Unforgiven by Sarah Barrie

Unforgiven Cover

Publisher: HQ (Trade Paperback – 1 December 2021)

Series: Standalone/Book One

Length: 480 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Talented Australian author Sarah Barrie presents one of the darkest and best Australian thriller novels of 2021 with Unforgiven, a powerful and captivating read that sets determined protagonists against the very worst of human monsters.

Years ago, the city of Sydney was haunted by a terrible paedophile and murderer known as the Spider, who kidnapped, molested and killed young girls, all on camera.  His reign of terror was ended suddenly one violent night thanks to two women, a determined rookie police officer, Rachael Langley, and one of the Spider’s young victims, Lexi Winter, who disappeared never to be seen again.

Now, after years of living on the street, Lexi has grown up tough and hard, determined to escape the tortures of her childhood through alcohol while trying to reconnect with the sister she was forced to leave behind.  However, Lexi is still obsessed with taking down monsters, and with her impressive hacking skills she spends her days tracking paedophiles, entrapping them, and ensuring they are captured by the police.  However, when her latest target proves to be particularly illusive online, she makes a fateful decision to break into his house, only to witness him being murdered.

At the same time, Rachael Langley is now a successful detective inspector, solving some of the toughest crimes in Sydney.  Still lauded for her role in stopping the Spider, Rachael lives in regret for being unable to save Lexi all those years before.  However, everything changes when a man calls her, claiming to be the real Spider and providing proof by horrifically murdering another child on camera.  Quickly establishing a police taskforce, Rachael and her team must determine if the killer is a copycat or whether Rachael captured the wrong man all those years ago.  To solve this case Rachael is going to need help from the last person who wants to see her, Lexi, but can these women work together after everything they have been through?  And what happens when their killer learns that Lexi is still alive and hunting for him?

This was an intense, grim and deeply compelling Australian crime fiction read from Barrie, who has written an amazing and powerful story that proves very hard to put down.  Unforgiven was the first of Barrie’s books that I have read, although several of her other Australian crime fiction novels are quite intriguing and I might try and read them at some point after being so captivated by this epic and moving read.  This was such an addictive novel that it gets a full five-star rating from me.

Barrie has come up with a very impressive and intense narrative for Unforgiven that sees several damaged characters dragged into the web of a dangerous and clever criminal.  The story has a great start that showcases the lives of the main protagonists, Lexi, Rachael and Rachael’s nephew and fellow police officer Finn, as well as giving some hints at the events of the original Spider case that so deeply impacted the female main characters.  After this quick set-up, the story advances in all its dark and powerful glory, as two fascinating plot lines develop.  Lexi, who has become an online vigilante hunting paedophiles on the dark web, finds herself caught up in a brutal murder when one of her targets is murdered by a mysterious figure while she is sneaking into his house.  Most of her early story involves her continued attempt to hunt paedophiles while also trying to find a way to hide the body of the murdered man, for which she gains some help from an interesting source.  At the same time, Rachael and Finn become involved in a brutal case when the man claiming to be the real Spider calls Rachael and leads them to murdered young girl, forcing them to once again dive into the unsettling world of paedophiles.

Both storylines advance at a quick and compelling pace, with each of the main protagonists facing massive challenges as they attempt to achieve their objectives.  I liked this initial separation of the storyline, and the two plotlines work well together in tandem, with the reader getting pretty caught up in both narrative threads.  At the same time, the author drip-feeds in bits and pieces of Lexi and Rachael’s pasts, especially the events that led up to the arrest of the Spider and the disappearance of Lexi.  This deepens the audiences’ connections to the two protagonists so that when their storylines inevitably connect it really enhances the impact of the scene.  Unforgiven shifts into high gear once these plotlines are joined, with all three protagonists working towards the same goals, although Lexi maintains her secrets.  Barrie starts throwing in some real curveballs here, providing a complex and intriguing case that throws the protagonists through the emotional wringer as they get closer to the big and powerful conclusion of the novel.  There are some great twists in the last half of the book and while I saw a couple of things coming, there were some fantastic surprises that really threw me.  This ends up being an outstanding and complex story, and the readers will be left wanting more, especially as Barrie leaves it open for a sequel, which I really hope she does.

While I deeply enjoyed the captivating and intense story contained within Unforgiven, this was a bit of a hard novel to read at times due to its very, very dark content.  Unforgiven focuses on the hunt for a murderous paedophile and his child exploiting friends, which inevitably leads to some depictions of the terrible acts they commit, not only to children in the current storyline, but to the protagonist Lexi back in her childhood.  Barrie really does not pull any punches here, and the book contains some very dark and grim moments that really stick in the mind.  These powerful and shocking scenes really raised the stakes of the book and ensured that the reader becomes extremely invested in seeing the protagonists achieve justice through their actions.  While I really appreciated that Barrie was trying to raise awareness and showcase just how evil some people can be, I will admit that some of these scenes did get to be a bit much at times, forcing me to stop and put the book down.  Readers are warned that Unforgiven has very strong themes of violence and abuse against children and young people.  However, if you can get past that, it is worth it, as Barrie does an excellent job telling this rough story about true human evil.

Unforgiven’s already brilliant and powerful narrative is enhanced by the impressively written and complex central characters contained within.  Barrie has gone out of her way to introduce several very damaged and compelling protagonists, each of whom add so much to the overall plot thanks to their excellent backstories and substantial development.  The most prominent and interesting of these characters are the two female leads of the book, Lexi Winter and Detective Inspector Rachael Langley, whose lives became irreparably entangled all those years ago.  These two characters serve as two of the three main point-of-view characters, with most of the story told from their perspectives.

Lexi was a great character, and I was deeply impressed with the amount of work that Barrie put into her complex and damaging past, as well as her distinctive current personality.  There were so many interesting aspects to Lexi, who immediately stands out as a protagonist thanks to her damaged personality, strong sense of deduction and observation, her badass ability with a computer and the fact that she is the only character whose chapters are told in the first person.  I loved the intriguing contradictions in her life as Lexi makes a living as an escort while devoting most of her personal life to being an online vigilante/hacker extraordinaire who specialises in taking paedophiles down.  This makes for such a distinctive character, especially once you figure in all the major impacts of her childhood that has left her such an emotional mess.  Barrie does a good job of slowly revealing all the horrors of her early life, and while some of the scenes are pretty brutal, it is amazing to see everything that the character has risen above to still be such a strong figure.  The reader swiftly gets attached to Lexi as a protagonist and it will be fascinating to see what happens to her next if Barrie decides to turn this into a series.

The other central character that I must talk about is Rachael, the veteran detective inspector whose career was built off the success of the Spider case.  Rachael is a great police protagonist, a confident, intelligent and strong figure who is able to keep most of her people in line and pursue a vigorous investigation.  However, Barrie builds in several great aspects to her character that really impact this protagonist throughout the course of Unforgiven.  Firstly, there is the guilt that Rachael still feels over her past with Lexi, especially as Rachael failed her in a way which is slowly revealed over the course of the book, especially once the two reunite and have an awkward relationship.  The other aspect is the doubt that slowly creeps into Rachael as the case proceeds, especially as the possibility that the original person convicted in the Spider case might be innocent.  This doubt, coupled with the guilt over the fact that she could be responsible for the latest deaths by not actually catching the real Spider, starts to impact her throughout the book and proves to be an intriguing motivator for some of her decisions.  These complex aspects really helped enhance the emotional power of Unforgiven and I really appreciated the intense storyline that Barrie wrote about people living in the past and accepting one’s mistakes.  I really enjoyed seeing both Lexi and Rachael in this novel, and they had some great storylines in this book.

Aside from Lexi and Rachael, there are several other great characters in Unforgiven I should mention.  The most prominent of these must be Detective Senior Sergeant Finn Carson, Rachael’s nephew and second-in-command of the investigation, who ends up being the third major point-of-view character.  Finn was an excellent male police character who serves as an interesting counterpoint to the two female protagonists.  While not as damaged as the other two, Finn has his own issues, and his viewpoint really added to the overall quality of the book.  I was also a big fan of Lexi’s neighbour Dawny, an eccentric older woman who assists Lexi in several matters, including disposing of a body (what are good neighbours for?).  Dawny was one of the funniest characters in the book and it was great to see the protagonists be completely baffled by her knowledge and ability to come up with effective solutions to problems while maintaining the batty old lady routine.  I quite liked the eventual reveal of who Dawny really was, as it fit in well with the other characters in the book, and it will be fun to see if Barrie brings her back at some point in the future.  Finally, I definitely need to highlight the villain of the book, the Spider, who is one of the most despicable fictional antagonists I have seen: a sordid child abuser and murderer who films their grisly crimes.  You quickly feel a lot of hate towards this character, even if you don’t know who they are for most of the story.  The eventual reveal and the various twists around them were quite clever and I had an amazing, if disturbing, time finding out who this monster was.  An overall exceptional character driven novel, you will quickly find yourself getting stuck following all these fascinating and compelling figures.

Unforgiven by Sarah Barrie is an outstanding and impressive read that takes the reader of a gritty and vicious ride.  Filled with a disturbing narrative and some brilliantly damaged central characters, Unforgiven is an utterly captivating read that is near impossible to put down or forget about.  Easily one of the best Australian thrillers of 2021, Unforgiven comes highly recommended and I am extremely excited to see what other incredible novels Barrie comes up with in the future.

Warhammer 40,000: Steel Tread by Andy Clark

Steel Tread Cover

Publisher: Black Library (Audiobook – 5 January 2022)

Series: Astra Militarum – Book One

Length: 9 hours and 50 minutes

My Rating: 4.75 out of 5 stars

Prepare to dive back into the brutal chaos of the far future of the exceptional Warhammer 40,000 universe with the powerful and intense Steel Tread, a fantastic tank novel by Andy Clark.

At this point in its existence, the Warhammer 40,000 canon has advanced far from just a tabletop game and has turned into quite the complex extended universe that features a range of interesting factions, species and unique narratives.  From fantastic stories about crusading genetic Space Marines (check out my review for Deathwatch: Shadowbreaker), to unique underworld stories about warring gangs (Kal Jerico: Sinner’s Bounty and Fire Made Flesh), and narratives about ancient metal aliens (The Twice-Dead King: Ruin), this franchise has it all.  However, to my mind some of the best Warhammer 40,000 books are compelling war stories that pit ordinary human soldiers against the very worst monsters in this distinctive universe.  Examples of this include the awesome Gaunt’s Ghosts series by Dan Abnett, (check out my review for First and Only), which is pretty damn awesome.  As such I was very excited to check out the new novel from talented Warhammer author Andy Clark, Steel Tread, which looked to follow a group of tank soldiers in the worst of situations.

Following the fall of Cadia, war reigns across the universe as the forces of Chaos push further and further into Imperial space.  There are many battles occurring in this new warzone, but none are more desperate or destructive than those on the world of Croatoas, where the armies of the Astra Militarum, better known as the Imperial Guard, face off against twisted forces serving the Ruinous Powers of Chaos.

Following a devastating campaign, veteran tank gunner Hadeya Etsul is reassigned and consolidated into a Cadian regiment and placed in command of the ancient Leman Russ Demolisher tank, Steel Tread.  Already haunted by the events that destroyed her last tank and crew, Etsul is forced to adapt to her new command whilst immediately getting thrust into the midst of a new offensive.  However, rather than the well-run team she is used to, Etsul finds herself leading a dysfunctional and aggrieved crew who don’t believe she has earned the right to be either their commander or a member of a Cadian regiment.

As the campaign takes a turn for the worst, the crew of Steel Tread will need to find a way to work together if they are to survive.  The enemy has unleashed vast and terrible horrors against the Imperial forces, from dark sorcery to mutated machines, and only the very best crew will have a chance to hold out and fight back.  Can Etsul gain the respect of her crew in time, or will Steel Tread be yet another victim of the unrelenting forces of Chaos?

Wow, that was awesome!  I knew that I was going to have an amazing time reading Steel Tread, especially as it had a great synopsis, but I was unprepared for just how enjoyable it was.  Clark, who has previously written several Warhammer 40,000 novels, including his Imperial Knights books (which he makes certain homages to here), did a fantastic job with this latest novel, producing a grim and powerful tank novel that proves near impossible to stop reading.

Steel Tread has a powerful and action-packed narrative that sees a dysfunctional tank crew thrust into the middle of a hellish warzone (literally hellish) and forced to come together to face their foes.  Clark does a great job of setting the scene for this novel, introducing the conflict, the main characters, and the Chaos based antagonists, in quick succession and ensuring all the key aspects of the book are well established.  The first part of the narrative is mostly dedicated to setting up the crew dynamics and exposing the major personal conflicts that arise when a new commander appears.  This dysfunctional crew mentality continues as the characters are thrust into their first conflicts, before a major battle occurs that separates them from the rest of their command.  Surrounded by all manner of foes, including magical zombies and a terrifying giant war machine (a corrupted Imperial Knight), the crew are forced to come together, especially after overcoming some losses and major personal conflicts.  This all leads up to the big finale, in which the crew are once again thrust into a do-or-die battle and must overcome immense odds with little hopes of success.  This finale really pays off, as the readers are on the edge of their seats during the entire conclusive sequence and beyond as they wait to see what happens to the crew they’ve come to know and love.  This novel is brilliantly paced out and constantly in motion, ensuring that there are no slow spots to stumble across as they move from one excellent sequence to the next.  I loved the great combination of intense action and character moments, which results in a powerful and impressively thrilling read.

