Joker”.  It was also cool that Deadshot had one of the most satisfying character arcs in the entire film, ending Assault on Arkham on a very entertaining and memorable note, that showed that the character was a man of his word: “Bang!”

This film also features an amazing version of iconic character Harley Quinn.  Before Margot Robbie and Kaley Cuoco put their spins on the character, veteran voice actor Hynden Walch provided her impressive voice to Harley, resulting in a fantastic and crazed female-lead.  Walch, who is probably best known for voicing Starfire in Teen Titans or Princess Bubblegum in Adventure Time, does an excellent job going a little darker with this character, producing some excellent scenes of madness and humour as Harley manages to annoy the other characters while cracking up the audience.  I loved the introduction that this character had, biting off an ear in a halfway house with Looney Tunes music playing (it’s weird, but it works).  Harley proves to be quite conflicted in this film as she finds herself stuck between her abusive ex, the Joker, and her new love interest, Deadshot (all I am going to say about the later relationship is “Yahtzee!”).  While this starts off with a very concerted attempt to kill the Joker, Harley is eventually drawn back to him, which is kind of heartbreaking.  There is some of the typical abusive relationship stuff that comes out with Harley, as she blames everyone but Joker for her problems.  This was a great portrayal of this fantastic and complex character, and I was very happy that Walch came back to portray Harley in other films such as Justice League Dark: Apokolips War.

Other great members of the Squad include Captain Boomerang, voiced by Greg Ellis.  Boomerang acts as the Squad’s comic relief, and I liked the uncaring and selfish attitude that is such a feature of the character in the original Suicide Squad comics.  Ellis really brings out the character’s smarmy and arrogant side, and I loved the amusing rivalry he formed with Deadshot, which results in a brilliant game of darts.  This movie also features the outstanding Gincarlo Esposito in the role of Black Spider, a murderous vigilante who is less than pleased at being lumped in with a group of supervillains.  Esposito brings some real gravitas to the character, and he proves to be a skilled and fun member of the team, and his inclusion results in a pretty major fake-out.  The hilarious John DiMaggio does a great King Shark in this film, and I loved the somewhat more human design of the monster and his funny dim-witted mentality.  Despite being a source of some humour, King Shark is a brutal killer, which is very much shown in his introduction where he emerges from a bathtub full of blood.  Finally, the brilliant Jennifer Hale portrays a fantastic Killer Frost (not surprising, considering she’s voiced the character in nearly every film or animated television appearance).  This version of Frost is pretty cold-blooded and proves to be a murderous addition to the team.  I liked the fun friendship that she forms with King Shark, and they prove to be a great duo.

While the Suicide Squad takes most of the film’s focus, Batman is featured pretty extensively in this film, which is really cool.  I personally was overjoyed that they got the iconic voice of Kevin Conroy for the character, and this amazing actor reprises his role from the various animated series and the Arkham games.  Batman is mostly on the outside of the story for the first half of the film, only becoming involved when the Squad enters the asylum, but once he gets involved, the results are pretty damn awesome.  This version of the character perfectly highlights the various aspects of Batman, as he kicks ass, intimates everyone he meets, outsmarts his foes, and utilises his amazing detective skills to make some big assumptions.  Featuring Batman as a side-character in his own film was an interesting choice, but it is one that really works, and it was great to see him attempt to work out the various ploys of the Squad, Waller, and the Joker.  Conroy’s voice work is of course, perfect, which isn’t surprisingly considering all the times he’s portrayed the character.  Another excellent inclusion of the legendary hero.

While most of the cast of Assault on Arkham are villains, the one that sticks out the most is the master of anarchy, the Joker.  Voiced by Troy Baker, who reprises his role from Arkham Origins, Joker really stands out as a character, which honestly isn’t that surprising.  Joker escapes his cell and starts causing chaos all over the asylum, coming into conflict with both the Squad and Batman.  This version of the Joker is the usual awesome mix of scary insanity and corny humour, and the character has several hilarious scenes throughout the film, including one of the best lines: “Denzel, what have they done to you?”  I also enjoyed the new rivalry he forms with Deadshot, as he shows some uncharacteristic jealousy over the fact that Harley has moved on.  This leads to a brutal brawl in the film’s conclusion, which is a major highlight.  Baker, who would go on to voice the Joker in several other animated features, does a pretty good job in Assault on Arkham, and does well at replicating Mark Hamill’s take on the character.  This results in an excellent villain, and I loved seeing the insane Arkham version of the character once more.

The final character I really want to highlight controls Task Force X, Amanda “the Wall” Waller.  Voiced by the incredible CCH Pounder, the definitive voice actor for the character (she is so good in Justice League Unlimited), this manipulative bureaucrat is in many ways the true villain of Assault on Arkham, turning everyone against each other to get what she wants.   She has an excellent introduction, where she manages to outsmart the Riddler, while also giving a fantastic line about riddles: “I have Google, like the rest of the world!”  From there, she proves to be a consistent badass, dragging the ruthless killers together into her Suicide Squad, bending them to her will, and then unleashing them upon the world.  Despite her plans not going as well as she hoped, Waller still manages to have a great run in Assault on Arkham, and Pounder really dives into the character’s manipulative nature and inner anger: “No one screws the Wall!”  She also has a pretty badass stare-down with Batman, actually managing to win their confrontation.  This character has a pretty amazing final moment in the film, especially as it wraps up her entire arc with Deadshot in one fantastic word.  Overall, Pounder rounds out the awesome central voice cast perfectly, and it was an absolute treat to see their performance come together.

Batman: Assault on Arkham is a fantastic and memorable animated film that is so much fun to watch.  Serving as the definitive and best film about the Suicide Squad for years, Assault on Arkham makes full use of its intense and exciting story, its brilliant design and exceptional cast and characters.  I deeply enjoy this amazing film and I have watched it multiple times ever since it was released.  A highly recommended watch, especially if, like me, you loved the latest Suicide Squad movie and want some more crazy, villain-led chaos and destruction.

State of Fear by Tim Ayliffe

State of Fear Cover

Publisher: Simon & Schuster Australia (Trade Paperback – 22 July 2019)

Series: John Bailey – Book Two

Length: 390 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

One of the fastest-rising Australian thriller writers, Tim Ayliffe, follows up his impressive debut with an excellent second entry in his John Bailey series, State of Fear.

Tim Ayliffe is a talented author who debuted in 2018 with The Greater Good, the first John Bailey book.  This novel explored political corruption and international interference in Australia and made excellent use of the author’s experiences as a journalist.  I really enjoyed this first book and was rather interested when I received the second novel from Ayliffe, State of Fear, in 2019.  Unfortunately, I did not get a chance to read State of Fear when it first came out, and it has been in my to-read pile for a while, until I received a copy of the third John Bailey novel, The Enemy Within, a few weeks ago.  I rather liked the sound of the third book’s plot, and I really wanted to read and review it.  However, before checking out The Enemy Within I thought it would make more sense to read State of Fear first, and boy am I glad that I did.

Throughout his long career as a journalist and war correspondent, John Bailey has faced many dangers and been in several terrible situations.  However, his worst encounter was with the notorious terrorist mastermind, Mustafa al-Baghdadi, who kidnapped Bailey while he was reporting on the invasion in Afghanistan and relentlessly tortured him mentally and psychically.  Following his release from the terrorist group and a retirement from working in active war zones, Bailey thought that his days of dealing with terrorists was over, but he was wrong.

Speaking at a conference on Islamic terrorism in London, Bailey is horrified when a radicalised terrorist murders a woman in front of the convention centre.  Rattled, Bailey returns home to Sydney, only to find his troubles have followed him there.  The son of his former driver in Bagdad has gone missing, and Bailey has been implored to help.  Investigating, Bailey finds that the son has been in contact with some dangerous men with connections to Islamic terrorist cells.  Worse, it appears that they are planning to launch a massive attack in Sydney.

Desperate to save his friend’s son from making a terrible mistake, Bailey attempts to make sense of the terrible events unfolding in Sydney.  However, the deeper he goes, the clearer it becomes that Mustafa al-Baghdadi is back, and he is targeting Bailey personally.  As Bailey and everyone he loves comes under attack, Bailey is forced to turn to his old friend, CIA agent Ronnie Johnson, to find Mustafa and take him down.  But will they be able to stop Mustafa before it is too late, or will the world’s most dangerous terrorist destroy everything that Bailey holds dear?

State of Fear was an excellent and powerful novel that takes its great protagonist on a rough and dangerous journey through hell and back.  Ayliffe has definitely grown as an author since his first novel, and this second book is a compelling and intense novel with a well-crafted narrative.  Starting off with an intense beginning, the protagonist is swiftly shoved into his latest harrowing adventure, as the terrorist he thought he escaped violently bursts back into his life.  This is a very captivating novel, and despite its longer length I found myself powering through it in a very short amount of time.  The protagonist goes through a real wringer as he is forced to visit the ghosts of his past while trying to stop his foe’s latest plot.  Featuring a sprawling and deadly investigation through the suburbs of Sydney, the story eventually journeys back to London, where the protagonist and his friends engage in a deadly and dramatic fight to stop a deadly attack.  There is so much going on in this story, and the reader will experience outstanding action, powerful drama, and some major tragedy, especially in the novel’s dramatic conclusion.  This is a fantastic book which stands on its own and can easily be read by people unfamiliar with the other John Bailey novels.  I had an exceptional time reading State of Fear and it is really worth checking out.

