Star Trek: More Beautiful Than Death by David Mack

Star Trek More Beautiful than Death Cover

Publisher: Simon & Schuster Audio (Audiobook – 11 August 2020)

Series: Star Trek – Kelvin Timeline – Book Two

Length: 8 hours and 16 minutes

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5

Prepare to once again dive into the alternate timeline version of the Star Trek universe, known as the Kelvin timeline, in this latest exciting tie-in novel from acclaimed author David Mack, Star Trek: More Beautiful Than Death.

Set shortly after the events of the 2009 Star Trek film, in which the planet of Vulcan was destroyed by the mad Romulan Nero, Captain James T. Kirk is now captain of USS Enterprise.  Given a new mission, the Enterprise and its crew are ordered to rendezvous with Spock’s father, Ambassador Sarek, and escort him to the planet of Akiron.  Akiron, a resource-rich world containing a substantial amount of dilithium, has recently sent out a distress signal to the Federation, who are hoping to exchange aid for favourable trading rights.

Arriving at Akiron, they find the planet in a state of chaos as the population are under attack by demonic dark-energy creatures, known as wights, who strike from the darkness, eat energy, and appear to suck the life right out of any living being.  Determined to save the people of Akiron no matter what, Kirk begins his preparations to investigate the wights.  However, before he can act, Sarek orders Kirk to abandon the mission and leave Akiron.

Refusing to obey Sarek’s orders, Kirk attempts to find the cause of the terrible events on Akiron and save who he can.  With the help of an old mystic who believes that Kirk has faced the wights in his prior lives the Enterprise crew are soon able to discover the source of the wights on Akiron and the deadly potential their invasion has.  As Kirk and his crew attempt to save the entirety of the planet they must overcome several deadly attacks as well as the sinister agenda of Sarek’s Vulcan aide, L’Nel, who hatches a dangerous personal plan to kill Spock.  Can the Kirk and the Enterprise succeed, or will darkness engulf everything it touches?

Over the last couple of years, I have had a great pleasure of reading/listening to several amazing pieces of Star Trek fiction and I always love seeing the unique and varied tales that the talented team of tie-in authors can come up with.  More Beautiful Than Death is an excellent example of this as it features a fantastic and captivating tale of exploration and desperation within an interesting part of the Star Trek canon.  This latest novel is written by a true veteran of Star Trek fiction, David Mack, who has not only written a ton of different tie-in novels but who also has writing credits for two episodes of Star Trek: Deep Space NineMore Beautiful Than Death is set in the alternate timeline introduced in the 2009 film Star Trek, known as the Kelvin timeline.  This is the second Kelvin timeline novel I have read this year after previously enjoying The Unsettling Stars, and it set between the events of Star Trek and Star Trek: Into DarknessMore Beautiful Than Death ended up being an impressive and exciting Star Trek novel, and I had an amazing time listening to it.

Mack has come up with an excellent narrative for More Beautiful Than Death which sees the crew of this alternate timeline Enterprise attempt to defend an alien planet from a series of demonic creatures.  The author writes this much like an episode of a Star Trek series, with the crew arriving at the planet, analysing the situation, facing all manner of conflicts, getting beat up and then engaging in a course of action to save the day.  I felt that this worked extremely well for the novel and readers are treated to a captivating and dramatic science fiction story that easily keeps the attention from start to finish.  The stakes are high throughout More Beautiful Than Death, and Mack keeps the tension and excitement going through much of the book, focusing both on the mission at hand and on the contentious personalities aboard the ship.  There are a number awesome action-packed sequences throughout the book, and I especially enjoyed the various scenes that showed the Enterprise being attacked by the wights, forcing the crew to flee from an opponent they cannot even touch.  There is also a particularly good subplot around the Vulcan characters aboard the Enterprise, with the mysterious character of L’Nel apparently plotting to kill Spock.  I really enjoyed the way that Mack explored this subplot, showing L’Nel’s attack on Spock as a prelude to the rest of the book, and then slowly exploring the events that led up to it in the main story.  This subplot combined with the main narrative extremely well and the result is a deeply compelling overall novel that I had an amazing time listening to.

Like many Star Trek tie-in novels, More Beautiful Than Death is best enjoyed by those readers who have some familiarity with the franchise.  However, I felt that Mack made his latest book extremely accessible to new readers, and anyone can have a great time enjoying the fast-paced and intriguing novel with minimal knowledge of Star Trek lore.  There are a lot of fun Star Trek elements associated with this novel, and I really enjoyed the author’s intriguing additions to the canon.  Not only does this book serve as an excellent follow-up to the 2009 movie, showing the early missions of this younger Enterprise crew, but Mack also utilises the alternate timeline setting of this novel to come up with clever alterations to the classic Star Trek lore.  One part of the book’s narrative ends up being an extremely ingenious homage to a key episode of The Original Series.  Mack cleverly inserts this compelling altered version of this episode throughout the book, and it was deeply fascinating to see it unfold, especially as the events of the Star Trek film have ensured it is sufficiently different.  This revision of a classic Star Trek episode was extremely impressive and it was one of my favourite parts of the entire book.  All of this makes for an amazing Star Trek read, and fans of the franchise are in for a real treat with this book.

In addition to some cool call-backs to The Original Series, Mack also does an exceptional job bringing the Kelvin timeline versions of the Enterprise crew to life.  The author ensures that all of the main characters in this book are portrayed slightly differently to how they are in The Original Series.  For example, Kirk is a lot more impulsive, younger and combative than the classic version.  Spock is a little stiffer, as he has only been influenced by Kirk a short while.  Uhura is a lot more combative and emotional, mainly due to her relationship with Spock.  Scotty is a lot more humorous, channelling his inner Simon Pegg, while McCoy is a lot gruffer and even more reluctant to get involved in the usual crazy Enterprise adventures (if that was possible).  All this makes for a tie-in novel that is a lot more in line with the newer generation of films and I personally appreciated the effort from the author.  I was tad disappointed that Sulu and Chekhov were not featured as heavily as the other major characters in the novel (something I have noticed in other Star Trek tie-in novels), but this was still a great novel for Star Trek characters.

I also appreciated how Mack takes the time to explore the psyches of several of his major characters, especially as it produces some compelling and dramatic results.  This includes a deep dive into this version of Captain Kirk, such as exploring his mental state after the events of the 2009 film, with a particular focus on the guilt and hopelessness he felt over watching the destruction of Vulcan, which has made him more determined to save entire worlds.  There is also an intriguing inclusion about Kirk’s past lives, with a couple featured as part of the plot.  This leads into some great discussion about how the character is destined to be thrust into great and tumultuous events, which I quite enjoyed.  Spock also gets a major focus in More Beautiful Than Death, thanks to the author’s inclusion of other Vulcan characters like Sarek and L’Nel.  Spock’s complicated relationship with his father and other Vulcans is a major theme throughout the novel, and aspects of his life aboard the Enterprise, particularly Spock’s romantic attachment to Uhura and his loyalty to Kirk, increase the tension.  This adds an excellent amount of drama to the narrative and it plays extremely well into the clever subplot around L’Nel, resulting in an intriguing and compelling narrative arc.  I had a great time diving down into several of these characters, and it helped to produce a much more complete and emotionally driven narrative.

As I do with most Star Trek books, I ended up checking out More Beautiful Than Death in its audiobook format rather than getting a physical copy.  The More Beautiful Than Death audiobook has a run-time of just over eight hours, making it an extremely easy audiobook to get through quickly.  I had an amazing time listening to this audiobook, especially as it features the vocal talents of the outstanding Robert Petkoff.  I have mentioned Petkoff before in several my reviews as he is the go-to narrator for any piece of Star Trek fiction that gains an audiobook format, due to his fantastic ability to perfectly replicate the cast members of both The Original Series and The Next Generation television shows.  Petkoff did another exceptional job in More Beautiful Than Death, expertly bringing every key member of the Enterprise’s crew to life and providing fantastic voices for each of them.  While they do sound more like The Original Series cast than the actors from the 2009 Star Trek film, this was still excellent work from Petkoff, and listeners are well aware which character is speaking at every point in the audiobook.  I also liked the voices that Petkoff utilised for the various supporting characters in More Beautiful Than Death, and there are some great differentiation in tones between the various alien species, such as for the Vulcan characters Sarek and L’Nel.  All of this makes for an epic listen, and Star Trek fans are strongly advised to check out More Beautiful Than Death in its audiobook format.

With his latest novel, David Mack continues to explore and add to the Star Trek expanded universe, this time diving into the intriguing Kelvin timeline.  More Beautiful Than Death is an excellent and entertaining read that takes the reader on a gripping adventure in space.  Thanks to the author’s excellent use of characters, Star Trek elements and his fantastic and unique narrative, More Beautiful Than Death is a fantastic Star Trek tie-in novel which will really appeal to established fans of this franchise.  Highly recommended.

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.

Usagi Yojimbo: Volume 34: Bunraku and Other Stories by Stan Sakai

Usagi Yojimbo Bunraku and Other Stories Cover

Publisher: IDW Publishing (Paperback – 21 April 2020)

Writer, Artist and Letterer: Stan Sakai

Colourist: Tom Luth

Series: Usagi Yojimbo – Book 34

Length: 178 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

It is once again that wonderful time of the year when the brand-new volume of the ongoing comic series, Usagi Yojimbo, comes out. Legendary comic creator Stan Sakai returns with the 34th volume in this series, Bunraku and Other Stories, which contains four epic and entertaining stories taking place in the unique setting of a version of feudal Japan inhabited by anthropomorphic animals.

Usagi Yojimbo #1

Those who are familiar with my blog will know that I am a massive fan of the Usagi Yojimbo series, having read all of the comics that have been released, and this is easily one of my favourite series at the moment. I have been eagerly reading these comics for years, and since starting this blog I have been enjoying reviewing entries in the series, such as the prior two volumes, Mysteries and The Hidden (Mysteries was actually the first comic I ever reviewed on this blog), as well as some of the older volumes of the comic. As a result, I was extremely keen to get a copy of the new volume, and Bunraku and Other Stories was one of the top books I wanted to check out this autumn.

This latest volume is a rather special one, as it contains the first Usagi Yojimbo issues that Sakai has written for IDW Publishing. This series has been published by Dark Horse Comics since 1997, and their style was similar to that of the publisher before them, Fantagraphics Books. This move to IDW Publishing brings with it some very intriguing stylistic changes, namely that fact that each issue is now completely in colour. This is a massive departure from the previous entries in the series, each of which were originally released in black and white, and it brings the stories to life in a whole new manner. In order to do this, the series now employs a colourist, Tom Luth, who previously worked on Groo the Wanderer with Sakai. In addition, this latest volume is also physically different from all the previous volumes, as Bunraku and Other Stories is noticeably taller, which surprised me a bit when I saw it the first time, and which is seriously going to mess up aesthetics of my bookshelf. However, having the taller volume allows for slightly bigger panels than were typically featured in the previous Usagi Yojimbo stories, which I quite enjoyed.

Usagi Yojimbo #2

However, even with some of these physical changes, this is still the same old Usagi Yojimbo. Sakai has once again produced some outstanding and deeply enjoyable stories, equipped with his trademark art style and his fantastic and loveable characters. Bunraku and Other Stories contains Issues #1-7 of the new, IDW Publishing, run on the series, and is made up of four separate stories.

The first of these stories is titled Bunraku, and it is the main story of this entire volume, made up of the first three issues. In this story, Usagi is enjoying a bunraku, a traditional Japanese puppet play, when he encounters an old acquaintance, Sasuke, the Demon Queller. Sasuke’s endless hunt for demons and monsters has led him to the bunraku theatre, where he senses that a new evil has taken hold. Despite his reluctance to get involved in another one of Sasuke’s dangerous missions, Usagi agrees to help, especially after they find a corpse that has been supernaturally drained of its life energy. Together, Usagi and Sasuke find that a dangerous and malevolent being has infected the bunraku theatre, and they must do everything in their power to end it.

