The Dark by Jeremy Robinson

The Dark Cover

Publisher: Podium Audio (Audiobook – 13 July 2021)

Series: Infinite Timeline

Length: 10 hours and 25 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Throwback Thursday – Grave Peril by Jim Butcher

Grave Peril Cover

Publisher: Buzzy Multimedia (Audiobook – 1 September 2001)

Series: Dresden Files – Book Three

Length: 11 hours and 55 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Welcome back to my Throwback Thursday series, where I republish old reviews, review books I have read before or review older books I have only just had a chance to read.  In my latest Throwback Thursday article, I continue my dive into the bestselling Dresden Files urban fantasy series by Jim Butcher by looking at the third chilling novel, Grave Peril.

I am really getting into the awesome Dresden Files novels, a major long-running urban fantasy series that follows Harry Dresden, a wizard living in modern-day Chicago, as he investigates supernatural crimes.  Generally considered one of the best urban fantasy series of all time, I started enjoying this series last year when I read the latest novel, Battle Ground.  I absolutely loved Battle Ground (easily one of the best novels and audiobooks of 2020) and I have since decided to go back and check out the earlier entries in the series.  I already enjoyed the very first novel, Storm Front, a couple of months ago, and Fool Moon, which I finished and reviewed last week, was so much fun that I had to immediately go and read another Dresden Files book.  I have just finished off the third entry, Grave Peril, and decided to feature it in this Throwback Thursday article.

Something is stirring in the dark of Chicago and it is bringing all manner of ghosts and spooks with it.  Harry Dresden, professional wizard, is used to facing the supernatural dangers infecting his city, but he has never experienced quite so much chaos as the spirit world has gone crazy.  Powerful ghosts and tortured spirits are popping up all around Chicago, causing the walls between our world and the Nevernever (the spirit world), to weaken and fray.  As Dresden attempts to find out who or what is behind the current upsurge in spiritual activity, he finds himself under attack from a powerful and unseen force that can strike through his nightmares.  Scared, weakened and full of self-doubt, Dresden is near powerless to stop this creature as it begins to target his friends and loved ones.

With a righteous Knight of the Cross at his back and his reporter girlfriend hounding him for a scoop, Dresden looks for the true source of the entity coming after him.  But in order to find the truth, Dresden must place himself in the very heart of Chicago’s supernatural underworld.  With old enemies, bloodthirsty vampires, howling spirits, deadly demons and his twisted fairy godmother coming after him, can Dresden survive this latest attack unscathed, or will his enemies finally succeed in destroying him, mind, body and soul?

Is it even possible for Butcher to write a bad Dresden Files book?  I have yet to see any evidence to suggest this as Grave Peril, the fourth Dresden Files novel I have read and the third book in the series, turned out to be another epic and powerful fantasy read.  Butcher has come up with a fantastic novel in Grave Peril, and I loved the dark and compelling story that sees Dresden face various demons from his past.  Utilising some great new characters and serving as a major entry in the overall series, this was an outstanding read which gets yet another five-star rating from me.

I deeply enjoyed the cool and complex narrative that Butcher came up with for Grave Peril, especially as it takes Dresden and his friends into some sinister and dangerous places.  This book starts quick, with a great extended sequence that sees Dresden and Michael face off against a powerful ghost in the Nevernever.  This amazing opening to the novel is then followed by an intriguing central story which forces Dresden to investigate a new and unusual antagonist, the Nightmare, who is feasting on his dreams and using the power it steals to go after Dresden’s loved ones.  This central story is very intense and compelling, playing to the series’ detective novel inspirations as Butcher sets up a fantastic mystery while also showing a desperate Dresden coming under attack in some unusual ways.  There are some fantastic moments in this part of the book, and I really appreciated the author’s inclusion of multiple supernatural suspects as you try to figure out who is involved and how they are pulling off their plans.  All this leads to the book’s most memorable sequence, a vampire masquerade, which sees Dresden and his closest allies trapped at a ball, surrounded by a dangerous array of enemies and, trying to work out motivations and plans on the fly.  The story is eventually all wrapped up with a dramatic and clever conclusion that is exciting, emotionally rich and a little traumatising to the reader.  I deeply enjoyed Grave Peril’s cool narrative and it honestly did not take me long to get fully engrossed in what was happening.  While this novel is not as action orientated as the previous book, Fool Moon, it has a much darker edge to it with a particular focus on manipulation, emotions and intrigue.  Readers should be warned that some of the scenes can be a bit over-the-top at times (I am pretty sure the protagonist gets raped by a vampire at one point) and are a little hard to read.  However, this is an overall exceptional narrative.