Ayliffe works a lot of fun elements into this novel that make it quite a unique read.  Perhaps one of the most prominent of these is his experience and knowledge as a journalist which helps to produce a very Australian centric view of the events that are being depicted.  For example, Ayliffe includes a very detailed and compelling look at radical Islamic terrorism and how it is occurring both in Australia and in the wider world, particularly England.  Using several real-life Australian cases as basis, Ayliffe manages to expose and explore the heart of the issue, and he paints a fair and captivating picture of how individuals are lured into radical Islam as well as the consequences of their actions.  There are some very intriguing and powerful discussions included within this novel, especially around how the Islamic and migrant community in Australia feels isolated and prejudiced against, and I really appreciated the compelling inclusion in the novel.

Other intriguing elements contained within State of Fear include Ayliffe’s experiences with modern media and how journalist stories are produced and distributed.  There are some fascinating and fun journalistic scenes contained within this novel, and you have to assume that the protagonist’s extremely negative views about the swing to online social media based journalism has to reflect some of the author’s personal feelings.  Another great feature of this novel was the way in which Ayliffe once again used his novel to highlight the city of Sydney.  While a good portion of this novel is set in London (which Ayliffe also does a great job portraying), the scenes set within Sydney are a particular highlight.  The author really dives into showcasing this city, with the protagonist visiting several real-life suburbs and locations throughout the course of the book, distributing local knowledge as he goes.  As a result, this book is filled with some fun references that locals and Sydneysiders will really appreciate, and I enjoyed how Ayliffe spent the time to write a love letter to his city.

In addition to a fantastic story and excellent setting, Ayliffe also ensures that State of Fear is loaded with some complex and memorable characters.  The most prominent of these is series main protagonist and primary point of view character John Bailey.  Bailey is an outstanding veteran reporting character, and Ayliffe portrays him as a broken older news hound who is trying to balance his addictive career with holding onto his family.  This protagonist is the very definition of a damaged character, as he has experienced great trauma, both psychical and emotional, over the years thanks to his work as a war correspondent.  Despite this trauma, Bailey has experienced some major growth since the first book in the series, mainly thanks to the actions of major people in his life, and he is now a much more functional human being, allowing the reader to really connect with his struggles and damage.  Unfortunately, the events of this novel really hit him hard, as he experiences fresh pain while also revisiting his traumatic past through a series of dark flashbacks.  Despite this, Bailey keeps moving forward trying to solve the case, and it was great to see his determination and resolve, even under the worse of circumstances.  The ending of the novel is pretty bad for Bailey, and he goes through some tragic moments that will no doubt rock him for the rest of the series.  All of this makes for an incredible central protagonist, and readers will fall in love with this damaged and compelling character.

Aside from Bailey, State of Fear also contains several great supporting characters, most of whom are holdovers from The Greater Good, and who find themselves in all sorts of trouble in this book.  The most prominent of these is Bailey’s romantic partner, Detective Chief Inspector Sharon Dexter, who serves as a secondary point-of-view protagonist for parts of the book.  Dexter is a tough, no-nonsense cop whose past with Bailey led to a romantic relationship in the first book.  Despite having a very complex and unusual relationship with Bailey, Dexter proves to be an excellent supporting character, acting as the sensible and official support to Bailey who tries to keep him out of trouble.  While she has a bit of a cold exterior, especially when Bailey stuffs up or lies to her, Dexter is another character the reader can easily get attached to, and her involvement in the story is quite essentially the overall powerful narrative.

I also quite liked the inclusion of Bailey’s editor, Gerald Summers, another aging newsman who serves as Bailey’s emotional rock and best friend and who has an amazing run in this book.  Gerald is an outstanding and loveable character, which of course means he is going to suffer a little bit, so prepare yourself for that.  You also have to like Ronnie Johnson, the maverick CIA agent who spends most of his time living on Bailey’s couch, but who proves to be an effective and very dangerous operative when he needs to.  Ronnie has been a favourite character of mine ever since the first book (I mean, he kills an Australian Prime Minister Harold Holt style), and he does some cool things in this second novel.  Finally, I felt that Mustafa al-Baghdadi was a pretty good overarching antagonist for State of Fear.  Ayliffe did a good job portraying a manipulative religious zealot with grand plans for vengeance and the advancement of his cause.  Despite being hidden for most of the book, this character contains a great deal of menace, and I really enjoyed the sinister flashback sequences that featured him and Bailey.  I did think that some of his reasons for vengeance on Bailey were a bit weak (I mean, he had to know that the first thing Bailey was going to do when freed was to share what he knew with the Americans), but he was an overall great villain with major impacts on the narrative.  Each of these characters were well written and established, and I felt that their combined narratives really improved this fantastic novel.

State of Fear by Tim Ayliffe was an outstanding and captivating read that presents a powerful and moving adventure of journalist John Bailey.  Containing an intense narrative about terrorism, some unique elements and amazing characters, State of Fear is an excellent read which swiftly grabs the reader’s attention and refuses to let them go.  I had an incredible time reading this novel and I am still kicking myself for taking so long to check it out.  I have already read the third entry in the John Bailey series, The Enemy Within, and I am hoping to get a review out for it soon.

The Shadow of the Gods by John Gwynne

The Shadow of the Gods Cover

Publisher: Orbit (Audiobook – 4 May 2021)

Series: The Bloodsworn Saga – Book One

Length: 18 hours and 13 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Prepare to dive into a dark and powerful Norse-inspired fantasy with the incredible and addictive new novel from superstar fantasy author John Gwynne, The Shadow of the Gods.  Gwynne is highly regarded fantasy author who has been making some major waves since his 2012 dark fantasy debut, Malice, the first book in The Faithful and the Fallen series.  Gwynne has so far written two major fantasy series, the four-novel long The Faithful and the Fallen, and the sequel Of Blood and Bone series.  His latest novel, The Shadow of the Gods, is the first book in The Bloodsworn Saga, which will follow a group of epic protagonists in a bloody and grim Norse-inspired fantasy world.

I must admit that until recently I had not had the pleasure of reading any of John Gwynne’s novels.  This has always seemed like a major oversight on my behalf, especially as most fantasy reviewers massively talk up Gwynne’s existing series. While my attention was drawn to this book thanks to its baller cover (I mean look at it, so awesome), it initially was not a major reading priority for me.  However, this changed once the reviews for The Shadow of the Gods started pouring in.  Within a day of its release, my inbox was getting blown up with glowing reviews, as nearly every member of the fantasy fiction community started singing the praises of Gwynne’s new book.  While I generally like making my own reading decisions, after seeing so many different reviewers claim it was one of the best books of the year, I honestly had no choice but to check it out, and boy was I glad that I did.

Hundreds of years ago, the gods fought in a brutal and fatal war in the lands of Vigrið for power, vengeance, and pride.  When the fighting stopped all the gods lay dead, the land was shattered, and hordes of monsters and demons were unleashed upon the world.  Now, after barely surviving the carnage of the god’s war, humans dominate Vigrið, with powerful jarls fighting for control of the towns while mercenary war bands quest after monsters and the most feared inhabitants of Vigrið, the Tainted.  The Tainted are human descendants of the gods who bear small remnants of their savage power, and who are now hunted out of fear and a desire to harness their power for the wars to come.

While life is always bloody in Vigrið, times are especially bleak now with war looming on the horizon, monsters roaming the wilds and sinister forces gather out of sight.  In these dark times, three dangerous people will find the fate of Vigrið resting in their hands.  These new heroes include Orka, a hunter and trapper who lives a quiet life in the wilds with her family, attempting to avoid her troubled past while raising her young son.  Meanwhile, Varg, an escaped thrall seeking answers, finds unexpected friendship by joining the legendary Bloodsworn mercenary company.  Finally, Elvar, a young noblewoman running from her family, seeks glory and battle fame as part of the Battle-Grim, another mercenary band who specialise in capturing Tainted humans.

Soon, all three of these fighters are faced with new and life-changing challenges.  Orka is forced to embark on a bloody mission of vengeance when her peaceful life is shattered and her son is taken from her.  Varg attempts to reconcile his responsibilities to the Bloodsworn and his own personal oaths, as the war band march into the wilderness to face a mysterious foe.  Elvar and the Battle-Grim embark on a legendary quest to find the final battleground of the gods.  However, all three will be unprepared for the revelations, lies and bloodshed about to be unleashed before them.  A dangerous conspiracy is forming in Vigrið that will shatter the very land and bring untold chaos to humanity.  Not all the gods are dead, and those that survive are very angry!

So, a little life lesson for me here: when the entire reviewing world says a book is good, then you can be damn sure that it will be an amazing read!  In this case, The Shadow of the Gods turned out to be an exceptional and captivating novel which provides an intense and clever story with great characters exploring a harsh and broken world.  Gwynne did an incredible job with his latest novel, and this was easily one of the best fantasy books I have read so far this year, earning an easy five-star rating from me.  The Shadow of the Gods has an incredible and powerful narrative that becomes even more addictive and exciting the further you get into it.  This is an outstanding and dark fantasy story which cleverly Gwynne has anchored to three separate point-of-view characters, Orka, Varg and Elvar.  I really liked how Gwynne came up with three separate narratives that are fun and memorable in their own unique way, and The Shadow of the Gods is stronger because of this.

The first one of these independent storylines revolves around Orka, a skilled and deadly warrior who has taken to living as an isolated hunter with her husband and young son.  Initially attempting to stay out of the politics and battles of Vigrið, and with a mysterious past surrounding her, Orka is eventually forced into action when her home is destroyed and her son is kidnapped.  What follows is a bloody and brutal revenge story, as Orka traverses the landscape in search of her son, killing everyone in her way.  Accompanied by two inexperienced fighters, Orka cuts a fantastic path of vengeance and despair throughout the world, eventually revealing just how dangerous she can be.  Orka’s story is really fantastic, and I loved seeing her on her quest for vengeance, blood and her son.  Gwynne weaves an incredible narrative around the character and takes her to some dark and dangerous places, as she is forced to contend with conspiring jarls, rogue warbands, vengeful fighters and dangerous Tainted with unknown agendas.  The author also puts some very impressive character work into Orka.  Initially shown as a mysterious being who is haunted by her past and is only just keeping her aggressive instincts in check for the sake of her family, Orka soon displays increasing violence and prowess as her storyline continues and she loses more control.  This was a fantastic and epic story, which has an outstanding ending with some extremely fun, if slightly predictable, twists to it.