I deeply enjoyed the exquisite writing style that Clark utilised for this great novel, especially as it was written in the style of a tank based military thriller.  Clark is an amazingly detailed writer and he perfectly captures the claustrophobia of a classic tank movie.  It was brilliant to watch the six main characters crammed together inside Steel Tread as they face all manner of hell, often by themselves.  You really get a feel for all the stress, rage and fear that the characters are feeling, especially during the amazing action sequences.  All the battle scenes are written extremely well, and the author ensured that you are placed right in the middle of the action.  I really loved all the epic fights, and I really must highlight the scary and insane enemies they faced, including cultists, zombies and that awesome Chaos Knight.  I deeply appreciated the work that Clark put into describing that Chaos Knight into a fearsome and freaky war machine, especially its spider-like walking style, and it easily stole every scene it was in.  This impressive writing style really helped to enhance an already amazing story and I loved how the author was able to tell such a brutal and complex war story.

This proved to be an exceptional entry in the Warhammer 40,000 canon, and I deeply enjoyed the way in which Clark was able to transplant his impressive tank story into this universe.  While there are a few references to events in Warhammer history that set the scene for the plot, this ended up being one of those tie-in novels that can easily be read by people unfamiliar with the franchise.  Anyone who loves a good science fiction war novel can have a lot of fun with Steel Tread, although there is also a lot that Warhammer fans will really appreciate.  I loved all the references to the fall of Cadia featured throughout the book, especially as the characters are part of a Cadian regiment.  Clark spends a lot of time examining the psyche of a typical Cadian soldier, and there is an interesting focus on members of other regiments being consolidated into the usually insular and elite Cadians.  As such, you get some great insights into the different Imperial Guard regiments, including their unique traditions, and it was fascinating to see several characters, including the main protagonists, try and find acceptance with her new Cadian colleagues and subordinates.  This book does feature a ton of awesome Imperial Guard and Chaos troops, and it was great to see Steel Tread caught in the middle of it, especially as Clark does a great job of describing how the various units move and fight.  I also really loved seeing this story unfold from the common soldier’s perspective, and it was very insightful to see the tank crew when confronted by Chaos sorcery, corruption, mutations and other insanities, especially as half the time they don’t really know what they are.  Clark has produced a great tie-in to the Warhammer 40,000 universe, and this is honestly an excellent first novel for any reader interested in exploring this massive franchise.

Another feature of Steel Tread that I enjoyed was the amazing array of characters featured within.  Clark has come up with an interesting and diverse central group of protagonists for the book, with the primary six being the crew members of Steel Tread.  I had a lot of fun with these great characters, and I liked the interesting mix of personalities and backstories.  The author has hit on a few military stereotypes here as you have a new and untrusted officer, a grouchy sergeant, a religious zealot driver, a strong and mostly silent loader with a mysterious past, a young rookie eager to prove himself and a rebellious former street thug turned soldier who constantly tests the new commander.  While some of these character types seem a tad familiar, there is a reason that they work in a military fiction novel such as Steel Tread, as these diverse personalities play off each other extremely well.  There is the requisite hardship and clashes you would typically expect from this sort of crew, but they soon develop into a strong team, especially once their new commander finally gains their trust and respect.  Clark does a great job of setting all six of these main characters up and it was great to see them slowly come together through their joint experiences.  Most of the narration is done by central character Etsul, who is still dealing with the aftermath of her last devastating mission and must overcome her memories and doubts to lead the team.  This intense and compelling narration is perfectly complemented by the second narrator, the young rookie Garret Verro, who offers a slightly more hopeful counterpoint to the rest of the characters in the novel.  I really liked seeing this great group of characters come together and you really come to care for the whole crew by the end of the book.

Aside from the central six characters, there are a few other interesting figures that Clark features throughout the novel.  The main one of these is probably Steel Tread itself, as the author works to give the tank its own personality (which is helped by the fact that machines in the Warhammer 40,000 universe have their own souls, known as machine-spirits).  The old but still deadly tank (an Agamemnor-pattern Leman Russ Demolisher), really feels like a member of the crew, especially with how the other characters interact with it, and you end up feeing just as attached to the tank as you do to its human passengers.  Another great character was Lieutenant Horathio Aswold, a fellow tank commander who is consolidated into the Cadian regiment at the same time as Etsul.  Aswold is a fun and slightly eccentric character who bonds with Etsul over being the newest members of their Cadian regiment.  Aswold proved to be a fun counterpoint to Etsul, and I liked how he was a great soundboard for her concerns and doubts, especially when it comes to their new regiment.  The rest of the Imperial characters in this book are only really featured briefly, and due to most of the action occurring inside the tight confines of Steel Tread, there aren’t a lot of extended interactions between the main cast and supporting characters.  I think this smaller cast worked extremely well in the context of a tank-based novel, and it allowed the readers to get to know the main characters.  The fact that the reader never really sees the main antagonist of the novel was an interesting choice from Clark, but it honestly didn’t detract from how awesome the story was.  While it might have been cool to see a powerful traitor Space Marine attack the tank, I think that keeping him away from the protagonists and letting them face only opposing soldiers, machines and monsters helped to emphasise the fact that the characters were only a small part of a much larger war.  I hope we see more of Steel Tread and its crew in the future.

I ended up listening to the audiobook version of Steel Tread, which came in at just under 10 hours, which I ended up listening to in a few short days once I got caught up in the impressive narrative.  I felt that the audiobook format was an excellent way to enjoy this book, especially as the amazing narration really highlighted all the impressive action scenes.  The intensity, complexity and brutality of the various combat sequences is really emphasised in this format and I was engrossed in all the elaborate firefights.  Thanks to this great translation of Clark’s detailed writing style, I found myself practically seeing every shot as the book was read out, and it really helped bring me into the narrative.  I need to highlight the fantastic narration of Remmie Milner, who moved the book along at a quick and enjoyable pace.  Milner had an excellent voice for this thrilling science fiction novel and I loved the great voices she provided to each of the characters.  Not only did these amazing voices really help the reader to appreciate the emotions and thoughts of the protagonists but they highlighted the cultural differences that existed amongst the multiple Imperial Guard regiments, with the newcomers having different accents to the established Cadians.  This excellent voice work was also enhanced in a few places by some clever sound effects, such as the enhancement given when a radio was being utilised by a character.  This great voice work and design elements of the audiobook really helped to bring me into the story and I had a brilliant time listening to it.  Easily the best way to enjoy Steel Tread, this audiobook format comes highly recommended.

Overall, Steel Tread by Andy Clark was an exceptional and impressive Warhammer 40,000 tie-in novel that takes the reader on a wild and compelling ride with a great group of characters.  I loved the brilliant combination of the Warhammer universe with a brutal and grim tank-based military story.  Filled with all the awesome action any science fiction fan could want, Steel Tread was an extremely thrilling and very fun novel that is really worth checking out.  One of the best and most enjoyable Warhammer novels I have had the pleasure of reading.

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

Star Wars - Tempest Runner Cover

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

Series: Star Wars – The High Republic

Script: Cavan Scott

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

Length: 6 hours and 5 minutes

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

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

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

Synopsis:

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

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

Lourna is determined to make underestimating her their last.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All of Us Villains by Amanda Foody and Christine Lynn Herman

All of us Villains Cover

Publisher: Gollancz (Trade Paperback – 9 November 2021)

Series: All of Us Villains – Book One

Length: 388 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

The writing team of Amanda Foody and Christine Lynn Herman presents their first awesome joint novel, with the impressive and dark young adult fantasy book, All of Us Villains.

Foody and Herman are both established authors, having previously released cool-sounding novels and series, such as Foody’s bestselling The Shadow Game series and Herman’s The Devouring Gray novels.  While I have not had the opportunity to check out either of these authors’ previous books, I was very interested by All of Us Villains when I first heard about it a few months ago.  I loved the unique and compelling plot synopsis, and I was also intrigued by all the buzz from other reviewers.  I instantly jumped on it once I received my own copy and I was very impressed with its clever and compelling story.

In a world still powered by spells and curses, nothing is more precious than high magick, which can super-charge any spell and provide its wielder with insane amounts of power.  The only reliable source of high magick left in the world can be found in the remote city of Ilvernath, a dour and depressing settlement whose prosperity and fame can be traced to seven ancient families.  The ability to see and manipulate this high magick can only belong to one family at a time, and control ensures their prosperity for an entire generation.  However, to gain this right, each family must make an unbelievable sacrifice.

Every generation, when the Blood Moon starts to rise, a magical tournament is enacted that pits the very best of the families against each other.  However, this is no gentle tournament of magick; it is a brutal, curse-created fight to the death, with each family forced to nominate a young champion to represent them.  Only one champion can survive the tournament, and no-one ever emerges unscathed.

Twenty years after the last competition, a new Blood Moon starts to rise, and the families make ready for the latest battle for supremacy.  However, this tournament will be very different than any before.  Someone from the seven families has published a tell-all book, detailing every aspect of the tournament and informing the world of the hidden atrocities that have been committed in the name of power.  With the world now obsessed with every aspect of the tournament, all attention is now focussed on Ilvernath and the seven champions.

Thrust into the public spotlight, all seven champions must now deal with the intense infamy the tournament produces as they prepare to fight.  Forced to balance their own feelings on death and survival with the intense pressure placed upon them by their families and tradition, none are truly ready for the horrors they will be forced to endure.  However, this tournament also offers its competitors a chance to survive and end the curse that has blighted their families for centuries.  But not all the competitors are willing to give up the chance of ultimate power and are prepared to pay any price to win.  Let the games begin!

Damn, now this was a really great novel.  The brilliant new writing team of Foody and Herman produced an outstanding book in All of Us Villains, and I really got stuck into its story incredibly quickly.  The authors did a wonderful job of utilising a new version of the always popular teenage death tournament to fit into a brilliant and moving narrative.  Filled with complex characters and intense personal moments, All of Us Villains is an awesome and powerful book that I deeply enjoyed.

All of Us Villains has an excellent narrative that is a lot of fun to get into.  Focused on four of the seven participants of the latest death tournament, this is an amazing character driven story that really dives into the protagonists’ psyches as they prepare for the ultimate challenge.  The authors do an awesome job setting the scene for this fantastic story, and the readers are quickly hooked by the four complex main characters and the interesting scenario.  Roughly the first half of the book is dedicated to the setup before the tournament begins, which I think ensured the perfect balance between development and bloodshed.  You come away from the first half appreciating each of the characters and deeply caring about the outcome of the upcoming battle.  I was particularly impressed with one great early twist that surrounded one main character’s family preparations, and it added some major impact to his storyline.  Once the tournament begins, readers are in for a whirlwind of emotions and excitement as all the characters enact their strategy to win while all bearing a heavy emotional weight or magical handicap.  There are some intense and captivating sequences here and the readers are constantly on the edge of their seat, especially with some unique interactions, alliances and motivations, including one character who attempts to destroy the entire tournament from the inside.  This all leads up to a devastating and powerful conclusion, filled with death, despair, betrayal and complete emotional devastation, as all the characters make their choices and everything crumbles around them.

I really loved this cool narrative and I found myself getting really caught up in the constant heartbreak and bloodshed.  I am a massive fan of the teenage death tournament premise, and the authors do a great job of working this established story elements into their setting extremely well.  While there isn’t as much intense violence in the actual tournament as some readers would probably hope, I think that the authors’ choice to focus on the characters and their intense emotions about being forced into this fight by their families turned All of Us Villains into a better book. The authors’ use of multiple character perspectives works extremely well here, especially as it forces you to choose between your favourite characters as you try and work out who you want to survive, while also ensuring a really in-depth look at the setting and the tournament.  While I did find the final twist of this novel slightly predictable, the rest of the reveals and unpredictable actions were really cool, and I was shocked and surprised multiple times while reading.  This was also a great first entry, with the story ending on a compelling final note that will ensure that I will be coming back for the next book.  This was a deeply accessible and enjoyable read that has a lot of appeal to a vast array of varied readers, especially its intended young adult audience who will really love the complex story, clever setting and fantastic characters.