Like most books in the Dresden Files series, Grave Peril can be read as a standalone novel without any knowledge of the previous entries.  Butcher always makes his novels very accessible to new readers, and while there are some references to the character’s previous adventures, most of the relevant details and re-examined and explained throughout this book.  Grave Peril is a fairly major entry in the overall series as Butcher starts to introduce some important storylines, key supporting characters and lasting world-building elements which become quite significant in future novels.  In particular, Butcher introduces lore surrounding vampires, spirits, and fairies, with the protagonist coming into conflict with all three.  Each of these fantasy elements are set up extremely well and have a dark edge that fits into the series’ distinctive tone.  I loved the author’s depiction of the fairy creatures as monstrous and shadowy manipulators, and it was quite cool to see all the lore around vampires.  Grave Peril introduces three major vampire courts, with each court made up a different sub-species of vampire with their own specific powers and weaknesses, from the Dracula-esque Black Court, to the sexually and emotionally powered vampires of the White Court.  Each of these different types of vampires are strongly featured in Grave Peril and are a fantastic part of the story.  The highlight for me was probably the various battles between Dresden and the members of the Red Court, who can be pretty freaky and repulsive, and Butcher sets up an intriguing, long-running storyline with the Red Court here.

It is near impossible to discuss a Dresden Files novel without mentioning the incredible and well-written characters that appear in each book.  Butcher has a real talent for introducing and developing memorable protagonists and antagonists, and Grave Peril is a particularly good example of this.  Not only do several amazing recurring characters reappear in a big way but Butcher also introduces some intriguing new figures who make a big splash.

The key character as always is series protagonist and point of view character, Harry Blackstone Copperfield Dresden, the sarcastic and amusing maverick wizard who is constantly finding himself in trouble.  I always deeply enjoy following Dresden throughout these novels, mainly because he has a wicked sense of humour, an entertaining attitude and an uncanny ability to annoying and enrage everyone he comes across.  Most of Grave Peril’s humour comes from Dresden’s outrageous actions and observations, including his insane decision to arrive at a vampire’s ball dressed in a cheesy Dracula costume (that raised some eyebrows and lengthened some fangs).  Despite this fun and amusing exterior, Dresden is quite a damaged individual, and you really get to see that on full display in Grave Peril.  Dresden goes through some major traumatic events in this novel, several of which nearly break him as he is forced to encounter or do some very dark deeds.  Butcher really takes his protagonist to the edge in this novel, and there are some very intense scenes, including a glimpse of Dresden’s nightmares and deepest fears.  The author also continues to drip-feed hints of his protagonist’s dark past throughout this novel, especially when Dresden comes into conflict with an old enemy/mentor.  All this hurt and trauma is really touching and compelling, and the entire novel features a heartbreaking ending for Dresden, which really hits home, especially after you find yourself connecting with the character.

Aside from Dresden, there is a great collection of supporting and side characters I had a lot of fun seeing in this novel.  The most prominent of them is newly introduced protagonist, Michael Carpenter, Knight of the Cross.  Michael is a modern-day holy crusader, wielding a powerful blessed sword and his own unflappable faith to strike down evil.  Michael is a very intriguing character, and I deeply enjoyed the friendship he forms with Dresden.  Michael is a man of intense faith and goodness, who manages to balance family with his responsibilities as a knight, and this serves as a fantastic counterpart to the more flaky and irresponsible Dresden.  Like Dresden, Michael goes through some major traumas in this novel, several of which shake even his faith and resolve.  However, no matter how dark the situation, Michael manages to pull through and he and Dresden work together well as an enjoyable team with Michael serving as a mentor figure and conscience to Dresden.  I felt that Butcher did a great job introducing Michael in this novel, and I am excited to see how this noble knight develops in future Dresden Files’ entries.