The next storyline follows the amazing Varg, a former thrall who has run away after killing his owners.  In desperate need of magic to avenge his dead sister, Varg attempts to join the Bloodsworn, a highly regarded mercenary company, to make use of their seiðr-witch.  After impressing the Bloodsworn, Varg travels with them as an apprentice mercenary, unable to use the seiðr-witch until he proves his worth.  His first quest with the Bloodsworn takes him to a remote part of Vigrið to investigate missing villagers.  As Varg struggles between fulfilling his oath to his sister and starting a new life, he will experience betrayal, despair, and terrible revelations.  This is another excellent storyline which has a lot of awesome elements to it.  Not only is there a lot of action and intrigue as the Bloodsworn find themselves in the middle of the chaos infecting Vigrið, but it also serves as a fantastic tale of friendship, redemption, and camaraderie.

Varg proves to be a really good central protagonist and readers will quickly become attracted to his resilience, natural battle prowess and deep inner tragedy.  A former slave, Varg is unused to friendship or support from those around him, as the only person he could ever count on was his sister, whose death he seeks to avenge.  However, when confronted by the easy friendship of his fellow Bloodsworn brothers, Varg finds himself suffering from some dramatic inner conflict, especially as he believes himself undeserving of support and kindness, and his happiness feels like a betrayal to his dead sister.  This is an amazing bit of character work here, and I really appreciated Varg’s impressive personal story.  His background as a slave also ensures that this storyline features more background about this world than some of the other stories do, and you also get a series of training montages as Varg learns how to fight as a member of the Bloodsworn.  This storyline is further enhanced by a great band of supporting characters, especially as Varg finds himself fighting side by side with an eclectic group of unique and outrageous warriors.  There are several fantastic and enjoyable side characters featured amongst the Bloodsworn, although my favourite must be the cocky and entertaining Svik, a skilled warrior with a love of cheese and a funny tale to back it up (trust me, it is worth reading just to see him tell his cheese tale).  These supporting characters help to make Varg’s storyline the most entertaining and humorous parts of the book and it is near impossible not to fall in love with the various members of the Bloodsworn.

The final character arc featured in The Shadow of the Gods follows the young warrior, Elvar.  Elvar is the daughter of a powerful jarl who gave up a life of comfort and forced marriage to join the Battle-Grim, another notorious mercenary warband who specialise in killing monsters and trapping Tainted to sell them for profit.  After capturing an unusual family of Tainted, Elvar and the Battle-Grim embark on a quest of epic proportions that will change the world.  This was another impressive and captivating storyline which has some very unique differences from the other character arcs.  Elvar is an excellent point-of-view character with a complex past, who presents an interesting counterpoint to the other two protagonists.  While Orka and Varg and primarily motivated by family and vengeance, Elvar is primarily concerned with proving her worth to her crew, her commander, and her overbearing family, and is determined to win enough battle fame to outshine her father.  I also loved the comparisons between the Bloodsworn and the Battle-Grim, and it was interesting to see how the similarities and differences between the warbands, especially as the Battle-Grim are more concerned with wealth and reputation.  This storyline is a particularly ambitious and contains some amazing battle sequences, especially one at the start against a troll, and there is much more of a focus on fighting within a shield wall as a unit.  This storyline also has one of the best twists in the entire novel, as well as an extremely impressive ending that will have major implications for the rest of the series.

The three narratives are generally kept very separate right up until the end with only a minimal amount of crossover.  This means that the readers end up getting three distinct stories with a unique group of characters set within the same book.  I think that this was a pretty cool way to start the wider series off, especially as it let the reader see more of the universe, while also expertly establishing the main protagonists and their storylines.  At the same time, limiting the narrative to only three major characters (I understand that Gwynne usually uses more), also ensures that the story does not get too fractured, and that the reader has time to get properly invested in each storyline.  I had a wonderful time reading each of the three storylines, and I honestly enjoyed each of them pretty much equally.  This is pretty rare for novels that use multiple POV characters, as there is usually one narrator or storyline that the reader enjoys more than others.  I will admit that Elvar’s storyline did take me a little longer to get into, but I become extremely hooked on it after a few chapters.  If I had to choose an absolute favourite storyline, I would say that the Varg chapters were really appealing to me, and I enjoyed seeing his cool story of redemption, as well as his fun companions.  While the stories were primarily kept separate, a few overarching plotlines and a couple of supporting characters are shared between the three arcs.  While subtle, it does perfectly set up an overarching conspiracy that has major implications for the entire plot and which sets up the next novel perfectly.  This makes for a pretty epic novel, and it is one that no fantasy fan will be able to easily put down.

I was deeply impressed by the clever and memorable fantasy universe that Gwynne came up with for The Shadow of the Gods.  The world of Vigrið is a thrilling dark fantasy setting, filled with all manner of dangerous monsters, dead gods and roving warbands, all of which proves to be an amazing backdrop to the overall story.  I loved the beautiful combination of fantasy elements with Norse historical inspirations, and it was pretty damn cool to see Viking-esque warriors facing off against monsters and magically enhanced beings.  The author does a great job capturing the intricacies of these Norse elements, and the reader is treated to detailed depictions of Viking tactics, weapons and fighting styles, such as a several brutal shield wall sequences.  Gwynne really tries to enhance the authenticity of these elements by using the Norse names for various things, such as brynja for a coat of mail, and I really appreciated this attention to detail.  I am not entirely sure he needed to describe someone’s head as a thought-cage every single time, though, as it that was a tad annoying.  In addition to the cool Norse elements, I loved the whole concept of a land of fallen gods where their human descendants are hunted and enslaved.  This opens some great storylines, especially around how the Tainted are treated, and it proves to be rather interesting to see which characters are secretly empowered (some are more obvious than others).  I think that Gwynne did a good job of introducing all the key elements of his universe throughout the course of the book, and the reader is never unsure or confused about what is going on.  This truly was an impressively inventive new setting, and I look forward to seeing what chaos and destruction occurs throughout it in the next novel, especially after that ending.

I ended up listening to The Shadow of the Gods’ audiobook format, which turned out to be an amazing and captivating production.  The Shadow of the Gods has a substantial run time of just over 18 hours; however, listeners are guaranteed to power through it in no time at all.  I found myself really enjoying into this book’s audiobook format, especially as it really helped to bring the excellent story to life for me, with many fantastic details and thrilling fight scenes become so much clearer.  One of the main reasons that this format works so well is the excellent narration from Colin Mace, a man who has lent his vocal talents to some great novels in the past, including The Black Hawks by David Wragg (as well as its upcoming sequel, The Righteous).  Mace has a very gruff and commanding voice that perfectly fits the dark, Nordic tone of The Shadow of the Gods.  Mace does an awesome job moving the story along at a quick pace, and there is never a single slow spot for the listeners to get stuck in.  At the same time, he produces some rough and damaged voices for the various characters featured within the book which I felt fit each of them perfectly and which helped to highlight their distinctive personalities.  This results in an exquisite and memorable audiobook production, and I would strongly recommend this format to anyone interested in checking this impressive novel out.

With his latest incredible novel, the impressive John Gwynne once again shows why he is one of the leading authors of dark fantasy fiction.  The Shadow of the Gods is a fantastic and captivating read that takes the reader on thrilling adventures with some exceptional characters.  Featuring a powerful narrative and an intricate and grim new fantasy setting, The Shadow of the Gods is an outstanding and addictive novel that is one of the best fantasy books of 2021.  A highly recommended read for anyone looking for their latest dark fantasy fix, I cannot wait to see where Gwynne takes The Bloodsworn Saga next, but you have to know it is going to be something particularly epic.

Throwback Thursday – Trollslayer by William King

Trollslayer Cover 2

Publisher: Games Workshop (Audiobook – August 1999)

Series: Gotrek and Felix – Book One

Length: 9 hours and 55 minutes

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5

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.  In this latest Throwback Thursday article, I review a classic Warhammer Fantasy novel, the iconic Trollslayer by William King.

Over the last year or so, I have started to get back into the exciting and captivating extended universe that surrounds the Warhammer tabletop game franchise.  The Warhammer games are a lot of fun to play, but I have always deeply enjoyed the rich and extensive universe that has formed around it.  This is particularly true when it comes to the extensive literary world that has been created, with a huge collection of unique novels added every year.  I personally have barely scratched the surface of this franchise, having only recently read the exciting Space Marine novel Deathwatch: Shadowbreaker, and the fun crime novel Kal Jerico: Sinner’s Bounty.  For this review, however, I veer away from the science fiction based Warhammer 40,000, and instead look at a book in the Warhammer Fantasy universe.

The Warhammer Fantasy universe is set on a fantasy world where various races and factions fight for power, immortality, dark deities, and a general desire for bloodshed (Blood for the Blood God, Skulls for the Skull Throne!) in both large-scale battles and smaller skirmishes.  I love the fantastic and thrilling world of Warhammer Fantasy, especially as I used to play (my preferred factions were the Empire and the Lizardmen).  While there are many great novels set in this universe, the most recognisable and well-established series are the Gotrek and Felix books.