Usagi Yojimbo #3

Bunraku serves as an exciting and compelling first story in this volume, and I quite enjoyed its supernatural storyline. The Usagi Yojimbo series has a rich history of featuring Japan’s various supernatural monsters and demons in its narratives, and this is easily one of the better ones they have done. The antagonists of this story are rather creepy, and they serve as extremely deadly opponents to Usagi, who finds himself dramatically outclassed at several points throughout the story. I also liked the return of Sasuke, who has shown up in several supernatural storylines since his first appearance back in volume 14. Sasuke is a rather distinctive and intriguing character in this series, as he has dedicated his life to hunting and destroying demons and monsters, many of whom are opponents far beyond normal samurai like Usagi. Despite his tremendous magical powers, Sasuke often finds himself severely drained after each fight, but his drive to complete his mission spurs him on, despite how weary or physically weakened he becomes. Usagi and Sasuke have some interesting interactions throughout this story, as Usagi has become more wary of Sasuke after their last several encounters. Sasuke insists that Usagi helps him once again, and even guilts Usagi into working with him, which makes for a very unusual team dynamic. I thought it made sense that Usagi would be reluctant to get involved, as he or someone he loves has nearly died each time Sasuke has appeared so far. There was also a rather interesting moment when their antagonist asks Sasuke if Usagi was being groomed to replace him, a question that Sasuke does not provide an answer to, and which makes me think we will be seeing a lot more of this character in the future.

One of the more intriguing aspects of the story of Bunraku is the fascinating examination and depiction of the bunraku puppet shows. I always love it when Sakai highlights cool aspects of Japanese history, culture or industry in his stories, and this entry was really amazing. The whole concept of a life-size puppet theatre was really intriguing, and Sakai did a great job examining it, showing what sort of stories they produced and how elaborate their performances could be. This unique art form also turned out to be an awesome basis for this horror adventure story, and I really liked how Sakai worked it into the plot. I also really enjoyed the artwork contained within this first story, and Sakai has come up with some rather impressive sequences and scenes that not only do a fantastic job conveying the action that is occurring but which really highlight the horror aspect of the narrative. The various supernatural opponents in this book are shown to be quite scary and threatening, and I loved the way that Usagi’s face looked absolutely terrified as he fought against them. The use of colour in this first story is also extremely cool, and I loved how it helped bring the whole story to life. I particularly liked the way that the colour really enhanced all of Sasuke’s magical abilities and made them look that much more distinctive and mystical. There is one amazing sequence in which Sasuke turns his sword into flames, which looked so damn awesome and it put me in mind of that one iconic scene from the recent Demon Slayer anime. All in all, this was an outstanding and enjoyable first story in this volume, and readers are in for a real treat right of the bat.

Usagi Yojimbo #4

The next story that is featured within this volume is the two-issue tale, The Hero. In this entry, Usagi, still journeying across the countryside, has encountered an interesting fellow traveller, a famed author who is journeying to her father’s house. The author, Lady Mura, has written several novels, including a tragic tale of heroism that she lets Usagi read. As the two travel together, Usagi learns that Mura is the wife of a high-ranking samurai who is jealous of his wife’s writing ability, as the fame she gains from that far exceeds his reputation as a warrior. While Usagi is able to protect Mura from many of the dangers on the road, including bandits, how will he react when he encounters her husband, especially as the strict rules of honour that bind all samurai forbids him from interfering?

This is a rather heavy and clever story that I think is potentially the best entry in the entire volume. Sakai has crafted together an excellently written and well-thought out narrative that cuts deep into the reader’s emotional core before the end. The character of Lady Mura is an extremely tragic figure, as even after all Usagi does to protect her, her story still ends in heartbreak, just like all her novels. Despite how her story ends, she is able to pass on some inspiration to Usagi about the true nature of a hero, which is how she sees Usagi. There are some really intriguing discussions about the code of the samurai that binds all the major characters within this story, and the problems and compromises that occur because of it are in full display throughout The Hero. I also think that Sakai came up with a perfect ending for the entire story, which felt extremely satisfying, considering what had happened throughout the course of the narrative. The artwork in this story is also really cool, as not only do you have some of the most impressive depictions of the varied and beautiful feudal Japanese landscape (which look so impressive in colour) but you also have some amazing scenes that show fragments of Lady Mura’s novels. These scenes place Usagi in the role of the hero of the classic story (Sakai has done something similar in prior stories like My Lord’s Daughter in the sixth volume, Circles) and show him taking on an undead horde and their evil master, and they are some amazing drawn sequences. The Hero is a truly great story, and I think that Sakai has done an outstanding job coming up with this tragic and heartfelt tale.

Usagi Yojimbo #5

The next story, Adachi, is one of the more interesting entries in this volume, and it was one that I was curious to check out. This story was actually written in commemoration of the 35th anniversary of the series and features a fresh take on the very first Usagi Yojimbo story, The Goblin of Adachigahara, which I previously reviewed in the first volume, The Ronin. In this new version of the story, Usagi returns to the scene of one of his greatest personal tragedies, the battle of Adachigahara Plain (or Adachi Plain in later Usagi Yojimbo stories), where his lord, Mifune, died after one of his generals betrayed him. In the course of this battle, Usagi, who served as Lord Mifune’s bodyguard, was able to perform an essential service by fleeing the battlefield with Mifune’s head, keeping it out of the hands of the treacherous general and the evil Lord Hikiji. Usagi has journeyed back to this place to pay respects to the place he buried his late lord’s head, which only he knows the location of. However, he senses that he is being watched and continues his journey, eventually seeking shelter at the hut of an old lady, who warns him of a goblin that haunts the mountain. Later that night, the goblin attacks the house, trying to kill Usagi, but Usagi is able to trick him and engage him in a fair fight. The goblin is revealed to be the general who betrayed Mifune, who was disgraced and banished by Lord Hikiji due to Usagi’s actions in denying Hikiji his lord’s head. Now determined to claim Mifune’s head and claim what is owed to him, the goblin seeks to kill Usagi, who manages to win, thanks to the help of the old lady, revealed to be the general’s wife, who has remained in exile with him.

This is a really interesting updated version of the story, which I quite enjoyed reading. The whole story is actually a combination of three prior Usagi Yojimbo stories, with some new elements thrown in. The first part of the story, which shows Usagi reliving the events of Adachi Plain, utilises parts from two stories, including Samurai (which appeared in the second volume, Samurai) and Return to Adachi Plain (which appeared in the 11th volume, Seasons). This combination provided a much richer examination of the battle, especially Usagi’s role within it, and I think the two separate sequences merged together well, while also looking even more impressive in colour. The story then continues to focus on the events that previously occurred within The Goblin of Adachigahara, although there are some interesting additions. This includes the goblin deliberately targeting Usagi, due to his role in his dishonour, and Usagi finding out the identity of his attacker before killing him. Knowing that this is the general who betrayed his beloved lord adds a whole new emotional element to the story for Usagi, and their fight is a lot more vicious and elaborate. I also liked the way that Sakai spent time enhancing the visuals surrounding the goblin. While he looked rather cool in the original story, in Adachi, Sakai has made him look even more awesome and intimidating, especially in colour. I also found it interesting that Sakai has turned this whole event into a more recent story in Usagi’s timeline, rather than being an event that occurred quite early in his adventures. The change in the chronology is intriguing, especially as there is a rather great scene in the middle where Usagi, upon visiting the grave his former lord, begs to be released from his vow of service, perhaps so that he can pledge fealty to his friend, Lord Noriyuki of the Geishu Clan. Overall, I thought that this was a clever new take on a classic Usagi Yojimbo story, and fans of this series will appreciate this anniversary special.

Usagi Yojimbo #6

The fourth and final story in this volume is The Swords of the Higashi, which serves as a light-hearted and entertaining conclusion to this volume. The Swords of the Higashi sees the always amusing Usagi Yojimbo side character, Gen, involved in a whole new batch of trouble. This time, Gen and his occasional partner Stray Dog are attempting to recover two extremely valuable stolen swords from a group of bandits. Killing the bandits, the two bounty hunters run into Usagi, who decides to accompany them back to the sword’s owners, the Higashi clan. However, the three ronin make the mistake of leaving one of the bandits alive, and they must contend with a continued flurry of attacks as they make their way back to town.

Now this was a fun and enjoyable story that I found to be extremely hilarious. There are several great elements to this story that I really enjoyed, including the fantastic use of the three main characters, Usagi, Gen and Stray Dog, and their banter as they wander the wilderness is rather entertaining. There is also the really funny extended sequence which sees the characters come under constant attack from bandits and bounty hunters as they attempt to return the blades. Each of these attacks is led by the same bandit, who finds the three companions, gets his cohorts to attack them, and then runs away in a panic when the protagonists win, only to return with a new group of bandits and repeat the cycle a short time later. This repeated turn of events is extremely funny, mainly due to the ridiculousness of the situation and because of the way that Usagi and his friends get more and more exhausted and exasperated with each new cycle. Sakai does an amazing job of making all three protagonists look scruffier and more dispirited with each new attack, and their reactions each time are deeply entertaining, from the way that Stray Dog keeps yelling at Gen for it being his fault, Gen’s growing resentment and frustration at the bandit whose life he saved, and the usual stoic Usagi getting more and more exhausted with each fight: “I’ve been through battles less tiring than today!”. Sakai wraps this whole amusing episode up with a rather clever conclusion to the story, which sees another classic Usagi Yojimbo side character get the best of everyone, and which makes all of Usagi, Gen and Stray Dog’s effort be for nought, which is just so mean considering all they went through. This was an outstanding story that had me laughing the entire way through, and I thought it was the perfect way to end this entire volume.

Usagi Yojimbo #7

The latest Usagi Yojimbo volume, Bunraku and Other Stories, is another incredible comic from Stan Sakai that I absolutely loved. Sakai has once again produced several exciting and clever stories, filled with great characters, powerful emotional moments, clever examinations of classic Japanese culture and a number of visually stunning sequences, which are so much fun to read. With the comics now in full and glorious colour, this was an outstanding new entry in the series, and is a must read for all Usagi Yojimbo fans. It gets a full five-star rating from me and comes highly recommended.

Throwback Thursday: Usagi Yojimbo: Volume 6: Circles by Stan Sakai

Usagi Yojimbo Circles

Publisher: Fantagraphics Books (Paperback – 1994)

Series: Usagi Yojimbo – Book Six

Length: 164 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Reviewed as part of 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 latest Throwback Thursday, after reviewing Lone Goat and Kid a couple of weeks ago, I am still in a Usagi Yojimbo mood, so I thought I would check out the sixth volume of this fantastic comic book series, Circles.

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Circles is another fun and exciting addition to this excellent series which I honestly cannot praise enough (although I have been trying very hard in my last several Throwback Thursday articles). This sixth volume once again presents the reader with several outstanding and inventive stories that chronicle the adventures of the rabbit samurai, Miyamoto Usagi, as he journeys around a unique version of historical Japan. This volume contains five separate stories, derived from issues #25 – 31 of the Fantagraphics Books run on the Usagi Yojimbo series, as well as a short story taken from Critters number #50 (a comic magazine that had some early Usagi Yojimbo appearances). There are some rather amazing stories featured within this volume, and I had an incredible time reading them.

The first story contained within this sixth volume is called The Bridge, which sees Usagi encountering a demon out of Japanese folklore. During a dark a stormy night, Usagi is entering a village from across a bridge when suddenly he lashes out with his sword behind him, convinced something is sneaking up on him. When he finds nothing there, Usagi shrugs it off and enters the nearest inn, only to learn from the villagers that the bridge he just crossed has been possessed by a demon, and Usagi’s back now bears the claw marks of the demon. Awaking next morning, the villagers find a severed monstrous hand on the bridge, which Usagi appeared to have cut off the night before. Taking the hand into the inn, Usagi and villagers wait for a priest to arrive in order to perform an exorcism on the severed limb, but the demon of the bridge has other plans.