Other great side characters in this novel include Dresden’s girlfriend, feisty reporter Susan Rodriguez.  Susan has not been my favourite character in the past, but she has a great story arc in this novel.  Not only does she attempt to do her own research into the case but she also serves as a major figure of emotional turmoil for Dresden as he struggles to prioritise her over his supernatural work.  While I did get a little annoyed at some of Susan’s decisions in this novel, I enjoyed the compelling story arc Butcher weaves around her, especially as it alters her in a big way.  My favourite haunted skull, Bob, returns once again and has several great scenes throughout Grave Peril.  I love Bob’s funny, if slightly pervy, personality, and all his appearances are very amusing.  There are some great new characters featured in this book as well, including Lea (The Leanansidhe), Michael’s fairy godmother.  Lea, who previously made a dark bargain with a desperate teenage Dresden, spends much of this book manipulating and hunting Dresden, attempting to claim him and his power.  I loved the use of this evil, manipulative and sexy fairy godmother through the novel, and she ended up being a pretty impressive secondary antagonist.  Grave Peril also sees the introduction of Thomas Raith, a White Court vampire who finds himself helping Dresden.  Thomas is a cool addition to the plot, and it was intriguing to see his introduction to the Dresden Files, especially as I know some spoilers about him.  All of these characters were pretty awesome and I had an outstanding time seeing their latest dark adventure unfold.

As I have with the previous entries in this series, I ended up listening to Grave Peril’s awesome audiobook format.  The Dresden Files audiobooks are a thing of beauty and I love how fun and exciting listening to these great books turns out to be.  The Grave Peril audiobook has a decent runtime of just under 12 hours, which is longer than the previous two Dresden Files novels, but readers will be too caught up in the amazing narrative to care.  I managed to power through it in only a few short days, mainly because of the outstanding narration from actor James Marsters.  Marsters, best known for his roles in shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Smallville and Torchwood, narrates all the Dresden Files books and does an exceptional job bringing each of these novels to life.  I absolutely loved the incredible gravitas and energy he infused in the Grave Peril audiobook.  Marsters really gets into the heart and mind of Dresden, and you get an amazing sense of what the protagonist is thinking and feeling through the narrator’s voice and tone.  I also enjoyed the enthusiasm that Marsters exhibited in several key scenes, as he attempted to highlight certain weird and dangerous story elements.  For example, he does a fantastic enraged and shrieking ghost wail towards the start of the novel that gave me a start, and I loved the dark and dangerous voices he pulls together for some of the more monstrous creatures.  It was also very cool to hear Marsters yell out some of Dresden’s spells in the heat of battle, and it really enhances the excitement of the scene.  All of this and more makes the Grave Peril audiobook the perfect way to enjoy this novel, and I plan to check out the entire Dresden Files in this format.

Grave Peril by Jim Butcher is an exceptional and incredible fantasy novel that serves as an amazing third entry in the bestselling Dresden Files.  Butcher crafted together a dark and compelling character driven narrative for Grave Peril which proved to be extremely addictive and powerful.  I had an outstanding time getting through this novel, and I loved all the clever introductions and memorable sequences the author loaded into the plot.  A highly recommended read, especially as an audiobook, I cannot wait to see what other madness occurs in the rest of this fantastic series.

Throwback Thursday – Storm Front by Jim Butcher

Storm Front Cover

Publisher: Buzzy Multimedia (Audiobook – 1 April 2000)

Series: Dresden Files – Book One

Length: 8 hours and 2 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

For my latest Throwback Thursday I finally check out the first novel in the epic and highly acclaimed Dresden Files series, Storm Front, by legendary author Jim Butcher, which is an amazing and impressive read.

Jim Butcher is an outstanding author who has been dominating the fantasy market for nearly 20 years.  While he has written a couple of series, including his Codex Alera books, and some standalone novels, such as the tie-in novel Spider-Man: The Darkest Hours, Butcher is easily best known for his Dresden Files novels.  These books follow the adventures of titular protagonist Harry Dresden, Chicago’s only official wizard, who solves magical crimes and serves as a protector of the innocent against a range of supernatural threats.  This series has been running since 2000 and with 17 current entries (the 18th is on the way) it is generally considered to be the gold-standard of urban fantasy series.  While I have always heard amazing things about these books, I arrived a little late to the party, having only read the 17th book, Battle Ground, last year.  Battle Ground was a pretty epic read, containing an off-the-chain fantasy war in the heart of the city, and it ended up being one of my favourite novels (and audiobooks) of 2020.  Due to how much I enjoyed this latest book, as well as a general desire to explore the rest of the series, I decided to go back and read the first entry in the series, Butcher’s debut novel, Storm Front.