The Gotrek and Felix novels are some excellent dark fantasy books that follow the titular heroes, Gotrek Gurnisson and Felix Jaeger, as they traverse their world, facing every single monster, demon or villain they can find.  Created by William King, this long-running series has also been authored by fellow writers Nathan Long, Josh Reynolds and David Guymer, the last of whom has just released the latest entry, Gitslayer.  I have always heard good things about this series over the years, and I have previously enjoyed some of the short stories featured online or in the White Dwarf magazine.  As a result, when I had the brainwave to expand my knowledge of the Warhammer canon, this is one of the main series I wanted to check out, and to do so properly, I had to start with the original novel, TrollslayerTrollslayer, which was originally released in 1999, is an interesting novel that features seven original Gotrek and Felix short stories, including Geheimnisnacht, which was originally written as a one-off in 1988.  These seven stories have been bundled together into one continuous narrative, which proves to be an excellent and entertaining fantasy adventure.

Trollslayer Cover

Felix Jaeger, the son of a wealthy merchant and student in the Imperial capital Altdorf, used to live a blameless and dull life until he met the deranged Gotrek Gurnisson.  The son of a wealthy merchant and student in the Imperial capital Altdorf, Felix’s life was changed forever when Gotrek saved his life.  Gotrek is a Slayer, a dwarf who, after committing a terrible crime, has sworn to seek out a glorious death in battle, and who now wanders the world to find a foe worthy of killing him.  After a particularly damaging night of drinking, Felix drunkenly swears to follow him on his adventures to compose an epic ballad about Gotrek’s glorious death.

Bound by his oath, Felix now reluctantly accompanies Gotrek wherever he goes.  Their latest adventures will take them far and wide, as they venture throughout the Empire and beyond, travelling to the notorious holdings of the Border Princes, the mountainous realms of the dwarves and even under the halls of the conquered dwarf city of Karak Eight Peaks.  While they experience many unique discoveries and locations, one thing remains the same: enemies lurk around every corner, and Gotrek and Felix are forced to battle against some of the most dangerous creatures in existence, including orcs, goblins, trolls, the undead, mutants, beastman and more.

However, the most dangerous foe they face may be something far more insidious and unknowable.  The fell powers of Chaos are gathering throughout the land, and Gotrek and Felix seem to constantly become wrapped up in their plots and vile missions.  With danger and deadly foes all around, will Gotrek find the glorious death he seeks, and will Felix be able to survive whatever might foe eventually manages to kill his companion?

Wow, that was a cool novel I really should have read years ago.  Trollslayer was a fantastic and exciting novel that does a great job exploring some of the more dangerous settings in the Warhammer Fantasy world with two amazing characters.  Featuring seven dark and compelling short stories, Trollslayer is an outstanding book, and I had an incredibly fun and entertaining time getting through its audiobook format.  Banded together by some journal entries which bring the separate stories together, Trollslayer has a fantastic joint narrative that presents the reader with a collection of epic adventures.

TrollSlayer-john-gravato-Gotrek-and-Felix-1st-edition-cover

The book begins with the original Gotrek and Felix short story, Geheimnisnacht (Night of Secrets).  The two companions are stuck out in the dangerous forests of the Empire during Geheimnisnacht, an auspicious night of the year.  After nearly being run over by a dark carriage on the road, Gotrek and Felix investigate the actions of a dangerous Chaos coven out in the woods, and find more than they bargained for.  This is a rather entertaining and short entry in Trollslayers that serves as a fun introduction to the main protagonists and their quest.  King does a great job setting up both characters and you soon get a fantastic glimpse into their compelling personalities.  The author presents a very dark story within this first tale, as the heroes discover and fight the true horrors of chaos.  An excellent and intense opening story that will get you pumped up for the rest of the book.

The next entry contained within Trollslayer is called Wolf Riders, which sees Gotrek and Felix at the very edge of the Empire with plans to venture to the fallen dwarf stronghold of Karak Eight Peaks.  After encountering a beautiful young woman, Felix convinces Gotrek to join the doomed expedition of a cursed, banished noble family as they journey to the Border Lands to set up their own settlement.  Hired on as guards, the two heroes are forced to protect the caravan against a ravenous Greenskin horde, who are determined to destroy every one of them.  However, the true threat may lie within the convoy, as it soon becomes clear that someone has their own nefarious plans to kill everyone journeying with them.  Wolf Riders is an incredible second entry in the collection of stories, and it is easily one of the best tales in Trollslayer.  Not only does it reinforce the likeability of the two protagonists, but it also contains its own compelling and impressive narrative.  King manages to achieve a lot in Wolf Riders, introducing a cohort of great characters, showing several intense action sequences, and even presenting a clever and malicious mystery.  The entire narrative comes together extremely well, and readers are soon wrapped up in the compelling tale of redemption and bloodshed, which culminates in a tragic and memorable ending that forever changes one protagonist.

The third story is The Dark Beneath the World, which follows on immediately after Wolf RidersThe Dark Beneath the World sees Gotrek, Felix and some new companions journey into the dwarf stronghold of Karak Eight Peaks, which was infamously conquered by greenskins and Skaven in ages past.  Seeking treasure, holy relics and a glorious battle, the adventurers will face untold horrors in the halls beneath the city.  However, nothing will prepare them for the true dangers of Karak Eight Peaks, as the restless dead are stirring in response to a monstrous presence.  This was another great story that really highlights have exciting and action packed one of these stories can be.  I love how King takes his great characters right into the heart of one of the most iconic and dangerous settings in the entire Warhammer canon, and it proves to be an amazing backdrop to this compelling story.  A brutal hack and slash epic with some very intense moments, this is an excellent and fast-paced addition to Trollslayer that was an extremely thrilling read.

From powerful action to great humour, the next entry is the slightly shorter The Mark of Slaanesh.  This story sees Gotrek and Felix return to the Empire, where they encounter some malicious cultists of the Chaos god Slaanesh in a small town.  Unfortunately for Felix, Gotrek is suffering from amnesia after a blow to the head.  Forced to shepherd a docile Slayer through the town’s many dangers, Felix takes drastic action to bring his friend back to his senses.  The Mark of Slaanesh represents a very intriguing change of pace, with more of a focus on humour, as a weary Felix is forced to contend with a pacifist Dwarf Slayer, an eccentric doctor, and comedic mutants.  There are several extremely funny moments in this short story, which helped to turn The Mark of Slaanesh into one of the most entertaining entries in the entire novel.  I particularly appreciate how King was able to craft together such a despicable central antagonist in quite a short period of time, and it was great to see his implied comeuppance towards the end of the story.

King again rapidly switches gears with the next entry in the book, Blood and Darkness, a grim war story set in the darkest forest in the Empire.  This story sees Gotrek and Felix come across a ravished village within the Drakwald Forest, which has been utterly destroyed by beastmen.  Finding a young survivor, Kat, Gotrek and Felix escort her through the woods to the next village.  However, a vengeful and ambitious champion of Chaos is close behind them, with unholy plans for Kat and anyone else she comes across.  Blood and Darkness is another exceptional entry in the series, which is probably my overall favourite Trollslayer story.  Loaded with action, fantastic new characters and a particularly gruesome premise, Blood and Darkness really stands out from some of the other stories in this book, and I was blown away by how dark King made the narrative.  I really loved the story’s complex antagonist, and the entire plot surrounding Kat comes full circle in a great way.  While it is a tad creepy to see just how young Kat is in this story, especially as Felix apparently falls in love with her in a future novel (she gets aged up like 20 years before this happens, but it is still weird), this was an impressive and powerful story that really showed how complex, powerful and mature a Warhammer story can be.

The penultimate story in Trollslayer is The Mutant Master, which again switches pace and has a more humorous tilt to it.  After being attacked on the road by a swarm of mutants, the protagonists arrive at a struggling village and soon discover that the mutants are being controlled by a sorcerer in a nearby tower.  Betrayed by the villagers, Gotrek and Felix find themselves as prisoners and soon must deal with an insidious sorcerer who shares a history with Felix.  This was another great short story that places the protagonists into a uniquely dangerous position.  King includes some excellent humour in this novel, especially in the scene where Felix and the sorcerer have a very entertaining encounter, which proves that everyone, even dark sorcerers, fall to pieces when encountering former classmates.  While much of this story is dedicated to humour, the author fits in a particularly dark moment towards the end of the novel, which pushes one protagonist further than ever.  Another awesome and memorable story, I powered through this one extremely quickly.

The final entry in this book is the intense Ulric’s ChildrenUlric’s Children sees Felix trudging through a snowed-in forest, attempting to escape the cold and the wolves.  When they hear the sounds of a fight up ahead, Felix gets separated from Gotrek, and ends up getting captured by a dangerous group of soldiers.  The soldier’s leaders end up being revealed as cultists of the Chaos god Tzeentch, who are desperate to capture a mysterious family living nearby, who have strange powers and strengths.  Caught up in their conflict, Felix soon finds himself trapped in a manor house with two very different monsters and must try to overcome the powers of Chaos that threaten to consume him.  This was another fantastic story that serves as a great conclusion to the entire novel.  While I think that Ulric’s Children was one of the weaker stories in Trollslayer, it was still a compelling and thrilling tale which readers will enjoy.  I loved the inclusion of werewolves in this novel and it was fun to see Felix attempt to overcome a dangerous foe without Gotrek’s determined backup.  With some intriguing foes and an exciting story, this is a fun and fantastic entry in the book which will leave readers wanting more Gotrek and Felix in the future.

King really has loaded Trollslayer with an amazing range of different stories that highlight the gritty adventures of two memorable and loveable characters.  I had a great time getting through each of the short stories contained within this novel, and I think that the author did a good job combining seven shorter stories together into one cohesive tale.  I love how each of the stories has some impressive action set pieces, and readers are given an in-depth look at the true dangers and darkness that inhabits the Warhammer world.  King has also ensured that each tale contains a compelling blend of humour, dramatic character development and dark fantasy elements, all of which produce an outstanding overall narrative.  It was also very cool to see just how dark and gruesome King could make his narratives, and quite a few elements of this book closely bordered the horror genre.  Since the stories were originally published in instalments, readers are in for some repetition, especially as King rehashes Gotrek and Felix’s origin in every entry, and you also get quick summaries of their prior adventures.  While this and other pieces of repetition (for example, Gotrek runs his finger over his axe blade in every tale) can be a bit annoying at times, I personally thought it was a small price to pay for such an awesome and epic book.

