The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes by Suzanne Collins

The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes Cover

Publisher: Scholastic Audio (Audiobook – 19 May 2020)

Series: The Hunger Games – Book 0

Length: 16 hours and 16 minutes

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

It is time to return to Panem as bestselling young adult fiction author Suzanne Collins presents the thrilling prequel to her acclaimed The Hunger Games series, The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes.

It has been 10 years since the third and final book in The Hunger Games trilogy was published. Since then the series has gone from strength the strength, thanks to the four films that converted these books into an ultra-popular franchise. Like many, I jumped onto The Hunger Games bandwagon after the first film was released, and I ended up listening to all three of the novels in quick succession. This of course turned me into a pretty major fan of the franchise, and I eagerly watched the next three films as they were released. As a result, I was extremely intrigued when I heard that Collins was writing a prequel novel, and I have been looking forward to it for some time. I ended up listening to the audiobook version of The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes right after its release, and it proved to be an extremely interesting book that I rather enjoyed.

It has only been a decade since the Capitol won the war that ravished Panem, defeating the Districts and forcing them back under Capitol control. As punishment for their crimes, every year two children from each of the 12 surviving Districts are forced to compete in the Hunger Games, a brutal fight to the death from which there is only one survivor. While many in both the Capitol and the Districts view the Games as distasteful, for one young man it represents an invaluable opportunity.

Coriolanus Snow is a young academy student whose family has fallen on hard times after the war. Coriolanus’s one chance to get into the Capitol university and have a chance at wealth and prestige is to successfully mentor one of the tributes in the annual Hunger Games and ensure that they win. The odds seem to be against him when he is given the female tribute from District 12, generally considered the lowest tribute with the worst odds of surviving. However, when his tribute, the wild and alluring Lucy Gray Baird, sings on stage at the reaping, Coriolanus’s hopes rise, as her antics capture the attention of everyone in the Capitol. Determined to succeed no matter the cost, Coriolanus soon finds his fate entwined with that of Lucy Gray. But as he gets closer and closer with his tribute, just how far is Coriolanus willing to go, and how will his decisions now affect the future of Panem forever?

The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes is a captivating and entertaining read that serves as a fascinating prequel to the original Hunger Games novels. Collins comes up with a fantastic, character-driven story that focuses on the main antagonist of the first trilogy, President Snow, while also diving back into the past of her unique dystopian future, showing the early days of the Hunger Games. I have to admit that I had rather high expectations going into this novel, and I ended up being a little disappointed at times with how it turned out. This was a rather less exciting read than the previous Hunger Games books, as Collins spends a lot of time exploring society, human nature and the psyche of the villainous protagonist. It was also way too long, and I think it could have been shortened down a little. Despite probably being my least favourite Hunger Games novel so far, The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes is still a really good book that I had an amazing time listening to it.

This book contains an intriguing plot that follows the protagonist as he becomes involved in the events of the 10th annual Hunger Games. The story is broken up into three distinctive parts, each of which takes up about a third of the book’s narrative. The first part deals with the lead-up to the Hunger Games, the second part follows the actual Hunger Games as Snow watches from the outside, while the last third of the book details the aftermath of the games, and features a new adventure for the protagonist. Each of these three parts proved to be enjoyable in their own right, and together they formed a rather compelling overall narrative. I was a little surprised that the actual Hunger Games ended about two-thirds of the way into the story. When the novel suddenly jumped to a post-Hunger Games storyline with third of the book still to go, I honestly thought that Collins had made a mistake, and would have been better off portraying an extended Hunger Games. However, this third part served as a rather good conclusion to the entire novel, and I actually really liked some of the major plot elements that occurred there, especially as they were the most transformative part of the novel for the main character. There are a lot of cool moments within this story, as well as a bevy of supporting characters, many of whom Collins is able to give a bit of depth to with a few short paragraphs. I actually really enjoyed where this story went, and while I did envision it going in a different direction, I think that Collins did a good job with it in the end.

One of the key things about The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes is that it serves as an origin story for President Snow, the main antagonist of the original Hunger Games trilogy. It features an 18-year-old Snow as the main character and is told completely from his perspective. I understand that quite a few people were not exactly thrilled that President Snow was the focus of this novel, and many did not want to see a book that followed a young version of him. While I can understand their feelings about this, I personally enjoyed seeing something that focused on Snow and his early history. I have read and enjoyed many stories in the past that focus on a villain, or which features them as a major protagonist, and it can often be quite fun to see their perspectives and motivations. The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes is a good example of this, and I found it fascinating to see a younger Snow and watch his involvement in his first Hunger Games.

Collins has an interesting take on the character of the young President Snow, and presents the reader with some key moments from his life, as well as some of the people who helped shape him into the villain we know in the later books. The author spends time exploring elements of his childhood, such as showing how he suffered during the war, not only losing both his parents, but also nearly dying from starvation as the Districts besieged the Capitol. There are also some intriguing examinations of his family, such as the grandmother who gifted him his love of roses, and the revelation that the character of Tigress, who appeared in the third book (fourth movie), is actually Snow’s cousin and closest living relative. However, despite these more humanising elements, Snow is shown to be a truly irredeemable person even before the transformative events of the novel. From the very start of the book, Collins portrays him as a manipulative and conceited individual, constantly sucking up to people in order to get what he wants, resentful of those around him who have more than he does and concerned most of all with status. While there are some intriguing nature versus nurture elements to his early behaviours, Snow is shown to be just an unpleasant person. This of course makes him a hard protagonist to get behind for this book, and for most of the story you really were not rooting for him to succeed. Despite this, I found his story to be rather compelling and I enjoyed seeing this mostly amoral teenager attempt to succeed, while presenting the reader with various, weak or selfish justifications for his actions in his mind.