Harry Dresden is a man who leads an interesting life.  As the only openly practicing magic user in Chicago (his name is even in the phonebook under wizard), Harry scrapes a living investigating small and unusual cases, such as finding lost items and performing paranormal investigations while trying to avoid the attentions of the White Council, a governing body of magical practitioners who have placed Harry on a lethal probation.  However, his latest cases are about to make his life very complicated in ways he never expected.

Two people have been murdered in a particularly gruesome manner, with their hearts bursting out of their chests during an act of passion.  Called in by the Chicago P.D., which has him on retainer as a magical consultant, Harry determines that their deaths were caused by the darkest of spells.  Despite being forbidden by the White Council to know anything about the deadly arts, Dresden begins to dive into the case, determined to find out who is responsible and how they did it.  At the same time, Monica Sells, a local housewife, has provided Dresden with a great deal of money to find her missing husband, someone who has apparently had his own recent misadventures with magic.

As Harry investigates both the murder and the disappearance, he finds himself under attack from all sides.  Not only does the most feared gangster in Chicago want him to drop the case, but the White Council views him as the prime suspect in the deaths due to his deadly past.  Worse, a shadowy figure wants him dead and is unleashing dangerous magical creatures upon him.  However, you cannot keep a good wizard down, and Harry plans to use every trick at his disposal to stay alive long enough to find the killer, even if it burns every bridge he has.

Well, that was a pretty awesome read, and one that I wish I had checked out a very long time ago.  Storm Front is an exciting and clever book that combines a compelling story with some great characters, an interesting urban fantasy setting and a fantastic, humour laden tone, all of which come together into an impressive novel.  Storm Front also serves as an excellent first novel in the wider Dresden Files series, and it was extremely interesting to see it after previously reading a more recent entry in the series.  I had an amazing time with this novel and, while it is a tad rough in places, especially compared to Butcher’s later work, I must give Storm Front a full five-star rating.

At the centre of Storm Front lies a particularly good fantasy murder mystery narrative that sees the protagonist take on some challenging cases that result in death and destruction raining down on his life.  The story starts up quickly with Dresden, whose role as a wizard is more like a supernatural PI, being employed to find a missing husband, while also helping the police solve a twisted magical double murder.  This results in a fast-paced narrative that sees Dresden investigate both cases in his own unique way, which results in dangerous complications as people attempt to either discourage him or outright kill him.  I loved how the story read a lot like a hardboiled detective fiction novel, albeit with a lot more quips and amusing jokes, and this style of writing worked extremely well with the magical elements featured throughout the book.  The narrative gets more complex as the book progresses, with additional side characters, greater lore inclusions and more sophisticated dangers, and I felt that the author was able to work all of this into story extremely well, ensuring that the reader becomes enthralled with the intense magical action, entertaining characters, and outlandish threats.  The author also throws in some clever twists, which includes the protagonist becoming the main suspect in the murders, resulting in a lot of tense and dangerous situations as he tries to avoid everyone coming after him.  All of this leads up to an epic and fantastically written conclusion which pulls all the threads of the story together and ensures that the reader is left wanting more.  If I had to make one criticism about the book, it would be that the identity of the main antagonist/murder is extremely obvious right from the outset, and that ruins a lot of the surprises that the author was clearly hoping for.  However, I still really enjoyed Storm Front’s captivating tale, and it is worth hanging around to see the story unfold.  Overall, I felt that this was an exceedingly strong story and it honestly does not take long to get hooked on it.