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This was a rather good supernatural story that sees Usagi go up against one of Japan’s many demons and monsters. Several significant elements from this story are taken from the story of the demon of Rashomon Gate, including the severing of the arm and the demon disguising itself as an old woman to recover its severed limb (although unlike the samurai in the legend, Usagi doesn’t fall for it). The demonic antagonist of this story is rather sinister in its drawing style and methods of attack, and it proves to be a dangerous opponent for Usagi. I love the extended fight on the bridge, and I especially enjoyed the way that the whole event ended, providing a side-character in the story their moment of vengeance. Overall, this was a tight, well-written story that was a lot of fun to read.

The next story in this volume is titled The Duel, and, as the name suggests, it features some duels between samurai. Usagi arrives in a village and is challenged to a public duel by the local champion while the watching villagers place bets with a travelling bookmaker, a duel that eventually results in Usagi’s opponent’s death. Completing the duel, Usagi meets and has lunch with a fellow unemployed samurai, Shubo, who subtly takes his measure. It is revealed that Shubo, who is a talented swordsman, is in league with the bookmaker who manipulates the odds of Shubo’s duels in order to make money off the betters. Shubo, who needs the money to provide for his wife and child, believes that he can beat Usagi, and the bookmaker inflates the odds in Usagi’s favour so that they can clean up when Shubo wins. Forcing Usagi into a duel, the two engage in a quick fight to death, with tragic results.

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This was a really clever and captivating single story that Sakai did an incredible job writing. The whole story concept is just brilliant, and Sakai sets it up and executes the plot brilliantly. There are some amazing scenes throughout The Duel, and the story features an excellent mix of comedy and tragedy which work together amazingly to produce a gripping narrative. Usagi, as the reluctant participant of this duel, is pissed at the entire affair, and his outraged reaction to the town people cheering his victory is rather good, especially as the peasants show over-the-top fake remorse in order to get him to go away so they can collect their winnings: “We are lower than the scum at the bottom of a stagnant pool!” While there is some fun and well-deserved karma coming down onto the bookkeeper who overextends himself and tries to escape, nothing quite takes away from the tragedy of Shubo’s wife and young child. The final panel of this story is incredibly heartbreaking, as it shows the wife and child waiting just outside the village for him to return. But as the light in the sky gets darker and darker, you can see the worry start to work its way onto the wife’s face, until she breaks down completely in the final panel, fully realising that her husband is dead. The wife comes across as a massively tragic character in this story, and the major impact that this final page has is a testament to how amazing Sakai’s storytelling and illustrations are.

The third story in the volume is the rather short entry, Yurei, which is the story that appeared in Critters. In this tale, Usagi, who is camping at the edge of a river, awakens to find a Yurei, a ghost, floating before him. The ghost imparts her tragic story to Usagi; she was betrayed and murdered by her husband, and she now seeks justice. Usagi then awakens and finds a woman’s hairpin on the ground next to him. Thinking his encounter with the ghost was just a dream, he travels to a nearby inn and attempts to trade the pin for a meal. What he does not realise is that the innkeeper is the murderous husband from the ghost’s tale, and his discovery of the pin leads to a series of deadly events. This was a good, fast-paced story which tells a compact and intriguing tale. I loved the supernatural elements in this story, and it was interesting to see Usagi portrayed as a tool of fate, who wonders into some ghostly revenge without even realising it. This was a fantastic short entry in this volume and was great to check out.

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The next entry in Circles is an entertaining and over-the-top tale titled My Lord’s Daughter. In this story, Usagi, who is telling a bedtime tale to children, is shown as the classic hero from Japanese legend, fighting through vast hordes of demons, monsters, and obstacles to rescue a beautiful princess from an Oni. This was a fun take on some of the traditional Japanese heroic legends, and it was cool to see Sakai draw a classic tale with Usagi as the protagonist. Sakai has some obvious fun setting the Usagi hero fearlessly against armies of demons and monsters, and he comes up with some clever fight sequences and scenes in this book, from a brutal duel with an Oni, to an underwater battle between Usagi, a shark and a giant octopus wielding several swords in its tentacles. This is an entertaining and exciting story, and I had a good laugh at the end reference to Sakai’s old comic, Groo the Wanderer.

Now let us get to the fifth story of this book, which is kind of the main event of the entire volume. This is a big story, told across four issues, titled Circles. This story follows Usagi as he returns home for the first time since the events of volume one, The Ronin. There are actually a couple of distinctive parts to this story, especially the first issue, which is somewhat separate from the rest of the story (with the exception of some build-up at the end). For this first part, Usagi, on his way back home, decides to stop at his old master’s house to pay his respects to the grave marker of Katsuichi, the man who taught him how to wield a blade. The story then shows a flashback, which serves as a continuation to part of the origin story Usagi told in the second Usagi Yojimbo volume, Samurai, about Usagi’s past. In the flashback, it is shown that Usagi’s master was ambushed and seemingly killed by members of the Dogora Fencing School after Usagi beat their students in a tournament. However, upon arriving at Katsuichi’s old house, he discovers that his master is still alive, having survived the ambush, and has taken on a new student. I liked this revisit of Usagi’s origin story with Katsuichi, although the whole death scene in the flashback comes a little bit out of nowhere. Still, it was interesting to see how much Usagi has matured since he was learning the way of the sword, and it was nice to see the teacher and student reuniting. The flashback sequence is also top quality, and Sakai illustrates up a storm in this one, showing a fierce battle and some intense emotions from Usagi, who goes from a full-on berserker rage as he gets his revenge on his master’s killer to an intense grief in just a few scenes.

Usagi 29

The story then continues as Usagi journeys back to his village, only to be confronted by his old childhood rival, Kenichi. It turns out that Jotaro, Kenichi’s son with Usagi’s former love, Mariko, has gone missing, and bandits are roaming the area. While Usagi and Kenichi are able to defend their town from a raiding party, the attackers reveal that Jotaro has been kidnapped by the bandits and are holding him hostage. Leading an army of local peasants against the bandit’s hideout, Kenichi and Usagi hope to rescue Jotaro and end the raids that have been plaguing them. However, what they do not realise is that the bandits are being led by the deranged and dangerous former adversary of Usagi, Jei, a mysterious and seemingly unkillable murder with a black blade, who hopes to use Jotaro to get his revenge on Usagi. But even Jei is not the most dangerous thing that lies ahead, as old resentments between Usagi and Kenichi, their shared love for Mariko and certain revelations may tear everything apart.

Wow, I have to say that the final three issues of Circles are just incredible. There is so much to unpack from them, as Sakai brings together a brilliant and powerful story. First of all, it was great to see Jei return as a villain once again. Jei, who was introduced in volume 3, The Wanderer’s Road, is an outstanding antagonist, and his continued feud with Usagi is just brilliant. The two engage in a fantastic and extended duel in this story, and Sakai did a fantastic job showing off each combatant’s skill and martial ability through his drawings. I also love the extensive battle between Kenichi’s peasant army and the bandits, which proved to be rather eye-catching. Not only is there a beautifully drawn sequence in the misty forest before the big battle in which Usagi does a great Jei impersonation to scare a bandit sentry, but Sakai illustrates a massive battle between the two forces. The massive single panel that shows the pitched battle is just impressive, and I love the detailed and entertaining scene that the author produced here.

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While all of the above is pretty amazing, what really makes this captivating story is the complex relationship between Usagi, Kenichi and Mariko. There are so many great layers plastered into this relationship. Usagi and Mariko were deeply in love when they were younger, and they still have great feelings for each other. However, Mariko ended up marrying Kenichi, and she is bound by duty, and her child, to him, no matter how she feels about Usagi. Kenichi, on the other hand, has always borne antagonism towards Usagi, which has been compounded over the years by their differences in skill and the fact that Usagi was chosen to serve Lord Mifune and left the village. However, Kenichi’s resentment towards Usagi is even greater, as he knows that Usagi is in love with his wife, and that these feelings are reciprocated by Mariko.

This leads to some outstanding scenes throughout this story, as these three try to come to terms with their complicated emotions. I particularly loved one scene in the middle of the story, where Usagi and Mariko discuss their feelings and reveal that they still both love each other, although Mariko makes it clear that they can never be together. The scene ends when Kenichi interrupts them, and while the look of heartbreak and shame on Mariko’s face is notable, what really gets me is the way that Kenichi’s usual stern/angry look is replaced with one of sad resignation in the last panel once he realises how Mariko still feels about Usagi. Despite this, Kenichi comes across in this story as a surprisingly honourable and well-intentioned character who puts aside his negative feelings for Usagi for the greater good, and it is a fantastic examination of a character who has mostly been antagonistic in the previous volumes. Sakai also drops a massive bombshell at the end of this story, when he reveals that Jotaro is actually Usagi’s son, and that Kenichi has known this and raised him as his own. Because of this, Mariko asks Usagi to leave and not try to settle down in their home village, as she fears it will put a wedge between Jotaro and Kenichi, who she sees as Jotaro’s true father. Usagi regretfully accepts this in another dramatic and captivating scene, although Mariko arranges for Usagi to see Jotaro as he leaves, and Usagi has a heartfelt time with his son, noting the similarities between them, and even suggesting Jotaro seek out Katsuichi as a teacher in later years. All of this is some first-rate storytelling and character development, and cannot praise Sakai enough for this amazing, emotional storyline. This is actually the last book that Kenichi and Mariko appear in (so far), and I think that Sakai did a fantastic job tying their love triangle together. All in all, Circles is easily my favourite story in this entire volume (The Duel comes close), and it is worth grabbing this volume just to check this key story out.

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It should come as no surprise to anyone considering all the praise I elicited above that I am giving this sixth volume of Usagi Yojimbo a full five star rating. This was another incredible comic book that features Sakai’s outstanding blend of powerful stories, memorable characters, intense action, fun references and depictions of traditional Japanese culture and history and some truly impressive artwork. I absolutely loved this volume, and this entire awesome series, comes highly recommended and is an unquestionable must-read.

House of Earth and Blood by Sarah J. Maas

House of Earth and Blood Cover

Publisher: Bloomsbury/Audible Studios (Audiobook – 3 March 2020)

Series: Crescent City – Book One

Lenght: 27 hours and 50 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Prepare to meet your new obsession! One of the world’s top young adult fantasy fiction authors, Sarah J. Maas, breaks into the adult fantasy fiction genre in a big way with the first book in her brand-new Crescent City series.

Sarah J. Maas is an author that needs very little introduction. She is one of the most highly regarded young adult fantasy authors in the world today, having written two major bestselling series and a couple of standalone young adult novels. Maas debuted in 2012 with Throne of Glass, the first novel in her acclaimed seven-book long Throne of Glass series, and she has since gone on to write a second major series, A Court of Thorns and Roses. I have been meaning to check out some of Maas’s main series for a while now, especially Throne of Glass, as I have heard some very good things about them. Unfortunately, the only book of Maas’s that I have so far read was her DC Comics tie-in novel, Catwoman: Soulstealer, which I really enjoyed, especially as Maas had an amazing understanding of some iconic comic characters. As a result, I was interested when I heard about her new book, House of Earth and Blood, and I was curious to see how her first adult fiction novel would turn out. This is the first book in the Crescent City series, which presumably will be the author’s main body of work for the next few years. I received a physical copy of this book to review, although I eventually decided to listen to the audiobook format to fit it into my reading schedule, and I have to say I was rather impressed.

Welcome to Crescent City, a bustling metropolis where magic and technology meet in a world ruled over by all-powerful godlike creatures. Bryce Quinlan is a half-Fae, half-human, party girl at the low end of her world’s magical hierarchy, content to live her days clubbing and celebrating with her best friend, the powerful werewolf Alpha Danika Fendyr. All that changes the night Danika and her entire wolf pack are brutally slaughtered while Bryce is out partying. Bryce arrives home just in time to encounter the demon that committed the act, chasing it out into the streets before it escapes, never to be seen again.

Two years later, Bryce is a shell of her former self. Still reeling from the death of the closest person in her life, Bryce finds herself without direction or purpose. However, the revelation that a fresh wave of killings that mirror the bloody way Danika and her pack were taken out quickly changes that. Due to her experiences with the unknown species of demon and her intimate knowledge of Danika’s movements and history, Bryce is tasked by the governor of Crescent City to find who or what is summoning the destructive demons and unleashing them upon seemingly random members of the populace. However, Bryce will not be working on this case alone, as she finds herself teamed up with the governor’s personal assassin, the brooding, dangerous and surprisingly attractive fallen angel, Hunt Athalar.