I had a lot of fun with the captivating and inventive setting and scenario that the authors have come up with for All of Us Villains.  While the world itself is a bit of a familiar alternate world with magic, the town of Ilvernath and the tournament it hosts more than makes up for it.  The authors spend a substantial amount of time establishing the setting, showcasing how the participants live, the vile history surrounding their families, as well as the tournament which plays a major role in their existence.  The people of Ilvernath, especially the seven families, are explored in detail, and it was fascinating to see the various opinions and expectations surrounding them.  This becomes even more apparent as a clever media saturation element is worked into the narrative as the tournament has been exposed to the public and has gained substantial attention, changing the entire nature of the tournament.  Excerpts from the tell-all-book that caused this attention are featured at the start of each chapter, which I deeply enjoyed.  Not only is it fascinating to see an inside perspective on the events, the families, and the tournament history, but it helps to expand the lore of this world in a fun way.  I also quite enjoyed the cool magical system of this novel, which is channelled through spell-laden rings powered.  The authors spend a lot of time exploring this magical system, especially as they show off various aspects of it, including spell/curse crafting and the subsequent casting.  You get a real sense of how this system works in a very short amount of time, and there are some unique and intense spells that get chucked into the mix, resulting in some big story moments.

The highlight of All of Us Villains is the death tournament, which gets a lot of attention and development.  The authors perfectly explain the lore, rules, and quirks of the tournament, and it is fascinating to see it unfold once the characters are thrown into it.  Cut off from the rest of the world by a magical barrier, the participants need to kill each other within a set period or else everyone left alive will die.  There are some fantastic rules and inclusions set into this tournament, including seven artefacts with their own unique benefits and seven strongholds that the champions can hold up in.  These items and strongholds have their own significance and connections to the seven families, and it was interesting to see their impact on the events of the tournament.  The authors’ clever use of excerpts from the tell-all book works extremely well to highlight elements of the tournament, and I loved all this crucial part of the book.  There are also some new elements introduced for this specific tournament, as parts of the curse start to break apart due to the unpredictable actions of the participants.  This opens new opportunities and possibilities that were quite fascinating to see.  I look forward to seeing what happens around this tournament in rest of this series, especially as more bloodshed and destruction is inevitable.

As I mentioned multiple times above, the best thing about this cool book is the fantastically complex and compelling central characters.  The focus of All of Us Villains is on the seven participants of the tournament, with a particular emphasis on the four main characters.  The authors really dive into these four characters, highlighting their personalities, emotions, and their thoughts on the tournament they are about to embark on.  Each character is very well established, and there are some extremely complex and powerful storylines and character arcs set up around them.  It is a testament to the authors’ writing that I tended to enjoy each separate perspective about equally, and there were none that I disliked more than any of the others, which is a real peril in novels with a lot of narrators.  I will say that this intense focus on only four of the main characters does detract a lot of attention and interest away from the rest of the supporting cast, especially the three other family champions, but I think it is worth it for the impressive development put into the central protagonists.

The first of these characters is Alistair Lowe, the powerful scion of the Lowe family.  The Lowes win most of the tournaments and are generally considered the villains of Ilvernath and its history due to their monstrous personalities.  Alistair has been raised his entire life to win the tournament by any means necessary and has fully accepted his role as the monster of the story, even if he isn’t as evil as everyone assumes or wants him to be.  However, an interesting and unexpected romance soon starts to change his mind and he is convinced that changing his ways and saving the others might be a good idea.  However, a particularly vicious twist towards the end of the novel completely alters the entire trajectory of his character arc and will leave you reeling in shock while it loads up the epic feels.  I felt that out of all the characters, Alistair had the most moving and complex storyline as well as the most substantial development, and he swiftly becomes the character you bond with the most.  I am deeply intrigued to see what happens to him in the next book and I have a feeling that there is both great tragedy and great evil in his future.

The next central champion is Isobel Macaslan, a bright and powerful magick user from a highly resented family.  I loved the great work that the authors put into developing her.  At first Isobel appears to be one of the most confident and enthusiastic figures in this book, especially as she is the one leaning into the publicity surrounding the tournament the most.  However, it soon becomes apparent that she was forced to be champion thanks to the machinations of her uncaring family and her former best friend, who threw her to the press.  Isobel has a lot of issues going into the tournament, with the mass attention and the unfair expectations placed upon her forcing her to take some big risks which severely disadvantage her as she enters the tournament.  Isobel ends up developing some unique connections throughout All of Us Villains, and the friendships and relationships she develops form the emotional heart of much of the narrative.  The reader sees Isobel go to some dark places in this book and it is hard to see all the heartbreak and despair she experiences.

I was also a major fan of the underdog Gavin Grieve, who has an amazingly complex and relatable story arc.  Gavin is the champion from the Grieve family, who have never won the tournament and are generally looked down upon by everyone in town.  Gavin is a sad and angry character since everyone underestimates him and his chances, while also showering him with scorn as it was apparently a Grieve who wrote the tell-all expose about the tournament.  This anger leads to him making a dangerous deal that provides him with impressive power at a great price.  This was an amazing story inclusion, especially as it turns Gavin into a bit of a beast due to finally having power and an advantage over the other families.  This leads him to do some reckless and cruel things, and it was fascinating to see the events of the tournament and its bloody legacy slowly corrupt this character before your eyes.

The final point-of-view character was Briony Thorburn, the confident wildcard.  Unlike all the other major characters, Briony wants to compete in the tournament and has spent her entire life getting ready for it, going as far as to dump her boyfriend, one of the other competitors, so she would feel less guilty about killing him.  However, events outside of her control impact her participation and she is forced to take some drastic actions.  This leads to her significantly reconsidering her position and gives her a fantastic arc about trying to save all her fellow participants and try to break the tournament once and for all.  Watching her attempt to make up for all her past mistakes while also convincing the other champions to change hundreds of years of tradition is pretty brilliant, and I found it to be a compelling arc that fleshed out the story perfectly.

In their first collaboration, the brilliant team of Amanda Foody and Christine Lynn Herman have produced one of the best young adult fantasy novels of 2021 with All of Us Villains.  This amazing novel contains an excellent story set around an intense magical teenage death tournament that takes the reader into some incredible directions.  Filled with tragedy, impressive character development, and a ton of impressive twists, All of Us Villains is an exceptional read that comes highly recommended novel.

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Leviathan Falls by James S. A. Corey

Leviathan Falls Cover

Publisher: Orbit/Recorded Books (Audiobook – 30 November 2021)

Series: The Expanse – Book Nine

Length: 19 hours and 40 minutes

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

For my last review of 2021 I check out the epic and highly anticipated final book in the iconic The Expanse series by James S. A. Corey, Leviathan Falls.

For the last ten years the science fiction genre has been dominated by the impressive and captivating The Expanse series.  Written by James S. A. Corey, the joint pen name of authors Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck, The Expanse series consists of nine awesome novels that navigate the troubles and wars of future humans in both our solar system, and other systems accessed by ancient alien technology.  This has been a pretty amazing series which has moved from wars between Earth, Mars and the Belt, to intergalactic travel and battles between galactic empires and interdimensional aliens.  I have been really enjoying this series lately, and the last two novels, Persepolis Rising and Tiamat’s Wrath were extremely fun, especially as they utilised the conquering Laconian Empire, which forced the protagonists to form a rebel movement known as the underground.

The plot of Leviathan Falls starts a few months after the events of Tiamat’s Wrath, which saw the underground destroy Laconia’s shipyards and free James Holden, captain of the Rocinante, and Teresa Duarte, the daughter of the Laconian high consul.  Now the Rocinante flies throughout the various settled systems attempting to keep the underground alive and bring down the faltering Laconian Empire.  At the same time, unnatural and destructive alien forces, disturbed by the intergalactic technology used to traverse space, are reaching into our universe and attempting to exterminate all human life.

The best hope for humanity may lie in the hands of the Laconian high consul, Winston Duarte, whose alien enhancements have given him unnatural insight into the universe.  However, Winston Duarte is currently missing, having vanished from his room as he attempts to unleash his ambitious master plan.  To find him, the Laconians unleash their ultimate hunter, Colonel Aliana Tanaka, who focuses on the Rocinante, determined to use Teresa as bait.  At the same time, Dr Elvi Okoye leads a desperate scientific mission to uncover the secrets of the ancient aliens whose technology has allowed humanity to expand throughout the universe.  But her progress is dependent on the lives of the mysterious half-alien children in her care, whose ability to connect with the past could save the future.

As the situation in the universe becomes even more desperate, the crew of Rocinante are once again thrust into the midst of the battle for humanity’s survival.  Entering a desperate alliance and faced with near certain extinction, the Rocinante and their allies embark on a final battle for the future.  However, not only are they facing the malevolent forces from outside their universe, but also the radical and altered Winston Duarte, whose plan to save the species comes with an impossible price.  Can Holden and his crew stop him before it is too late, or is the final chapter in humanity’s story?

Leviathan Falls was another intense and impressive science fiction read from Corey, who brings this epic series to an end in a big way.  This ninth and final Expanse novel had a captivating and intense narrative filled with amazing and realistic science fiction elements, complex characters, and a fitting and heartbreaking conclusion that wraps everything up extremely well.  This ended up being a fantastic novel and I was glad I had a chance to see how everything finished up.

There is a great narrative for this book that takes the reader on a powerful and compelling ride as the authors seek to wrap everything up.  Leviathan Falls continues several of the storylines set up in the previous novels, especially Tiamat’s Wrath, and takes them towards their inevitable conclusion.  Told through multiple characters, including several minor figures, this is a slow-burn narrative that methodically sets up the various storylines and explores them to their full extent.  The story gets quite complex in places as the protagonists attempt to survive not only the various battles between the Laconians and the underground but also the malevolent entities attempting to take them down from another universe.  The first half of the story focuses on a cat-and-mouse battle between the protagonists on the Rocinante and the Laconian Colonel Tanaka, while there are some interesting examinations of Elvi’s attempts to understand the threat facing humanity.  These storylines lead up to a big event that sets up the intense and exciting second half of the novel and forces the previously disparate characters to come together and face the major threat.  This results in a massive, extended sequence that forces several characters to make some major decisions, and a moving conclusion that is both devastating and a fitting ending to the franchise.

The team behind The Expanse have a really unique writing style that I think fits the epic scope of their series.  Using an intense amount of description, as well as some colourful analogies, the authors paint a brilliant picture of the events occurring around them that perfectly encapsulates the insanities and complexities of the situation.  The Expanse series is known for its realistic approach to science fiction, and this continues through in Leviathan Falls as the reader gets a real sense of the awesome nature of space flight through the various characters’ eyes.  While some of the science fiction elements are obviously invented solely for the narrative, most of the human technology in this book appears to be quite realistic and well thought out.  I also love the cool take on space travel, communication and fights, with many of the events in space taking hours or days to complete due to distance and light delays.  This is particularly impressive during the battle sequences which rely more on calculations and manoeuvres than fast-paced firepower, and it really added to the intensity of multiple scenes throughout the book.

While I enjoyed the narrative and the way that the authors told the story, Leviathan Falls did drag a little in places.  I honestly think they could have streamlined this into a better novel by taking out, say, 50 to 100 pages, and I personally would have cut all the chapters told from the perspective of Kit Kamal, which have no major impact on the overall story.  I also think that the authors went a tad overboard in places trying to make some of the elements and experiences seem a little cleverer than they needed to be, such as certain long-winded interludes.  While I understand that this is their writing style and it usually works, I felt that it made parts of the book a little unwieldy and unnecessarily complex.  Being the grand finale, it was also a very inaccessible novel for new readers, especially as so much of the plot relies on knowledge of some of the preceding books, particularly Persepolis Rising and Tiamat’s Wrath.  However, the rest of Leviathan Falls story more than compensates for some of the above issues, and this still ended up being an excellent and compelling read.

Fans of this series will no doubt appreciate some of the excellent world building that took place in Leviathan Falls.  The author introduces some interesting and compelling expansions of various elements of lore and technology within this universe, especially when it comes to the two ancient alien races who the protagonists have been encountering throughout the series.  It was rather fascinating to see how certain elements were utilised throughout the plot, and they ended up enhancing the narrative extremely well.  I loved all the use of alien technology, especially as there are some great call-backs to the previous books and the weird molecules and artefacts the protagonists previously encountered.  There was also a good wrap up with the universe that I really appreciated, and it think it ends everything on a compelling and interesting note.

Leviathan Falls features an impressive cast of complex characters, and the multiple perspectives are used to great effect throughout the book to craft a massive and elaborate narrative.  I liked the cool range of characters in this book, especially as it primarily focuses on the well-established cast from the previous novels, as well as one great new antagonist.  The vast array of perspectives proves to be a lot of fun to explore, although I do question the necessity of one or two overutilised point-of-view characters.  I also appreciated some of the development that occurred around the recurring cast of the series.  This included a tangible sense of weariness that multiple characters experienced, especially the series’ long-running protagonists, which helped to reflect how they have aged and evolved over the years, especially in the face of so much adversity.  There are also a couple of interesting inclusions that I quite enjoyed, including one excellent character whose return will come as a pleasant surprise to fans of The Expanse.