Easily the top highlight of this book is the outstanding protagonist and narrator, Harry Dresden (full name: Harry Blackstone Copperfield Dresden, named after famous stage magicians), the rogue and public wizard.  Dresden is an amazing and entertaining protagonist who the reader quickly becomes attached to thanks to his antics, morality, unpredictable nature and skills as magic user.  I always enjoy smartass characters, and Dresden is one of the better ones I have read.  A lot of the book’s excellent comedic undertones are thanks to Dresden’s dry and timely sense of humour as he provides some excellent quips and commentary, both out loud and in his head.  Despite being a mostly funny character, Butcher ensures that his protagonist has a hard and dark edge to him that helps to make him even more compelling and intriguing to follow.  Not only does the reader get an in-depth and comprehensive look into his troubled psyche, especially when he is experiencing guilt, trauma or despair, but there are some intriguing hints at his dark past, some of which come into play throughout the book.  I also liked how the author set up and explored Dresden’s magical ability, especially as the protagonist is not the most powerful magical user out there, although he makes up for it through trickery, training and intelligence.  I particularly liked the way in which he was able to defeat an antagonist with substantially more raw magical power with some simple tricks or the use of some psychology, and the author did a great job highlighting his protagonist’s analytical thinking as one of his key strengths.  I also have to say that I really enjoyed the fantastic look that Butcher sets up for his character, with the black duster, the staff and the Blue Beetle car, making him a very distinctive figure.  This ended up being an outstanding introduction to the character, and it will be interesting to see how he develops to the powerful badass that later appears in Battle Ground.

In addition to Dresden, the author also features an interesting collection of characters throughout Storm Front who add some additional, exciting layers to the overall story.  Each of the supporting characters in this novel is very well-written and layered, featuring some intriguing histories (although they all have secrets that will be revealed later).  Many of these characters become major figures in the larger Dresden Files series, and this serves as an excellent introduction to them.  Of all the characters a few really stood out to me, including Bob, an air spirit who inhabits a skull in Harry’s lab.  Bob is a fun, if unusual, character who has a somewhat perverted/voyeuristic streak that causes Harry all manner of trouble and leads to some very entertaining moments throughout the book.  I also quite liked the introduction of Karrin Murphy, the hardnosed Chicago detective who utilises Dresden as her magical consultant.  Karrin is a great no-nonsense character who is one of the few people to call Dresden out on his actions and who has a complex relationship with him in this book.  I really must highlight the introduction of “Gentleman” John Marcone, Chicago’s premier crime boss who is antagonistic towards Dresden for much of the book.  Marcone is portrayed is a stone-cold killer with a hidden past, and there are some great hints at what sort of recurring character he becomes in future entries in this series.  I also thought that the overall antagonist of this novel was pretty good and served as a great counterpoint to Dresden throughout the book.  Despite the identity of the antagonist being rather obvious for much of the novel, I felt that Butcher provided them some complex motivations for their actions in Storm Front, and it was intriguing to see how they slid down into using dark magic.  This antagonist has a couple of fantastic scenes in this novel, and I particularly liked the clever way in which their storyline came to an end.  Each of these side characters added so much to the book’s plot, and I had an amazing time getting to know them.

I also really enjoyed the amazing urban fantasy setting that Butcher came up with for Storm Front.  This series is set in a world where magic is semi-hidden from mortals, although there is substantial dangerous magical activity occurring in the underbelly of cities like Chicago.  The author does a great job of setting up the basics of this fantasy reality throughout the first book, and the reader is given an effective rundown of all the unique features and limitations of magic and magical creatures for these books.  Butcher made the smart choice of starting small with this first book, and while there are mentions of the wider magical world, enough to draw the curiosity of the reader, for the most part the magical elements are limited to what is relevant to the story.  I liked that the reader was not overwhelmed with lore right off the bat, especially as this allowed them to enjoy the cool story, but it is clear a lot of what was mentioned will be explored in far greater detail in the future.  The grimy and dangerous magical cityscape also served as an awesome background to the noir style story contained within Storm Front, and it was great to see the character get involved with both the criminal and magical underbelly of the city.  I had a lot of fun with this setting, and I look forward to learning more about the rules and hidden magical lore in the future.

Considering how outstanding my previous experience with a Dresden Files audiobook was, there was no way that I was not going to check out Storm Front’s audiobook format, especially as it was once again narrated by Spike himself, James Marsters (I also loved him in Torchwood and Smallville, but he was at his best in Buffy and Angel).  Unsurprisingly I had an incredible time listening to Storm Front’s audiobook and I ended up knocking it out in a couple of days, especially as it has a relatively short runtime of 8 hours.  This was an incredible audiobook, not only because the great story translated really well into the format, but also because of Marsters’ fantastic narration.  Marsters did an outstanding job narrating this story at a quick pace, drawing listeners into the story while also utilising a voice that perfectly fits Storm Front’s tone.  I also really appreciated the way in which Marsters dove into the role of the central protagonist, Harry Dresden, and he really brings this maverick character to life throughout the production, especially when it comes to encapsulating Dresden’s dry wit, strange sense of humour and enthusiasm.  Marsters did use similar voices for some of the supporting characters, however listeners are able to easily follow the story without getting confused about who is talking.  Overall, this was a pretty good performance from Marsters (this was actually one of the first audiobooks he narrated), and I know that he gets a lot better in later books, with some varied voices and even greater enthusiasm as a narrator.  As a result, I fully intend to check out the rest of the Dresden Files novels in their audiobook format and I would strongly recommend that anyone interested in this series do the same.

