Assault by Fire by Lt. Col. Hunter Ripley Rawlings IV

Assault by Fire Cover

Publisher: Recorded Books (Audiobook – 29 September 2020)

Series: Tyce Asher – Book One

Length: 10 hours and 11 minutes

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

From the military mind of debuting solo author Lt. Col. Hunter Ripley Rawlings IV comes Assault by Fire, an intense and action-packed novel that sees the Russians invade and take over America.

After losing his leg in the Middle East, Marine officer Tyce Asher believes that his military days are over.  Forced to babysit reserve troopers during exercises, Tyce is suddenly drawn into action when the Russians launch a sudden and unexpected invasion of America from land, sea and air, devastating the nation’s defences and swiftly gaining control of the Government.  With the bulk of the United States forces deployed to the Middle East, it falls to reserve forces, such as the one Tyce commands, to fight back against the invaders.  With minimal supplies, ammo, armoured vehicles or reinforcements, Tyce is forced to lead his combined regiment of Army and Marine reservists into the West Virginian mountains in order to regroup and avoid detection.  Recruiting what civilians, mountain men and veterans he can, Tyce forms an effective fighting force that has the potential to do some damage against the invaders.  Will Tyce’s small army be enough to hold back the tide of Russians, or are these the last days of American independence?

Assault by Fire is an exciting and entertaining novel that places the reader right into the heart of a Russian invasion of America.  This was a really cool novel from Rawlings, who first came into literary prominence last year with Red Metal, a novel he co-wrote with thriller writer Mark Greaney.  I was a major fan of Red Metal, as it was one of my favourite books (and audiobooks) of 2019, and I was keen to see how Rawlings’s first solo novel would turn out.  I ended up having a great time listening to this fantastic novel.  Rawlings has successfully utilised the always-intriguing concept of an invasion or war on American soil and ended up writing quite an enjoyable story around it.  Assault by Fire is the first novel in Rawlings’s Tyce Asher series and after how much I enjoyed the first book I am definitely planning to check out the rest of the series in the future.

This was a pretty good debut from Rawlings, who has come up with an intense and enjoyable modern military thriller novel.  Assault by Fire is a particularly fast-paced novel chock full of memorable and vivid action sequences that are guaranteed to get the readers blood pumping.  Rawlings makes good use of multiple perspectives, including from the point of view of several Russian characters, to tell a rich and clever story about a foreign invasion of the United States.  I loved some of the awesome ideas that Rawlings inserted into the compelling novel, and this ended up being a really fun book to check out.  I do need to point out that there was an occasional lack of consistency throughout the book which was a little distracting at times and some of the characterisations were a little weird or unrealistic.  However, these issues did not take away from the story too much and I think that Rawlings has the potential to improve as an author in the future.  Overall, this was an intriguing and captivating novel that is worth checking out.

I really enjoyed the cool American invasion concept that Rawlings utilises for Assault by Fire.  Russian invasions are something that Rawlings has explored before in Red Metal, with the Russians invading Europe and Africa in that novel while striking at US military targets.  Potential invasions of America have formed the basis of several intriguing novels and movies over the years (Red Dawn probably being the most prominent example) and I felt that Rawlings did an awesome job coming up with his own unique take on this story idea.  Throughout the book, Rawlings presents an interesting scenario where America is only able to be invaded after the majority of its troops are deployed to the Middle East, most nuclear weapons have been disarmed worldwide, and gun control has been introduced in America, taking away everyone’s assault rifles (I’m going to avoid getting into a gun control debate over the last point).  The way in which the Russians invade and manage to take over America is very cool and dramatic, and it was interesting to see how Rawlings, who apparently worked on several scenarios during his time working in the Pentagon, envisioned a potential invasion going down.  The initial invasion sequence is pretty awesome, and features several great scenes of Washington DC falling and other key locations getting hit, much to the surprise of the characters watching it.  Another aspect of this invasion scenario I enjoyed was the way in which the American troops were the ones who lacked resources and support after all their strategic bases and headquarters were destroyed or seized during the initial invasion.  This forced the characters to fight like insurgents and engage in guerrilla warfare, and there were several discussions from some of the veteran soldiers about using the tactics that they themselves had experienced while fighting in the Middle East.  Watching the protagonists adapt to this change of circumstances was rather fascinating, and Rawlings has clearly put some thought into how a war on American soil could actually be fought.  I really enjoyed some of the ideas he came up with for these fights, and I was especially amused by the use of some World War II relics in one major battle scene.  I do kind of wish that Rawlings had expanded the scope of his story to encompass the entirety of America and beyond.  While the events in Virginia and West Virginia were cool, I would have absolutely loved to see how the war was being fought across the entire country, and a story with multiple protagonists across America and outside of it might have been a little more impressive.  Still, I liked the way in which Rawlings explored this concept, and it made for a great story.

The real strength of this novel is the way in which Rawlings imports his substantial military knowledge into the story, creating a ton of amazing action sequences that really make an impression on the reader.  Rawlings clearly knows his stuff, as he provides a ton of details about the various weapons, vehicles, technology and tactics that the soldiers are utilising.  This added detail, as well as the impressive descriptions of how the armaments work and what they can do, really help to make the already cool action sequences even more vivid and you get a real sense of what a modern soldier experiences during battle.  A number of awesome scenes really stick in the mind as a result, from some excellent sniper scenes, a cool pitched battle with some historical technology and some particularly cool combat sequences between armoured vehicles that occurred towards the end of the novel.  Rawlings also ramps up the authenticity of the story by utilising a ton of military jargon and acronyms, so you get a real sense of being in the midst of a tactical discussion by soldiers.  The author also attempts to get into the head of the various soldiers, especially the commander, Tyce Asher, in order to show the doubts, fears and concerns that they experience during combat or while making command decisions.  I felt that all of Rawlings’s military experiences translated across into the novel extremely well, and it really helped to enhance the overall story.

I ended up grabbing the audiobook version of Assault by Fire, which was narrated by Graham Winton.  The Assault by Fire audiobook has a run time of just over 10 hours, and I was able to get through it in about a week.  Winton did a good job of narrating this fun book, and it was rather cool to hear the events of the book unfold, as the narration helped bring the listener right into the middle of the fighting.  The audiobook ended being a great way to enjoy this book, especially as the story clips along at a swift pace in this format, and I would recommend the audiobook for anyone interested in checking out Assault by Fire.

Assault by Fire by Hunter Ripley Rawlings is an awesome modern military thriller that places the reader right in the midst of a Russian invasion of America.  Featuring an impressively exciting narrative based around a cool story concept, Assault by Fire is a lot of fun, and readers can expect a high-octane, action-packed novel.  This turned out to be a rather fantastic debut from Rawlings, and I look forward to seeing where this series goes in the future.

The Black Hawks by David Wragg

The Black Hawks Cover

Publisher: Harper Collins (Audiobook – 3 October 2019)

Series: Articles of Faith – Book One

Length: 12 hours and 9 minutes

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Prepare to join the roughest, toughest and most maladjusted mercenary band in the land with The Black Hawks by David Wragg, and excellent fantasy debut that was a lot of fun to read.

Vedren Chel is a minor noble struggling to adjust to his life as a knight and glorified servant to his lazy step-uncle.  Hoping to escape the meaningless existence that has been forced upon him, Chel suddenly finds himself thrust into a great adventure when a mysterious enemy force invades the city he is stuck in, causing panic and confusion all around.  Managing to flee from the chaos, Chel finds himself the inadvertent travelling companion to the useless and cowardly Prince Tarfel, the King’s son and second in line to the throne.

Accompanying Tarfel to safety, Chel hopes to be rewarded with his freedom and the chance to forge a new life.  Instead he finds himself swept up in the dangerous politics of the realm when he is chosen to become Tarfel’s protector and loyal servant.  Forced to accompany the prince back to the very city they just fled, Chel has very little hope for their survival.  His fears prove justified when a force of disguised men attempt to kill them the night they arrive.  Their lives are only saved when a mysterious band of warriors arrive, killing their attackers and then promptly kidnapping them.