Begrudgingly agreeing to work together, Bryce and Hunt start to scour the dark underbelly of their city, attempting to find any leads to who summoned the demon. However, they soon run afoul of many of Crescent City’s inhabitants, some of whom do not want the pair to uncover the truth. As they dig further, they begin to uncover a terrible conspiracy with terrible connections to Bryce’s traumatic past and which threatens all of Crescent City. However, the closer they come to the truth, the more pain and torment the two damaged souls uncover, especially as both of them try to fight the intense feelings blooming between them. With the fate of Crescent City hanging in the balance, can Bryce and Hunt get to the bottom of these killings, or will they be overwhelmed by all the hurt that is about to come their way?

Well damn, that turned out to be one hell of a book. I do have to admit that I’m not usually a fan of major romantic subplots in the novels I read (I know, typical male, Bryce would probably be calling me an Alphahole), and I was a little apprehensive that the romantic angles described in the book’s synopsis would overwhelm the fantasy story. However, any doubts I had about whether I was going to enjoy House of Earth and Blood were quickly blown away in the early stages of the story, especially once I hit the major plot development about 70 pages in. From there I was absolutely hooked on the story, as Maas kept piling on revelations, shocking moments, character development and an impressive murder mystery. I ended up really loving this amazing novel, and I ended up giving it a five-star rating.

I really enjoyed the way that Maas told this story, and this book contained an expansive and deeply addictive narrative that proved hard to put down at times. House of Earth and Blood is told from several character perspectives, most notably Bryce and Hunt, although quite a bit of the story is shown from the perspective of Bryce’s half-brother, Ruhn Danaan. Having these three main point-of-view characters results in a much more expansive story, as each of them has their own contributions to the plot, although there is a huge amount of crossover between each of their storylines. While Mass tends to focus most of her character development and storylines around Bryce, Hunt and Ruhn, there are a number of additional supporting characters, some of whom have some rather interesting roles throughout the book. Maas also includes a huge amount of foreshadowing throughout the book, hinting at several things that are to come further along in the narrative. While it is obvious where some of this foreshadowing is going, some of it was only noticeable in hindsight, and some of these more subtle inclusions made me really appreciate the author’s clever writing style.

One of the best things about this book was the incredible and intriguing new fantasy world. The Crescent City series is set on a version of Earth called Midgard, which was invaded thousands of years ago by vast armies of various magical creatures, ending humankind’s dominance of the planet. The modern world of Midgard is a chaotic and fascinating place, filled will all manner of magic and creatures who live in a hierarchal system, with all-powerful beings at the top and humans at the very bottom. There are so many cool elements to this world, from the unique magical systems, the different factions and organisations, and a vast multitude of different magical creatures with their own traits and characteristics. Maas dedicates a substantial amount of time exploring all these different elements of her new world, and the result is an impressive and vast setting which serves as a fantastic backdrop to this exciting story. I also liked the rather fun similarities between this fantasy world and the modern world, and it was interesting to see fantasy creatures running around with modern technology such as phones and guns. I also had a rather good laugh at some of the television shows that the author featured in the book, including a rather trashy-sounding True Blood inspired television show, which was made fun of relentlessly for its sexual content (which is kind of ironic considering how much sex was in this novel). Maas is clearly a master of universe building, and she has come up with a really great fantasy world that holds a lot of potential for future novels in the series, as well as opening up the possibilities of spin-off stories around some of the fantastic side characters introduced. I personally would love to see a novel based around the character of Fury Axtar, the mysterious assassin friend of Bryce, who has a minor role in the book.

In addition, Maas has also come up with a rather clever murder mystery storyline that I had an outstanding time unwrapping. The vast majority of House of Earth and Blood’s plot revolves around the murder of Danika Fendyr and her pack, as well as the similar murders that are occurring in the modern day. The subsequent investigation by Bryce and Hunt turned into a rather captivating storyline, as they explored the underbelly of their fascinating city, trying to find leads and uncover who had a motive to kill Danika. This whole mystery storyline goes to some very interesting places, and Maas comes up with a number of red herrings, alternate suspects, potential leads and side mysteries (a missing magical horn and a new street drug), all of which come together into a pretty incredible and clever narrative. I was actually rather surprised about who the culprit turned out to be, although Maas does set up the reveal rather well, and there are some rather clever hints in hindsight. That being said, while I didn’t know who the culprit was in advance, I totally knew where the final showdown with them was going to take place, and how the whole confrontation was bound to go down (there was a literal Chekov’s gun there). Still, it turned into quite a good confrontation scene, and I had a good laugh at the over-the-top way that the villain was taken down for good. This was a rather impressive element of the story, and I hope that Maas includes some more clever mysteries in her future books.

While I really loved the fantastic story, incredible world building and captivating mystery, the true centre of this book are the two compelling and exceedingly damaged main characters who Maas sets the story around, Bryce Quinlan and Hunt Athalar. Maas does some outstanding work setting these characters up, exploring their pasts and developing their personalities and emotions throughout the book. Bryce starts House of Earth and Blood as a seemingly carefree party girl with major daddy issues. However, the loss of Danika in the book’s first act severely changes her, as she has to deal with an extreme amount of guilt, isolation and social hatred in the following two years. This really alters her as a character and turns her into an extremely vulnerable person with a real emotional investment in the case, who hides all her true feelings behind a sassy and angry façade. Hunt, on the other hand, is a powerful fallen angel who lost his freedom and the love of his life in a failed rebellion against the ruling gods of the planet, and has spent the last several decades being tortured and used by the victorious archangels, and is now the personal assassin of the governor of Crescent City. Now known throughout the city as the Umbra Mortis, the Shadow of Death, Hunt is a simmering pot of anger who is resentful of how he has been treated all his life, and who is determined to be set free. Like Bryce, he is deeply invested in solving the case, as its resolution will allow him to take a serious step towards freedom, and on the surface he is the more serious of the duo. However, also like Bryce, Hunt has some major vulnerabilities and he is hurting deep inside. Both Bryce and Hunt are incredibly interesting protagonists, and I am really impressed with the layers that Maas was able bring to their characters, which added a significant amount to the story.

While Bryce and Hunt are amazing characters in their own right, the real magic comes when they are paired together. It is obvious from the start that these two are going to hook up at some point, but the journey to get there was written extremely well. The combination of these two exceedingly vulnerable and complex characters in the story is great, and it makes for some incredible and dramatic story moments, as Bryce and Hunt slowly work out all their issues and history. The way they slowly go from dislike to mutual respect to lust/romance is accompanied with a slow exchange of secrets, facts and personality reveals, and I had an amazing time seeing them come together as a couple. This turned into quite a good romantic subplot, although the two of them have some major bumps and betrayals along the way. Still, there are some rather nice moments in their relationship, from the way that they take care of each other after traumatic events, to funny reveals and mutual moments of protecting one and other. Bryce and Hunt make for a great pair, and I am really impressed with the way that Maas portrayed them and the complex story she wove around them. It looks like there are more secrets and backgrounds about both coming up in the future books, and I am looking forward to seeing where Maas takes them in the future.

While this book had some amazing elements, I did find this novel to be a tad trashy at times. As I mentioned above, this is Maas’s first foray into non-young adult fiction, and she certainly did not shy away from adding all manner of adult content into her book. While I can certainly appreciate Maas wanting to differentiate this book from some of her young-adult fiction work, I honestly think she overcompensated. This book is filled with a huge amount of adult language and sexual content, as pretty much every character in this book is crude, rude, oversexed and incredibly thirsty. While some of this served a purpose, such as showing what sort of party-girl character Bryce was before the traumatic incident, the sheer amount of stuff that Maas included was a bit over the top, and I found it to be somewhat distracting at times. This book also introduced me to the brand-new term, Alphahole. In the context of this book, an Alphahole is the term that Bryce gives to any magical male who thinks that their abilities and power give them the right to control women and run their lives, especially those women with less magical power than them (i.e. humans and half-humans like Bryce). Unfortunately, in this book pretty much every male that Bryce encounters is an Alphahole in her opinion; even the more redeemable characters like Hunt or Ruhn are deemed Alphaholes at the start of the novel, especially once they venture an opinion about her behaviour or actions. While I appreciate that this dislike for domineering men is part of Bryce’s character due to her father, and controlling guys really aren’t that cool in either fiction or real life, I do think that Maas kind of overdid their inclusion just a bit and I was honestly getting sick of hearing Alphahole as a descriptive term by the end of the book (although it became less apparent as the story progressed).

As I mentioned above, I ended up listening to the audiobook version of House of Earth and Blood. This audiobook has a runtime of 27 hours and 50 minutes and is narrated by Elizabeth Evans. I am rather glad that I decided to check out this format of the book. While I probably would have finished it off faster if I had read a physical copy (it took me a few weeks to get through the audiobook), I always feel that I absorb more of the novel when I listen to it, especially with longer books. This proved to be really useful when listening to House of Earth and Blood, as Maas packed so much plot and world building into this immense novel, and I think I ended up getting more out of this book by utilising this format. I have to say that I was also immensely impressed with Elizabeth Evans’s narration. Evans did an incredible job bringing the story to life, and her steady and emotional dictation of the story really helped me get to the end. I really loved the cool voices that Evans was able to come up with for all the characters, and I think that each of them matched the distinctive personalities of each character. Evans produced a huge range of different voices for these characters, and I really liked how she was able to alter them to reflect the ethereal or magical nature of some of the characters featured in the book, as well as hint at how powerful some of these creatures were by modulating her tone and adding a commanding quality to it. This was an impressive and deeply enjoyable audiobook adaptation, and I would strongly recommend it to anyone interested in enjoying House of Earth and Blood. That being said, be careful where you listen to this book, as it can be a little awkward to hear some of the steamy sex scenes when you are out in public. I somehow managed to be out shopping during two separate and particularly graphic scenes, and it proved very hard to keep a straight face while I was trying to grab groceries.

House of Earth and Blood is an incredible adult fiction debut from Sarah J. Maas, who has produced another outstanding and captivating read. There are so many excellent and enjoyable story elements in this book, and I absolutely loved every second I spend listening to it, even though some parts were a little over the top at times. This was an awesome start to Maas’s new Crescent City series, and I cannot wait to see what impressive and addictive story the author comes up with next. This novel comes highly recommended, and it gets a full five-star rating from me.

Deathwatch: Shadowbreaker by Steve Parker

Deathwatch Shadowbreaker Cover

Publisher: Black Library (Audiobook – 25 April 2019)

Series: Warhammer 40,000/Deathwatch – Book Two

Length: 16 hours and 37 minutes

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Prepare to dive into the extended universe of Warhammer 40,000 (Warhammer 40K or 40K), as science fiction author Steve Parker presents Deathwatch: Shadowbreaker, an action-packed and exceedingly exciting sequel to his 2013 novel, Deathwatch, which pits the deadly Deathwatch Space Marines against an entire planet full of T’au.

Thousands of years in the future, the galaxy is constantly at war. Humankind has survived as the massive Imperium of Man, under the divine protection of their long-dead Emperor. However, this beacon of humanity is under constant threat from all sides. Destructive alien races, demons from the warp and the traitor forces of Chaos continuously assault its borders, whilst heretics, mutants and witches attempt to destroy it from within. Over the millennia, the Imperium has created many different forces to protect their worlds from these threats; however, none is more feared or revered than the Adeptus Astartes, the Space Marines. Space Marines are legendary warriors genetically modified to become significantly stronger, larger and faster than a normal man. Swathed in power armour and armed with the deadliest of weapons, the Space Marines are a force to be reckoned with on the battlefield, bringing the Emperor’s wrath down on all who oppose them.

But even amongst these deadliest of soldiers, there is one organisation of Space Marines who are respected above all others for their fighting ability and skill, Deathwatch. Deathwatch is an elite group made up of best Space Marines veterans from across the Chapters, trained to become the ultimate tools in one of the Imperium’s holiest missions, the extermination of the xenos, the alien. Utilising the most advanced technology in the Imperium and receiving specialist instruction in the strengths and weaknesses of their foes, Deathwatch work in small kill-teams under the Ordo Xenos of the Imperial Inquisition in order to hunt down and destroy the most dangerous xenos threats in the galaxy.