Storm Front by Jim Butcher is an exceptional and captivating debut novel that more than lives up to all the hype that has been generated about it in the last 20 years.  Thanks to the cool story, great characters, and fantastic setting, this was an awesome book to read, and I loved seeing this maverick wizard solving supernatural crimes in Chicago.  Storm Front also served as an incredible introduction to the wider Dresden Files novels, and I was glad to see how this entire epic series started.  I fully intend to go back and check out this entire series over the next couple of years and I am very excited to see what over intense and entertaining adventures Butcher has come up with in.

Relentless by R. A. Salvatore

Relentless Cover

Publisher: Harper Audio (Audiobook – 28 July 2020)

Series: Generations – Book Three

Length: 15 hours and 9 minutes

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Legendary fantasy author R. A. Salvatore brings his latest trilogy of novels to an epic conclusion with his 2020 release, Relentless, the third and final book in the Generations trilogy.

War has once again come to the Forgotten Realms, as the Drow hordes of Menzoberranzan march to reclaim the soul of one of their own, the previously dead sword master Zaknafein Do’Urden.  Centuries ago, Zaknafein sacrificed his life to save his son, Drizzt Do’Urden, allowing him to become the greatest hero the lands had ever seen.  Thanks to the help of a mysterious Drow priestess, Zaknafein has been returned to life and finally reunited with his son.  However, their reunion has been far from perfect, as Zaknafein has trouble understanding some of his son’s choices, including his unusual companions and his marriage to a human.  Worse, Drow fanatics, utterly loyal to the dark god of Chaos, Loth the Spider Queen, have declared war on the surface, determined to capture and kill Zaknafein and Drizzt and everyone who stands with them.

A massive army of demons has invaded the dwarven kingdom of Gauntlgrym, trapping Zaknafein, the rogue Jarlaxle, Drizzt’s life-long friends and the legendary Companions of the Hall inside, while dark forces attack their allies on the surface.  At the same time, the massed armies of the Drow city of Menzoberranzan have been forced to war and now occupy the tunnels surrounding Gauntlgrym, cutting off any chance of escape.  However, all of this pales in comparison to the greatest tragedy that has occurred in the lands outside of Gauntlgrym, where a demonic device of great power tracked and disintegrated Drizzt as he tried to destroy the mechanical creature.

While things seem dire, the Companions of the Hall are far from defeated, and every man, dwarf, halfling and rogue dark elf is ready to fight.  As Zaknafein, Gauntlgrym’s dwarf king Bruenor and their allies attempt to hold back the hordes besieging them by any means possible, the barbarian warrior Wulfgar works to reclaim the city of Luskan with a small force of warriors.  As the battle begins in earnest, heroes will rise, empires will fall, and the world will change forever.  However, the fate of everyone involved in this battle may lay in Zaknafein’s secret history, as demons from his past come back to haunt him once again.

R. A. Salvatore has produced another incredible and wonderful fantasy read that takes several of his most iconic characters on a dark and dangerous journey. Salvatore is one of my favourite fantasy authors, having produced an immense and awesome collection of novels over the years. While he has written several series, such the novels set in his Corona universe (including his other 2020 release, Song of the Risen God), his main body of work is set within the shared Forgotten Realms fantasy universe and primarily follows the adventures of the Drow ranger Drizzt Do’Urden and his heroic companions.  Relentless is the third entry in the latest Drizzt Do’Urden trilogy of books, known as the Generations trilogy, which includes the preceding novels Timeless and Boundless.  This series continues the adventures of Drizzt and his companions, but features an intriguing new angle in the return of Drizzt’s father, who died in the 1990 novel, Homeland.  This has so far proven to be an impressive and exciting trilogy from Salvatore that contains an intriguing new narrative and pays homage to his earlier novels in the overarching series.  I have been looking forward to Relentless for some time, especially after the really cool cliffhanger that Salvatore featured at the end of Boundless.