One of the most impressive things about Trollslayer is the complex and distinctive characters.  Naturally, the main characters are series protagonists Gotrek Gurnisson and Felix Jaeger, both of whom prove to be really fantastic and exciting characters.  King has come up with an exceptional pairing in these two characters, and I absolutely love the combination of a doomed dwarf Slayer and a disgraced human with a penchant for poetry.

As the primary narrator of the separate stories in this book, Felix gets a great deal of attention, and you really get to grips with his superb character throughout the book.  I loved the depiction of a former arrogant dandy who finds himself in a situation well over his head, and Felix has a “fun” time facing off against all sorts of monsters in this book.  While most of the novel depicts him as a bit of a coward, Felix does manage to achieve some major heroics and you cannot help but sympathise with the terrible situations he finds himself in.  While the use of multiple short stories does tend to backslide Felix’s character at times (he reverts to a coward at the start of each story), I did enjoy seeing some of the excellent development that occurs around Felix.  Not only does he grow more confident in his own abilities, but he also becomes harder with each adventure, especially as he experiences tragedy and despair around every corner.  It was actually hard to see how some of the more tragic events of the book affected him, but I really appreciated the amazing character work that King worked around him.

The titular Trollslayer, Gotrek Gurnisson, is one of the most beloved figures in Warhammer Fantasy lore, and a magnificent character who I really enjoyed.  Much of Gotrek’s past is shrouded in mystery, and all you really know is that he is a mighty warrior who previously committed some great crime that still haunts him to this day.  Determined to find a glorious death, Gotrek willingly walks into the most dangerous of places, but always survives, much to his displeasure (even doomed dwarves are far too stubborn and proud to simply let an enemy kill them).  King mostly paints Gotrek as a crude, rude and bloodthirsty being, which is a lot of fun to see.  However, there is so much more to Gotrek than killing and fighting, and you see several glimpses of his true inner self in this book, especially when he thinks about the past.  I loved how King keeps Gotrek as a mostly enigmatic figure, mostly by not showing any of the story from his point of view, and the reader is never quite sure what he is thinking or planning.  All of this results in an excellent and memorable protagonist, and I am deeply intrigued to see what sort of adventures he has in the future, as well as any revelations about his past.

Aside from Gotrek and Felix, Trollslayer contains a range of interesting and compelling characters, several of whom act as point-of-view figures at various parts of the book.  King does a really good job of introducing and utilising so many unique figures throughout his various stories, and it is simply amazing how well he can develop and establish his character in such a short amount of time.  Even though you only see some characters for a few pages, you quickly become quite invested in their stories, which is the sign of a really good author.  However, readers are advised not to get too attached to anyone, as most of the side characters will come to a gruesome and tragic end.  Still, these supporting characters are really fun, and I look forward to seeing what unique figures are introduced in future Gotrek and Felix books.

Trollslayer also features the dark and well-established background setting of the Warhammer Fantasy world, with the protagonists adventuring through many iconic locations.  King makes excellent use of this fantastic background throughout his story, and I loved seeing all the cool locations, interesting factions and dangerous monsters contained within the story.  This actually serves as a really good introduction to the Warhammer Fantasy world, and readers unfamiliar with the various aspects of Warhammer will learn a lot here.  King can really craft together some dark and dangerous locations with his writing, and I love how spooking and claustrophobic some of his settings felt, especially the ancient dwarven catacombs and the haunted, monster infested forests.  I also loved the sheer range of different creatures and races featured within Trollslayer, as the author includes as many foes as possible.  It was extremely awesome to see Gotrek and Felix cut their way through various greenskins, monsters, and servants of Chaos, and there is something for all fantasy fans within this book.  I am extremely keen to see what other monsters and races are utilised in the future novels, and I am sure they will be pretty amazing.

I ended up listening to the Trollslayer audiobook format, which was an outstanding way to experience the awesome adventures contained within this book.  With a decent run time of just under 10 hours, I powered through this audiobook in a matter of days, especially once I got caught up in the fantastic depictions of intense action and dark creatures.  I was also really drawn in by the impressive narration of Jonathan Keeble, who has lent his voice to all the Gotrek and Felix audiobooks, as well as several other Warhammer projects and some of my favourite historical fiction novels, such as the Eagle of the Empire series.  Keeble has an epic voice, and the sheer passion that he brings to Trollslayer is immediately obvious, especially during the action scenes, where his excited voice captures the intensity and movement of the fights.  I also felt that Keeble did an exceptional job bringing all of the characters to life in an impressive way.  I particularly loved the gruff voice that he used for Gotrek, which fit the doomed dwarf warrior perfectly, and he also does a really good job voicing the often terrified Felix.  I also found some of the voices that he used for the supporting characters to be really fun and fitting, and I had a lot of love for a couple of the crazed sorcerers/alchemists they encounter, which were quite amusing.  All of this helps to turn the Trollslayer audiobook into an outstanding experience, and I think that this will be the format I check out the future Gotrek and Felix novels out in.  I might also have to consider listening to some historical fiction novels on audiobook in the future, especially as I know that Keeble will do a wonderful job narrating them.

Trollslayer by William King is an exceptional and clever Warhammer Fantasy novel that showcases the exciting and powerful adventures of the iconic Gotrek and Felix.  Serving as the main introduction to these two iconic heroes, Trollslayer contains seven outstanding and wildly entertaining short stories with some fantastic and wacky plots.  Readers who check out Trollslayer are in for a heck of a lot of fun and will swiftly become fans of this great duo and their outrageous adventures.  A highly recommended read, I suddenly have some major plans to check out more Gotrek and Felix novels in the future.

The Two-Faced Queen by Nick Martell

The Two-Faced Queen Cover

Publisher: Gollancz (Audiobook – 25 March 2021)

Series: The Legacy of the Mercenary Kings – Book Two

Length: 20 hours and 6 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Following his epic 2020 debut, one of the fastest rising stars in fantasy fiction, Nick Martell, returns with the second entry in his The Legacy of the Mercenary Kings series, The Two-Faced Queen.

Last year I was lucky enough to listen to a copy of Martell’s incredible first novel, The Kingdom of LiarsThe Kingdom of Liars was a gripping and impressive fantasy read set in Hollow, a crumbling city surrounded by an army of rebels, which followed the misadventures of the infamous Michael Kingman.  Michael is the scion of the legendary Kingman family, a noble clan of heroes and leaders who have guided Hollow for generations, serving as both supporters to the royal family and a check on their power.  However, the legacy of the Kingman family has been severely tarnished in recent years as Michael’s father was executed for the murder of the heir to the throne.  With their family disenfranchised, Michael grew up as an outcast in his own city, acting out against authority.  This changed when a chance encounter allowed him to investigate who was responsible for his family’s downfall and the death of the prince of Hollow.  While he was eventually able to discover the true murderer, his investigation also resulted in the King’s suicide, which subsequently saw him tried for regicide and sentenced to death.  The end of the book saw him manage to escape his execution, while also setting up several of the storylines for future entries in the series.  I deeply enjoyed the cool story of this first entry in The Legacy of the Mercenary Kings, and The Kingdom of Liars ended up being one of my favourite novels, audiobooks and debuts of 2020.  As a result, The Two-Faced Queen was one of my most anticipated reads of 2021.

Michael Kingman is a dead man walking.  Still accused of killing the King of Hollow, Michael is now under the protection of the Orbus mercenary company, serving as an apprentice under the mysterious mercenary Dark.  However, even with Orbus’s protection, everyone in Hollow still wants to either kill him or use him for their own dark ends.  The deadliest of these is the one person Michael is sworn to protect above all others, the heir to the throne, Princess Serena.  After spending years away, a vengeful Serena has returned to claim her throne and end Michael’s life.  Wielding great power, a lethal attitude and holding the keys to Michael’s heart, nothing will stand in the way of her wrath.

To restore his family’s position, save his home and convince Serena of his innocence, Michael needs to unravel the various conspiracies that have encircled Hollow and uncover the true motivations of the various power players in the city.  However, to succeed, Michael is forced to go up against a magnitude of foes, from the Corrupt Prince, the unhinged Rebel Emperor besieging the city, enraged royal guards, conspiring nobles, a scheming immortal, an insane serial killer, dangerous assassins and his former foster father, the man responsible for all his family’s ills.

But the more Michael attempts to understand Hollow’s hidden past and the dangerous plots surrounding his city, the more it becomes apparent that his is a mere pawn in a very dangerous game.  Immortals, monsters and mercenaries are all present in Hollow, and each of them has their own nefarious designs for Michael and his family.  Can he save everyone he loves before it is too late or has the Kingman family finally breathed its last?  Michael’s rise to become a Mercenary King continues, but who will truly wield power when the dust settles?

Now that was one hell of a sequel!  Martell absolutely crushed this second entry in this outstanding and exceptional fantasy series, producing a five-star novel that is extremely compelling, intense and so damn exciting.  I was absolutely enthralled with this book the moment I started listening to it and I loved every second.  The Two-Faced Queen is easily one of the best books I have read in 2021 and I think that any other fantasy novel coming out this year is going to be extremely hard-pressed to outdo it.