There are several extremely awesome characters that I really must highlight in this book, including protagonist James Holden, the captain of the Rocinante and main character of the series.  Holden has gone through a lot throughout The Expanse novels, and it shows in Leviathan Falls.  The character is clearly dealing with some PTSD following his extended imprisonment in the prior novel, and there are some compelling and intense trauma storylines around him.  Holden has a particularly major moment in this novel, and it ended up being an interesting and moving novel for this great central character.  Aside from Holden, you also must love the work put into the surviving crew members of the Rocinante, Naomi Nagata, Amos Burton and Alex Kamal, each of whom have their own interesting storylines and serve as great point-of-view characters.  I particularly enjoyed the increased focus on Naomi now that she’s the head of the underground, and it was still fascinating to see her as a confident and capable leader.  Amos’s storyline was also rather interesting, especially after he died and was resurrected by alien technology in the previous novel.  This gives him some unique perspectives throughout the book, although there were only so many times you can hear about the “unnatural pauses” he now has.

In addition to the Rocinante crew members, several other exceptional characters also really stood out to me.  I continued to enjoy the inclusion of Elvi Okoye, the brilliant scientist who was drafted into the Laconian military force as the leading expert on alien technology.  Elvi offers most of the scientific insight into the events occurring in the novel, and it was interesting to see her experiences as she attempts to understand the ancient alien technology and discover a solution to the mysterious attacks plaguing the various human systems.  I also really appreciated Colonel Aliana Tanaka, a Laconian soldier who is sent to track down the missing Winston Duarte by hounding the Rocinante and trying to take back Teresa Duarte.  Despite being a new character, Tanaka has one of the best arcs in the entire novel, as she is forced to contend with not only the boldness of the protagonists but also her own instabilities and issues.  While she initially appears to be a mostly rage filled attack-dog, the author soon expands on her character and backstory turning her into a very complex and somewhat sympathetic figure.  This is particularly true after a major event results in an unwelcome intrusion in her mind, and her inability to cope makes her even wilder and angrier.  These brilliant characters really helped to enhance Leviathan Fall’s plot and it was an absolute pleasure to see all the great character driven story arcs come to an end.

While I did receive a physical copy of Leviathan Falls, I ended up listening to the audiobook version to fit this book into my reading schedule.  This was a pretty good audiobook, and I had a fantastic time getting through it.  Leviathan Falls has a decent run time of just under 20 hours, which did take me a while to get through, especially in some of the spots where my engagement slipped a little.  Despite the length, this was a fantastic audiobook adaptation and I appreciated the impressive narration from Jefferson Mays, who has previously lent his voice to all the previous The Expanse novels.  Mays’ voice seems to fit the massive and epic format of the series extremely well and I found myself appreciating and following some of the heavy scientific elements, battle sequences and intriguing analogies a bit better with his work.  He also provides some excellent voices to the various characters featured in the series which fit their various personalities and helped to showcase their emotions.  I had an awesome time listening to this latest audiobook and it is an impressive way to check this novel out.

After nine epic novels, The Expanse series by James S. A. Corey finally comes to end with the fantastic Leviathan Falls.  This final book does an excellent job of tying together the various story threads from the previous novels and giving this impressive series the outstanding conclusion it deserves.  Filled with complex characters, a powerful and rich science fiction setting, and an intriguing central storyline, Leviathan Falls was an awesome read.  An amazing and cool conclusive episode, Leviathan Falls is really worth checking out and I loved its compelling and exciting story.

Mind Bullet by Jeremy Robinson

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Publisher: Podium Audio (Audiobook – 23 November 2021)

Series: Standalone/Infinite Timeline

Length: 11 hours and 42 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

The deliciously twisted mind of bestselling science fiction thriller author Jeremy Robinson returns with another epic and over-the-top adventure, Mind Bullet, a fantastic and captivating read.

Robinson is an outstanding author whose work I first checked out earlier this year.  Known for his Nemesis Saga and Chess Team series, Robinson is currently working on a collection of partially connected standalone novels, all of which are set within the same extended universe and which are leading up to some massive crossover novels.  I was lucky enough to read one of Robinson’s other 2021 releases earlier this year, The Dark, which was a captivating and deeply entertaining read with a bonkers story to it.  I had a wonderful time with The Dark, which got a full five-star rating from me, and it made me an instant fan of this cool writer.  As such, I was extremely intrigued when I saw that he had another novel coming out this year.  This book, Mind Bullet, was another unique and fascinating read from Robinson with a killer plot to it that I just had to pick up and check out.

In the world of high-level international assassination, Jonas is something of a legend.  Raised by two honourable killers, Jonas had set out on his own, taking on the most dangerous and difficult of jobs and succeeding in some extremely flashy ways.  Despite the ostentatious techniques used in some of his kills, Jonas has managed to stay out of the limelight and out of sight from conventional law enforcement due to fact that none of his targets ever shows any signs of violence.  That is because Jonas has a secret: he has telekinesis and can blow a small hole into people’s brains merely by concentrating on them, an unexplained ability he calls Mind Bullet.

However, despite all his success and the accompanying wealth, Jonas is unhappy and depressed.  Alone except for his sarcastic and possibly psychotic AI, Bubbles, Jonas is still grieving the loss of his dead parents, convinced that someone killed them and got away with it.  As his depression and loneliness results in Jonas taking more and more dangerous jobs, Bubbles decides to intervene for his own good.  Playing matchmaker, Bubbles determines that Madee, a local Thai food delivery woman and part-time thief, would be perfect for him.  After an awkward first meeting where Madee attempts to rob him, the two loners start to hit it off.  However, true love is about to get interrupted by the worst kind of gate crasher, the assassin group known as the Shrieking Ninja.

Angered by one of Madee’s burglaries, the Shrieking Ninjas attempt to break into Jonas’s house and kill them both.  Barely escaping from the Shrieking Ninjas’ mysterious and powerful master, Jonas goes on the run with Madee, hoping to find a way to get them off their trail for good.  However, the disastrous and very public encounter at his house has raised unwelcome attention and Jonas is shocked to find that a $10 million bounty has been placed on his head.  A mysterious organisation is determined to capture Jonas by any means necessary, and every elite assassin and hitman in America is willing to collect.  Pursued by a legion of outrageous killers, Jonas, Madee and Bubbles find themselves thrust into the midst of a dark and deadly conspiracy that lies in the heart of Jonas’s past and the secrets behind his lethal abilities.  Can this unusual group survive the onslaught headed their way, or will they be buried by a legion of lethal killers with their own unique abilities?

Wow, just wow, this novel was the absolute definition of fun.  Robinson did another amazing job with Mind Bullet, producing an intense and exciting novel that is wildly addictive and incredibly entertaining.  Featuring a brilliant, fast-paced story, Mind Bullet had me hooked from the very second I started listening to it, and I ended up powering through it in a few short days.  An outstanding and compelling read, this novel also got a five-star rating from me.

Mind Bullet has an awesome and deeply entertaining narrative that is extremely easy to read and even easier to get addicted to.  Robinson starts off strong with an audacious assassination involving an airborne car, an unethical AI, psychic powers and a parachute, which serves as the perfect introduction to Jonas and his assistant, Bubbles.  From there the story quickly evolves, with Jonas meeting the mysterious Madee while being forced to defend her from the outrageous Shrieking Ninjas (that name says it all).  Following that encounter, Jonas and Madee are forced to contend with continued attacks from even more unusual and deadly assassins, each of whom steal the scene they’re in, either by their unique methods or dangerous powers not unlike Jonas’s.  The protagonists are thrust into deadly situation after deadly situation, picking up new friends as progressively more dangerous foes attack with devastating effect.  This amazing and compelling narrative contains the right blend of forward action and intriguing backstory, as the attacks awaken memories from Jonas’s past, which he also seeks to explore.  After a series of interesting reveals after the halfway point of the book, the protagonists are thrust into their most dangerous situation yet when they encounter the book’s big bads, in an epic and twisty confrontation that brings everything together and ensures everything is out on the table.  All this leads up to an explosive conclusion that wraps up the story and the character arcs exceedingly well, while also leaving the door open for appearances in future Robinson books.

This entire story was extremely intense and addictive from the very beginning, and I had an outstanding time getting through it, and loved every single development, explosive encounter, and fantastically weird new character.  Despite its myriad elements, the entire narrative came together extremely well, and the readers are left feeling extremely satisfied, especially as this is a mostly self-contained story.  I felt that Robinson’s use of single first-person perspective to tell the whole story worked extremely well, especially as the point-of-view character was particularly entertaining and enjoyable.  Like most of Robinson’s stories, Mind Bullet’s narrative contained a great combination of humour, action, character growth and sheer insanity, which helps to produce a deeply entertaining and compelling plot that grabs the reader’s attention and holds on tight.  While substantially less dark in tone and character development than Robinson’s prior book, The Dark, Mind Bullet has serious moments which contrast extremely well with the inherent silliness to produce an overall epic read.  I honestly loved every second of this story, and there are some brilliant scenes featured throughout it, from massive and elaborate fight scenes, brutal psychic brawls both in reality and the mental plain, as well as several simpler scenes that deal with the characters and show their growth as people.

It is interesting to note that this book is part of Robinson’s wider Infinite Timeline, a collection of mostly unconnected novels set in the same overarching universe.  Robinson is currently making a play to combine the plots and characters of these standalone novels, and several upcoming novels will feature multiple characters from across the canon.  As such, Mind Bullet contains multiple references to Robinson’s prior works, mainly Tribe and The Dark, which are part of the same loosely connected storyline (the books of which are are going to have their first crossover in 2022’s Khaos).  There is also a surprising appearance from some of the protagonists of Robinson’s other books, which hints at the bigger crossover later in the series in Singularity (this universe’s version of Avengers: Endgame).  While readers can easily enjoy Mind Bullet without any knowledge of Robinson’s prior books, a couple of scenes and references might be a bit weird without context, especially as a few characters are briefly parachuted (or teleported) in.  Still, readers should be able to follow what is going on without too much difficulty, especially as Robinson does provide some explanation or interesting reaction from the protagonist, and hopefully these appearances will encourage them to check out some of the author’s other books.  I personally really enjoyed these inclusions, and it was fun to see how Robinson is getting more and more blatant with the connections between the various novels.  I am really looking forward to seeing how this entire series comes together, and I really need to go back and read some of Robinson’s other books before this happens.

One of the things that Robinson truly excels at as an author is his ability to produce some complex and relatable characters.  This is particularly true in Mind Bullet, which features a fantastic cast of compelling and relatable protagonists and antagonists with intriguing plot threads that the reader will quickly get invested in.

The most prominent character of this novel is the point-of-view protagonist, Jonas, the dangerous assassin with a heart of gold.  In many ways, Jonas was a pretty typical protagonist for Robinson, a confident and fun-loving figure who cracks a ton of jokes and has their own unique style and a liking for obscure pop culture.  I had a lot of fun following the adventure through Jonas’s eyes, especially as his hilarious view of all the outrageous stuff occurring around him and his constant quips kept me in stiches for most of the novel.  Despite this entertaining outer facade, once you dig deeper Jonas proves to be a lot more complex and emotionally damaged.  The character is chronically depressed and bored, especially after the mysterious car crash that killed his parents, and at the start of the book he has a substantial subconscious death wish.  The character evolves for the better as the novel progresses, especially as he starts to make some connections with the various side-characters.  These friendships and deeper relationships really change him for the better, although they also uncover a range of secrets from the past.  I loved the dive into the character’s psychic abilities, especially as he goes through a trial-by-fire against a range of powerful foes, each of whom is deadlier than the last.  It was also cool and intriguing to explore his hidden, traumatic past, which the author does extremely well through several clever flashback sequences.  The eventual reveal of who or what Jonas really is was done very well, and it will be interesting to see how the author expands on that in some of the future books.

My other favourite character in Mind Bullet was probably the sassy and potentially crazy artificial intelligence, Bubbles.  Bubbles, whose origins and capabilities are also unknown, is Jonas’s assistant and best friend, whose personality is growing based on her interactions with Jonas.  Thanks to the unique experiences she has gained living alongside a quipping assassin, Bubbles has developed quite a sarcastic and entertaining personality, and nearly every interaction with Bubbles results in an inappropriate joke or shocking comment which is pretty hilarious.  Like Jonas, Bubbles also develops a bit throughout the novel, and it was fascinating to see the author’s viewpoint about nature vs nurture when it comes to this character’s personality and emotions.  Despite being an AI, Bubbles is quite a caring being, even if she has developed some homicidal tendencies (especially towards ducks), and I appreciated the unique bond she forms first with Jonas, and then with some of the characters in the book.  Bubble’s meddling in Jonas’s life to keep him alive is particularly sweet, even if she tries to cover it with analytics, and it ended up being one of the major character threads of this book.  An outstanding and brilliant AI character who you will fall in love with!