In this latest book, Salvatore tells a complex and action-packed story that makes use of multiple character perspectives to tell an epic and exciting tale, especially after establishing so many excellent plot points in the previous two novels.  As he did in the other entries in this series, Salvatore features two distinct timelines throughout this impressive book.  Relentless is broken up into four separate parts (not including the prelude), with two of these parts set during in the universe’s modern era, depicting the current day battle for Gauntlgrym and the lives of the author’s beloved protagonist, while the other two parts of the novel are set deep in the past.  These two parts of the novel are set hundreds of years before the current events and follow Zaknafein, Jarlaxle and several other Drow characters during their younger days.  Both of these distinctive storylines have their own appeals, and I had a fantastic time reading both of them.

I probably enjoyed the prequel storylines the most, as I really enjoyed the deeper look at Zaknafein’s past and its intriguing implications on the events of Salvatore’s earlier books.  These prequel storylines are loaded with fantastic depictions of life in the chaotic and evil Drow city of Menzoberranzan, and it was extremely entertaining to see all the backstabbing, politics and brutal battles for supremacy that are a distinguishing feature of day-to-day Drow life.  These prequel storylines also contain some of the best action sequences in the book, mainly because they focus on the character of Zaknafein, the greatest sword fighter in the world, and Salvatore always portrays his epic fight sequences in intricate detail, capturing the sheer majesty of the character’s fighting ability.  I also quite enjoyed seeing more of the young, up-and-coming version of the Drow mercenary and conman, Jarlaxle, as he manipulates the entirety of the city, and all of his scenes are extremely fun.  This earlier storyline in Relentless is a great continuation of the other prequel storylines that appeared in the previous entries in the Generations trilogy, and I really enjoyed how this entire expanded storyline concludes.  It was fascinating to see how the events of Zaknafein’s past impacted the main storyline, and I felt that this was an outstanding addition to Relentless’s story.

While I did prefer the prequel storyline, the contemporary story contained within the other two parts of the book is still pretty epic in its own right, as it features a desperate fight for survival against the antagonists of the series.  Salvatore goes big for these parts of the book, featuring massive battles for supremacy, major character moments and some universe-changing twists and turns.  Like the prequel storyline, this main narrative thread flows on extremely well from the previous Generations books, and the author provides a satisfactory conclusion to the war which was set up in the last two novels.  The author more strongly utilises multiple character perspectives in these parts of the book, which I felt helped to tell a richer and more exciting story, especially as you got to see the action unfold from the eyes of many established characters.  A lot of the plot points established in the prequel storylines were masterfully exploited throughout these main parts of the book, and I think that the combination of time periods worked extremely well to create a powerful and memorable narrative.  The major events that occurred at the end of Relentless were rather interesting, and it looks like Salvatore has some intriguing plans for any future novels set in this universe.  Overall, this was an extremely enjoyable tale filled with some great action, well-established characters, and an incredible combination of compelling and varied storylines.

While I usually find all of Salvatore’s books to be extremely accessible to general fantasy fans who are unfamiliar with his prior works, Relentless is book probably best enjoyed by people who have read the rest of the entries in the Generations trilogy and who have some decent knowledge of the other Drizzt Do’Urden novels.  This is mainly because Relentless serves as the conclusion to the connected storylines established in Timeless and Boundless, and the story has gotten quite complex at this point, especially with the prequel storyline focusing on the young Zaknafein, which was carefully cultivated in the prior two novels.  While new readers can probably still follow and enjoy Relentless, fans of Salvatore’s work are going to be the ones who get the most out of it, especially as this latest book ties into some of the author’s earliest works.  For example, the prequel storyline has some extremely strong connections to one of the author’s earliest books, Homeland.  The Generations trilogy’s past-based storyline has primarily served as a compelling prequel to Homeland, and this latest book contains several scenes that shed new light on this previous book.  Indeed, some of the best scenes in Relentless serve as a direct precursor to key events of Homeland or provide alternate viewpoints to them, allowing for some fascinating new context and information.  I personally have always had a lot of love for Homeland, which is one of Salvatore’s best novels, and I really appreciated seeing this new take on the plot.  As a result, this is a must-read for fans of Salvatore’s fantastic series and readers are in for a real treat.