Awakening, Chel and Tarfel find themselves under the dubious protection of the Black Hawk Company, a small group of elite mercenaries who have been hired to escort Tarfel to a mysterious destination.  Despite their unconventional tactics and makeup, the Black Hawks are a dangerous and clever collection of killers, which proves useful when several bands of assassins and fanatics associated with the kingdoms corrupt and all powerful church; converge upon the group, determined to kill Tarfel.  Deciding that their kidnappers are the only group with their best interests in minds, Chel and Tarfel accompany the Black Hawks off into the unknown.  Their journey will take them through dangers, both seen and unseen, and lead them into the very heart of the kingdom as they try to remove the corruption from within.  But dark secrets lie in store for all of them at the end of their journey and no one will be prepared for the dangers and betrayals in front of them.

The Black Hawks is an exciting and captivating dark fantasy novel that I had an absolute blast reading.  This debut novel from David Wragg was originally released about this time last year and it serves as the first entry in his planned Articles of Faith series.  I didn’t get a chance to read The Black Hawks last year, but I have been eyeing this novel off for several months now as I loved how fun its synopsis sounded.  I finally got the opportunity to read this book a couple of weeks ago and I am extremely glad that I did, as The Black Hawks proved to be an impressive and entertaining read that I ended up powering through in relatively short order.  Wragg has come up with an excellent novel that combines a compelling and slick story with some memorable characters and a dark fantasy landscape loaded with perils and betrayals.  These, combined with the book’s many intense action sequences, fun humour and several dark scenes, help to create an addictive and amazing read that I quickly fell in love with.

Wragg utilises a fun, fast-paced and compelling narrative to serve as the centre of this great book.  The entirety of The Black Hawks’ plot is told from the perspective of Chel, who is constantly falling into the midst of some world-changing events.  The plot starts off quickly, with Chel quickly finding himself in the company of Prince Tarfel and from there into the middle of a number of conspiracies and plot aimed at eliminating or manipulating the prince.  This ensures that the reader is quickly enveloped in a complex and entertaining plot which sees the protagonists surrounded on all sides by betrayals, conflicting agendas, mortal perils and all manner of conspiracies.  It was really fun and captivating to see how the various storylines turned out, and the author comes up with a number of intriguing surprises and twists to ensure that the story stays quite interesting and fresh.  There was one very major twist revealed at the end of the novel that I was particularly impressed with.  Wragg sets this twist up perfectly, with a number of hints towards it scattered throughout the book.  While I was able predict some of what was going to happen in advance, I was pleasantly surprised with some of the other revelations that came to light, and this beautifully cultivated twist was one of the high spots of the book.  I was also expecting a completely different ending to the novel, perhaps something a tad more light-hearted, but I liked the direction that Wragg took it instead, especially as it means that I will be grabbing the eventual sequel to this novel as soon as possible to see what happens next.  Overall, The Black Hawks contains a really enjoyable and smartly written narrative, and I had an outstanding time getting through it.

One of the best parts of The Black Hawks is the enjoyable and distinctive characters that Wragg has come up with.  The book’s main protagonist is Vedren Chel, who serves as the story’s point-of-view character.  Chel starts off as a fairly typical fantasy character: a young, bored minor noble who finds himself suddenly involved with events outside of his understanding.  However, as the story progresses, he shows himself to be a much more complex character, mainly thanks to his dedication to Prince Tarfel, who he becomes sworn to.  Tarfel is a spectacularly naive and incompetent royal, who is usually completely unaware of the danger that he finds himself in, or the full scope of the conspiracies playing out around him.  Despite recognising how useless Tarfel is, Chel takes his oath seriously and does all he can to protect him, even though that essentially means he gets the crap kicked out of him every second chapter or so.  This dogged loyalty and determination to do the right thing makes him quite an appealing protagonist, and he proves to be a rather resourceful individual who starts to fit in with the members of the Black Hawk company who kidnap him.  This camaraderie with the Black Hawks, something that he has been missing for most of his life, results in several great scenes, especially as he finds himself conflicted in his loyalty to them and to Tarfel.  Overall, his character arc goes in some interesting directions, and it was great to see him grow as a person through the course of the book.  Tarfel also grows a little during the course of the novel, becoming slightly less boorish and a little more capable.  Some of the reveals at the end of the novel have some rather large impacts of Tarfel’s personality, as he completely re-evaluates his entire life, and it will be rather interesting to see what happens to him in the future novels.

While Chel and Tarfel are both great characters to anchor the main plot around, the most entertaining and memorable characters are easily the members of the titular Black Hawk company.  The Black Hawks are a small group of dangerous mercenaries who have banded together after failing to fit in with all the other companies.  Wragg has gone out of his way to create a distinctive band of mismatched rogues to fill the ranks of the Black Hawk company, and there are a number of fun characters introduced as a result.  These members include a grim and taciturn leader with a notorious hidden past seeking redemption, a shadowy archer who has had her tongue cut out, a beautiful but lethal swordswoman, the group’s dangerous and self-serving assassin who is probably going to betray everyone, and a philosophical giant.  While there are a few stereotypical fantasy roles in there, such as with the Black Hawk leader, this turned out to be a particularly fun group of characters.  My personal favourite was Lemon, a short, red-haired human woman with a crude personality, amazing sense of humour and a fascination with her arsenal of axes (essentially a classic fantasy dwarf character).  Lemon is a great entry in the book, especially as she serves as the story’s main comic relief and is generally the most likeable and entertaining character in the novel, especially when she regales the protagonist with her blunt and tasteless jokes.  I really liked the excellent group dynamic that Wragg came up with for the members of the Black Hawks, and while they work together and are friends, there is a real sense of how mismatched the group is as all of its members are more individualistic than a team player.  All of these characters are great and Wragg does an excellent job introducing each of them and ensuring that all of them get their moment to shine throughout the course of the story.  However, he makes sure to keep most of their backgrounds hidden from the protagonist and the reader, ensuring there is a certain amount of mystery and mystique around them.  While certain hints about their past are revealed, for the most part the reader is left in the dark about who these people are and what brought them to the Black Hawks.  I imagine that Wragg plans to reveal each of these character’s full backstories throughout the course of the series and now that I am somewhat invested in them, I look forward to finding out more about their pasts.

In addition to the fantastic story and amazing characters, The Black Hawks features an excellent new dark fantasy world that serves as an awesome setting to this book.  Wragg’s novel features a somewhat desolate fantasy kingdom, ruined by years of constant warfare and ruled over by a corrupted and militant religious order that is desperately clinging to power.  This proved to be a really cool and enjoyable setting for the novel, and readers quickly become intrigued by the chaotic events occurring throughout the landscape.  While Wragg does drop the reader into this setting with any preamble and gets the story going rather quickly, the reader is never really lost about what is going on in this setting, and the author provides the relevant details about the fantasy world when necessary.  This proved to be an excellent overall setting, and I really liked seeing how all the politics and religious strife worked out.  This world also has a lot of potential for expansion, with a number of different nations and regions mentioned throughout the course of The Black Hawks’ story.  I imagine that the series will eventually visit many of these locations in the future, which should result in some interesting and enjoyable storylines, and I look forward to seeing how that turns out.

I ended up listening to The Black Hawks through its audiobook format, which runs for just over 12 hours and is narrated by Colin Mace.  This proved to be an excellent way to enjoy The Black Hawks, and I was able to power through it in only a few days as it was a really easy novel to listen to.  Thanks to Mace’s enjoyable narration, readers will be able to fly through this exciting and fast-paced story without losing focus for a second.  Mace also does a number of excellent voices for the various characters in the novels, capturing the diverse personalities and over-the-top characters really well.  As a result, I felt that this format was an awesome way to enjoy The Black Hawks and the audiobook comes highly recommended.

The Black Hawks by David Wragg was a cool and impressive dark fantasy adventure that I am really glad I checked out.  Thanks to his captivating and action-packed story, distinctive characters and dark fantasy setting, Wragg knocked his debut out of the park, creating an awesome overall read.  I had an amazing time listening to this fantastic book and I am looking forward to seeing how the story continues in the second Articles of Faith novel.

Stormblood by Jeremy Szal

Stormblood Cover

Publisher: Gollancz (Trade Paperback – 4 June 2020)

Series: The Common – Book One

Length: 538 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

In the mood for an epic and elaborate science fiction debut?  Then you will definitely want to check out Stormblood by Australian author Jeremey Szal, a compelling and ingenious novel that was a heck of a lot of fun to read.