Aside from Jonas and Bubbles, there are some other amazing characters throughout Mind Bullet.  Madee is another sassy and strong-willed female character (most of Robinson’s characters are sassy and sarcastic), whose break-in to Jonas’s house triggers all the events of the book.  Madee is another fun character, and I really loved the entertaining romance that bloomed between her and Jonas, despite their awkward, computer assisted meeting.  Robinson plays it pretty smart with Madee, and I loved some of the great twists surrounding her, even if by the final reveal it is apparent there is more going on with her.  Jonas also bands together with a group of other complex and entertaining characters, most of whom get pulled into his orbit as the world explodes around him.  While I did think the inclusion of several attractive female characters helping Jonas did appear a little harem-like, each of them proves to be a valuable member of the team, and I liked some of the fun character arcs surrounding them.  I also really need to highlight the fun collection of killers that come after the protagonists throughout Mind Bullet, especially as Robinson went out of his way to produce some wild and truly ridiculous figures here, including incompetent Neo Nazis, stereotypical gun-toting Texans, and foul-mouthed murderous nuns.  There are also a group of dangerous psychic killers, each of whom has their own unique history with Jonas, and whose compelling range of powers results in some dramatic action sequences when they try to fight the protagonists.  I had an outstanding time getting to know all these brilliant characters, and the sheer range of captivating figures really helps to make Mind Bullet stand out.

When Mind Bullet came out I absolutely had to grab this book in audiobook format.  This is because Mind Bullet was narrated by the incredibly talented R. C. Bray, who is one of my all-time favourite audiobook narrators (check out his narration of Michael Mammay’s Planetside, Spaceside and Colonyside).  Bray, who has narrated most of Robinson’s works, did another incredible job here, lending his fantastic and powerful voice to this wild and entertaining book.  Bray really gets Robinson’s fantastic protagonists and writing style, and he was soon moving this brilliant novel along and an ultra-fast pace, ensuring that listeners power through its 11 hour and 42 minute runtime in a very short order.  Bray really dives into the characters of the book, and I loved how he brought Jonas to life, ensuring that the reader gets the full sense of his humour, unique worldview and deeper inner struggles.  The rest of the character are also portrayed perfectly as well, especially Bubbles, and I loved the cool and amusing voices that he provides to each of them.  Bray obviously has a lot of fun here with this book, and the fantastic voices he uses for some of the more unique moments and characters are extremely entertaining and memorable.  I especially loved the ultra-serious and dramatic voice that he used for the formal name-drooping introduction of each major character’s names or codenames (which appear in the printed version in massive bold print).  I really appreciated this fun and entertaining take on the audiobook narration, and you will fall in love with Bray’s brilliant voice and entertaining style if you check out the audiobook version of this novel.

Overall, Mind Bullet is another epic and incredible read from the exceptional Jeremy Robinson.  Robinson’s latest book is crazy in all the right ways, and readers will deeply enjoy the wild and unpredictable ride that the characters go on.  Featuring an amazing group of characters, some fantastic humour, and some massive memorable scenes, Mind Bullet is an outstanding novel that I had an awesome time getting through.  Highly recommended to anyone looking for something fun, especially in its audiobook format, you need to check this book out!

Quick Review – The Return by Harry Sidebottom

The Return Cover

Publisher: Zaffre (Trade Paperback – 11 June 2020)

Series: Standalone

Length: 307 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 Stars

Bestselling historical fiction author Harry Sidebottom takes you on a dark and compelling adventure into the mind of a haunted Roman soldier as he returns home only to find more death waiting for him with, The Return.

Harry Sidebottom is an impressive author specialising in exciting and detailed Roman historical fiction novels, whose work I have been enjoying for years.  Sidebottom has so far written two amazing series, the Warrior of Rome series, which followed a barbarian turned Roman general, Ballista, as he attempts to survive the machinations and wars of the Empire, and The Throne of the Caesar’s novels that examined some of the more obscure and chaotic Roman Emperors.  In recent years Sidebottom has started experimenting with some compelling standalone novels.  The first of these, The Last Hour, brought back Ballista and set him on a fast-paced adventure through Rome in a manner reminiscent of the television series 24.  His next novel The Lost Ten, featured a group of 10 mis-matched Roman soldiers who are sent on an infiltration mission into enemy territory to break a high value target out of prison.  His third standalone novel was The Return, which came out last year.  I read it a little while ago and failed to provide a timely review for it.  However, as Sidebottom’s latest novel, The Burning Road, has just been released, I thought I would take this opportunity to quickly review The Return so I have a clean slate when I get my hands on a copy of his latest book.

Synopsis:

He came home a hero.
But death isn’t finished with him yet . . .

145BC – CALABRIA, ANCIENT ROME. After years of spilling blood for Rome, Gaius Furius Paullus has returned home to spend his remaining days working quietly on the family farm.

But it seems death has stalked Paullus from the battlefield. Just days after his arrival, bodies start appearing – murdered and mutilated. And as the deaths stack up, and panic spreads, the war hero becomes the prime suspect. After all, Paullus has killed countless enemies on the battlefield – could he have brought his habit home with him?

With the psychological effects of combat clouding every thought, Paullus must use all his soldier’s instincts to hunt the real killer. Because if they are not brought to justice soon, he may become the next victim.

The Return was an intriguing and compelling novel that contains a brilliant and dark historical murder mystery.  Like some of his previous novels, Sidebottom has blended some unique crime fiction/thriller elements with his traditional historical settings and storylines.  As such, The Return reads like an interesting combination of historical fiction and a darker crime novel, specifically Scandi noir.  This results in a clever and compelling character driven narrative that follows a dark and conflicted Roman protagonist who is forced to investigate a series of murders in his grim and forbidding village.  The author does a wonderful job of blending his historical elements with the compelling crime fiction storyline, and the reader is soon treated to a harrowing and exciting murder investigation.  There is some brilliant use of a darker location, including a forbidding forest, as well as a lot of focus on his haunted protagonist, especially through a series of flashbacks.  All this comes together into an excellent narrative, and it was fascinating to see Sidebottom’s damaged protagonist dive head long into danger while trying to solve the murder and prove his own innocence.  While I did think that the solution to the mystery and the culprits behind the murder was a little obvious, this ended up being an excellent and impressive novel.  Sidebottom really takes the readers on a harrowing and enjoyable ride here, and I ended up getting through it in a few short days.

I was deeply impressed with the dark and guilt-ridden protagonist who Sidebottom set this great story around.  Paullus is a recently returned soldier who received much acclaim during Rome’s war with ancient Greece, but he is also haunted by his actions there, particularly around the fates of two of his comrades.  Thanks to his guilt he constantly sees the Furies, the Roman goddesses of vengeance and retribution, who remind him of the wrongs he commits.  To avoid seeing them Paullus dives headfirst into danger, as the threat of death is the only thing that alleviates his guilt.  This helps turns Paullus into a fascinating and deeply complex figure who has some interesting interactions with his own emotions and the people from his pre-war life who don’t understand what he is going through.  Sidebottom utilises a series of flashbacks to showcase Paullus’ military career and you slowly get the entire story of the protagonist’s heroic past, as well as the event that led to his intense guilt and heartache.  While I did think that Sidebottom might have been a tad heavy-handed with the flashbacks (it makes up nearly half the novel), I did really appreciate the sheer amount of work he put into his great protagonist.  The author did an impressive job of simulating the guilt, fear and anger of a war veteran attempting to re-enter society and it was really compelling to see.  I also deeply appreciated the author’s trick of personifying this guilt into visions of the supernatural Furies, especially as it is never fully established whether they are there or just figments of his damaged mind.  The use of Paullus as the central protagonist really enhanced The Return’s excellent story and he was an outstanding investigator for this fantastic murder mystery.

I also really enjoyed the cool historical fiction elements contained within this novel.  The Return takes place in 145BC, which is one of the earliest times that Sidebottom has explored in his historical fiction novels.  I deeply enjoyed the exploration of this time, especially as Sidebottom features more obscure conquests and locations.  The central location of the story, Calabria in Southern Italy, proved to be a fantastic and interesting setting, especially as this region of Italy contained two distinctive social groups, the Roman settlers and the original inhabitants.  Due to their historical support of Hannibal during the Punic Wars which saw them forced to give up their lands, the locals are treated as second-class citizens by the Romans, who use them as slave labour.  This adds some extra drama and intrigue to the story as these local tribes get caught up in the paranoia and despair around the hunt for the murderer.  I also really appreciated Sidebottom’s examination of the Roman invasion of Greece that the protagonist fought in.  This is one of the more obscure conflicts from Roman history and the author provides a detailed account of the causes, battles, and eventual consequences of the conflict.  I deeply enjoyed exploring this period in the flashback chapters, as there were some detailed and powerful battle sequences which featured some distinctive clashes between Greek and Roman military styles.  Throw in some Greek and Roman mythology as a potential cause for the murders or the protagonists’ actions, and you have quite a brilliant historical tale.  These grim and bloody historical elements blended perfect with the darker story that Sidebottom was telling and it was absolutely fascinating to see how they were incorporated into The Return’s compelling, multi-genre style.

Overall, The Return was an epic and complex novel that continued to showcase Harry Sidebottom’s amazing talent as a writer.  This fantastic novel ended up being one of the more unique historical fiction books I have ever read and I deeply enjoyed the cool combination of classic Roman history and darker crime fiction elements, especially when shown through the eyes of an extremely damaged protagonist.  This book comes highly recommended, and I cannot wait to get my hands on Sidebottom’s latest novel, The Burning Road.

Throwback Thursday: Green Arrow (2001): Volume 3: The Archer’s Quest by Brad Meltzer, Phil Hester and Ande Parks

Green Arrow Archer's Quest

Publisher: DC Comics (Paperback – 1 September 2004)

Series: Green Arrow Vol. 3 – Volume Three

Writer: Brad Meltzer

Penciller: Phil Hester

Inker: Ande Parks

Colourist: James Sinclair

Letterer: Sean Konot

Length: 175 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Welcome back to my Throwback Thursday series, where I republish old reviews, review books I have read before or review older books I have only just had a chance to read.  For this week’s Throwback Thursday I check out an all-time favourite comic of mine, the third volume of the epic 2001 Green Arrow relaunch, The Archer’s Quest.

The late 1990s and early 2000s were an outstanding time for DC Comics, who produced an amazing number of epic and fascinating comic series that combined brilliant storytelling with fantastic artwork.  While there are several great series I enjoy from this period (Teen Titans comes to mind), one of my absolute favourites was the awesome 2001 relaunch of Green Arrow.  Also recorded as Green Arrow Vol. 3, this series resurrected the original Green Arrow, Oliver Queen, some years after his death.  I have an amazing amount of love for this comic; not only was it one of the first series I ever really got into but it still really stands up after all this time.  This is easily one of my all-time favourite comic book series, and the absolute pinnacle of this series was the simple, yet amazingly effective fourth volume, The Archer’s Quest.

While I probably should review some of the proceeding volumes of this series first before talking about The Archer’s Quest (such as the first volume, Quiver by Kevin Smith), I recently re-read this fantastic comic, so it has been on my mind all week.  Containing issues #16-21 of this outstanding series, The Archer’s Quest is a brilliant and captivating comic tale that really gets to grips with the protagonist as he embarks on a journey vital to his identity and history.  Featuring the brilliant writing of bestselling author Brad Meltzer (author of several amazing thriller novels, as well as some impressive DC Comics), and the artistic stylings of Phil Hester and Ande Parks, this is an exceptional comic which gets a five-star rating from me.

Green Arrow - #16

Following his unexpected resurrection after his violent death, Oliver Queen, the Green Arrow, has been returned to Earth, ready to continue the good fight.  However, no man can come back from the grave without a heavy heart, and Oliver Queen has more skeletons in his closet than most of his fellow heroes.  A chance discovery that the villain, Catman, attended his funeral leads Oliver back to his old friend, Shade, the immortal being Green Arrow trusted to round up certain artefacts of Oliver’s superhero career that could reveal his secret identity. 

Discovering that Shade failed to get several of Oliver’s most precious keepsakes, Oliver embarks on a cross-country road-trip to recover them himself.  Accompanied by his former sidekick, Roy Harper, Oliver begins visiting some of the locations most important to himself and his career as a superhero.  From the ruins of the Arrowcave to the Justice League’s orbiting Watchtower and even the Flash Museum in Central City, Oliver and Roy will attempt to find these items from the past in order to safeguard their future.

However, this will be no simple road trip, as the two heroes encounter some unexpected dangers and surprising opposition, including fellow hero the Flash and the angry zombie Solomon Grundy.  Worse, this journey will uncover some dark secrets from the past that Oliver has long hoped to keep quiet.  Can Oliver recover his treasures without his friends and family discovering who he really is, or has the past finally come back to destroy this resurrected hero?

Green Arrow - #17

The Archer’s Quest is a fantastic and powerful Green Arrow comic that takes the protagonist and his former sidekick on a wild and extremely personal adventure.  Before reading this, if you had ever pitched me a comic based around the idea of a recently resurrected superhero going on a road trip, I might have been a little dubious.  Well, it turns out that I would have been dead wrong, as Brad Meltzer produced an intense, captivating and emotionally rich narrative that is not only extremely entertaining but which contains some excellent character work, some brilliant references to the classic Green Arrow comics, and which dives deep into the psyche of a troubled and complex protagonist. 