Lyandro Karras, Codicier of the Death Spectres, is a powerful Space Marine Librarian serving in the Deathwatch as the leader of the kill-team, Talon Squad. Barely recovered from the disastrous events of their last mission, Karros and Talon Squad once again find themselves under the command of the mysterious Inquisitor Sigma. Their new mission takes them to a former Imperial world that has been conquered by the alien T’au, who have indoctrinated the majority of the human population into their society and philosophy. An Imperial Inquisitor, Epsilon, has gone missing in T’au space, and Sigma believes that she is being kept prisoner on the planet. Desperate to free her before the T’au extract vital secrets about the Imperium from her, Talon Squad and a force of Ordo Xenos Storm Troopers are deployed to find her. Working with the local human resistance, Talon Squad identify the prison she is located in and must work to release her before the massive T’au garrison knows they are on planet. But what happens when Epsilon refuses to accompany Talon Squad back to the Imperium?

Deathwatch: Shadowbreaker is part of the massive extended universe which has formed up around the Warhammer 40K tabletop miniature game produced by Games Workshop. Warhammer 40K, which was first released in 1987 and pits armies of science fiction miniatures against each other, has always contained an interesting and grim science fiction narrative to serve as a background to the game. With every new edition of Warhammer 40K that was released, this background narrative got more and more detailed, resulting in an extremely deep, compelling and gothic-themed fictional history surrounding all of the different races, armies and characters featured within this tabletop game. Due to the popularity of the Warhammer 40K universe, a huge amount of expanded material has also been released over the years, including several videogames, comics, board game spinoffs, an animated movie (with a remarkably good cast of British actors) and there is currently a television series in production. However, the main medium that has been utilised as part of this expanded universe is books.

Over the years, there has been a tremendous amount of Warhammer 40K books produced, featuring the works of a number of skilled and talented science fiction authors. There are now hundreds of Warhammer 40K books currently published, covering the different periods and races featured in the tabletop game. In 2019 alone there were nearly 20 different novels, anthologies and audio dramas associated with Warhammer 40K. This is a very impressive amount of material, and I have not even mentioned the multiple book releases associated with the separate Warhammer Fantasy universe.

While I am a man of many, many different fandoms, the products of Game Workshops are among the earliest fantasy and science fiction products that I was a major enthusiast of. I was extremely into Warhammer Fantasy when I was a kid and I have many fond memories of painting and battling with the models, reading the company’s monthly White Dwarf publication and playing some of the Warhammer 40K computer games, such as Dawn of War. While I was solely playing with Warhammer Fantasy models, I did learn a lot about Warhammer 40K at the same time, especially as I really enjoyed reading all the lore and background of the various Games Workshop products. I have been meaning to read some Games Workshop fiction for a while now, and I have previously mentioned that I want to read the cool-sounding Gaunt’s Ghosts series. However, I ended up reading the recently released Deathwatch: Shadowbreaker instead, mainly because it featured two of my favourite groups from the Warhammer 40K lore, Deathwatch and the T’au, facing off. Shadowbreaker is the latest book from Steve Parker, a science fiction author, who has primarily written Warhammer 40K fiction. Shadowbreaker is his first release since 2016, and it is actually a sequel to his 2014 novel, Deathwatch, which featured the same group of primary characters.

I am actually really glad that I chose to read and review Shadowbreaker, as this excellent 40K novel contains an awesome and extremely entertaining story that features all manner of action, adventure and intrigue, while also diving deep into several fascinating parts of 40K’s lore. Shadowbreaker is an excellent sequel to the author’s previous book, Deathwatch, and Parker does an amazing job of continuing the story that was started in this prior book, while at the same time setting up some intriguing potential directions for the series to go next. Prior knowledge of the events of Deathwatch is not a necessity to enjoy this book, as Parker does a good job of re-introducing all the relevant events of the previous novel, and readers should be able to follow Shadowbreaker’s story without any real issues. Parker has created a rich narrative for this book that utilises a huge number of character viewpoints to not only examine the development within several characters but also explore a number of different angles and features of the harsh gothic universe in which this book is set. These multiple viewpoints work especially well during Shadowbreaker’s extended action sequences, as they allow Parker to show off every aspect and side of the brutal battles, resulting in some exciting and detailed combat set pieces. Shadowbreaker’s story ends up going in some rather intriguing directions, featuring some fun twists and reveals, and this was an overall fantastic and exciting story to check out.

While Shadowbreaker is an amazing novel, it might not be as appealing to those readers who are not familiar with the Warhammer 40K universe. This book is pretty lore heavy, containing a whole lot of references to history, technology, alien races and other unique aspects of this fictional universe. While I felt that Parker did a great job of explaining most of the Warhammer 40K elements that are relevant to the story, a certain amount of prior knowledge about this massive universe will really help readers understand what is going on. Do not get me wrong; readers unfamiliar with the franchise will easily be able to follow and enjoy Shadowbreaker’s story, but they may have trouble appreciating all the interesting lore references or depictions from the miniatures game. As a result, I would probably recommend this book more to established fans of the 40K universe, although casual science fiction readers are definitely going to have a good time reading this. That being said, I note that some other readers of this book who are more familiar with the actual tabletop game than me were put off by a couple of apparently incorrect depictions of weapons, armour and vehicles. While these apparent anomalies in no way impacted my enjoyment of the book (honestly, I am not knowledgeable enough about battle gear to have really picked up on this), I can imagine that this could annoy some hardcore 40K fans, so fair warning about that.

For me, one of the major appealing aspects of this book was its excellent examination of fascinating elements from the Warhammer 40K universe. As I mentioned above, the universe of the 40K games are filled with all manner of fantastic, complex and unique features which are all backed up with a ton of lore and fictional history. Parker does an awesome job of setting Shadowbreaker within this universe and he ends up utilising quite a lot of detail from the games in the story. There is actually quite a lot going on within this book. Not only do you have the primary storyline of Space Marines versus T’au but you also have storylines that relate to infighting and intrigue within the Ordo Xenos, examination of the constant threat that is the Tyranid, the machinations of the Eldar, and the long-term plots of a demon lord thrown in on top. All these various storylines actually come together really well into an outstanding story, and fans of the 40K franchise are almost guaranteed to have some mention or discussion about their preferred army or race in the game (with a couple of exceptions).

However, the thing that really excited me the most about this book was the central conflict between Deathwatch and the T’au. I am a major fan of both of those groups and have always been really intrigued by the cool lore and background that surrounds them. When I started reading this book, I was half-expecting the story to be shown purely from the perspective of the Deathwatch characters. If this had been the case, the author would have been forced to do a classic humans versus aliens storyline, where aliens are automatically the bad guys due to the Space Marines’ inherent hatred of all things alien. Therefore, I was pleasantly surprised when Parker presented a much more complex storyline which showed neither side as “good” or “evil”. Instead, thanks to the author’s excellent use of multiple perspectives, it is shown that both sides of this conflict are dominated by dangerous fanatics driven by their beliefs, either in the purity of destroying all things alien or the defining T’au philosophy of the “Greater Good”. This belief results in both sides doing some very questionable things in order to achieve their objectives, most of which result in large amounts of destruction and death. Interesting enough, it is Lyandro Karras and some of the members of Talon Squad who are the most reasonable characters in this book, and all of them have been heavily indoctrinated about the evils of the alien. This all makes for a much more intriguing and clever story, and I loved how it helped highlighted how complex this universe can get.

Shadowbreaker contains quite a bit of information about how the legendary Deathwatch operates, which is just downright fascinating, and I can imagine a lot of readers would be really interested to learn more about. While there was a lot more about the layout of the organisation and their training in the initial Deathwatch book, readers of Shadowbreaker learn a lot about them in this book. For example, Shadowbreaker contains information about Deathwatch’s unique relationship with the Inquisition, their skills in battle, their knowledge of the aliens they fight and the fact their ranks consist of Space Marines from various chapters. All of this is really cool, and there were a fantastic central organisation to centre the book on.

I also quite enjoyed the examination of the different Space Marines that make up the various Deathwatch kill-teams featured within this book. Thanks to the author’s use of multiple character perspectives, the reader gets to see through the eyes of a number of Space Marine characters. Parker cleverly utilises this to show off the varied personalities of the Space Marines, and it was interesting to see how diverse these genetically enhanced and indoctrinated killing machines can really be. A lot of this is due to the specific Chapters that they come from, as each character seems to reflect the traits of their Chapter and their founding father. I liked how the multiple perspectives helped highlight he different fighting styles of the various members of the Deathwatch kill-team, especially as each of them utilises different weapons and tactics to achieve their goals, reflecting the defining skills of their original Chapter. For example, the Raven Guard character continuously utilises a jump pack and lightning claws in his fights, while the Imperial Fist preferred to use heavy weapons. These different combat techniques add an extra layer of spice to the various fight sequences, and I really liked seeing the different characters in action. I was also really intrigued by the author’s deep dive into the history and peculiarities of two of the lesser-known Space Marine chapters, the Death Spectres and the Exorcists. Parker reveals some really interesting facts about these two Chapters, mostly when these respective characters think back on their past or their Chapter. I really didn’t know that much about these two Chapters before this book, and I really enjoyed learning more about them, especially as they have some very cool and unique traits (one summons and betrays demons for an initiation test; the other has a mysterious glass throne hidden on their home planet). As a result, fans of Space Marine history and lore are really going to love this book, and even non-fans will appreciate the world-building associated with them.

In addition to the intriguing examination of Deathwatch and other Space Marine Chapters, Parker also features an excellent look at one my favourite races in the Warhammer 40K universe, the T’au (or Tau). The T’au are probably the newest race in 40K canon (although that was quite a few years ago) and have been featured in a couple of books and have even had their own video game, Fire Warrior. T’au are a young race of aliens whose empire has quickly expanded in recent years thanks to their advanced technology and wiliness to incorporate alien races into their empire. Their sudden expansion has made them a real threat to the stagnant Imperium of Man. Parker does an amazing job incorporating the T’au into this book, and there are some fantastic depictions of their technology and unique physiology. The T’au serve as excellent primary antagonists for this book, and Parker takes an interesting view of them, diving into the darker side of their empire. Thanks to the various character perspectives contained within Shadowbreaker, the reader gets to see more than their typical depiction as a beatific race who merely wish to share their technology and their message of the “Greater Good” throughout the universe. Instead, you get to understand how slavishly devoted to their philosophy they really are, and the lengths that some of them will go to achieve their race’s goals. There are some really interesting discussions about how they control the populations they conquer, as well as some brief but curious mentions of T’au who do not follow the Greater Good and are persecuted or punished for this. I also really liked the detailed examination of a human world that is being ruled by the T’au, especially as you get to see all the various benefits and downfalls of this control. The fact that neither the T’au nor the Imperium actually care about the planet or its people is a bit of a dark spot in the novel, and some of the conclusions of the book reveal just how much better off this planet would have been on its own. If I had one complaint about Parker’s depiction of the T’au, it would be that they went down way too easily in a fight. While a couple of their units and commanders were able to hold their own for a bit, the rest of the T’au forces were pretty much slaughtered in one-sided battles throughout the book. While I appreciate that the author was probably trying to demonstrate Deathwatch’s skill at killing aliens, I think he could have perhaps added in a bit more of a fight from this popular race. Still, I really enjoyed this inclusion of the T’au, and I need to check out some other books that feature them.

I ended up listening to the audiobook format of Shadowbreaker, which was narrated by Andrew Wincott. Shadowbreaker clocks in at just over 16½ hours, so it is a fairly substantial audiobook which takes a little bit of effort to get through. I was very impressed by this format of the book, and I personally found it a great way to absorb all the amazing things occurring in the story. Wincott is a really good narrator, coming up with some distinctive and appropriate voices for the huge raft of characters that were featured in this book. I really liked how Wincott was able to capture the emotion and mood of the various characters, and I was especially impressed with the harsher tone that he took for many of the Imperial characters, which fitted perfectly into the gothic style of the Imperium. As a result, I would highly recommend the audiobook format of Shadowbreaker to anyone who is interested in checking this book out, and it is a wonderful way to enjoy this great piece of Warhammer 40K fiction.