In humanity’s far future, our species has just emerged from a brutal and destructive civil war between the seemingly benevolent Harmony and the ruthless Harvester empire.  Harmony were able to win the war by creating the Reapers, elite soldiers who were injected with stormtech, the DNA of an extinct alien race, which permanently altered their bodies, making them stronger, faster and more effective soldiers.  However, stormtech also had terrible side effects, making the host become addicted to their own adrenaline, which impacted on their minds and dramatically increased their natural aggression.

When the war ends, millions of Reapers are left shells of their former selves, having to deal with the terrible addictive impact of the alien DNA in their system, while stormtech became widely traded as an illicit drug across the galaxy.  Amongst these former soldiers is Vakov Fukasawa, a member of an elite Reaper fireteam, who has managed to overcome his addiction to stormtech and now makes a living taking on dangerous odd jobs on Compass, a mega-city built into a massive asteroid.  Vakov has grown vastly disillusioned with Harmony and their methods, but when he is approached by their agents to assist with an investigation, he is once again compelled into their service.

Somebody is killing his fellow former Reapers by poisoning the stormtech being passed around the city.  In order to save the comrades he fought beside, Vakov agrees to help with the investigation, especially when it is revealed that Harmony’s only lead is Vakov’s estranged brother.  However, the more Vakov investigates, the more people keep trying to kill him, and he soon finds himself caught in a vast conspiracy that threatens Compass and the entirety of Harmony.  Can Vakov put a stop to this horrifying plot, or will untold death and destruction rain down on him and everything he fought for?

Stormblood is an intriguing and impressive new science fiction novel that takes the reader on an action-packed thrill ride.  This is the debut novel from Australian author Jeremy Szal, which also serves as the first book in his The Common series of books.  I have been looking forward to this science fiction release for a while as I thought it sounded like a rather interesting novel, and I was really glad when I received a copy.  I ended up having a fantastic time reading this amazing and clever novel, and it is one of the best debut books I have so far read this year.

At the centre of this novel lies a captivating and exciting narrative that follows the adventures of the book’s primary protagonist, Vakov Fukasawa, as he tries to uncover who is trying to kill all his fellow former soldiers.  This results in a fast-paced military thriller storyline filled with all manner of action and adventure as Vakov jumps from one lead to the next in order to get to the bottom of the plot he is investigating.  This story goes in some dramatic directions, and I had fun unravelling the complex conspiracy storyline that emerged.  The combat comes very hot and heavy throughout the entirety of the story, with some unique science fiction elements added in to really make them pop.  Readers should also be prepared for some rather dark sequences, such as a rather claustrophobic torture scene.  Szal also spends a lot of time building up and exploring his protagonist, Vakov, showing him to be a complex character who is haunted by his past and strongly concerned for the people he is close to.  Several chapters within this book are dedicated to showing the events that formed him, including his traumatic childhood and his military service.  There is also a compelling focus on the strained relationship between Vakov and his brother, which becomes a major part of the plot as the two eventually face off as adversaries in some fantastic dramatic scenes.  I became really engrossed with this elaborate storyline and I ended up reading the entire book rather quickly, despite its somewhat substantial length.  An overall outstanding story, I cannot wait to see what happens in the next books in the series, but I have a feeling I am really going to enjoy them.

One of the key highlights of Stormblood is the outstanding new science fiction universe that Szal has come up with as a setting for the story.  Szal clearly has considerable imagination, as he produces a vast and exhilarating science fiction location populated with a multitude of different people and alien races.  The majority of the story is set within the gigantic space city of Compass, an amazing expanse of different places, climates and structures, all laid out in vertical levels.  This was a really cool place to explore, and this is clearly the tip of the iceberg as Szal hints at a number of other intriguing locations and planets throughout the book, and I can easily see future entries in the series expanding out to a bunch of other locations.  I was also extremely impressed with all the different technology, biological enhancements, spaceships, and alien races that appeared throughout the novel.  There are a number of new and fantastic science fiction ideas here, and I really enjoyed the way that Szal worked all of these technologies and aliens into the book’s plot, especially as most of them provide some amazing enhancements to the story.  A number of the book’s intense sequences really stand out due to the technology that the author comes up with, such as weird weapons, advanced combat suits, all manner of enhanced opponents, and a particularly freaky security room that is keyed to a person’s biology (you do not want to know what happens when the owner dies).  All these proved to be a lot of fun, and Szal has an awesome and imaginative vision of the future.

Out of all the cool science fiction elements in this book, I really have to highlight stormtech, the alien DNA that is injected into humans to give them enhanced abilities.  Stormtech is a key part of Stormblood as a plot device and because of the impacts that it has on the book’s point-of-view character.  Quite a lot of the story is dedicated to examining the transformative qualities of stormtech and the effects that it has had on former Reapers like Vakov.  In particular, the alien DNA has left him addicted to his own adrenaline, and it is constantly driving him to perform risky or aggressive acts so that he can get the accompanying adrenaline high.  This proved to be a fascinating part of Stormblood’s story, as the author spends a lot of time examining how stormtech impacts his protagonist’s mind and his constant struggle to control it.  Several of the flashback scenes are particularly well utilised here, as they show Vakov and his fireteam’s initial experiences with stormtech during the war and the terrible effects it had on them the more action they saw.  The version of Vakov who was introduced at the start of the main story is one who has managed to gain command over his addiction, although he is constantly struggling to maintain that control, especially as the events of plot compel him into more and more dangerous situations and new experiences with experimental stormtech, resulting in some dramatic consequences.  This was an extremely captivating aspect of the Stormblood’s narrative, and Szal does an outstanding job examining the impacts of addiction on the protagonist and then using it to add additional compelling layers to his main character.

Stormblood is an excellent and exciting science fiction novel from talented new Australian author Jeremy Szal.  Szal’s creativity and ability to tell a complex and thrilling story really shines through in his debut book, and I had an outstanding time enjoying this epic read.  I fully intend to grab the second book in this series when it comes out and I have a feeling that Szal is going to have a major impact on the science fiction genre in the next few years.

We are the Dead by Mike Shackle

We are the Dead Cover

Publisher: Orion (Audiobook – 8 August 2019)

Series: The Last War – Book One

Length: 18 hours and 6 minutes

My Rating: 4.75 out of 5 stars

Honour, loyalty, service and death! I finally get around to checking out one of last year’s hottest fantasy debuts with this review of We Are the Dead by Mike Shackle.

Generations ago, the nation of Jia was protected by powerful mages who wielded amazing magic that could shape the world around it. But when the magic faded, the people turned to the Shulka, their revered warrior caste, who held back the barbaric northern Egril tribes with their tactics, superior weapons and skills in combat. For hundreds of years the Shulka have successfully defeated the Egril raids, but their many victories have led to complacency.

During the latest raiding season, the Shulka are surprised when an organised and well-armed force marches upon them. Supported by demons and magic, the like of which has not been seen in an age, the Egril swiftly defeat the Shulka armies and conquer all of Jia in days. Their conquest is quick and brutal, and few are spared the bloody wrath of the Egril and their monsters. Those who do survive are forced in servitude and must worship the Egril’s terrible god or else suffer the consequences.

Now, six months after the invasion began, the country appears beaten, but there are always some heroes who are ready to fight back. In the capital city, Tinnstra, the disgraced, cowardly daughter of Jia’s greatest Shulka general finds herself drawn into a plot to save the royal family and soon finds the fate of the entire Kingdom resting in her hands. Elsewhere, a crippled Shulka warrior and his wheelchair-bound son attempts to lead an organised rebellion, but he soon finds that his greatest assets may be a young terrorist and a widowed mother who is trying to provide for her son. Can this unusual group of damaged heroes turn the tide against an all-powerful army or is it already too late to save their country from the control of a dark death god?

We Are the Dead is an intricate and impressive dark fantasy debut from talented new author Mike Shackle, which forms the first book in his The Last War series. This fantastic book came out last year, and it was one of the books I most regret not getting a chance to read in 2019, especially after I saw some of the very positive reviews being written about it. I really have been meaning to check this novel out for a while now, so I went out and grabbed the audiobook format of We Are the Dead a few weeks ago and started listening to it. I am extremely glad that I ended up reading this book, as I fell in love with this novel and its compelling character-driven story.