The narrative of The Archer’s Quest starts extremely strong, with Green Arrow meeting Superman at Oliver Queen’s grave.  This is a fantastic opening scene, especially once Superman hands over a series of photographs of the funeral, and I loved the focus on the harrowing realities following a resurrection.  The sombre mood is broken when Green Arrow notices a stranger in his photo amongst his closest friends.  This leads him to hunt down Catman, which also reveals the hand of Shade and the revelation that certain items from Oliver’s past are still out in the open.  This forces Green Arrow into a road trip, hunting for his artefacts and dealing with friends, enemies and family.  The first chapter packs in some much-needed action, as Green Arrow goes toe-to-toe with Solomon Grundy in an epic and brutal fight, that ends with a surprising, and gruesome, win from the protagonist.  From there, Meltzer and the artists pile up the emotional and the feels by having Oliver encounter several fellow heroes who he has complex relationships with, while also building up the nostalgia factor, with the reveal of classic Green Arrow items, locations and characters.  All this leads to some major moments, from an attempted proposal to a moving and long-awaited conversation between father and son.  However, Meltzer saves the absolute best for last with a startling revelation about the past that shows Oliver’s true character and serves as a powerful end to the entire story.  This was a beautiful, character driven story, and I think Meltzer hit all the right notes.  The pacing is perfect and there is a fantastic blend of action, character development and emotional discovery, which all comes together into one outstanding story.  The Archer’s Quest is addictive and dramatically intense from start to finish, I can read and re-read this comic for years (and I probably will).

Green Arrow - #18

One of the things that I really enjoyed about this amazing comic is the way in which Meltzer and the artists turned it into a homage to the Green Arrow comics.  The creative team spend a substantial amount of time diving back into the history and lore of the character and his comics, working them into the story in very meaningful ways.  So many key aspects of the Green Arrow comics are referenced or alluded to in some way, as the characters journey around some iconic locations, including the Arrowcave, to obtain the artefacts.  Through this dive into the past, the creative team manage to perfectly capture the various eras of Green Arrow, including the classic Golden Age comics, the grittier Silver Age comics, the road trip era with Green Lantern (which this comic really tries to emulate), and The Longbow Hunters period.  This wide range of references makes for a very intriguing and compelling comic, and it helps turn The Archer’s Quest into a must-read for all Green Arrow fans.  I loved the clever range of different artefacts that protagonists are trying to recover, including the diamond-tipped arrow from Green Arrow’s first appearance in Justice League of America, his official invitation to the Justice League, and the truck that he and Green Lantern used in their iconic road trip.  These cool artefacts really help to ramp up the nostalgia while simultaneously including key modern story elements hidden within.  The cool funeral sequence at the start of the comic also allows the creative team to reference and include a vast range of supporting characters and allies from the original comics, with a range of different figures from Oliver’s career appearing to pay their respect.  I deeply appreciated the modern analyses and descriptions of the items, locations, complex relationships, character designs, weaponry (why all the boxing gloves?) and prior adventures included in this comic, and it helps to produce a comprehensive account of these iconic events, while also bringing them up to speed with more modern comic lines.  You can really tell that the creative team behind The Archer’s Quest had a lot of affection for the preceding Green Arrow comics, and this outstanding comic proves to be an amazing and captivating love-letter to the Emerald Archer.

I deeply enjoyed the epic characters that this amazing comic followed, especially as Meltzer uses this story to dive deep into the psyche and relationships of the protagonists, especially Oliver Queen, the titular Green Arrow.  This version of the character is only recently returned from the grave, and this becomes a major part of his identity throughout the comic, driving him to fix some of the mistakes of his past while also ensuring that he never hurts his family again.  Thanks to the entire comic being narrated by Oliver, you get some very intriguing insights into Green Arrow’s mindset during this period, and you really get to know who he is and what his motivations are.  Rather than some of the typical portrayals of him as a liberal, generic arrow slinger, the creative team attempt to show him as a complex veteran hero, still deeply impacted by his resurrection and uncertain about his place in the world.  A lot of The Archer’s Quest’s narrative involves Green Arrow attempting to find pieces of his past that are significant or potentially damaging to him, and as such you get an amazing look into key events of Oliver’s past, as well as his current priorities and concerns.  I really enjoyed the storylines involved with him trying to reconcile or repair relationships with his former friends and allies, as well as an interesting development in his romantic partnership with Black Canary.

Green Arrow - #19

One of the best things about this comic is the way that Meltzer portrays Oliver as a more morally ambiguous figure, willing to make a deal with a supervillain, lie to those closest to him, and initiating undercover actions to protect identities.  There is also some great evidence of the self-destructive tendencies that would be a major defining feature of this series, as well as the complex decisions that affect those closest to him.  As such, he keeps many secrets, even from his former sidekick, such as his main motivation for recovering his old truck is to secure the Green Lantern ring Hal Jordan hid in there years ago.  However, the biggest secret involves the revelation that he always knew that his son, Conner, existed, and that he pretended he did not know who he was when they first met.  This revelation is slowly and cleverly revealed throughout the comic, first with Oliver subtly making the recovery of its hiding place his main priority, and then in the final scenes after he has a heart-to-heart with Conner, when he reveals the secret photo.  The narration during this scene sums up Green Arrow in this series perfectly: “You’re a bastard Oliver Queen.  You knew.  You always knew.  And the worst part is…. it’s still your secret.” and the entire sequence ensures you will never look at this character again in the same way.  I also musty highlight the great inclusion about Green Arrow secretly coming up with plans to protect secret identities if a hero died.  Not only is this vital to the plot of The Archer’s Quest, but it also hints at the great storyline that Meltzer would eventually use in his epic Identity Crisis, which features a proactive team of heroes mind-wiping villains and destroying personalities.  This outstanding and layered portrayal of Green Arrow in this comic is one of the defining characteristics of The Archer’s Quest, and I am blown away with this brilliant character work every time I read this volume.

The other major character of this novel is Roy Harper, his former sidekick (now Arsenal), who Oliver calls in to help him hunt down Catman.  I really enjoyed the inclusion of Roy in this comic, especially as he had been overly featured in this series (he was mostly appearing in Titans).  As such, we had not really gotten a glimpse at the current relationship between former mentor and sidekick, which has always been strained since the infamous heroine incident.  The Archer’s Quest did an amazing job bringing them back together again, and Roy really gets into the swing of the adventure, with the two characters getting back into their adventuring groove.  However, the comic also deals with the inherent mistrust between the two characters, with Roy upset that Oliver trusted Shade more than him to protect his identity after his death.  The two end up working through these issues throughout this comic, and it ended up being a fun and powerful reunion that long-term Green Arrow fans will deeply enjoy.

Green Arrow - #20

Aside from Green Arrow and Roy Harper, this comic also makes great use of several other supporting character who either bring the protagonist back to his past, or help to add some emotional weight to the story.  This includes brilliant inclusions of two fellow superheroes, Kyle Rayner and Wally West, the versions of Green Lantern and the Flash who were active at the time.  Both these younger heroes bear a major legacy that results in some complicated and moving interactions with Oliver.  One of the most important is Kyle Rayner, who has taken over the mantle of Green Lantern following the corruption and eventual death of Green Arrow’s best friend, Hal Jordan.  Since Oliver’s resurrection, their relationship has been strained, with Oliver having trouble accepting him.  This all finally comes to a head with Oliver travels to the Watchtower and encounters the young Lantern, and they have a massive heart-to-heart.  The revelations that Oliver has trouble accepting a new Lantern instead of his best friend, as well as the emotional burden Kyle also bears, especially around his first loss as a superhero (women in refrigerators man, that stuff will mess you up), all comes out, and leads to an amazingly moving scene.

I also loved the great interaction that Oliver had with Wally West outside the Flash Museum, after Wally is warned that Oliver is planning to break into it.  The two characters have a great stare-down, which sees the usually jovial Flash incredibly serious at Oliver’s attempted trespass.  Oliver’s narration about this event is pretty great, especially noting that Wally’s usual short attention span is overridden by his love of Barry Allen’s memory.  These two interactions with Green Lantern and Flash are short but extremely powerful, and it was amazing to see the strain on Oliver at being still alive, while the roles of his friends have been passed on to the next generation.  Despite the serious nature of these scenes, both had an entertaining ending with Oliver managing to outsmart his younger colleagues: “That old, lying son of a b…”.  I also liked the inclusion of Superman at the start of the comic, which was both entertaining, and played into the resurrection storyline perfectly with Superman feeling guilty about not being able to save Oliver when he died, while also being a bit of an expert on coming back to life himself.  I also enjoyed the fantastic conclusion of the Flash arc, especially as the entire break-in was to retrieve a costume-filled ring that the Flash made for Green Arrow years before, and which was a nice nod to the great friendship they used to have.

While this volume of Green Arrow does not have an antagonist per se (except for Solomon Grundy and Oliver’s self-destructive behaviour), it does feature a couple of great supervillains in a supporting role.  The first of these is Shade, the immortal shadow-powered gentleman who, despite being a villain, gained Green Arrow’s trust years ago, and was entrusted by Oliver to fulfil his post-death wishes (always chose an immortal).  Shade is a fantastic inclusion to this comic, especially as his inclusion enhances the implication that Green Arrow is a much more morally grey hero than you would initially believe.  The interactions between Shade, Green Arrow and Roy Harper are really good, and I liked the explanations for why he was unable to fulfil all his duties (I wouldn’t want to annoy Jay Garrick either).  I also really need to highlight the excellent inclusion of Thomas Blake, better known as Catman, in his first appearance in comic form in years.  Catman has always been a bit of a joke character due to his gimmick (which simultaneously rips off Catwoman and Batman at the same time), but in this comic he is shown to be a shell of even his previous ridiculous self, who is looked down on by the entire supervillain community.  Hired by Shade as his agent, Catman is hunted down by Green Arrow after attending his funeral, only to show him as an overweight and unthreatening loser.  This entire comic paints him as quite the pathetic figure and shows the downsides of being a fourth-rate villain who turned on some very powerful people.  While his appearance in this comic was more entertaining than deep, it does beautifully set up his later appearances in such comics as Villains United and Secret Six and serves as his inspiration for becoming the ultra-badass we see there.  These two villains perfectly rounded out the main cast of The Archer’s Quest, and both inclusions were fantastic and intriguing additions to the overall plot.

Green Arrow - #21

This amazing and complex narrative is perfectly backed up by some excellent artwork from the team of Hester and Parks, who really bring this story to life in exquisite detail.  This entire comic is drawn in fantastic detail with some beautiful scenes, fantastic backdrops (including some iconic Green Arrow locations, lovingly brought to life) and entertaining sequences.  This includes some brilliant and powerful action sequences, and the artists pay particular attention to the flight, movement, and destructive potential of the arrows.  I particularly liked the awesome fight scene between Green Arrow and Solomon Grundy, which was filled with some brutal action in the tight confines of the former Arrowcave and featured some great narration from the protagonist.  I loved the character designs featured in the comic, and the classic look of Green Arrow and his companions was great.  The artists do a great job portraying emotion on the face of the characters, especially surrounding Oliver and his multiple examples of anguish and conflict.  I also appreciated the play of emotion on some of the other characters faces, especially Flash when Oliver arrives at the Flash Museum.  Seeing the grim and dark look on Flash’s face as he tries to stop Oliver is really surprising and impactful, and the artists do a fantastic job of showcasing a tense stare-down between the two as the sun starts to rise.  However, in my opinion, the best drawn sequence in the entire comic occurs at the front of the volume, when Oliver contemplates his funeral.  Shown in a series of polaroids, you see the various grieving mourners and it was fantastic to see several obscure figures from Oliver’s past appear to pay their respect.  This beautifully drawn scene is short, but it sets the scene for the rest of the volume extremely well and is an excellent way to start this fantastic comic.  I loved the way the comics in The Archer’s Quest were drawn, and they ensured that the outstanding story reached its full potential.

Overall, I have an insane amount of love for this third volume of this classic Green Arrow series, and it comes highly recommended.  The Archer’s Quest is a brilliant and powerful comic arc that perfectly combines a clever and nostalgic story, with some intense character development and a fun and enjoyable art style.  Meltzer’s narrative in this fantastic Green Arrow comic so damn amazing, and I deeply enjoyed his take of this iconic character.  I deeply enjoyed The Archer’s Quest, and it easily one of my favourite comic volumes of all time.  I am hoping to review the rest of this Green Arrow series in some future Throwback Thursday series, and I look forward to highlighting all the amazing storylines that were contained in this incredible run.

The Bone Ship’s Wake by R. J. Barker

The Bone Ship's Wake Cover

Publisher: Orbit/Hachette Audio (Audiobook – 28 September 2021)

Series: The Tide Child Trilogy – Book Three

Length: 20 hours and 49 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

One of the fastest rising fantasy authors in the world today, the brilliant and exceedingly talented R. J. Barker, brings The Tide Child trilogy to an end in epic fashion with the exceptional and powerful The Bone Ship’s Wake, one of the best fantasy reads of 2021.

There have been some really impressive fantasy authors producing great reads over the last few years, but in my opinion none have been as consistently amazing and addictive as R. J. Barker.  Barker burst onto the scene in 2017 with Age of Assassins, the first book in The Wounded Kingdom trilogy, and soon followed it up with two additional outstanding reads, Blood of Assassins and King of Assassins.  While I have a lot of love for this brilliant trilogy, especially the final novel King of Assassins, Barker has since eclipsed it with his second series, The Tide Child trilogy.