Another great part of this book were the excellent characters featured throughout the various time periods.  As has been the case with the other books in the Generations trilogy, much of the character development revolves around Zaknafein, as both time periods have a fascinating focus on him.  Salvatore continues to explore various parts of Zaknafein’s character throughout Relentless, both in the past and present, and it was great to see how he has evolved throughout the course of the trilogy.  I particularly enjoyed seeing Zaknafein’s development in the prequel storyline, especially as you get several extra scenes discussing Zaknafein’s conflicted feelings when Drizzt was born.  Salvatore spends a lot of time establishing how Zaknafein became the person who would eventually sacrifice his own life for his son, and it was great to see this whole new side of this iconic and fantastic character.

Several other characters featured throughout Relentless really stood out to me.  Foremost of these is of course the rogue Drow criminal and conman, Jarlaxle, who is a prominent character in both timelines.  Jarlaxle is so much fun to see in action, whether he is manipulating someone or getting involved in a fight with his fantastic arsenal of insane magical weapons and tools.  Drizzt, who is nominally the main character of this trilogy, and indeed most of Salvatore’s Forgotten Realms novels, was notably absent throughout this book, having been disintegrated at the end of Boundless.  Salvatore works his apparent death into the story extremely well, creating some emotionally deep moments as his friends mourn his passing and try to work out how to move on.  I think that Salvatore utilised his absence from the story to full effect, especially as it allowed other characters to have their moment to shine.  Drizzt’s eventual resurrection, which was so predictable it is not even really a spoiler, was set up beautifully and I really liked how it tied into some of the more mystical events of some previous Salvatore novels.  Aside from these Drow characters, the rest of the Companions of the Hall have major moments throughout Relentless, and each of them has a key storyline set around them.  Bruenor, Wulfgar, Regis, Catti-brie, Artemis Enteri and more are all utilised throughout the story, and it was great to see all of them in action.  Salvatore also focuses on several other side characters who have appeared in prior novels, and there are some notable storylines and character arcs scatter amongst them that will no doubt bear fruit in future Drizzt Do’Urden novels.  Overall, Relentless continues Salvatore’s exceptional character work, and it was fantastic to see all these complex personalities come to life.

Rather than grab a physical copy of Relentless I ended up getting this cool fantasy novel on audiobook, which was a fantastic way to enjoy Salvatore’s latest release.  The audiobook format of Relentless has a run time of just over 15 hours, which, while fairly substantial for an audiobook, is easy enough to get through once you become engrossed in the excellent narrative and is definitely worth the time investment.  I really enjoyed listening to this great book and I found that it was the perfect way to absorb all the unique fantasy elements and Salvatore’s intriguing twists.  Part of the reason why I enjoyed this format so much was the excellent voice work from narrator Victor Bevine.  Bevine is a veteran audiobook narrator who has provided his vocal talents to a huge number of Salvatore’s previous novels, including the other two entries in the Generations trilogy.  It is cool having the continuity of Bevine’s voice after enjoying so many Salvatore audiobooks, and I really enjoy the tone that he uses for this story.  Bevine moves Relentless along at a quick pace, and the listener never finds themselves stuck in a slow part of the novel.  I also quite enjoyed the excellent voices that Bevine utilised throughout the book.  Not only did these voices perfectly fit the characters they were assigned to, helping to bring them to life, but I loved all the fun accents he used for the various races featured within the book, such as the Scottish brogue that each dwarven character had.  All of this really enhanced my enjoyment of Relentless and this is a fantastic novel to check out on audiobook.

Relentless is another exceptional and epic read from the master of fantasy fiction, R. A. Salvatore, as he wraps up another amazing trilogy with a remarkable and memorable bang.  Salvatore remains at the top of his game for Relentless, providing the reader with a complex, multifaceted storyline, studded with intense action, fantastic characters and some really clever story elements.  I had an outstanding time reading this awesome book and I cannot wait to see what magic and mayhem Salvatore comes up with in his next captivating read.  Highly recommended.

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.

Usagi 25

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.

Usagi 26

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.

Usagi 27

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.

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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.