Deathwatch: Shadowbreaker by Steve Parker was an incredible read which I found to be extremely entertaining and which proved to be a perfect reintroduction for me to the Warhammer 40,000 franchise. Parker presents an exciting and compelling story that dives deep into the universe’s lore while also exploring some of the complexities of the various featured races and armies. Overall, this is an outstanding novel and I am really glad that I checked it out. I fully intend to read more Warhammer 40K fiction in the future, especially after enjoying this book so much, and I hope that Parker continues his Deathwatch books in the future as well.

Boundless by R. A. Salvatore

Boundless Cover

Publisher: HarperAudio (Audiobook – 10 September 2019)

Series: Generations – Book 2

Length: 13 hours and 3 minutes

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

From one of the world’s leading writers of fantasy fiction, R. A. Salvatore, comes an exciting and captivating new adventure that focuses on the author’s best-known protagonists, the Drow (dark elf) ranger Drizzt Do’Urden, his father Zaknafein, the rogue Jarlaxle and the Companions of the Hall.

Centuries ago, one Drow warrior was feared and respected above all others in the dark elf city of Menzoberranzan, the legendary weapon master Zaknafein. Even before the events that would eventually force him to sacrifice himself to save the life of his beloved son Drizzt Do’Urden, Zaknafein was never content with his life in Menzoberranzan. Sickened by the evil matriarchal system that rules the city in the name of the dark goddess Lolth, Zaknafein found himself trapped in the service of the ambitious Matron Malice Do’Urden. His only solace is his friendship with Jarlaxle, the charismatic leader of the mercenary band Bregan D’aerthe, with whom he forms a close bond. However, even this friendship is not immune to strife, as influential forces within Menzoberranzan attempt to turn the ranks of Bregan D’aerthe against Zaknafein.

Years later, Zaknafein has been mysteriously returned to life, finding himself in a strange new world, living within the dwarven kingdom of Gauntlgrym. Despite being reunited with his son, Drizzt, Zaknafein is once again lost; his inherent Drow distain for all non-dark elf life is making it hard for him to fit in with Drizzt’s dwarf, halfling and human friends and family. But as Zaknafein, with the help of Jarlaxle, attempts to find a new path, he is once again beset by dark and powerful opponents.

An ambitious family of human nobles from Waterdeep has combined forces with the ruler of Neverwinter, Lord Neverember, and a minor clan of dwarfs, in an attempt to topple Gauntlgrym’s king, Bruenor, and claim the elemental magical powers the great dwarven kingdom safeguards. While normally such foes would prove little threat to King Bruenor and his allies, these new enemies command a massive and ever-growing army of demons capable of overwhelming even Gauntlgrym’s substantial defences. In addition, their opponents are supported by a noble Drow House from Menzoberranzan whose matron, in a bid to become Lolth’s most favoured servant, is determined to be the Drow who finally captures Zaknafein and Drizzt. As father and son fight for their lives against their new enemies, they soon find themselves pursued by creatures far more sinister and destructive than anything they have seen before. Can the Companions of the Hall prevail, or will evil finally defeat the last bastion of light in the Forgotten Realms?

Boundless is another outstanding and incredibly enjoyable piece of fantasy fiction from one of my all-time favourite authors, the legendary R. A. Salvatore, who is easily one of the top fantasy authors of all time. This is actually the second novel from Salvatore this year, with the second book in his The Coven trilogy, Reckoning of Fallen Gods, having come out in January, and the final book in this trilogy, Song of the Risen God, is set for release in January 2020. In Boundless, Salvatore has once again returned to the iconic Forgotten Realms universe to produce another excellent story set around the character of Drizzt Do’Urden.

The dark elf ranger, Drizzt Do’Urden, is easily the most iconic and popular character that Salvatore has ever created. One of the few moral dark elf characters in all of the Forgotten Realms (the large-scale interconnected universe which has been the setting for a huge number of fantasy novels over the years), Drizzt has been one of Salvatore’s main recurring protagonist for over 30 years, ever since Salvatore’s debut novel, The Crystal Shard. I have long been a fan of Drizzt, mainly because of Salvatore’s amazing second trilogy of books, The Dark Elf trilogy, which told a captivating tale of a young Drizzt Do’Urden. Boundless is the 35th book to follow the adventures of Drizzt and his companions (if you include The Sellswords trilogy) and is the sequel to last year’s exciting fantasy adventure, Timeless. Boundless is also the second book in Salvatore’s current trilogy that focuses on Drizzt, known as the Generations trilogy, which is set to conclude next year in the final book, Relentless (a synopsis of which is already available online).

Boundless was an absolutely fantastic read which takes the reader on an epic thrill-ride through a demon invasion, the dark political underbelly of Menzoberranzan and into the heart and mind of one of Salvatore’s more complex and intriguing characters. Making exceptional use of two separate timelines, Salvatore tells a compelling and intricate story that combines a desperate battle for survival in the present with adventures in the past. Filled with action, adventure, amazing fantasy elements and an epic conclusion, this was a first-rate read that I greatly enjoyed.

This book was essentially impossible to put down from the moment I started listening to it, as Salvatore starts it off with an action packed prologue that sees a large force of halflings, dwarves and Drizzt face off against the horde of demons that were unleashed in Timeless. After this action-packed introduction, the book is then split into four parts, two of which follow the resulting battle for Gauntlgrym and the surrounding lands in the present (the present being Dalereckoning 1488), while the other two parts go back years before the events of the first book in The Dark Elf trilogy, Homeland, and tell a story of a younger Zaknafein and Jarlaxle in Menzoberranzan.

The parts set in the present offer a pretty exciting range of action and adventure as the story is split between several of the fun characters that Salvatore has introduced in all of his Forgotten Realms books. For example, throughout these parts you get to see the destructive siege of Gauntlgrym from the perspective of Bruenor, Zaknafein, Jarlaxle and the Bouldshoulder brothers (who originated in The Cleric Quintet, another one of Salvatore’s Forgotten Realms series). At the same time as Drizzt is being pursued throughout the land by a powerful magical construct, Wulfgar is caught up in an invasion of Luskan by a powerful fleet of monsters, and Regis teams up with Dahlia and Artemis Enteri to investigate their demonic opponents in Waterdeep. This was a fantastic blend of storylines in the present-day parts of the book, and I really enjoyed seeing the various adventures and perils assailing this great group of protagonists. All of the storylines in this part of the book were a lot of fun, and I really enjoyed the larger narrative that they were telling. These modern-day storylines end with a major cliff-hanger which is going to make me really want to check out the next book in this trilogy.

While the parts of the book set in Dalereckoning 1488 are pretty awesome, I have to admit that I much preferred the half of the book set back in the past. This part of the book was set over a period of several years and follows a younger Zaknafein and Jarlaxle as they navigate the highs and lows of their original friendship in the darkness of Menzoberranzan. I really liked this storyline, as it not only contained the politics, backstabbing and casual murder that makes all the stories set in Menzoberranzan so much fun, but it also explores Zaknafein’s psyche and starts to explain why he was a different Drow to the other members of his race when he was first introduced in The Dark Elf trilogy. It was also interesting to see the early days of Jarlaxle’s rise as a mercenary leader, and there is also a number of intriguing scenes that feature other Drow characters, such as Drizzt’s mother, Matron Malice, who have been dead for a while. As a result, these parts of the book serve as an excellent prequel to The Dark Elf trilogy, of which I am a massive fan. In addition, these chronologically earlier parts of the book serve to introduce some of the Drow antagonists who are threatening the characters in the present day, and it really interesting to see how the actions of Zaknafein and Jarlaxle hundreds of years in the past are impacting on the future.

I really loved this combination of the two separate timelines in the book and felt that it helped create a fantastic overall narrative. The earlier storyline of Drow house politics, friendships and small-scale grudges contrasts well with the intense war and near constant peril that makes up the 1488 storyline and helps to create a much more compelling book. I also really enjoyed how story elements, such as the exploration of Zaknafein and Jarlaxle’s friendship, or the examination of the cruel dynamics of Drow society, continued on from one part of the book to the next, and it was interesting to see how relationships and minds can change over time.

If there is one guarantee in life, it is that a Drizzt Do’Urden novel is going to feature some fancy swordplay and a ton of action. Boundless is no exception to this rule, as Salvatore has once again furnished his story with all manner of intense and detailed action and battle sequences, as his protagonists fight a variety of opponents. This makes for an exciting and really enjoyable read, as it always fun to see the various ways the Companions of the Hall engage in battle, especially since they have built up quite an impressive array of magical weapons and abilities after 35 books. In addition, Salvatore has come up with some unique and powerful opponents for this book, including two powerful magical constructs that are all but invincible and require extreme measures to combat. The parts of the book set in Menzoberranzan’s past also feature a wide array of dazzling duels and battles from Zaknafein, as he is forced to prove that he is the best weapons master in the city. The author shows off some truly impressive fight sequences in the parts of the book focusing on Zaknafein’s earlier life and Salvatore does a fantastic job providing the reader with a blow-by-blow account of what is happening. I also really liked how the author included several scenes that showed Zaknafein training for future battles in which he attempts to work out the best way to perform some elaborate or near-impossible combat move, which of course would then be utilised in a later fight. Needless to say, those looking for their next dose of fantasy action should look no further than Boundless, as Salvatore has once again provided one hell of a hit.

While I did read a physically copy of the previous book in the series, Timeless, for Boundless I ended up listening to the audiobook format instead. Boundless’s audiobook is narrated by Victor Bevine and runs for just over 13 hours, which only took me a few days to get through. I ended up having a great time listening to Boundless, especially as listening to a blow-by-blow of the amazing action sequences really helped bring these scenes to life for me. Bevine did a fantastic job of breathing life into the book’s various characters, and I really enjoyed the way that he captured the personalities of several of the characters with his performance. I also appreciated the way that he was able to emulate a number of very different characters and species throughout the course of the audiobook. Not only did he come up with sly and calculating voices for the various Drow characters, but he was also able to affect an impressive brogue for the various dwarven characters in the book. This is a fantastic range, and I quite enjoyed all of the voices that Bevine came up with. As a result, I would definitely recommend the audiobook version of Boundless to anyone who is interested, and I think that I will try to listen to next book in the trilogy.

Overall, Boundless is an outstanding and incredible new release from Salvatore, and I loved every second that I was reading it. Featuring a ton of action and some really cool plot elements, Salvatore tells a clever and intricate story that sets some high stakes for his beloved characters. Not only am I excited to see where the story goes in the next book, but I also have a very strong urge to go back and check out Salvatore’s The Dark Elf trilogy, where some of the fantastic characters explored in this book were first introduced. With this latest novel, Salvatore continues to show why he is one of the biggest names in fantasy fiction, and it is thanks to books like Boundless that I will continue to grab every new Salvatore release I can get.

God of Broken Things by Cameron Johnston

god of broken things cover

Publisher: Angry Robot (Paperback – 11 June 2019)

Series: Age of Tyranny – Book 2

Length: 312 pages

My Rating: 4.75 out of 5 stars

Those readers looking for the next entertaining grimdark fantasy adventure to sink their teeth into need look no further than God of Broken Things, the electrifying second book in Cameron Johnston’s Age of Tyranny.

It has only been a few short months since the devastating attack by the Skallgrim raiders on the city of Setharis, which severely weakened the city. Despite repulsing the Skallgrim and their monstrous hordes, Setharis is still in incredible danger. The Skallgrim forces are massing to launch another attack on Setharis, and the Skallgrim’s masters, the parasitic alien lifeforms known as the Scarrabus, are determined to enslave the entire city to their will. Setharis’s salvation once again rests in the hands of its most hated son, Edrin Walker.