The Tide Child trilogy is a grim and powerful series that follows a unique set of characters in an exceptional, character driven, adventure tale.  The Tide Child books are set in a dark fantasy world, primarily made up of deadly oceans and seas which have produced a harsh breed of warring humans.  The inhabitants of this world traverse these oceans in ships made of the harvested bones of sea dragons, known as the keyshans, the creation of which led to the mass extinction of these dragons.  The first novel in this series, The Bone Ships, set the scene for this great series and introduced the primary characters as they set out on an epic quest to hunt the last sea dragon aboard the boneship, Tide Child.  This was an exceptional read that ended up being one of the best books and audiobooks of 2019.  Barker followed this up in 2020 with Call of the Bone Ships, a great sequel that saw the crew of Tide Child engage in a rebellion against the established order.  Call of the Bone Ships ended on a pretty massive cliffhanger that set the scene for an exceptional and stunning conclusion.  As such, the final entry in this trilogy, The Bone Ship’s Wake, was one of my most anticipated reads of 2021, and Barker did not disappoint here, as he produced an epic and captivating read.

It has been a year since the climactic battle that saw the boneship Tide Child and the rebel fleet barely escape the wrath of the Hundred Isles after being forced to abandon shipwife Meas Gilbryn.  In that time, loyal deck keeper Joron Twiner has taken on the mantle of leadership for the rebel black ships and turned them into a fleet of marauding pirates.  Now known by all as the feared Black Pirate, Joron constantly raids the Hundred Isles, determined to weaken its fleet and devastate its defences for an invasion from the rival Gaunt Islands, Joron’s only true priority is to discover the location of his lost commander and rescue her.

After a particularly vicious raid nearly sees the destruction of Tide Child, Joron is only more determined to find the shipwife before the entire fleet is lost.  With time running out for Joron thanks to the insidious keyshan’s rot that is slowly eating away at his body, Joron embarks on an ambitious plan to find and rescue Meas by returning to the most dangerous place in the world, the capital city of the Hundred Isles.

Accompanied by a small crew, Joron hopes to infiltrate the city and force Meas’s location from the ruthless rule of the Hundred Isles, Meas’ estranged mother.  However, all Joron will discover is blood and betrayal, as dangerous forces seek to take control of the oceans for their own nefarious ends.  Worse, Joron must continue to struggle with the dangerous legacy of the magical gullaimes, who believe that he is the Caller, the man who can sing up the keyshans and use them to destroy the world.  Will Joron and his crew succeed against impossible odds, or will the final voyage of the Tide Child result only in the death of everyone and everything Joron loves and cares about?

Well damn, now that was an incredibly awesome book.  I have said time and time again that Barker seems to get better with every book he writes, and I honestly believe that The Bone Ship’s Wake is the very best so far.  The Bone Ship’s Wake has an exceptional narrative filled with emotion, tragedy and powerful action on the high seas, which perfectly wraps up this epic series and provides the reader with an emotional and captivating goodbye.  Easily one of the best books of the year, The Bone Ship’s Wake gets a full five-star rating from me.

This final entry in The Tide Child trilogy has an extremely powerful, character-driven narrative to it, which perfectly continues the epic tales told in the preceding novels while also providing an extremely satisfying and moving conclusion to the entire series.  Told nearly exclusively from the perspective of central protagonist Joron Twiner, The Bone Ship’s Wake starts one year after Call of the Bone Ships, with some major changes occurring to the world and the characters during this period.  Told in three parts, this book has a bit of a slower introduction, which Barker uses to full effect to highlight the situation the characters find themselves in, while also reintroducing all the key elements of the fantasy world.  The first part of the novel is primarily used to show how far Joron has come, placing him in command of a ship as he faces off against his enemies.  This outstanding introduction sets up several key storylines while also featuring a tense and detailed chase out on the seas, with deadly and monstrous consequences.  The second part of the novel follows a desperate Joron, after leaving his ship and most of his crew behind, as he embarks on a dangerous all-or-nothing quest to save his shipwife and bring her back to the fleet.  This second part is loaded with some major dramatic moments, intrigue, treachery, and politics, which does an outstanding job expanding the already captivating storylines, while also serving as a great buffer from the nautical heavy start and end of the novel.  The story goes in some amazing directions here, and Barker throws in some captivating and surprising twists that alter everything you thought about how the story would end.

All this leads up to the conclusion of the novel, which sees the surviving primary characters caught in a desperate situation on the high seas.  After some daring actions and clever plans which have some unfortunate costs, all the characters are perfectly set up for their final places the series’ brilliant storyline.  This last part of the novel is deeply thrilling and powerful, and it honestly proves impossible to put it down as you wait to see how everything comes to an end.  Barker really amps up the desperation and hopelessness during this part of The Bone Ship’s Wake, as the crew of Tide Child and its allies are pressed in some destructive naval actions.  It all leads up to one final gambit, with the lives and the hopes of the survivors held in the balance.  This epic conclusion is extremely dramatic and powerful, with some big sacrifices and major character moments that will leave you breathless and deeply moved.  I thought that this amazing conclusion perfectly wrapped up the entire series, with all the key storylines and character arcs coming to a very satisfying and emotional end.  I loved every single second I spent getting through this exceptional story, and every brilliant turn, clever revelation and powerful character moment is still firmly engrained in my mind.

I really need to highlight Barker’s fantastic writing style, which brings this brilliant story to life.  It has been an absolute pleasure to see Barker grow as an author throughout the last few years, especially as he utilises more and more complex techniques with each passing novel.  The Bone Ship’s Wake is a particularly good example of this, as an amazingly well paced novel that slowly builds momentum as the story requires, with the intensity of the book turning on a dime, from the deep slowness of sailing to the fast pace of an epic nautical battle.  This is often accentuated by the author’s great use of repetition, with key sentences throughout the novel repeated multiple times to build up tension or to highlight the rapidity of duty aboard a ship.  This pacing and repetition almost gives The Bone Ship’s Wake a pulse, and you can feel the rhythmic build towards the high points of a novel.

I was once again deeply impressed by Barker’s incredible ability to produce a nautically focused novel.  Nautical novels require an insane amount of detail and dedication to work, and Barker has done that in spades throughout The Tide Child trilogy.  Thanks to Barker’s ultra-detailed writing style, life aboard the boneships is brought to life for the reader, showcasing every single action of the crew or movement of the ship.  The reader gets an amazing sense of what is happening aboard Tide Child, and you feel that you are aboard the ship itself, watching the crew in action.  This works particularly well during some of the intense, high-concept naval battles, where the actions of multiple ships are followed, ensuring that the reader gets a great idea about what is going on.  Barker also works in a lot of ship details that are unique to the series’ fantasy universe, allowing for a much more distinctive and compelling time at sea.  The combination of traditional nautical elements and fantasy features, such as ships crafted from dragon bone, ultra-powerful bolt throwers, wind calling bird men and the various monsters stalking the deeps is particularly striking and really helps this cool trilogy stand out.  This is honestly one of the best series set on a ship you are ever likely to read, and I am still so impressed with how well Barker was able to feature it in his novels.

I also must highlight the cool, dark fantasy world that Barker has created for this series.  Throughout this trilogy Barker has put an amazing amount of work into crafting this complex and deadly fantasy world, containing hostile oceans with only a few small islands, where the inhabitants are forced to fight on ships made from dragon bone.  I have had an outstanding time exploring this complex and compelling landscape, and I have a lot of love for some of the more unique details, including the enslaved gullaime (bird-like windtalkers), crazy monsters, the gender reversed human society which includes subtle changes like ships being consider male by their crews, and the constant naval warring and raiding such a landscape has created.  Barker does some very interesting expansions in this final entry, resulting in some substantial changes and journeys to new locations within the world.  There are some cool new creatures, including a mist-spewing kraken, as well as some fascinating and intense developments amongst the established creatures, including the gullaimes and the keyshans.  I similarly appreciated the way Barker examined the troubles with his female dominated society, especially as the motivations for some of the antagonists are closely tied into it.  Overall, I had a wonderful time with my last exploration of this unique and dangerous setting, and I cannot wait to see what sort of distinctive setting Barker comes up with next, although I already know it will be pretty incredible.

You cannot talk about any novel in The Tide Child series without praising the outstanding character work that Barker has done.  Each of these novels has done an exceptional job of building up all the major characters, from the central point-of-view perspective, to the various supporting characters found upon the central ship setting.  I have deeply enjoyed seeing each of these characters develop into better and well-rounded figures as this series has progressed, and Barker makes sure to give them an impressive send-off in this final entry.  Pretty much all the key surviving characters get some great moments throughout The Bone Ship’s Wake, and most of their associated storylines come to an end, one way or another.  This naturally results in some intense emotional moments throughout the novel, especially as readers of this series will have become deeply attached to a lot of these characters, and you will not be prepared for how some of these characters go out!

Just like in the previous two novels, the central focus of The Bone Ship’s Wake was on Joron Twiner, the deck keeper (first mate) of Tide Child, who has grown from scared drunkard to experienced officer within the course of the series.  Twiner has gone through an incredible amount during the last two books, and when we first see him again in The Bone Ship’s Wake, he is a very different person.  Joron has since lost a leg and is now infected by the keyshan’s rot, an incurable disease that is slowly eating him alive.  Despite this, he has finally taken on command of his vessel and an extended fleet and fashioning himself a new persona, that of the Black Pirate, a notorious killer of ill-repute.  This is a fascinating change for Joron, and it is absolutely amazing to see how the differences between this character and the one we first saw in The Bone Ships.  While this change is substantial, it has been well built up in the last few books, and it was great to finally see Joron take on the command he was always meant to have.  Despite this, Joron still has some uncertainty dogging his steps that proves great to explore, especially as he is hesitant to risk the lives of those under his command on his missions.  Joron is also forced to deal with the insane prophecy and power hanging over his head, as he is forced to contemplate his ability to summon the sea dragons and potentially end the world.  Throw in his unwillingness to take on the role of his mentor, and the extreme guilt he feels for all the lives he has taken in her name since the conclusion of the last book, and you have a quite a conflicted figure, desperate to do anything to redeem himself.  This makes for some amazing character moments, and I really appreciated the sheer amount of development that went into Twiner in this novel.  A lot of Twiner’s storylines come full circle in this novel, and there are some extremely satisfying moments  between him and the other characters in the novel.  I deeply enjoyed this flawed and uncertain protagonist throughout this series, and Baker ensures that he is given a fitting and powerful ending.

The novel also spends a lot of time examining Tide Child’s shipwife, Meas Gilbryn, also known as Lucky Meas.  When we last saw Meas, she was surrendering herself to the Hundred Isles to give her fleet a chance to escape.  In the year that follows, she has been brutally tortured by her captors, who are attempting to gain all her secrets, especially regarding the sea dragons.  Due to her capture, and the primary focus on Joron, we don’t see that much of Meas for the first half of The Bone Ship’s Wake, and when we finally do, she is very different.  Rather than the always confident captain we are used to, we have a broken and brooding figure, unsure of the correct actions to take and unprepared for how much her legend has spread in the year she has been gone.  This makes for a very interesting counterpoint to the growth in Joron, and it is fascinating to see the slight role reversal that occurs between them.  I loved this exceptional character change that occurred around Meas, and Barker uses it to full effect to create some dramatic and emotionally charged moments.  The author also ensures that several lingering questions about Meas are answered, especially as she finally gets some closure with members of her family, such as her mother.  It was also amazing to see the unique relationship she forged with Joron come full circle, as the man she chose to be her second surpasses her.  The outstanding character work surrounding Meas, especially when it comes to her connection to Joron, added so much to the overall quality of this novel, and it was great to see how Barker altered and explored this character in The Bone Ship’s Wake.

I have to highlight the outstanding storylines surrounding the Gullaime, the ship’s windtalker of legendary power, who is destined to destroy the world alongside Joron.  This humanoid bird creature is always an entertaining figure in the novel, due to their unique appearance and outrageous behaviour and Barker does an exceptional job giving unique avian features to it.  However, like the other characters, the Gullaime goes through some big events in this final novel, especially once certain species detail is revealed, as well as the full scope of its powers and prophesised responsibilities.  Out of the all the characters in this series, the Gullaime is probably the easiest to like, and the end of its story cuts deep to the heart.