This novel contains an outstanding and exciting narrative that follows five unique and intriguing characters across eight days of rebellion and bloodshed in a conquered nation. We Are the Dead’s story starts off big; after a quick introduction to the world and a couple of the characters, everything soon blows apart as a destructive full-scale invasion occurs. The story than jumps forward six months and explores how the world has changed, and what has happened to the central group of characters. What follows is five intriguing and exciting separate storylines, each told from the perspective of a different character involved in various parts of the first major attempt from the Shulka resistance movement to strike back and restore their country. Each of these five storylines starts off by examining the unique adventures and experiences of that character and showing how they are brought into the latest round of fight. Each of the storylines starts off exclusively focusing on one point-of-view character, but they quickly start to connect as the plot of the book unfolds. All five separate storylines eventually come together exceedingly well into one extremely enjoyable and action-packed narrative that proves hard to put down. I really liked the way that all storylines all joined together, and it was fantastic to see the quicker narrative jumps between the various characters at the end of the book. I also enjoyed how the main story focused on eight days of conflict and adventure, with the various character arcs running concurrently with each other, as this allowed for a tight, powerful narrative. The various characters go through a lot of big and life-changing moments in the span of these eight days and there are some major cliff-hangers and surprising deaths that leave the reader in wild suspense. All of this makes for some great reading, and you will be on the edge of your seat for the entirety of this book.

Shackle chooses to tell his exciting story through the eyes of five separate point-of-view characters, all of whom have their own viewpoint and adventures within We are the Dead. Each of these characters have a fascinating character arcs, especially as most of the characters grow through adversity as they experience the horrors of war and learn the necessities of sacrifice, duty and loyalty.

The character who got the most focus within this novel was Tinnstra, the daughter of a legendary Shulka warrior who has a lot of high expectations weighing on her shoulders. Despite her heritage and her skill with a blade, Tinnstra starts the book dropping out of the Shulka academy, because she is a blatant and obvious coward. Managing to flee from the invasion, Tinnstra attempts to forge a new life for herself in the conquered capital, but eventually finds herself in the midst of the Shulka rebellion, with a particularly important package that could change the course of the war. At the start of this book, I really did not like Tinnstra, mainly because every second sentence in her chapters involved her pathetically doubting herself or calling herself a coward. Thankfully, this led to a rather good storyline about finding one’s courage and stepping up in a big way, and she eventually came across as a real badass with some fantastic and enjoyable chapters towards the end of the book.

Another great character is Jax, a former Shulka general who, after losing his arm during the initial invasion, becomes a determined resistance leader with his wheelchair-bound son. Jax is probably the most consistent protagonist throughout most of the book, serving as a steady and wise figure who is forced to face the reality of failing his country. Jax is an extremely likeable character, which makes it really hard for the reader when he goes through some incredibly dark moments that have the potential to break him.

Next up we have Dren, a teen terrorist who, after witnessing his family dying during the invasion, becomes a rabid killer, brutally attempting to take out any Egrils (or Skulls, as they are known, due to their distinctive helmets), not matter the collateral damage. Dren is a pretty unlikeable kid at the start of the book due to his overwhelming anger towards the Egrils, any Jian who associates with them and the Shulka resistance, who he hates just as much as the Egrils due to the way that they treated the peasants before the invasion and because of their failure in stopping the slaughter. However, as the book progresses, the reader gets more and more invested in Dren’s compelling story, especially when he starts spending time with Jax. Jax is a terrific mentor figure for Dren, who eventually learns the error of his ways and starts to take more responsibility for himself and the band of child terrorists he has recruited.

The final Jian character who the book focuses on is Yas, a single mother who attempts to earn a living working as a maid for the invaders. Yas is recruited as a spy by the Skulka resistance and ends up becoming more and more involved in their plots and schemes. Yas’s storyline is another fantastic arc, and there are some interesting similarities to Tinnstra’s arc, in that she finds her courage to fight back and do what is right. However, Yas’s story is more tied into the love of her family and her son, and how she wants a better world for her child to grow up in.

In addition to Jian characters, Shackle also tells a portion of the book from the perspective of Darus, an Egril Chosen, an officer who has been granted a magical ability by their powerful leader. Darus is a psychotic torturer with severe sister issues, who delights in causing pain and torment and who is determined to win glory and power. Darus’s powers are ironically that of healing, meaning that he is essentially an immortal antagonist who can also heal people that he comes into contact with. He uses this power throughout the book to heal his victims, bringing them back from the brink of death, so that he can torture them again and again in order to break their spirits. As you can probably guess, Darus is a rather reprehensible and unredeemable character, but one who offers an intriguing counterpoint to the protagonists. It is always cool to see something from the villain’s point of view, and I felt that Darus was a perfect antagonist for this dark and twisted novel.

All five of these characters proved to be extremely interesting to follow, and I really liked where all of their arcs went. Shackle does an impressive job making their portrayals and emotions seem realistic, and you can almost feel the fear, anger and hatred that several of the characters exude. I appreciated how none of the protagonists were perfect heroes, and most of them are victims or products of the war and the circumstances they find themselves in. I found it rather interesting to see how the various characters saw each other throughout the course of the story, such as when some of the characters viewed Tinnstra for the first time and mistake her expressions of terror and apprehension for looks of determination and impatience to get towards the enemy. I also have to highlight the raft of cool and likeable side characters featured throughout the course of the story, many of whom steal several scenes from the point-of-view characters. These are a fun collection of side characters, although readers really should not get too attached to them, as they tend to have a rather short lifespan within the course of the book. Overall, We are the Dead contains some excellent and enjoyable characters, and I really appreciated the complicated and captivating storylines that Shackle wove around them.

In addition to the impressive story and excellent characters, Shackle has come up with an awesome new fantasy world for We are the Dead. The entirety of the story is set within the nation of Jia, a cultured land with a proud warrior tradition, which is somewhat reminiscent of feudal Japan. Shackle does a fantastic job of setting up this landscape in the initial couple of chapters, before everything changes thanks to the invasion. The new Jia, six months after the brutal conquest, is a vastly different place, filled with hunger, fear and desperation as the survivors are forced to adapt to their new way of life. Shackle did an amazing job portraying a nation completely under enemy occupation, and I was put in mind of Nazi-occupied France, due to the round up of civilians, the inclusion of collaborators and snitches, retaliations against the populace and the careful resistance movements relying on help from a nation across the sea to survive. The Egrils also proved to be a great antagonistic nation for the plot of this book, and I loved how they were able to fool the conceited Shulka warriors by pretending to be tribal savages for years, before invading with an organised and advanced army, utilising magical and demonic assets to perfection. There were some distinctive Nazi elements to the Egrils, such as the way that they swiftly conquered all of Jia in a few days with Blitzkrieg-like tactics, their absolute devotion to their anointed leader (who is totally going to turn out to be the lost brother of the mage Aasgod, right?), their stormtrooper-like appearance and tactics, as well as the fact that the narrator of the audiobook format gave all the Egril characters a distinctive Germanic accent. All of this proved to be an excellent background for We are the Dead and I loved seeing the story unfold in this recently conquered fantasy nation.

Those readers who like some action in their stories will be extremely satisfied with We are the Dead, as Shackle has loaded his book with all manner of fights, battles and gratuitous violence (the best type of violence). This is an extremely action-packed novel, and I personally enjoyed all the cool fight sequences, from the small-scale battles between trained warriors, the brutal hit-and-run tactics of Dren’s fighters, and several larger fight sequences between opposing forces. Shackle proved to be very adapt at bringing these action sequences to life, and I found myself quite pumped up as a result of reading this book. Readers should be warned however that We are the Dead does feature a number of vivid and disturbing torture sequences, which are made even worse by the fact that the torturer, Darus, can heal his victim and keep inflicting pain, over and over again. As a result, if intense torture scenes make you uncomfortable, then you are probably better off avoiding this book.