Edrin is powerful magus whose rare abilities allow him to crack open and control the minds of all those around him. His breed of magus, known as tyrants, are feared throughout the world due to their propensity to lose control and use their magic to rule whole civilisations. Despite his role in saving the city from the Skallgrim, Edrin is still distrusted by both the common people and his fellow magus of the Arcanum. However, his skills may be the only thing that can win the war against the Skallgrim and the Scarrabus.

A massive force of Skallgrim are advancing over the mountain passes of the Clanholds, hoping to launch a fresh assault on Setharis. Against his will, Edrin is forced to lead a small army to reinforce the tribes of the Clanholds against the Skallgrim army. Accompanied by a small personal bodyguard of killers and thieves, Edrin leads his forces into the mountains, where far more dangerous things than the Skallgrim and their monsters lurk. Spirits, demons, gods and his own deadly past all lie in wait for Edrin, whose powers have been altered following his battle with a treacherous god. Can Edrin and his forces hold back the Skallgrim, or will he succumb to one of the many horrors in the mountains? And what happens when the tyrant comes out to play?

Johnston is a talented author whose debut novel, The Traitor God, really impressed me last year thanks to its awesome story and enjoyable main character. As a result, I was extremely keen to get a copy of the sequel, God of Broken Things, this year and was very happy when I received it a few weeks ago. God of Broken Things turned out to be a fantastic follow-up to the first book and I had an incredible time reading it. Not only does Johnston present another wildly entertaining story for the reader to enjoy, but he also does a fantastic job of expanding his dark fantasy world and exploring the complex mind of his main character.

I really liked where Johnston took the story in this book. While The Traitor God’s story of a hunt for answers in the dark fantasy city was cool, I really liked seeing the main character go to war in God of Broken Things. The whole storyline of Edrin leading an army up into the Clanholds, a dangerous mountainous environment filled with all manner of horrors and dangers was really cool, especially as he kept encountering worse situations and more terrifying opponents. This resulted in some epic moments and massive battles, and Johnston also took the opportunity to explore the history of several of the different races mentioned within the first books, including the Scarrabus, the Ogarim and some more mystical creatures like spirts and demons. This expansion of the Age of Tyranny universe was quite intriguing, and I wonder if there will be more exploration of the world and the various mentioned multiverses in future books. I also liked the deeper look that the author took into his protagonist’s past, showing some of the activities that occurred during the years he was exiled from Setharis. I loved the various twists and epic moments that Johnston sprinkled throughout the book’s plot, and there was never a dull moment in the entire story. I especially enjoyed how the final battle in God of Broken Things ended, especially as the author included a clever red herring in the book’s formatting to throw the reader off. Overall, this was an incredible story, and Johnston did an amazing job trapping me within this entertaining narrative.

One of the best parts of this book was the author’s continued focus on the protagonist, Edrin Walker, who serves as the book’s narrator and point-of-view character. Edrin was already a fairly complex character in The Traitor God, where he was portrayed as a powerful exiled magus hated, distrusted and ostracised by everyone due to the specific nature of his magical gift. Because of the way he is treated he acts hostile and uncaring to the world, while still participating in the odd act of heroism and compassion. This is continued in the second book, where Edrin continues to battle with his natural instincts and irritation while trying to do the right thing, especially for the few people who actually like or respect him. I really liked the way that the author continued to show Edrin exploring his moral side in this book as, against his better judgement, he actually attempts to help people and keep Setharis safe. The various sacrifices that he subsequently makes for the greater good are very much against the grain of his original character, and it is interesting to see this side of Edrin grow.

Due to the way he is treated, Edrin is an incredibly jaded character, and the author utilises this in a number of clever ways. Not only does this ensure that Edrin is the most likeable character in the book, mostly because he stands in sharp contrast to all the other magus characters, who are elitist snobs, but it also makes him a really entertaining narrator. The character’s sarcastic and mocking manner permeates the entire way he tells the story, resulting in some great reactions and a very amusing overall story.

Edrin continues to get into all sorts of entertaining misadventures in God of Broken Things, and it is hard not to love the unorthodox way he deals with things. Not only does he lead a bodyguard of deranged killers into battle but he rarely ever takes things seriously, no matter who he is dealing with. I love the disrespect and mockery that the character shows when encountering anyone in authority, be it friend or foe, magus or human, god or monster, and I laughed out loud at the way he got his revenge on one of Setharis’s gods in this book. It was also great to see the character apply his particular brand of bastardry to the battlefield, coming up with all manner of unconventional traps and attacks for the forces that are up against him. I particularly loved the cool way he took down the main antagonist of this book, and it really reflected both his cunning and his growth as a character.

The main character’s mind-bending magic continues to be a really cool part of this series, especially as his abilities become even more powerful in God of Broken Things. Johnston’s portrayals of the way that Edrin’s powers to break into and manipulate the minds of all those around him is done extremely well and it results in a number of epic scenes. I never realised how many creative ways someone could magically manipulate a person’s mind until seeing some of the scenes in this book, as Johnston comes up with some very inventive ways to utilises his protagonist’s magic. I especially loved seeing Edrin using these powers in the middle of the battle, as there are some awesome ways he disadvantages his enemies and helps his allies. However, the author also explores the consequences of the tyrant powers, as Edrin continuously runs the risk of taking things too far and grossly abusing his powers. Several examinations of the character’s guilt over some of the mental actions he commits become a compelling part of the story, and the character’s mental magic is a great part of the book.

Those readers who are looking for an explosive amount of fantasy action are in for a real treat with this book. Johnston makes sure to include a ton of battles and fight sequences in God of Broken Things, as the ragtag defenders of the Clanholds face off against a massive horde of Skallgrim, Scarrabus, demons and monsters. All of these fight scenes are incredibly brutal as Johnston depicts some amazing battles throughout this book. Most of these scenes are enhanced through the use of magic, and the sheer destructive power of the various characters’ magical abilities is pretty impressive. The various demons and monsters the protagonist finds himself up against in this book are pretty gruesome and offer up some pretty great battle scenes as a result. Overall, the action in God of Broken Things is quite superb, and fans of bloody fantasy fights will not be disappointed.

Cameron Johnston’s second outing, God of Broken Things, is an amazing piece of grimdark fantasy fiction that proved to be just as much fun as his debut novel, The Traitor God. I had an incredible time reading God of Broken Things as the excellent combination of story, magical action and character work kept me trapped until the very last page. Readers are guaranteed to love this outstanding dark fantasy read, and I strongly recommend this book to anyone looking for a fun and powerful adventure. The ending of the book makes it a little unclear if Johnston will continue the Age of Tyranny series, but I will be keeping a close eye out for any future books from this rising star in the grimdark fantasy genre.

Timeless by R. A. Salvatore

Timeless Cover.jpg

Publisher: Harper Voyager

Publication Date – 4 September 2018

 

From one of fantasy’s most legendary writers, R. A. Salvatore, comes another electrifying adventure of swords and steel, as Salvatore once again presents a thrilling tale of his iconic protagonist, the dark elf Drizzt Do’Urden.

Centuries ago, the city of Menzoberranzan gave birth to a drow whose talents with the blade were unsurpassed by any other practitioner.  This drow’s name was Zaknafein.  Desired by an ambitious noble house and its twisted Matron, Malice, Zaknafein would become a pawn in the battle of intrigue and positioning that have eternally plagued Menzoberranzan.  His only relief from his arduous life was his friendship with the young mercenary Jarlaxle.

Years later, a young Drizzt Do’Urden fled the city and the violent ways of his people.  However, his escape was only capable thanks to the twofold sacrifice of his father, Zaknafein, who not only allowed himself to be sacrificed to the dark goddess Lolth but also willed his resurrected body to its absolute destruction in order to stop its hunt for Drizzt in the catacombs of the Underdark.  Not only was Zaknafein his father; he was also the man responsible for Drizzt’s moral code and, most importantly, the man who taught Drizzt how to fight, turning him into the most skilled sword wielder in all of Faerun.

But now, after years of Drizzt’s adventures on the surface world, something truly amazing has happened: Zaknafein has been returned to life and has found his way to the surface world.  No-one is certain how he has been resurrected or why, but Zaknafein is determined to be reunited with his son, even if he has changed far more than he could ever imagine.

The world has also changed in the last few years.  The Sword Coast is undergoing a period of rare peace.  The dwarves, led by Drizzt’s friend King Bruenor Battlehammer, rule in Gauntlgrym, while the city of Luskan is secretly ruled by Jarlaxle and his mercenary band, Bregan D’aerthe.  With their territories connected by magical gates, Bruenor, Jarlaxle and the halfling community of Bleeding Vines have formed an alliance, ensuring the security of the realm.  However, the ambitious and greedy Lord Neverember, ruler of Neverwinter, is a constant thorn in their side as he plots to steal power from the lands around him.  While usually only a minor nuisance, Neverember has been making deals with a mysterious noble house of Waterdeep and a minor dwarven clan for vast sums of money.  As the allies investigate further, they uncover the start of a destructive demonic conspiracy that could destroy all they have built.  What foul plans are being hatched, and what will happen with Drizzt and Zaknafein find themselves in the middle of a demon stronghold?

R. A. Salvatore is one of the most experienced and enduring authors of fantasy fiction in the world today. Having written more than 60 fantasy books since his 1988 debut, Salvatore has created a number of worlds and characters across his career, from his 12 books in the Corona universe, which includes the 2018 release Child of a Mad God, to his Chronicles of Ynis Aielle trilogy, The Crimson Shadow series, The Cleric Quintet and The Spearwielder’s Tale trilogy. Salvatore is also somewhat infamously known for his foray into Star Wars fiction, with his 1999 release, Vector Prime, which saw the canonical death of Chewbacca in the original expanded universe, a decision that has since been retconned following the Disney acquisition of the franchise.  However, his most iconic and popular books would have to be his long-running series that follows the adventures of the dark elf Drizzt Do’Urden.

The character of Drizzt Do’Urden was first introduced in Salvatore’s debut novel, The Crystal Shard, which is also the first book in The Icewind Dale trilogy.  The Icewind Dale trilogy is set within the Forgotten Realms universe, a large-scale interconnected collection of fantasy books from a range of different authors, all set within the titular Forgotten Realms, a spinoff location of the Dungeons & Dragons roleplaying franchise.  The Icewind Dale trilogy featured a band of powerful characters including Drizzt, the dwarf chieftain Bruenor Battlehammer, the barbarian warrior Wulfgar, the halfling thief Regis and Bruenor’s adopted human daughter, Catti-brie.  While these characters all had their own adventures within this series, it was clear that Salvatore had intended to focus his series on Wulfgar and make him the main protagonist.

However, the character of Drizzt proved to be particularly popular with the fans.  A large amount of this may be a result of the characters anomalous nature, as not only is Drizzt a dark elf living above the surface, but he was one of the few good dark elves in fantasy fiction at that point in time.  The dark elves, also known as the drow, are a race of dark-skinned elves who live in the Underdark, the dark catacombs that lie under the continent of Faerun, in the world of Abeir-Toril.  In the Forgotten Realms universe, dark elves are generally an evil and self-serving race who consider themselves superior to the other races in the Forgotten Realms and often conduct destructive raids against the surface world.  As a result of this popularity, Salvatore chose to focus on Drizzt more and more as his series progressed.  This included establishing the character as one of the greatest practitioners of the sword in the Forgotten Realms, as well as introducing an equally matched adversary, Artemis Entreri.

This focus on Drizzt continued into Salvatore’s second Forgotten Realms series, The Dark Elf trilogy, which was a prequel series to The Icewind Dale trilogy.  The Dark Elf trilogy focused on the birth of Drizzt in the dark elf city of Menzoberranzan, a female-led society dedicated to the worship of the demonic spider god Lolth.  While this is where Drizzt was raised and first learnt how to wield his iconic dual blades, the character of Drizzt never fit in, except with his father Zaknafein, who tried to teach him that the dark elves, especially those dedicated to the worship of Lolth, were evil.  Drizzt would escape Menzoberranzan at the end of the first book in the trilogy, Homeland, and spend the next two books exploring the world outside the city, eventually coming to the surface and finding his home in the Icewind Dale.  Since then, Drizzt and his companions have undergone a number of adventures both above and below the surface of Faerun, with numerous changes impacting these protagonists.  Timeless is the 34th book to feature Drizzt or his companions, and is one of the few ongoing series still being produced in the Forgotten Realms universe.