I also really appreciated Cwell’s storyline in this novel, especially after all the changes that occurred around her in this series.  Cwell initially started as a secondary antagonist who led a mutiny against Joron in the previous novel.  Despite this, Joron spared her life and kept her as his shadow, a silent bodyguard always watching his back.  This final book really explores the extent of this bond forged between them, as Cwell’s loyalty is tested multiple times throughout the course of the novel.  Barker is such a canny writer when it comes to Cwell, and it was fascinating to see some of her final depths in this book, especially as you honestly have no idea what she is going to do and whether she will end up betraying Joron.  It was also great to see more of Farys, the young woman Joron mentored through the series, and who now finds herself as his second.  Farys has a complex and compelling storyline in this novel, and I really appreciated how much time Barker put into enhancing her role in this final novel.  I also want to give callouts to recurring characters Mevans, Solemn Muffaz and Aelerin the courser, who all have some great moments in this novel, and whose roles each had their own emotional weight.  There is also a certain interesting reveal about one side character, right at the end of the novel that was a little surprising to me, but which I really appreciated, especially as Barker set up some great hints about them as the novel progressed.  Overall, all the side characters in this book are extremely awesome, and I am so deeply impressed with the work that Barker put into them, and the outstanding impacts that had on this already epic and captivating tale.

While I did receive a physical copy of The Bone Ship’s Wake, I ended up enjoying this novel in its audiobook format, not only for scheduling reasons but because I knew that I would have an amazing experience with it.  The Bone Ship’s Wake’s audiobook format has a substantial runtime of just under 21 hours, which does require a substantial time investment to enjoy.  I can guarantee that the time spent is well worth it, as the audiobook format perfectly gets the reader into the flow of the story and the detailed fantasy world of the series, and I found myself really absorbing all the many details Barker places into his writing.  I was also deeply impressed with the narration of Jude Owusu, who really threw himself into voicing the various books in The Tide Child trilogy.  Owusu has a brilliant voice that perfectly fit the epic, marine based tale, and which perfectly translated every single action and move to the listener.  Owusu has an excellent range of voices for the various characters featured throughout the novel, and each character ended up with a distinctive voice that perfectly fit their personality and demeanour.  I particularly enjoyed the weird and hyper-excited voices he utilised for the various gullaime characters, fully highlighting their birdlike characteristics in his voicing.  I felt that the narrator did an amazing job of injecting all the relevant emotion into the tale, and you have no doubt what the characters are feeling as they speak.  This brilliant and powerful voice work really helped to bring this epic tale to life, and I loved every single second of this fantastic audiobook.  This format comes very highly recommend, and it was easily one of the best audiobooks I have had the pleasure of listening to in 2021.

With The Bone Ship’s Wake, the final incredible and epic entry in The Tide Child trilogy, the unstoppable R. J. Barker has once again shown the world he is the future of the fantasy genre.  This outstanding and captivating nautical fantasy novel masterfully wrapped up one of the best trilogies I have ever read, ensuring that the reader will be emotionally blasted by this brilliant and clever tale.  The entire story came together perfectly, and fans of this series will be amazed and moved by the fates of so many well-established characters.  Not only was this Barker’s best book to date, but The Bone Ship’s Wake is also one of the most impressive novels I have enjoyed all year.  An exceptional five-star read that comes very highly recommended, especially in its audiobook format.  Anyone who loves fantasy needs to read this series!

The Last Graduate by Naomi Novik

Last Graduate Cover

Publisher: Del Rey (Trade Paperback – 28 September 2021)

Series: Lesson Two of the Scholomance

Length: 388 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Prepare to return to the deadliest magical school of all time in The Last Graduate, the epic second lesson of the Scholomance series by bestselling fantasy author Naomi Novik.

Novik is a fantastic author who has produced some excellent fantasy novels throughout her career, including her bestselling Temeraire series (set during a re-imagined Napoleonic War fought with dragons), as well as her standalone reads Uprooted and Spinning Silver.  However, I personally know Novik best from her awesome 2020 book, A Deadly Education, which was one of my favourite books from last yearA Deadly Education had an awesome story that followed Galadriel “El” Higgins, a student in the Scholomance, a lethal magical school filled with all manner of magical monsters known as maleficaria (mals).  This was an outstanding read with a really clever and intense narrative, and I have been really looking forward to seeing how the story continued for a while now.  As a result, I was excited when I found out that the sequel, The Last Graduate, was coming out, and it swiftly became one of my most anticipated reads for 2021.

Following her daring mission to reactivate the school’s defences and kill as many maleficaria as possible, El finally thinks she has a chance to relax and prepare for her gruelling final year at the Scholomance.  Not only must she continue her exhaustive magical studies, but the entire year leads up to a lethal graduation ceremony, where the students must run a gauntlet of mals at the school’s entry hall to escape back into the real world.  Now with allies, friends and even an extremely odd love interest in moody warrior mage Orion Lake, El has a chance of escaping the Scholomance without being forced to rely on her immense affinity for the most destructive spells in existence, which could result in the entire student body being vaporised.

However, the sentient Scholomance appears to have different ideas for El and resolves to make her life as difficult as possible, assigning her impossible classes and isolated study periods.  Worse, it appears that the school is deliberately funnelling as many mals towards El as possible to kill her and steal her magical energy.  Determined to defeat the school and escape, El is forced to make some new alliances to survive the year and make it to graduation.  At the same time, she needs to navigate her unusual relationship with Orion, especially after receiving a mysterious warning from her mother to stay away from him.

The closer El gets to graduation, the harder life becomes, especially after the scope of her magical abilities is revealed to the entire school.  Now targeted by rival factions within the Scholomance and unsure who she can trust, El will need to pull together every terrible power at her command to survive.  However, not everything is what it seems in the Scholomance, and the school has one final lesson to teach El: sometimes there are things far more important than surviving.

Wow, just wow, now that was a damn impressive sequel.  The Last Graduate is an epic and incredible read that proved to be utterly addictive in all the right ways.  I had an absolute blast reading this exceptional fantasy novel and I ended up powering through the last half of the novel in a couple of hours, only to be utterly traumatised by its cliffhanger ending.  It was so much fun getting back into this detailed and compelling setting, and it was great to see the main characters continue to evolve throughout, even if they lead to tragedy and heartbreak.   This was an outstanding read that gets a full five-star rating from me.

This latest book from Novik contains a pretty epic narrative which covers El’s entire final year within the Scholomance.  The story continues immediately after the end of A Deadly Education, and I would strongly recommend reading the first book before attempting The Last Graduate, as the initial Scholomance book contained a lot of interesting detail and character development that is useful to understand.  This second book starts off at a good, restrained pace, mostly settling things down after the fast-paced conclusion of A Deadly Education and allowing the protagonist and point-of-view character, El, to settle back into the rhythms of the school.  The author utilises a very detail-rich brand of storytelling, which helps to produce quite a rich a vibrant novel, even if it did slow down my initial reading speed.  However, the pace picks up significantly once it becomes apparent that things in the school have changed, as El finds herself the only person in the school being attacked by mals.  This troubling situation forces her to turn to her friends and new allies to survive, especially as she is convinced that the school itself is out to get her.  This eventually leads to the reveal that El is an all-powerful force of destruction, which greatly alters the balance of power in the school, as El is caught between the various enclaves who view her as a major weapon both inside the Scholomance and in the national rivalries outside of it.  This results in an immense amount of drama and conflict, as El fights to remain neutral and survive, while also coming to terms with who she is and the terrible magical system she finds herself a part for.

All this drama, fighting and conflict leads up to the big event of the book, the graduation gauntlet, something that the author has been building up since the start of the series.  However, nothing goes as expected with graduation, as everything about it, including the lead-in and the training is very different than in previous years.  The reasons why are finally revealed as part of a very interesting twist which changes everything about how you thought the novel was going to end.  This alteration leads to an excellent conclusion which perfectly works in all the story elements that have set up throughout the course of the two novels.  The final scenes are extremely dramatic, with some big moments and epic displays of magic that will keep you on your toes.  I honestly could not put the book down during this part of the novel as I was desperate to see how everything ended, and then we got to the very last sentence.  Ooh, that last sentence, how much I hate and love you at the same time.  Novik sets up a really massive cliffhanger that was both perfect and enraging at the very same time.  I was literally yelling my shock and frustration at the book (and Novik by extension) as I read and re-read that sentence, as I could not believe that she left it like that.  I mean, mad respect for setting it up and making me care so much for the characters so that I was deeply impacted by it, but at the same time, how dare you make me feel like that.  Naturally, the third and final book in the Scholomance series is now one of my most anticipated reads for 2022 (which is what Novik intended, evil genius that she is), and I am extremely eager to see what happens next.

I deeply appreciate the awesome setting that is the Scholomance.  This sentient magical school is such a dark and wonderful setting, and Novik has built it up perfectly throughout the course of the series.  I absolutely love this brilliantly perverse version of the classical magical school setting, especially as Novik has spent an amazing amount of time establishing it, providing the reader with a ton of detail and anecdotes about the education, living arrangements and many, many, hazards involved with living there.  This detail continues in The Last Graduate, as Novik expands on the school, showing more fantastic elements to it, and even throwing in a few intriguing changes that impact the status-quo of everybody there.  There is so much fun detail here, and I loved the examination of how living in such a dangerous and enclosed building would impact the people living there.  There is one amazing scene where El channels a lot of magic into the school, accidentally restarting a simulation of the outdoors.  The subsequent wave of grief from all the students at seeing the sun again was pretty terrible, and it showed just how damaging this situation is, even though it is saving their lives.  I also really appreciated the interesting new changes that Novik introduced to school, especially as it significantly alters what you think you knew about it.  I also liked how Novik also provided some additional detail of the wider world outside the Scholomance, expanding on some of the details that were already set up in A Deadly Education.  There are several hints about big events occurring outside of the school which will probably come into play in the third novel, and there is also an interesting examination about the rivalries between the various enclaves, magical societies with selective membership and strong political power.  I cannot wait to see what awesome new details and settings that Novik will add into her next book, and I have no doubt it will be really cool to learn about.

Aside from that outstanding story, the epic finale, and the wildly inventive setting, I also must highlight the great characters featured within the novel.  There is an interesting and memorable array of characters featured throughout the Scholomance series, although most of the book focused on protagonist El.  El is a fantastic and intense character, mainly because she holds a mythical level of destructive power, an incredible affinity for combat and death spells, and is also some form of prophesised destroyer, which caused her father’s side of her family to try and kill her (a bold move for pacifists).  This, as well as the fact that her power makes everyone she encounters subconsciously uneasy, turned El into quite a guarded person, and much of the first book focused on her coming out of her shell and finally making friends.  This development continues in The Last Graduate, as El is forced to make even more friends and alliances.  This has a pretty positive impact on her personality, especially as she learns to trust people, and while she still has a mostly prickly disposition, she does mellow out a little more.  There is also a rather interesting major plot point when the full range of her powers becomes apparent to the entire school.  This makes her a target for everyone in the school, with the various enclave students either trying to recruit her or kill her.  This forces El once again into a defensive mode, although she is eventually able to overcome for the greater good of herself and the school.  I deeply appreciated El’s growth as a character in this novel, and it was great to see this wildly unstable and sassy protagonist once again.

The other major character of the book is El’s love interest, Orion Lake.  Orion is another interesting protagonist, as he is a powerful mage with a hero complex who gains his powers from killing mals.  A member of the exclusive and powerful New York enclave, Orion is considered more of an asset than a person by his family, which has resulted in everyone seeing him as either a god or a weapon.  This, combined with his love for fighting monsters, has left Orion a little messed up, and he ends up imprinting on El as she is the first character to treat him like a normal person and call him out for his stupid heroic mindset.  Orion is a very complex and nuanced character, and it has been interesting to see him develop, especially as you only really get to see him through El’s cynical eyes.  While he is a little less utilised in this novel, he still has several interesting challenges, including having substantially less magical energy and power due to him encountering very few mals in his final year.  There is also the rather awkward but sweet romance he has with El.  Both these characters are messed up in their own unique ways, but together they nearly make one emotionally function human.  Their romance is a major part of the book’s plot, and Novik works in some compelling and moving storylines around it.  I felt that all of Orion’s character arc was really well written, and I deeply appreciated the way that Novik cleverly set up some key moments surrounding him.

Aside from El and Orion, The Last Graduate contains a fantastic array of supporting characters in the form of the other Scholomance students.  While Novik did introduce most of these characters up in A Deadly Education, I felt that they got a lot more attention in The Last Graduate, with the author taking the time to explore them a little further.  I quite liked the increased focus on these supporting characters, as there are an interesting array of personalities, powers and allegiances, which helped make the plot more exciting and filled with intrigue.  I particularly enjoyed the various members of El’s alliance, each of whom get a few key moments throughout the book and prove to be quite fun to follow.  I also must highlight El’s new familiar, a mouse called Precious, who gains a sort of sentience throughout the book, and immediately starts trying to sabotage El and Orion’s relationship.  Each of these characters added something fun to the overall tapestry of The Last Graduate’s story, and I look forward to seeing what happens to all of them in the final book.

With The Last Graduate, the amazing Naomi Novik has substantially jumped up my list of favourite authors, even if I am severely annoyed with her about that brilliant, if cruel, cliffhanger.  This excellent second novel in the Scholomance series is one of the best books I have read all year, and it is a highly recommended read.  I had an outstanding time once again exploring this messed-up magical school, and the complex characters and unique storylines helped to create an intense and powerful read.  I honestly cannot wait to read the third and final book in this series, even though I fully expect Novik to do everything in her power to break my heart.  If you have not started reading the Scholomance series, you are missing out big time!