As I mentioned above, I chose to listen to an audiobook version of We are the Dead, rather than grabbing a physical copy. The audiobook format has a run time of just over 18 hours, and it is narrated by Nicola Bryant. This is a lengthy audiobook and it took me a little while to get through it. Part of this is because the story is a tad slow at the start of the book, although I did end up absolutely powering through the last six hours extremely quickly in comparison to the first two thirds of the novel. I really enjoyed the audiobook version, and I found it to be an incredible way to absorb We are the Dead’s clever and detailed narrative. I was also impressed with Bryant’s narration, as she brought some real passion to the audiobook. You could hear the intense emotions in Bryant’s voice as she narrated the story, and you can tell that she was trying to emulate what the characters were feeling with her narration. Bryant also utilised a fantastic and distinctive set of voices for the various characters featured within the novel, and I think that she had an excellent grasp of their personalities and emotions. This proved to be an exception audiobook, and I would definitely suggest checking out this format of We are the Dead.

We are the Dead is an outstanding and deeply enjoyable fantasy novel from Mike Shackle, who really hit it out of the park with his debut novel. I had an amazing time listening to this book, and I loved the blend of compelling story, fantastic setting, complex characters and intense action sequences. This book comes very highly recommended, and I am regretting not picking up a copy of this book last year. I will not be making the same mistake later this year when Shackle’s sequel book, A Fool’s Hope, comes out in December, and I am looking forward to seeing where the story goes next.

Top Ten Tuesday – Top Ten Debut Books

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme that currently resides at The Artsy Reader Girl and features bloggers sharing lists on various book topics. For this week’s instalment of Top Ten Tuesday, it is actually something of a special occasion as we celebrate the ten-year anniversary of Top Ten Tuesday, as this fun, weekly adventure was first started back in June 2010. As a result of this celebration, the topic for this week’s Top Ten Tuesday is a little different, as readers have two options: either redo a Top Ten Tuesday topic they have previously done, or pick a past topic that they wish they had done. In order to meet this challenge, I decided to try and do a topic that was featured well back in the day. For this Top Ten Tuesday, I will be doing the 33rd topic, which ran in February 2011 on Top Ten Tuesday’s original blog, The Broke and the Bookish, listing my favourite debut books.

Over the years I have had the great pleasure of reading a number of impressive and captivating debut novels, many of which formed the start of an amazing series or which helped launch the writing career of some of the best authors of a variety of different genres. Some of these debuts have been so good that they have stuck with me for life, and I look forward to listing my absolute favourites. I am taking a rather broad stroke approach with this list, and I am going to make any debut that I have read eligible to be included. It does not matter if I read this book out of order, whether I enjoyed later entries from the author first, or whether I have gone back and read this book years after it came out; as long as it is the first full-length novel from an author, it can appear on this list.

This proved to be a rather intriguing list to pull together, as I actually had a rather large collection of debut novels to sort through, and I ended up discarding several really good books that I was sure were going to make the cut. I think that my eventual Top Ten list (with a generous Honourable Mentions section), features a rather interesting and diverse collection of debut books, and I quite like how it turned out. Unsurprisingly, as many of these books are written by my favourite authors, I have mentioned some of these entries and their authors before in prior lists, such as my Top Ten Auto-Buy Author list, and for many of these authors, I am still reading a number of their current novels. So let us see what I was able to come up with.

Honourable Mentions:


The Crystal Shard
by R. A. Salvatore (1988)

The Crystal Shard Cover

The Crystal Shard is the very first book from one of my favourite authors, R. A. Salvatore, and it was the first book in The Icewind Dale trilogy. I really loved this book, and it served as a fantastic start to a massive fantasy series that is still going to this day. The characters introduced in The Crystal Shard have all recently appeared in a brand-new trilogy, made up of Timeless, Boundless and the upcoming Relentless, which I have had an amazing time reading and reviewing.

The Tethered Mage by Melissa Caruso (2017)

The Tethered Mage Cover

This was a fantastic debut from a couple of years ago that I instantly fell in love with, especially as it led to two awesome sequels, The Defiant Heir and The Unbound Empire.

City of Lies by Sam Hawke (2018)

City of Lies Cover


Empire of Silence
by Christopher Ruocchio (2018)

Empire of Silence Cover

An outstanding science fiction debut with a lot of impressive elements. This was one of my favourite books of 2018, and it led to an amazing sequel last year, Howling Dark, as well as the intriguing upcoming novel, Demon in White.

Top Ten Tuesday (By Release Date):


Magician
by Raymond E. Feist (1982)

Magician Cover

Right off the bat we have Magician by Raymond E. Feist, which may be one of my favourite fantasy novels of all time. I first read this book years ago, and its clever story and substantial universe building has helped make me a lifelong fan of both the author and the fantasy genre. This was the first book in the epic and long-running Riftwar Cycle, which included the fantastic spinoff series, The Empire trilogy. I am still enjoying Feist’s books to this day, as his latest novel, King of Ashes, was a lot of fun, while his upcoming book, Queen of Storms, is one of my most anticipated releases for the next couple of months.

Legend by David Gemmell (1984)

Legend


Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone
by J. K. Rowling (1997)

Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone Cover

No list about top debuts can be complete without the first book in the world-changing Harry Potter series, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. This was an impressive novel, filled with immense amount of world building, that I absolutely loved while growing up. While you kind of have to ignore anything that the author says outside of the books, this is still an outstanding novel, that holds a special place in my heart.

Under the Eagle by Simon Scarrow (2000)

Under the Eagle Cover

Under the Eagle was one of the very first historical fiction novels that I ever read, and it really helped me get into the genre (something that would eventually lead to me reviewing books professionally). Under the Eagle is an impressive and compelling Roman history novel that follows two Roman soldiers during the invasion of Britain. Filled with a lot of great action and historical detail, this was the first book in the Eagles of the Empire series, which is still running to this day (make sure to check out my reviews for the last couple of books in the series, The Blood of Rome and Traitors of Rome).

The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch (2006)

The Lies of Locke Lamora Cover

This was an exceedingly entertaining and wildly impressive fantasy novel which followed a group of conmen in a dangerous, magical city. The Lies of Locke Lamora was a really good book, and I think it would be impossible for someone to read it and not instantly fall in love with it. This book also served as the first entry in the outstanding Gentleman Bastards series, which currently contains three amazing books, with the fourth novel, The Thorn of Emberlain, hopefully coming out at some point in the future.

The Blade Itself by Joe Abercrombie (2006)

The Blade Itself

The Blade Itself is an intriguing and inventive dark fantasy novel that follows a complex and damaged group of protagonists in a world full of blood, betrayal and war. This book was the first entry in The First Law series of novels, all of which have been a real treat to read. It has also led to an awesome sequel series The Age of Madness trilogy, the first book of which, A Little Hatred, was one of my favourite releases of 2019.

The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss (2007)

The Name of the Wind Cover

This was an extremely epic and captivating read, which may be one of the absolute best fantasy debuts of all time. The Name of the Wind contains an amazing, character driven story that follows the early days of a man destined to become an infamous hero. I cannot emphasise how much I loved this book, and its sequel, The Wise Man’s Fear, was just as good, if not better. I cannot wait for the third novel in the series, currently titled The Doors of Stone, to come out, and it is probably my most anticipated upcoming release (my kingdom for an early copy of this book).

Fire in the East by Harry Sidebottom (2008)

Fire in the East Cover

Fire in the East is an excellent historical fiction novel that I had an amazing time reading some years ago. The very first novel from Harry Sidebottom, who would go on to write some amazing books like The Last Hour and The Lost Ten, Fire in the East had a very impressive Roman siege storyline, that few other historical fiction authors have come close to matching.

Promise of Blood by Brian McClellan (2013)

promise of blood cover


Planetside
by Michael Mammay (2018)

Planetside Cover 2

The final book in my list is Planetside, the addictive and exciting science fiction/thriller hybrid whose sudden and destructive conclusion absolutely blew me away. Mammay did an outstanding job with his first book, and last year’s sequel, Spaceside, is also really worth checking out.

Well that’s my Top Ten List for this week. I rather like the list that I came up with, and there is a good collection of novels there, although it is slightly more fantasy-heavy than I intended. For some of these books I really need to go back and reread them at some point so that I can do a Throwback Thursday review of them. This is probably a list that I will come back to in the future as well, as there are always impressive new debuts coming out. For example, this year I have already read a fantastic debut, The Last Smile in Sunder City by Luke Arnold, and I am also looking forward to several great sounding upcoming debuts like Assault by Fire by Hunter Ripley Rawlins and The Kingdom of Liars by Nick Martell. In the meantime, be sure to me know which of the books above are your favourites, as well as which debut novels you would add to your Top Ten list.