Martell has come up with a pretty incredible and intense narrative for The Two-Faced Queen, one that proves to be extremely addictive and insanely good.  Starting shortly after the events of The Kingdom of Liars, this novel starts fast and hard, with Michael following up on a number of storylines and revelations from the previous novel.  There is already so much going on right from the start of the novel, as the protagonist finds himself surrounded by enemies and conspiracies, both old and new.  While several secrets were revealed at the end of the first novel, there is still so much that Michael needs to understand.  However, as he attempts to learn these additional secrets, he must also try to avoid the deadly attentions of his beloved princess, end the rebellion plaguing the city, restore his family, defy a dangerous immortal, and make up with his betrayed friends.  While this is already a substantial amount of story, Martell keeps adding to it, as Michael also soon encounters a deadly assassin with a contract on him, and a deranged and unnatural serial killer.

While this may seem like too many story elements for one novel, it actually works extremely well, and the reader quickly becomes engrossed in Michael’s various adventures throughout the city.  I loved the inclusion of the serial killer storyline, as not only does it add some fantastic mystery elements, but it also proves to be a gateway to some intriguing world building, revealing more of the dark, immortal forces manipulating events from the shadows.  This storyline also results in several epic action scenes that place the protagonist and his friends in mortal danger from some unusual foes.  I had an outstanding time getting through this complex and well-constructed narrative, especially as every single scene has an intriguing revelation, intense character development or subtle clue to the future of the series.  Several key mysteries and secrets from the first novel are answered, partially or wholly, in this novel, although many more are introduced.  This really helps to keep the reader’s attention focused on The Two-Faced Queen’s plot, and I am not exaggerating when I talk about how addictive the secret-ridden narrative proves to be.  Readers are hammered with large amounts of lore and history in places, so I would recommend reading the first novel in the series, The Kingdom of Liars, before reading this book, although binge-reading this series is hardly a chore.  Overall, The Two-Faced Queen’s narrative is epic story writing at its best, and readers will love this terrific tale.

I absolutely must highlight the awesome and well-developed characters featured within The Two-Faced Queen.  The most prominent is series protagonist Michael Kingman.  Michael is an intriguing and distinctive figure through whose eyes most of the plot unfolds.  I have to admit that Michael was not my most favourite character in the first book, mostly because of his impetuous nature and selfish behaviour at times.  However, it was revealed that the reason for some of his annoying behaviour was due to some magic affecting his memories and personality.  As a result, Michael’s behaviour is substantially changed in The Two-Faced Queen and he comes across as a more considerate figure in this book.  He still has quite a few flashes of recklessness and stubbornness, but many of the rougher edges from the first novel are worn away here.  Still, a lot of people call Michael out for his crap in this book, including his friends and family, and it was great to see him finally heed their words.  There was also some additional exploration of how Michael deals with the legacy of being a Kingman; he is forced to live up to some big expectations.  There is a rather good scene where Michael is exploring the crypt of his ancestors with some of his friends, describing why some of them are famous and others are considered failures because they never achieved anything remarkable but just lived a normal life.  Seeing this, Michael’s friends, both of whom have been some of his greatest critics, start to understand just how much pressure he is under.  I really appreciated the way in which Martell continues to develop his protagonist, and it will be very fascinating to see how Michael’s story continues in the future novels.

Aside from Michael, there is an impressive collection of interesting supporting characters, each of whom have some fascinating storylines, as well as secrets or details from their past which helps to move the story along.  They also have their own motivations and plans to shape Hollow and the rest of the world to their advantage, which results in additional plots and conspiracies that the protagonists have to overcome.  The most prominent supporting character is probably Serena, the titular Two-Faced Queen.  Serena is Michael’s childhood friend and the royal he was sworn to, meaning that he was always destined to be her protector, advisor, and conscience.  However, after the death of her brother and Michael’s family were declared traitors, their relationship effectively ended.  Now returned, Serena is determined to destroy Michael for the apparent murder of her father, even if it leads to her own ruin.  The novel starts up with Michael visiting Serena only to find that she has hand-dug a grave for him, showing her resolve for killing him.  This forces Michael to attempt to change her mind, which is no easy prospect, and results in great calamity.  Naturally, these two characters share thorny romantic feelings for each other, which complicates Michael’s plans to stay alive, as Serena is a major blind spot in his defences.  Their entire joint character arc in this novel is extremely good, and I really appreciated the author’s take on their complex relationship.

Another key character is Dark, Michael’s mercenary master, who, aside from having his own mysterious past and motivations, is the son of Michael’s nemesis, Angelo Shade.  Due to Michael and Dark working together closely, the protagonist learns several of Dark’s secrets, especially those related to his troubled childhood and his encounters with the Heartbreaker serial killer.  While you don’t learn everything about Dark’s past in this novel (Martell is the master of dolling out just enough character detail to keep you interested, while also keeping plenty back for future novels), you do find out quite a lot, and what is revealed is extremely memorable.  Dark has a real dark side to him, no pun intended, and while Michael initially believes that Dark is his ally, he is soon faced with the possibility that he might have placed all his trust in a monster.  This results in a very interesting mentor/student relationship between the two, filled with much conflict and mistrust.  I really enjoyed learning more about Dark in The Two-Faced Queen, and it will be fascinating to see how the rest of his story unfolds in the future.

Other intriguing characters in this novel include Michael’s best friend Trey, who is attempting to forge his own path and take down both the nobles and the rebels, even if this leads him into conflict with Michael.  Trey has a fantastic arc as dangerous antihero in this book, taking control of the city’s criminal element in order to protect its citizens.  While a lot of his hostility towards Michael has ended, Trey and the protagonist still have a strained relationship, although Trey does go out of his way to help his friend.  Despite their friendship, it is clear that there is a major schism between the two planned in the future, which no doubt will result in all manner of pain and regret.  The ruthless immortal Charles Domet is still a firm favourite of mine, and it was fun to see his attempts to manipulate Michael, especially as Michael is now well aware of his true nature.  There are some interesting hints to Domet’s past in this novel, and he is clearly working up to something big.  The ambitious social climber Naomi also returns, although now she is suffering from a bad drug addiction which makes her even more entertaining, especially as she decides to torment Michael through embarrassment.  I also quite liked the expanded use of the chronicler, Symon.  Symon, who is determined to record and analyse every secret of Michael and his family, has taken to stalking them by living at the Kingman family home, and it is always entertaining to see his take on the events occurring before him.  He ends up actually narrating several interludes in The Two-Faced Queen, which are laid out as parts of his in-novel chronicles as part of a very clever and amusing supplement to the main story.  Symon really endeared himself to me in this novel, especially after his insulting descriptions of Michael in his proposed history book, and I deeply appreciated his increased presence.

I honestly could go on and on about the various characters featured within this novel; indeed, I have only just scratched the surface of the support cast in the paragraphs above.  However, it is more than clear that Martell does an excellent job in introducing and developing complex characters, and I loved the detailed and intriguing depictions of them throughout the novel.  Nearly every character featured within The Two-Faced Queen gets at least one big moment, and there are plenty of revelations and compelling backstories that are really cool to uncover.  I will say that you should probably not get too attached to the characters; however, I am very much looking forward to seeing what happens to each of the survivors, especially as Martell has set up some deeply captivating and powerful character arcs around them.

In addition to the fantastic story and amazing character work, Martell has also invested a lot of time in expanding his enthralling fantasy world.  The first entry in The Legacy of the Mercenary Kings did a great job setting up the key elements of Hollow, such as the noble families, the people of the city and the various problems they faced.  This unique setting of a besieged city filled with scheming nobles and set on a world where pieces of a shattered moon fall to the ground was so cool, and The Two-Faced Queen continues to expand on these previous elements, while also adding to the history and geography of the city and its surrounding nations.  Not only do you learn of several outside nations and locations but you also get to see how the key characters of this novel, or their ancestors, have impacted them, as well as the various dangers these realms represent.  However, some of the most substantial world-building revolves around some of the unusual creatures residing in this world, including a range of dangerous and destructive immortal creatures.  In the previous novel we only encountered one immortal (that we knew of), whose plots and schemes were a major part of the book’s plot.  This second novel, in contrast, is loaded with many more immortals, each of whom has their own unique abilities and plans for the world.  Martell introduces the lore around these immortals extremely well, and their various traits and schemes are worked into the plot extremely well.  It sounds like we are going to encounter a whole raft of intriguing and monstrous immortals in the future of this series, and I am very much looking forward to seeing what happens there.  The next book also looks like it will be set in a whole new location, and I will be extremely intrigued to see how that impacts the narrative.

One particular bit of world-building that I really enjoyed was the excellent expansions of Martell’s unique magical system.  The main magic of Hollow is known as Fabrication, which allows its users certain control over certain elements or phenomena at the cost of their own memories.  This is a really cool magical system, and Martell uses it to great effect throughout his novels, ensuring that there is all manner of destruction and manipulation throughout the narrative.  The Two-Faced Queen features multiple new Fabrication types, as Martell introduces unique Fabrications throughout the story, including several that even the protagonists have never heard of.  Examples include a particularly dangerous telekinetic Fabrication, which forces everyone to their knees (perfect for its user), while I was also very impressed with the disturbing blood Fabrication that one of the supporting characters pulled out.  In addition, Martell also introduces some different forms of magic from some of the other countries in his fantasy world.  While you only get to see one or two of these new magical abilities, they are still fun to see and they stand as an intriguing counterpoint to the already established magical abilities.  It looks like Martell is setting up some sort of mystery around the origins of all these different powers and it should prove pretty interesting to see how that turns out.