Timeless is the first book in Salvatore’s new Noname trilogy, and while the series is invariably going to focus on Drizzt, this first book mostly takes a look at the returning Zaknafein.  As a result, the majority of the story is set in the current chronology of Salvatore’s universe and sees Zaknafein attempting to find his place in the new world he has returned to, while also exploring a new threat to the Companions of the Hall (Drizzt and his friends).  There is also a second timeline that is set many years before the events of Homeland and focuses on the early life of Zaknafein.  While both storylines are enjoyable, I found myself drawn more to the prequel storyline, which focused more on the elaborate and exciting intrigues of the drow and how Zaknafein and Jarlaxle became the drow we all came to know and love.  The contemporary storyline is mostly focused on the reuniting of Zaknafein and Drizzt after their many years apart, both in and out of text.  Their emotional reunion forms the heart of this storyline, while Zaknafein’s exploration of this new world he finds himself in is an intriguing part of the book.  A side effect of this is that some of the longstanding characters, such as Wulfgar and Bruenor, have a reduced role in the book.  While I hope they feature more later in this trilogy, I felt the story was able to survive without them.  This book also spends a lot of time setting up the storyline and threats that will form the focus of this new series.  To that end, Salvatore has done an incredible job, creating several intriguing storylines that readers will enjoy following in future books and presenting the protagonists with a number of potential threats for the series.  However, Salvatore has also ensured that the reader will be hit with some severe emotional gut-punches in this first instalment, ensuring that they are dragged into the next book in this trilogy.  I enjoyed going back and forth between these two separate storylines.  Each of these storylines complemented the other one perfectly and highlighted the character of Zaknafein in more detail.

While The Icewind Dale trilogy and the series that followed it are excellent pieces of fantasy fiction, my favourite Drizzt Do’Urden series has always been The Dark Elf trilogy, which I consider one of the best origin story arcs in all of fantasy fiction.  As a result, I was always going to enjoy any novel tied to this prequel trilogy.  Timeless contains a number of call-backs to this original trilogy and works to provide the reader with some interesting and unexplored backstory for the great character of Zaknafein, including how he became associated with the house of Do’Urden.  It also shows the formation of his distinctive character traits, such as his sense of mercy, his hatred of the female dark elves who enslaved him and his intense rebellion against the drow’s patron goddess, Lolth.  Some of the most emotional parts of this original trilogy revolved around Drizzt and Zaknafein as they attempted to escape from the harsh landscape of Menzoberranzan and Zaknafein’s eventual sacrifices to save his son from Lolth’s evil grasp.  Therefore it was amazing to see the two of them finally reunite after all these years in the most appropriate manner possible: a duel.  Watching Drizzt slowly realise that the person fighting against him is actually his long lost father is incredible and something that I really enjoyed.

It was also a lot of fun to see the earlier days of one of my favourite characters, Jarlaxle.  Jarlaxle is a flamboyant and deceptively cunning drow mercenary who is one of the most compelling characters in Salvatore’s books.  The character was first introduced in the second book of The Dark Elf trilogy, Exile, and quickly revealed himself to be a very memorable character.  Salvatore utilised him in a number of his follow-up series, and even gave him his own trilogy with Artemis Entreri.  I was therefore very happy to see him in both timelines of Timeless, as it provides the reader with some great entertainment as well as answering some interesting questions, like how he came up with his distinctive look.  His bromance with Zaknafein was another fun part of both storylines, and I liked seeing the previous connection these two great characters had with each other.  Overall, fans of Salvatore’s preceding books, especially The Dark Elf trilogy will love Timeless and become engrossed in seeing one of the most impactful characters in Drizzt’s life return after more than 20 years and 30 books.

As you would expect from a novel about Drizzt Do’Urden and Zaknafein, two of the most pumped-up sword users in all of fantasy fiction, there is an absolute ton of action and swordplay in this book.  Throughout the course of Timeless, the father and son duo engage in a number of exciting battles and extravagant duels as they face off against a variety of different foes in both of the book’s timelines.  There is so much going on in this book for readers to enjoy, from battles against demonic foes to Zaknafein and Jarlaxle taking on the most devious of drow opponents they can find in the prequel timeline.  The halfling Regis, who is generally one of the most entertaining characters in Salvatore’s books, also has an amazing sequence as he infiltrates a hidden vault, using a combination of alchemy, daring do and the well-honed thieves’ instincts and skills he has been displaying since The Crystal Shard.  Jarlaxle also steals any fight scene he is involved with, using his various magical devices and hidden weapons to cause all manner of chaos against his opponents, resulting in some of the most entertaining parts of the books.

However, easily the best action sequences have to be the duels between Drizzt and Zaknafein.  These two blade masters are generally regarded as the two best fighters in all of the Forgotten Realms and have not faced each other since the early 1990s.  As a result, Salvatore presents several highly detailed duels between the father and son.  These duels are written in incredible detail and Salvatore does a fantastic job highlighting the speed, intensity and skill that these two combatants have as they battle against each other in scenes which hark back to their original amazing duels in Homeland.  Ultimately, Salvatore is once again able to capture the magic that these two combatants had in their original appearances and their fights take on a completely new edge with the emotional intensity of these characters’ reunion.

Salvatore has once again provided his readers with an exhilarating adventure that pits the monsters and villains of the Forgotten Realms against your favourite fantasy heroes.  This is definitely a book that will have the most impact for existing fans of Salvatore’s Forgotten Realms novels, and as such I really enjoyed Timeless.  While newer readers may have a little trouble following the plot after 34 books worth of backstory (39 if you include The Cleric Quintet), Salvatore’s writing will ensure they get an electrifying adventure that will encourage them to look back at the original books in this series.  An outstanding fantasy adventure from one of the best writers in the business, this is fantastic read that is well worth checking out.

My Rating:

Four and a half stars

 

 

Dreadful Company by Vivian Shaw

Dreadful Company Cover.jpg

Publisher: Orbit

Publication Date – 24 July 2018

 

Those looking for an entertaining, intriguing and different take on the horror genre should investigate Dreadful Company, the latest book from author Vivian Shaw, which contains a thrilling story based around the doctor to your favourite fictional monsters.

Greta Helsing is London’s medical practitioner for the undead, providing specialised treatment to the city’s hidden community of ghouls, vampires, mummies and zombies.  After being called to Paris to attend a supernatural medical conference, Greta’s plans to enjoy a stimulating discourse and debate on monster medicine is ruined when she is suddenly kidnapped off the street.  Her abductors turn out to be a coven of young and murderous vampires led by the unhinged Corvin, who bears a particular grudge against Greta’s vampire friend Ruthven.  Even more concerning, a member of Corvin’s coven is using magic to summon small and friendly magical creatures.  While the creatures may be harmless, the ripples they are causing in reality are not, and represent a significant threat to our world.

While Greta is trapped in the tunnels and catacombs below Paris, her friends arrive in the city to save her.  Legendary elder vampire Ruthven and Greta’s vampyre boyfriend, Sir Francis Varney, team up with Paris’s guardian werewolf, two immortal paranormal investigators and the city’s resident demon to free Greta and put an end to the dimensional instability.  But Greta and her companions are about to find out that there are weirder and more dangerous things than a collection of bloodthirsty vampires in the tunnels underneath Paris.

Dreadful Company is Shaw’s follow-up to her 2017 debut novel, Strange Practice, and is the second book in her Dr Greta Helsing series.  Dreadful Company returns several of the protagonists from the first book while also adding in a healthy number of new and exciting characters.  A third book in the series is already planned; I will definitely be keeping an eye out for Grave Importance next year.

Shaw’s latest book contains a fun and electrifying adventure that pits several ancient beings and their doctor against a coven of vampires and the magical catastrophe they have created.  The author tells her story through a range of characters to show many different perspectives of the adventure taking place.  Not only is every single protagonist – including returning characters Greta, Ruthven and Varney, as well as new characters the werewolf St Germain, the remedial psychopomps Brightside and Dammerung and the demon Irazek – a point of view character, but so are several of the young vampires who serve as the book’s antagonists.  This allows Shaw to tell a much wider story.  Not only is the central adventure explored in greater detail from a several angles, but the motivations, shared histories and the underlying thought processes of the story’s key players are presented to the reader.

Shaw has made a smart decision to change the book’s main setting from London to Paris.  Many writers can get bogged down in one location during their series, but Shaw did a fantastic job adapting her story to a completely new and unique cityscape, a trend that she will apparently continue to follow in her 2019 addition to the series.  Shaw makes full use of several iconic Paris locations, particularly the catacombs and tunnels underneath the streets, which are the perfect setting for a horror story.  Overall, Dreadful Company contains a rather exciting adventure story that makes spectacular use of its horror and fantasy elements, while also making use of the humour and history of its many point-of-view characters to lighten the darker tone of the book and create a unique and entertaining read.

I was extremely happy that Shaw included more examples of monster medicine within Dreadful Company.  The examination of the medical techniques used on supernatural characters was one of the best features of Strange Practice, and was a very unique and compelling element of this first book.  There are a number of wonderful general monster medicine scenes throughout the book, including a supernatural medicine conference where topics include ‘An overview of the various treatment modalities for tissue degeneration in Class A revenants’ (how to stop bits falling off zombies).  Readers will really enjoy Dreadful Company’s interesting focus on the medicine of vampires.  Shaw did spend a little time exploring the biology and treatment of vampires in the first book, which is expanded upon in Dreadful Company.  There are several discussions about vampire anatomy and physiology, including some of the features of the different vampire subspecies.  There is also a detailed look at the effect of certain substances on vampiric characters, including drugs and garlic, as well as the surprisingly devastating absinthe.  The protagonist is also forced to treat a number of different vampire characters for a variety of different conditions, including an overdose, stab wounds and an infection caused by a ghoul bite.  Once again, Shaw’s inclusion of monster medicine was an amazing part of this book, and I am looking forward to the third novel in the series, Grave Importance, which will focus on the care of mummies.

Aside from the examination of vampire biology, Shaw has also included a fascinating look into the different vampire mentalities, particularly when it comes to the old school versus the young bloods.  The two elder vampire characters, Ruthven and Varney, are reformed from their violent past and are instead trying to live normal and peaceful lives alongside humans.  The younger vampires, on the other hand, are bloodthirsty creatures who don’t follow any rules, kill indiscriminately and indulge in drugs and wanton behaviour.  The differences between the behaviours of these two different types of vampires are quite noticeable, especially when the younger vampires try to live up to all of the vampire stereotypes, such as sleeping in coffins, wearing elaborate clothes and makeup, making up dumb names for themselves, developing a superiority complex and trying out various ways to make themselves glitter.  While these inclusions are extremely fun, the readers will really experience chills when they see how angry the usually calm characters Ruthven and Varney get when they encounter these younger vampires and realise what taboos they have broken.

In addition to the creative and captivating use of vampire characters throughout the book, Shaw has referenced several other classic horror creatures and villains.  There are several allusions to Frankenstein and The Phantom of the Opera, with the protagonists actually visiting the Phantom’s underground lair at one point.  There are also other creatures, such as magically summoned hair monsters, well monsters and a whistle-summoned spirit, all of which play an interesting role in the plot.  Some great humour also comes from the inclusion of several ghosts, many of whom can be found having a lively party in Paris’ iconic Père Lachaise cemetery.  Highlights of this scene include a snarky Oscar Wilde and a musical Jim Morrison, both of whom have some great interactions with the new characters, Brightside and Dammerung.

Dreadful Company sees new author Vivian Shaw return with another fun and thrilling horror novel that contains a fast-paced adventure and a light comedy enhance tone.  Shaw has invested in a range of new characters, a fresh setting and some appealing fantasy and horror elements.  The author’s clever and memorable inclusion of monster medicine once again shines through as the book’s best feature, as well as the detailed examination of the vampire psyche.  An absolutely amazing second outing from Shaw, Dreadful Company is a fantastic read that will prove to be both unique and captivating to a huge range of readers.

My Rating:

Four and a half stars