The Viennese Girl by Jenny Lecoat

The Viennese Girl Cover

Publisher: Allen & Unwin (Trade Paperback – 28 April 2020)

Series: Standalone

Length: 266 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Love, war, endurance. Debuting author Jenny Lecoat presents an impressive and compelling historical drama with The Viennese Girl, a fantastic read based on a remarkable true story.

June 1940. The inhabitants of the Channel Island of Jersey can only watch as the German army invades and takes complete control of their island without any opposition. Abandoned by the British and forced to fend for themselves, the people of Jersey must get ready to endure a lengthy occupation that will last to the very end of the war.

For young Jewish girl Hedy Bercu this is a nightmare situation. Having already successfully fled from the Nazis when they invaded her home of Vienna, Hedy once again finds herself trapped and persecuted, only this time she has nowhere to escape to. Forced to do everything she can to survive, Hedy tries to hide her true identity and even accepts a job as a translator in the German headquarters. However, Hedy is not content to simply sit back and let the Nazis win without a fight, and she begins to engage in several small acts of resistance which bring her to the attention of a German lieutenant, Kurt Neumann.

Kurt finds himself instantly smitten by the mysterious Hedy, and he attempts to pursue a relationship with her, without knowing about her tragic past. But when Hedy’s attempts at sabotage are discovered, her Jewish heritage is revealed to all and she becomes the most sought-after fugitive on the island. Can Hedy rely on her friends and Kurt to survive, and how will she escape detection from the Nazis on their most isolated and heavily occupied territory?

The Viennese Girl is a great debut novel from television writer Jenny Lecoat, which turned about to be quite an intriguing historical drama that I am really glad that I checked out. A very important thing to know about this novel is that it is actually based on a true story of the Jersey occupation. The main characters contained within this story are all real people, and their tale has been mostly unknown until a recent publication by Dr Gilly Carr in the Journal of Holocaust and Genocide Studies.

Lecoat provides an exquisite novelisation of these historical events within The Viennese Girl and turns it powerful and captivating narrative of romance and resistance that follows two real-life star-crossed lovers, Hedy and Kurt, as they attempt to survive a terrible situation. The story is shown from the dual perspectives of Hedy and Kurt, whose different viewpoints show off various aspects of the German occupation of Jersey. This book makes great use of a combination of a dramatic and tension filled storyline, fantastic portrayals of real-life characters, a distinctive historical setting and a compelling romance to make for an amazing read.

The lives of and the relationship between the two main characters, Hedy and Kurt, forms an excellent centre to this book. Both are intriguing characters in their own right. For example, Hedy is a Jewish girl doing everything she can to survive after being trapped by the Nazis a second time. She is rightly bitter and terrified about the entire situation, but brave enough to fight back against the Germans with small acts of sabotage. Naturally, the parts of the book told from Hedy’s point of view are filled with all manner of tension as she is terrified of being taken away by the Nazis, a feeling that only intensifies as the book proceeds. There is also a prevailing sense of loneliness and despair brought on by her situation, the lack of people on Jersey who she can trust and the knowledge of what has happened to her Jewish friends and family back home. Kurt, on the other hand, is a reluctant member of the German army who has become disenfranchised with his more radical Nazi colleagues. He has some rather surprising views for a German officer, and a distinct dislike for many of the people he serves with, and there is a bit of sadness in him as he watches the war consume Jersey. This, and the instant attraction he feels for Hedy, compels him to help her without really knowing anything about her. Kurt then goes to some amazing lengths to help save Hedy in the future once he knows the full detail of her history and manages to outthink some determined opponents.

The author makes sure to spend time exploring both of these characters through the course of the occupation, as well as examining their history, feelings and intentions. Despite all the inherently problematic issues that would occur with such a romance, the two fall in love and start a dedicated relationship. Their romance is an essential part of the story, and I think that Lecoat did a wonderful job showing how such a romance could occur, as well as exploring all the drama that resulted. I liked how the romance managed to help make each of them better, and it healed certain holes in their hearts and minds. I really enjoyed this romance, and I ended up being pleasantly surprised after finishing this book to find that Kurt was a real person who really did fall in love with and help Hedy (due to the unlikely situation, I had assumed that he was either a fictional character or an embellished version of someone). The knowledge that this romance actually happened really enhanced Lecoat’s incredible story for me, and I am rather glad to have seen how it unfolded.

In addition to Hedy and Kurt, I also have to highlight the character of Dorothea Weber (née Le Brocq), who was also a real person featured heavily in Dr Carr’s article. Dorothea was the wife of Hedy’s best friend and fellow refugee Anton, who would eventually become Hedy’s close companion and saviour after she hides Hedy in her house for the later years of the occupation. Dorothea was a rather complex character who has a rather interesting act within this novel, especially when it comes to her relationship with Hedy. For the first half of the book, Hedy sees Dorothea as an interloper and distraction to her friendship with Anton and is a bit annoyed by the attention she gets, her apparent helplessness and obsessions with American films and actresses. However, as the war progresses and Anton is conscripted into the German army, their relationship grows, especially as both of them face their own form of persecution. While Hedy is oppressed for her Jewish heritage, Dorothea faces ostracism from her friends and family for marrying an Austrian, especially one who ends up in the German army, and is labelled a Jerrybag (a derogative term for Jersey girls who were sleeping with the enemy). While she comes across as extremely naïve at the start of the book, Dorothea really grows as a character throughout the book, and continually shows off her surprising inner strength by standing up to people and not hesitating to take Hedy in and hide her from the Germans, despite the obvious risks. I really enjoyed learning about Dorothea’s story, and she became a fantastic part of this book, and it was rather gratifying to learn how the real Dorothea has been deservedly honoured by both the Jewish community and Britain in recent years.

I also really enjoyed learning more about the German occupation of Jersey during the Second World War. This was honestly a topic that I knew very little about, but which proves to be a rather fascinating backdrop to this character driven story. Lecoat, a Jersey native, does a fantastic job showcasing all the details of this invasion, and follows the entirety of the occupation in her story, right up until the end of World War II (the occupiers were some of the last German forces to surrender). The author captures a number of key moments from the occupation in the story while also including several historical figures in her narrative. I also liked how she endeavoured to highlight what day to day life for the inhabitants of Jersey would have been like with the Germans there, and it was interesting to see her interpretations of the islander’s attitudes, how they dealt with the Germans and how desperate the situation got at times throughout the occupation. This proved to be a really interesting and distinctive element to the novel, and I quite enjoyed learning more about this part of World War II that is often overlooked in other historical fiction novels.

Overall, The Viennese Girl is a superb and memorable historical drama novel that is very much worth checking out. Lecoat hit it out of the park with her debut novel, and I was absolutely enthralled by her amazing narrative of courage, survival and love in the most unlikely of circumstances. This was a really impressive novel, and it’s story is going to stick with me for a very long time.

Waiting on Wednesday – Stormblood by Jeremy Szal

Welcome to my weekly segment, Waiting on Wednesday, where I look at upcoming books that I am planning to order and review in the next few months and which I think I will really enjoy.  I run this segment in conjunction with the Can’t-Wait Wednesday meme that is currently running at Wishful Endings. Stay tuned to see reviews of these books when I get a copy of them. In my latest Waiting on Wednesday, I take a look at an intriguing sounding science fiction debut that is coming out in a few months, Stormblood by Jeremy Szal.

Stormblood Cover

Here at The Unseen Library, I am always on the lookout for fresh and exciting debut novels to read (make sure to check out my recent Top Ten Debuts of 2019 list), and I believe that I have found another amazing debut that could have some real potential. Stormblood is the first novel from Australian author Jeremy Szal, which is set to be released on 4 June 2020. This upcoming book sounds really cool, and I absolutely love the enthralling plot synopsis that has already been released.

Goodreads Synopsis:

Vakov Fukasawa used to be a Reaper, a biosoldier fighting for the intergalactic governing body of Harmony against a brutal invading empire. Now, he fights against the stormtech: the DNA of an extinct alien race Harmony injected into him, altering his body chemistry and making him permanently addicted to adrenaline and aggression. It made him the perfect soldier, but it also opened a new drug market that has millions hopelessly addicted to their own body chemistry.