Martell also does an incredible job fitting the downsides of this magical Fabrication into the plot, as several characters experience memory loss, which affects their plans, reactions and relationships.  This is most obvious in Michael; as narrator, he loses several days of his life, resulting in him being unaware of plans he puts into motion or certain secrets that he learnt in these missing days.  Because the reader does not see these missing pieces of time either, this adds an extra amount of mystery and uncertainty into the narrative, as you try to work out both what is being deliberately hidden from Michael and what he has simply forgotten.  These bigger lapses in memory are a fantastic part of The Two-Faced Queen’s narrative, and it helps to make the flow of this book unique and compelling.  However, you also have to appreciate some of the smaller examples of memory loss throughout the book, some of which are quite heartbreaking in nature as the characters forget elements of their friends and families without realising it.  There is one extremely poignant scene in which Michael confesses to forgetting something very important to him, with the reader only then realises that a certain normal-sounding character description was evidence of memory loss all along.  Some of these subtle details are really impressive, and I deeply enjoyed seeing the hurtful side effects of this magical system.

To enjoy this awesome book, I ended up grabbing its audiobook format, mainly because I had such a great time listening to the first novel.  There were actually two audiobook versions of The Two-Faced Queen, and I ended up grabbing the Joe Jameson narrated version.  Jameson is a fantastic audiobook narrator who has previously lent his voice to amazing fantasy novels like King of Assassins by RJ Barker.  I loved his narration for The Kingdom of Liars last year and I was really keen to continue to listen to him in this sequel.  Jameson has a great voice for this complex fantasy read, and you swiftly become enthralled by the way he narrates the events occurring, as well as the fantastic voices he comes up with for his characters.  All the characters are given a unique voice in a variety of different accents, and each of them really helps to capture the character’s emotions and personality perfectly, whether it is the constant confusion and hurt in Michael, the raging anger of Serena, the cold menace of Dark or the calculating and manipulative voice of Charles Domet.  All this voice work is perfect and spot on and I really appreciated the effort that Martell put into this book.  Despite its runtime of 20 hours, I got through this audiobook in no time at all and I honestly wished it was a lot longer by the end.  This was another outstanding audiobook, and this format comes highly recommended to anyone interested in this fantastic novel.

With this epic and captivating second novel, Nick Martell has cemented his position as one of the best new fantasy authors out there.  The Two-Faced Queen was absolutely incredible, and I loved the complex and addictive story, set in a unique fantasy world.  There are just so many cool elements to this awesome novel and it really does not take long for the reader to become hooked on every single mystery, secret and hidden past that Martell features within this great read.  I cannot wait to see what happens next in this series, but it is already perfectly clear that The Legacy of the Mercenary King books are going to be one of the defining fantasy series of the next few years.

The Two-Faced Queen Cover 2

Star Wars (2020): Volume One: The Destiny Path by Charles Soule and Jesús Saiz

Star Wars (2020) - Volume 1 Cover

Publisher: Marvel Comics (Paperback – 10 November 2020)

Series: Star Wars (2020) – Volume One

Writer: Charles Soule

Artist: Jesús Saiz

Colour Artists: Arif Prianto, Jesús Saiz, Rachelle Rosenberg and Dan Brown

Letterer: VC’s Clayton Cowles

Length: 136 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

The next stage of the Star Wars comic universe continues as Charles Soule, Jesús Saiz and their team of talented artists present the first volume of the Star Wars (2020) series, The Destiny Path.

Star Wars (2020) #1 Cover

Shortly after the Disney buyout of Star Wars and their subsequent creation of a whole new canon, Marvel Comics started to develop a new range of Star Wars comics.  While there were several great series, limited series and standalone comics set during various periods of Star War history, the main series were set between the events of A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back.  These key comics, which included the Star Wars (2015), Darth Vader (2015) and Doctor Aphra (2016) series, did a fantastic job of filling in the gaps between these two films and presenting readers with some clever and unique adventures.  All these series came to an end in late 2019, with their plots coinciding with the start of events from The Empire Strikes Back.  In the wake of their cessation, Marvel announced four new Star Wars comic series that would take their place (after suffering some pandemic-related delays), set in the aftermath of The Empire Strikes Back.  While I have already looked at some of these comics, including the first entry of the Darth Vader (2020) series, I think it is time that I explored the flagship series of this new run of comics, the Star Wars (2020) series.

The Star Wars (2020) series will explore what happens to the main cast of protagonists after the events of The Empire Strikes Back and is set in the year or so between that film and Return of the Jedi.  This looks set to be a long-running series that will not only tell its own tale but will tie in to the events of the other current comics, probably resulting in some crossovers.  This first volume, The Destiny Path, contains issues #1-6 of the Star Wars (2020) series and serves as an excellent and compelling introduction to the rest of the series.

Star Wars (2020) #2 Cover

Following the battle of Hoth, the Rebel Alliance is in disarray.  With their fleet scattered around the galaxy and the might of the Empire reigning supreme, these are the darkest days the Rebellion has ever faced, especially as the Empire appears to have found a way to locate their ships and hiding places.  The hope of the entire Rebel Alliance may lie in the hands of its greatest leaders and heroes, but, after the events on Bespin, even these shining beacons of rebellion have been damaged beyond recognition.

With Han Solo captured by the Empire and handed over to the bounty hunter Boba Fett, those on the Millennium Falcon are dispirited and lost.  However, finding a Rebel cell under attack prompts them into action.  Despite missing the man she loves, Princess Leia is determined to rescue him and revive the Rebel Alliance by any means necessary.  At the same time, reluctant Rebel recruit Lando Calrissian attempts to make himself useful, despite mistrust from everyone around him.  Finally, Luke Skywalker, after losing a hand and finding out the horrible truth of his parentage is in shock.  Worse, his meeting with Vader appears to have damaged his connection to the Force, and neither of his masters will appear to talk to him.

Star Wars (2020) #2 Cover2

As the Rebel Alliance seeks a way to survive, each of these players, with the help of Chewbacca, C-3PO and R2-D2, begin the next stage of their journey.  As Luke seeks a lightsaber, Leia looks to find a way to save Han and Alliance, while Lando looks for redemption in all the wrong places.  All their journeys lead the back to the scene of one of the worst moments of their past, Bespin.  But how far will Luke, Leia and Lando go to achieve their goes, and will they be able to survive the dangerous enemies chasing them?

This is an outstanding and intense Star Wars comic that does a wonderful job of setting up a brand-new series of exciting adventures.  Charles Soule, who has written some of the best Star War comics out there, creates an exceptional and captivating tale that highlights the tragic consequences of The Empire Strikes Back.  Featuring some incredible artwork, amazing big moments, and a perfect portrayal of some of the iconic original trilogy cast, this is an outstanding and awesome comic.

Star Wars (2020) #3 Cover

For this cool first volume in the Star Wars (2020) series, the author has come up with an extremely compelling and clever multi-part narrative that I deeply enjoyed.  The Destiny Path has a strongly character-driven story, following Luke, Leia and Lando as they attempt to recover from the traumatic events of The Empire Strikes Back.  The narrative starts right after the heroes escape from the Cloud City at Bespin (technically before the closing scene of The Empire Strikes Back) and places the shell-shocked characters right in the middle of a firefight against an intriguing new foe.  The next stage of the story contains an intriguing couple of sequences aboard the Rebel medical frigate, showing off some new angles to the film’s final scenes, while also following Lando and Chewie as they head to Tatooine to scope out Jabba’s palace.  This part of the narrative is very clever and exciting, especially as it paints Lando as a bit of a wildcard, with unclear loyalties.  The next section of the comic takes Luke, Leia and Lando back to Bespin, each for a different reason.  There are some high octane and emotionally rich comic issues here, especially as all three of the characters are forced to face up to their recent mistakes and losses, while also taking on the Imperial garrison stationed there.  All of this leads up to the final part of the book, which is primarily focused on Luke, who journeys to several distant planets following a vision to find a new lightsaber.  There are some really cool sequences here as Luke continues to battle his own personal demons (and a real one, but we’ll get to that later), before eventually coming away with an unexpected prize.  All these disparate storylines work really well on their own, but their real strength lies in the way in which they tie together perfectly throughout The Destiny Path.  You end up getting a fantastic story as you follow one major event to the next, and I liked the unique tales contained within each section.  All of this serves as an awesome and powerful start to the Star Wars (2020) series, and there are plenty of hints of awesomeness to come as the Rebels bounce back while Luke continues to grow as a Jedi.  Epic Star Wars storytelling at its best!

Star Wars (2020) #3 Cover2

There is no way that I can talk about The Destiny Path without geeking out about some of the cool and memorable Star Wars elements and references featured within.  I deeply, deeply enjoyed seeing the intriguing and dramatic aftermath of The Empire Strikes Back that Soule envisions here, especially as he took the time to explore the various traumas and consequences of the events at Bespin.  This was a fantastic heart of the entire volume which is going to appeal to all fans of the Star Wars franchise.  Other cool Star Wars moments that fans will love include the mysterious events occurring around the Skywalker lightsaber.  This lightsaber, which disappears at the end of The Empire Strikes Back and reappears in The Force Awakens, is a major item throughout the Star Wars canon and I liked seeing Luke trying to find it in the bowels of Cloud City, only for it to slip into another mysterious person’s grip.  It will be interesting to see what happens to that in the future, and foresee it being a fascinating narrative thread throughout this entire series.

In addition to these elements from the films, Soule also fits in a lot of other cool references and call-backs to previous Star Wars comics, especially ones that he has had a hand in.  The most obvious of these was the appearance of Verla, who Luke encounters while trying to find a new lightsaber.  Verla is a Force-sensitive woman who first appeared in The Burning Seas volume of Soule’s Dark Lord of the Sith comic series.  It was great to see that Verla survived, and Soule does a good job working her into this story, portraying her as the damaged and cynical former Jedi student who is just trying to survive.  Verla’s inclusion allows Luke to learn more about Vader, both as a Jedi hunter and a Jedi named Anakin, and it was interesting to finally see him learn about the Jedi purges, Order 66, and the Inquisitors.  I also noticed a lot of mentions about the High Republic in this volume.  I really should not be too surprised about this, especially as Soule is one of the leading creative minds behind the High Republic range, having written the first novel in the series, Light of the Jedi.  It looks like Star Wars (2020) is going to rely on several events from the High Republic books, and I am intrigued about how Soule will work them into his cool story.  All of these Star Wars elements are extremely cool, and I think that they will deeply appeal to every fan of this franchise.  While mega fans are obviously going to love some of the more obscure references that Soule fit into this comic, this series is also very easy to enjoy if you have a more basic knowledge of Star Wars.