But when Harmony tells him that his former ally Reapers are being murdered, Vakov is appalled to discover his estranged brother is likely involved in the killings. They haven’t spoken in years, but Vakov can’t let his brother down, and investigates. But the deeper he goes, the more addicted to stormtech he becomes, and Vakov discovers that the war might not be over after all. It’ll take everything he has to unearth this terrible secret, although doing so might mean betraying his brother. If his own body doesn’t betray him first.

A vibrant and talented new voice in SFF: alien technology, addictive upgrades, a soldier determined to protect his family, and a thief who is prepared to burn the world down . . .

This is a killer plot synopsis, and I personally think that any story based around this clever idea is going to be pretty darn awesome. Former alien-fighting biosoldiers dealing with an addiction issues attempting to investigate a murder and conspiracy is a really compelling concept, and I cannot wait to see how it turns out. I really think that Stormblood has a lot of potential as a book, and I will definitely be checking out this intriguing sounding science fiction novel when it is released.

The Last Smile in Sunder City by Luke Arnold

The Last Smile in Sunder City

Publisher: Orbit (Trade Paperback – 6 February 2020)

Series: Fletch Phillips Archives – Book One

Length: 318 pages

My Rating: 4.75 out of 5 stars

From debuting Australian author Luke Arnold comes The Last Smile in Sunder City, an absolutely superb piece of fantasy fiction that presents a unique and powerful story of loss, redemption and despair in fantastic new universe.

The Last Smile in Sunder City is the debut novel of Australian actor Luke Arnold. Arnold, who has appeared in a number of Australian television shows and movies, is probably best known internationally for playing Long John Silver in the pirate adventure series Black Sails. Arnold has now made the rather interesting career change to writing fantasy fiction with this first book, which is the start of a new series known as the Fetch Phillips Archives. I have actually been looking forward to The Last Smile in Sunder City for a little while now, as I liked the intriguing-sounding plot synopsis and I thought that this book had some real potential.

The continent of Archetellos has always had magic, with nearly every race or being having some access to the power that ran through the lands, extending their lives and giving them rare and amazing abilities. With these powers, the magical races ruled Archetellos, until the humans, the only race not gifted with magic, attempted to steal it for themselves. This resulted in the event known as the Coda, which saw all magic erased from the world. Overnight, the multitudes of beings who relied on magic for their very existence either died or were stricken down. The few survivors of these former magical races are now deformed, crippled and slowly dying in pain.

Fetch Phillips has been many things in his life (a guard, a peacekeeper, a soldier and a criminal) but now he is barely eking out a living as a man for hire in the former magical industrial hub known as Sunder City, which has been suffering ever since its magical fires went out. For a small fee Fetch will help you with whatever problem you have, although his sobriety will cost you extra. He only has only one condition: he won’t work for humans; his only clients are those former magical beings who need his help, because it’s Fetch’s fault that their magic is gone and never coming back.

Fetch’s latest case sees him hired by a school that specialises in teaching the children of former magical creatures. One of their professors, an ancient vampire who is slowly turning to dust, has gone missing, and the school is desperate to find him. Diving into the shady underbelly of the city, Fetch attempts to find some trace of the vampire or anyone who wanted to hurt him. But when one of the vampire’s students, a young siren, also disappears, Fetch needs to step up his game to find them. However, even without magic there are still monsters in Sunder City, and Fetch may not be able to survive his encounter with them.

This was a really impressive piece of fantasy fiction. With The Last Smile in Sunder City, Arnold has absolutely nailed his debut, presenting a clever and captivating fantasy mystery which makes full use of its inventive setting and excellent central protagonist to create an impressive and memorable book. This is a truly enjoyable story that contains a fascinating central mystery that blends extremely well with the book’s fantasy elements. I had a great time unravelling the full extent of this intriguing story, and Arnold takes the plot in some very interesting directions, producing some excellent twists and clever false leads. This is less of an action-based novel and more of an exploratory story which sets out the world and features a man of the city running through his contacts to investigate a curious disappearance. I think this worked out extremely well for this book, as it fitted into the book’s classic PI vibe while serving as a great introduction to the city which is no doubt going to be the main setting for any future books in this series. Arnold has also created a couple of fantastic subplots which not only help to explore the world but also help to expand on the compelling darker tone that has been injected into this book.

Without a doubt, the major highlight of this book is the deeply inventive and fascinating new world that Arnold has produced. When I first read The Last Smile in Sunder City’s plot synopsis about a world where magic no longer existed, I was intrigued and thought that it sounded like an interesting idea. However, I was not prepared for just how impressive and creative this turned out to be. In order to tell his story, the author first created a detailed fantasy world that was filled with a huge variety of classic magical creatures of all shapes and sizes, where magic was the ultimate power and in which humans, who have no access to magic, are second-class citizens. While this would have been an interesting place to set a fantasy mystery, the author immediately flips this setting on its head by showing how humans attempted to steal the magic from its source (via an animation intended for children that was cut across by the protagonist’s memories, which was a fantastic way to introduce this plot point), and how their intrusion resulted in the complete destruction of magic.

This of course leads to a very interesting world, as now all the creatures and beings who previously survived on magic have had their lives irreversibly altered. Arnold spends a good part of the book exploring the impact of this loss of magic, examining the impacts on the previously immortal elves who all suddenly died from old age, the werewolves and other shapeshifters who found themselves deformed and stuck at the halfway point between human and animal, the vampires who all lost their fangs and are slowly crumbling to dust, sirens whose human husbands all simultaneously left them, and so much more. There are also some cool examinations of the change in status quo, with humans now becoming the dominant species on the continent thanks to their superior numbers (humans were not affected by the Coda) and their ability to use technology as a substitute for the magic that used to run everything. Of course, humans being humans, there are a couple of examples of humanity taking revenge against the magical creatures that previously dominated the continent, which the author does a good job of working into the plot. All of this proves to be an extremely fascinating and enjoyable overarching backdrop to the story of The Last Smile in Sunder City, and I really have to congratulate Arnold on his amazing imagination. Every detail about this creative world was really cool, and I loved seeing how his vision of a fantasy realm bereft of magic come to life.

The main location of this book is the titular Sunder City. Sunder City is a former magical metropolis which has suffered in the post-Coda period. Once a place of marvels and magically-powered industry, the city is now a shell of its former self, with most magical beings now living in slums and struggling to get by without their abilities. There is a bit of a Depression-era vibe to Sunder City, especially as Arnold does an excellent job of imbuing much of the city with a sense of despair, resentment and hopelessness. This really turned out to be a fantastic city to serve as the book’s primary setting, and I really enjoyed the protagonist’s exploration of it as he attempts to find the missing people. There are some really intriguing elements to this city which are worked into the overarching mystery plot extremely well, such as a hostile police force, businesses catering to former magical creatures and gangs of humans trying to cause trouble. All of this is pretty amazing, and I look forward to seeing more adventures and mysteries take place in Sunder City, especially if the author spends time looking at new types of former magical creatures that weren’t featured in this first book.

In addition to the compelling story and outstanding settings, Arnolds rounds out this awesome book with an intriguing central protagonist, Fetch Phillips. Fetch, who also serves as the book’s narrator, is a drunk, depressed and broken man, who is essentially a classic noir PI in a fantasy world. While Fetch can at times be funny or entertaining, mostly due to his sarcastic and confrontational style, his defining characteristics are his overwhelming guilt and despair. This is due to the fact that he is largely responsible for the humans destroying magic, which resulted in so much death and suffering. The full story behind Fletch’s involvement in this atrocity is chronicled in the book through a series of flashbacks which show his origin, the friendships he formed and the events and emotions that led up to his darkest moment. Due to his role in the causing the Coda, and the fact that he betrayed the trust of several friends, Fletch is filled with all manner of self-loathing and must now deal with his complicated emotions towards other humans, who he detests, and the former magical creatures he is compelled to help, most of whom now hate him. Despite all this darkness, there is a little bit of light within Fletch as he struggles against his demons and his past to find redemption and live up to a promise he made. I thought that this portrayal of Fletch was a great part of the book, and I loved the complexity that Arnold has imparted on his protagonist. I also really enjoyed the way that the author showed off the character’s past, centring the flashbacks on the four tattoos he has on his arm, and exploring the meaning behind them. This mixture of the mystery in the present and the look at the events in the character’s past worked really well together, and they help show off an amazing central protagonist who is going to be a fantastic centrepiece for this series going forward.

The Last Smile in Sunder City by Luke Arnold is a superb and highly addictive fantasy mystery that presents the reader with a fantastic and thrilling story. While the book is mostly a clever and enjoyable mystery, its true strengths are the unique and captivating settings and the complicated, well-written protagonist, both of which help to transform this amazing novel into a first-rate read. Thanks to this excellent debut, Arnold has proven that he is a talent to be reckoned with in the fantasy genre, and I am looking forward to seeing what he produces next. The Last Smile in Sunder City comes highly recommended, and I think many people are going to enjoy this exciting new Australian author.

Legacy of Ash by Matthew Ward

Legacy of Ash Cover

Publisher: Orbit (Trade Paperback – 5 November 2019)

Series: Legacy trilogy – Book 1

Length: 768 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

From impressive new author Matthew Ward comes Legacy of Ash, a massive and entertaining new fantasy adventure that was amongst one of my favourite debut novels of 2019.

Legacy of Ash is set within the Tressian Republic, a powerful nation controlled by a council of nobles. The Tressian Republic is beset by many dangers, including the constant threat of invasion from the massive Hadari Empire on its border; open rebellion from the nation’s southernmost lands, the Southshires, which have been seeking independence for years; and the machinations of the dark magic-wielding criminal organisation known as the Crowmarket.

When the Hadari Empire invades the Southshires, the political ambitions and old grudges of the Tressian Council results in a muted military response. It falls to Viktor Akadra, the champion of the Tressian Republic, to lead a small force to the Southshires in order to make a stand against the invaders. However, Viktor is the last person the inhabitants of the Southshires want defending them, as years before he brutally put down their last rebellion, which resulted in the death of their beloved Duchess Katya Trelan.

In order to defeat the Hadari Empire, Viktor needs to work with the children of Katya Trelan, Josiri and Calenne, both of whom hate and fear him, and who both have different plans to ensure their future freedom. However, as fate, self-interest and the future of the Southshires forces them together, these three must find a common ground if they are to survive. But even if they manage to face the forces of the Hadari Empire, far darker threats are assailing the Tressian Republic from within and they will stop at nothing to achieve their terrible goals.

Ward is an interesting new author who is probably best known for his work with Games Workshop, where he served as a principal architect for the company on many of their properties, including Warhammer, Warhammer 40,000 and their The Lord of the Rings range. However, in recent years he has turned his hand to fantasy writing, creating several novellas and short stories, as well as releasing two ebooks, Shadow of the Raven and Light of the Radiant. Legacy of Ash is Ward’s first printed novel, and it is actually set in the same universe as his previous ebooks. It is also the first book in his planned Legacy trilogy, with the second book in the trilogy, Legacy of Steel, set for release later this year.

Legacy of Ash is an excellent new read which contains an exciting and elaborate story, set in a large and creative new world and featuring a substantial group of point-of-view characters. I have actually been looking forward to Legacy of Ash for a while, as it sounded like one of the more exciting new fantasy books that were set for release in 2019, and I am very glad I got a chance to read and review it. However, readers should probably be aware in advance that this book is nearly 800 pages in length, making it a pretty substantial read, and requiring a significant investment of time in finishing it off. This took me a couple of weeks to read in full, mainly because Legacy of Ash would actually come in at number 12 on my recent Longest Novels That I Have Ever Read list. That being said, Legacy of Ash is well worth the time, as this was an amazing and fascinating new fantasy adventure.

Ward has come up with a large and impressive story for his first book, and there is a lot going on within it. The story actually splits up into two separate locations within the Tressian Republic, with half of it set down in the Southshires and the other half set up in the capital of the Republic, Tressia (with small parts also set in a couple of locations in between or within the Hadari Empire). The parts of the book set down in the Southshires deal with the impending invasion of the Hadari, the repression of the Southshire inhabitants by the Tressian council and the attempts by Viktor to work with both of the Trelan siblings. At the same time, the parts of the book set up in Tressia contains a lot of political intrigue, criminal undertakings, dark magical plans and gambits for control of the nation. Both sets of storylines are a lot of fun, and it was really amazing to see all the various story elements occurring at the same time in the different locations. In addition, these two storylines are strongly related to each other, with events happening in one location impacting characters down in the other part of the Republic. All of these story elements and character arcs come together to form an extremely compelling overarching narrative and I quite enjoyed how Legacy of Ash contained such a wide range of different plot points.

Legacy of Ash is populated with a multiple point-of-view characters from whose eyes we see this whole massive story unfold. The use of all these characters allows for a much richer and expansive story, especially as you get to see every side of all various character’s plots and plans as everyone attempts to come out on top of the events unfolding around them. In addition, nearly all of the point-of-view characters have some incredibly captivating and enjoyable character arcs, many of which reach their full potential within this book. There are such an interesting range of different character based stories going on throughout Legacy of Ash, from the mysterious divine magic that starts to infect the honourable knight Roslava Orova, the machinations and manipulations of Ebigail Kiradin, the chaotic adventures of Crowmarket member Apara Rann and the fun friendship that forms between old opponents Kurkas and Halvor. However, the main elements of character development occur around the book’s three central characters, Viktor Akadra, Josiri Trelan and Calenne Trelan. Due to history, resentments and circumstances, these three characters start the book with fairly distant or hostile relationships to each other. However, these barriers are slowly broken down as the book progresses, and each of these main characters slowly works to come to terms with each other and their own individual issues, such as Viktor’s hidden dark magic, or the expectations or resentments that surround Trelan siblings thanks to their long-dead mother. Overall, this is some fairly impressive character work, and Ward did an excellent job creating a fantastic cast for this novel, each of whom add a whole lot to book’s story.

While I did enjoy how this novel progressed and all the interesting story points and character inclusions that were featured, I do feel it was a perhaps a little too long. In particular, I really think that Ward would have been better off not featuring the book’s final antagonist (a long-dead magical queen), who starts to appear around two thirds of the way through the book. Instead, the author could have perhaps only hinted at her return and shaved off most of the final 100 pages. Not only would this make Legacy of Ash a bit more of a manageable read, but it would have allowed the author to expand on this antagonist’s motivations and history a lot more in the subsequent book, rather than having her introduction be somewhat rushed, like it was in this book. Still, the inclusion of this final antagonist led to some rather intriguing and emotional moments, and it also sets up some potentially fantastic story arcs for one of the main characters in the next book in the series.

I also need to say how impressed with the massive and complex new fantasy landscape that Ward created for his debut series. Ward has come up with a number of unique and enjoyable elements for this fantasy world, which really add a lot to the story. The central location of the Tressian Republic was a lot of fun, as it is filled with all manner of perils, conflicting ideals, fermenting hatreds and a hidden death-worshipping criminal organisation, while also featuring a number of external or divine groups or threats at the same time. I felt that the author did a good job of introducing all of these unique elements throughout the book, and I was never too lost or confused by any of the inclusions.

I also really enjoyed the huge number of battle sequences that took place throughout this harsh fantasy landscape, especially those which were enhanced by the series’ unique fantasy inclusions. For example, one massive sequence featured two armies, one with magical constructs and the other with armoured rhinos, facing off against each other as strange and divine magics rain down chaos all around them. Other scenes include a number of different characters attempting to combat the eldritch-enhanced assassins of the mysterious Crowmarket, often resulting in some really impressive battles. I also liked how Ward utilised the multiple point-of-view characters during some of these longer conflicts, ensuring that the reader got to see both sides of the battle, as well as the various thoughts and fears of the characters involved. All of this ensured that the book was chocked full of intense and exciting fantasy action, which is always a plus in my book.

Legacy of Ash by Matthew Ward was an extremely well-written and addictive fantasy debut, which I am very glad I made the effort to read cover-to-cover. Full of some excellent characters, a multi-faceted story and an intriguing new fantasy landscape, the first book in the Legacy trilogy was a really great read, and I had a lot of fun getting through it. Ward has a lot of potential as a fantasy author, and I am quite excited to see where this series goes next.