Star Wars (2020) #4 Cover

I do have to quickly highlight that one of my favourite parts of this entire comic is one of the final sequences in the volume.  In this sequence, Luke visits an abandoned Jedi temple which is filled with a mound of untouched treasures, including a lightsaber which he desperately needs.  However, it turns out that this entire building is a trap (Luke was warned, to be fair), as he is quickly attacked by the ghost of the Grand Inquisitor.  The Grand Inquisitor is an awesome character who served as the main antagonist of the first season of the Star Wars Rebels animated series.  Soule has previously utilised him in his Dark Lord of the Sith comic series, especially the first two volumes, Imperial Machine and Legacy’s End, but this current comic is set after his death in Rebels.  There are so many cool elements to the Grand Inquisitor’s return in this comic, including a fantastically drawn fight between him and Luke, where Luke encounters a double-bladed lightsaber for the first time, and I loved the Grand Inquisitor’s fiery, spiritual appearance.  However, the best part of this whole unique inclusion was the characters final interaction with Darth Vader.  Here it is revealed that Vader is the one trapping the Inquisitor’s spirit in this world, using him as a tool and a trap.  When the Inquisitor begs Vader for his release, Vader refuses, as the Inquisitor still has use to him.  The forlorn spirit starts to fade, but not before sadly uttering “there are worst things than death”.  This is an outstanding call-back to the character’s final words in Rebels, and it was so cool to see his morbid prediction come to pass.  This whole sequence really pushed The Destiny Path up a level for me, and I love how the creative team worked this into this fantastic and awesome comic.

Easily one of the best parts of this entire comic is the creative team’s portrayal of the iconic Star Wars characters who serve as the main protagonists of this amazing first volume.  Soule has done an incredible job writing a character-driven narrative around these protagonists, and I love his in-depth examination of their psyches and actions following The Empire Strikes Back.  The author pulls together some great storylines around these characters, and I loved seeing what amazing adventures they went on between these two films.

Star Wars (2020) #4 Cover2

One of the main characters explored during this book is the original Star Wars hero, Luke Skywalker.  Now, Luke is going through a lot at this point, having just had his hand chopped off and learned that his father is Darth Vader.  Luke spends most of the first part of the novel absolutely traumatised by these events and ends up doubting himself while also concealing this revelation from his friends.  To compound his issues, Luke finds his connection to the Force somehow damaged or fractured, as neither of his masters, Obi Wan Kenobi and Yoda, are reaching out to him.  This results in a more scattered Luke, and I loved the way that Soule dove into his damaged mindset.  There are some great and powerful moments throughout this comic that show off Luke’s trauma, as well some dramatic moments when he lashes out uncontrollably with the Force.  After receiving some visions and engaging in a hunt for a new lightsaber, Luke starts to come to terms with the events surrounding him, and it is great to see him recover somewhat, including by learning more about his father.  This slight reconciliation with his identity enables Luke to regain his control over the Force, and there are some very cool scenes where he uses his powerful and advanced abilities against the Empire.  Overall, this was a pretty spectacular look at Luke, and I really appreciated the cool story that Soule spun around him.  It will be interesting to see what is going to happen to Luke in the future entries of this comic, especially as he continues along his journey to become a full-fledged Jedi.  It will also be cool to see more of Luke’s new yellow lightsaber, which was an intriguing decision by Soule which I think is going to really pay off.

Star Wars (2020) #5 Cover

In addition to Luke, a lot of the story focuses on Leia.  Like the rest of the characters, Leia is pretty traumatised, as she discovered her love for Han only to lose him in seconds.  While at times she seems in control, especially as she works to salvage the Rebels fleet, she is clearly still impacted by this loss.  As a result, she desperately attempts to find a way to save him from Boba Fett, even if that means risking herself and her friends.  Her recklessness leads her back to Bespin with the others as she attempts to find more about the carbonite freezing process.  While Leia’s arc is possibly the least interesting (which isn’t a criticism; it’s just the other two main characters have some outstanding stories), she does have some great moments in this comic, and I especially loved the visual of her also trapped in carbonite.  It was also great to see more of badass Rebel leader Leia in this comic as she steps up and takes charge to protect those around her.  I imagine that the creative team have some great ideas for Leia in the future and I cannot wait to see what they are.

The other main character of this volume was the flashy and charismatic rogue, Lando Calrissian, who finds himself stuck with the other protagonists after helping them flee from Bespin.  Despite his attempts to do the right thing at the end of The Empire Strikes Back, Lando is still not trusted by anyone, as they blame him for his betrayal and the loss of Han.  As a result, Lando attempts to find some form of redemption with them, although he mostly comes across as a self-centred bastard.  Soule works a really intriguing storyline around Lando, and I loved seeing his meeting with Jabba the Hutt as he makes some initial inquiries into Han’s location.  Lando is able to talk his way out of a meeting with Jabba, although the reader is left wondering whether he plans to sell out the Rebels.  This nicely leads into his storyline on Bespin as he accompanies Luke and Leia back there.  It was great to see Lando returning to his city, especially as he manages to con his way through a range of different Imperial obstacles, and he was fully in his roguish element.  While Lando appears to return to Cloud City for selfish reasons, such as throwing a big middle-finger to the Empire, his jaunt does awaken his inner hero a little, and you get a glimpse of the person we eventually see in Return of the Jedi.  Lando is easily the most entertaining character in the entire comic and most of The Destiny Path’s humour is derived from his interactions with most of the other characters.  He is a very funny character, and it was great to see so much focus on him after barely featuring in the last stage of Star Wars comics.  I look forward to seeing what Soule and the creative team have for him in the future, and I think he is going to be the MVP character of the entire series.

Star Wars (2020) #5 Cover2

Aside from the three main characters above, The Destiny Path also includes a great range of other characters from various points in Star Wars history.  Like its precursor comic, Star Wars (2020) also follows Chewbacca, C-3PO and R2-D2, although I think these three great characters were a little overshadowed by Luke, Leia and Lando in this volume.  Chewie does have a bunch of fun moments throughout the comic, mostly in his interactions with Lando, and it is entertaining to see him be forced to deal with the cocky former friend.  R2-D2 does have a great sidekick time with Luke, and it was always fun to see him save the mighty Jedi’s life again and again.  There is also an interesting focus on a couple of new or lesser-known characters.  For example, it looks like Soule is going to spend a bit of time following Kes Dameron and Shara Bey, the parents of a certain Poe Dameron.  The Destiny Path also introduces an intriguing new antagonist in the form of Commander Zahra, a fanatical Imperial officer placed in charge of eliminating the remnants of the Rebel Alliance.  Zahra is tactical genius who I understand is going to have a major role in some upcoming comics.  This volume proves to be an excellent introduction to this cool new character, especially as it establishes her dangerous intelligence, murderous mentality and the insane grudge she bears against Leia, all while she commands the unique Star Destroyer, Tarkin’s Will, which still bears scars from being hit by wreckage of the original Death Star.  Zahra proves to be an outstanding antagonist, and I cannot wait to see what deviousness and insanity she brings to the rest of the series.

I definitely need to highlight the incredible and eye-catching artwork that was an outstanding and memorable feature of this awesome comic.  The artistic team behind this comic did an amazing job from start to finish, and every page was a visual treat for the eyes.  While all the art in this comic is great, there are a few things that really stood out to me, such as character design.  The artists do such an incredible job capturing the main characters throughout this comic, especially in the first issue where all their post-The Empire Strikes Back pain and emotion is on full display.  It was uncanny how similar these characters looked to their portrayal in the film, and it is a testament to the artists’ amazing ability.  There are also several awesome combat sequences scattered throughout the comic and I loved the way in which the art brought them to life.  A particularly good example of this was the opening space battle between the Empire and a small Rebel fleet.  The artists come up with an incredible background for this fight, which takes place between a sun and a concentrated barrage of green turbolaser bolts, which are being used to fence the Rebels in place.  This was so visually pretty, and it really enhanced the cool story and fighter combat that was taking place in front of it.  I also deeply enjoyed the way in which the artists have recreated several key scenes from The Empire Strikes Back.  These scenes, which include Luke losing his hand, finding out that Vader is his father and Han giving his iconic “I know” to Leia, are scattered throughout key parts of The Destiny Path.  Not only are these cool visually, but they are also clever from a writing point of view, dragging the readers back to the emotional impact of these events and driving how much they are still sticking in the mind of the protagonists.  I cannot overstate how awesome this art is and I had an absolute blast seeing every explosion, Force burst and clever flashback that they were able to fit in.

Star Wars (2020) #6 Cover

Well, if the above multi-page rant above didn’t give it away, then I’ll say it clearly here: this comic is incredible!  Soule, Saiz and the other talented artists have done an amazing job with this first volume of the Star Wars (2020) series, and The Destiny Path is an epic and awesome read.  I loved the in-depth examination of these key characters after The Empire Strikes Back and there are so many cool Star Wars elements worked into the story.  This is one of my favourite Star Wars comics and it gets a full five-star rating from me.  I cannot wait to see what extraordinary stories and powerful artform this fantastic creative team comes up with next and I need to order the next volume in now.