While he is already a pretty despicable person, it is the events of The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes that truly turn him into the cutthroat person that takes control of the Capitol in the future. Thanks to a combination of his experiences and some perceived betrayals (which are always worse from his point of view), as well as the mentorship of the Capitol’s sadistic head gamemaker, Doctor Gaul, Snow becomes much more ruthless and ambitious, and some of his actions towards the end of the book show just how evil he has become. It was also cool to see him embrace the philosophy around the Hunger Games, as well as developing a hatred of District 12 and certain other symbols and songs, all of which the character would carry with him to the main trilogy 60 years in the future. All of this analysis of Snow’s character formed a captivating heart to the story, and I liked the more villain-centric novel, even if this great antagonist did come across as a winy child at times. I will be intrigued to see more of the events that influenced Snow in the future, although I can appreciate that many others would prefer stories based around Collins’s protagonists.

The other major character that I have to discuss is Snow’s tribute from District 12, Lucy Gray Baird. Lucy Gray is an entertaining and likeable character who steps off the page right at the moment of her introduction and sticks in the mind. Lucy Gray is a very different tribute to that of Katniss from the main trilogy, being a singer and rebellious entertainer who effortlessly makes everyone fall in love with her, and who relies on cunning and underhanded tactics to survive rather than martial prowess. She also serenades both the reader and the other characters with a variety of different songs, and I quite enjoyed seeing several of the musical numbers she came up with, especially as you find out the origins of one of the musical pieces that appear in the original trilogy. Lucy Gray is the character who the reader is most drawn to, and you find yourself even hoping that Snow succeeds, as this will ensure Lucy Gray’s survival. Snow and Lucy Gray end up having a bit of an awkward romance, which on the surface seems nice, although you only see it from Snow’s point of view, and he becomes rather possessive of her in his own mind. I would have been interested to see Lucy Gray’s thoughts on Snow, as it could have really changed the whole dynamic of their relationship. Overall, though, Lucy Gray is a great new character, and the way her arc in this book ends really helps drive home how terrible Snow can be.

The thing that I think most people, especially established fans of The Hunger Games novels, will enjoy about this prequel novel is the substantial world building that Collins does. The author does an outstanding job showing off an early version of Panem, which is still recovering from the impacts of the war, and where control over the Districts is not yet complete. This is a rather different Capitol to what you see in the other The Hunger Games books, as there are no elaborate costumes, outrageous styles, strange cosmetic surgery or excessive luxuries. Instead it is a far more subdued Capitol, with less food, traumatised people and rubble still in the streets. This made for a curious contrast to what we see in the future books, and it was interesting to see the differences and similarities. There are also some exciting flashbacks to the war itself from the memory of Snow, and it was cool to learn a little more about that. Naturally, The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes contains a lot of foreshadowing to the events of the original Hunger Games trilogy, and fans will enjoy seeing historical views of certain key events, locations and people.

One of the most fascinating aspects of this world building is the author’s exploration of the early Hunger Games and how they took place. These Games are very different to the elaborate affairs shown in the original trilogy. Up until this point the Hunger Games are rather basic, with the tributes simply thrown into an abandoned sports arena with a bunch of weapons. There are some great comparisons between these more basic games and the games that we are more familiar with, such as the way that the tributes are treated, as rather than the luxurious train with all the fancy food that Katniss and Peeta travelled in, the tributes for these Hunger Games arrive starved and injured in a livestock train. This is also the games where they start to experiment with some of the elements that are recognisable from the main games, such as having a mentor, brief interviews with a Flickerman (in this case, Lucky Flickerman, the local news weatherman and amateur magician), gambling and sponsors. It was really cool to see the origins of these ideas, and why they were implemented, and it makes for a truly fascinating addition to the book. Collins also really dives into the philosophy behind the Games, and why the leaders of the Capitol were so eager for them to succeed and why they believed that they helped control the Districts. The origin of the Games is also revealed, as well as some of the key players, and I think it served as an invaluable piece of this universe’s lore. I quite liked learning more about the early days of the Hunger Games, and I imagine that a lot of readers will love to find out how such a terrible event came to pass.

The actual Hunger Games that took place in The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes was a shorter and more barebones affair than what we have seen before. The tributes are fighting in an actual sporting arena, rather than a terraformed zone, and most of them spend the time hiding in the tunnels. Due to the fact that we are seeing it from Snow’s point of view, and because the arena only has a couple of cameras that only cover a fraction of the area, there are a lot of periods of inactivity and blank time, where the reader has no idea what is going on. This made for a much more disrupted experience, and while it was interesting to see the games unfold from the outside (something we saw a little bit of in the movie, but not in the books), it was nowhere as exciting as it could have been. That being said, there are still some really cool moments of child murder, and I did like seeing the mentor’s role in winning the games. The way in which the games came to an end was also rather clever, and it played into the events occurring outside with Snow. While it could have been longer, more exciting and perhaps more intense, this was still a fun part of the novel, and I look forward to seeing more fights to the death in any future Hunger Games novels Collins writes.

As I mentioned above, I ended up listening to the audiobook version of The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes rather than grab a physical copy, and I am rather glad that I did, as it proved to be a great way to enjoy this book. The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes audiobook is narrated by Santino Fontana and has a run time of just over 16 hours. This was a rather extensive run time for a Hunger Games novel; it was around five hours longer than any of the previous audiobooks in the series. That being said, I was able to get through this audiobook in a rather short period of time, and I found myself really engaged by this format, as it helped explore all the elements of this earlier version of Panem. Santino Fontana proved to be a very good narrator for this novel and he does an excellent job bringing the book’s large host of characters to life. The various voices he does fit the characters rather well, and I thought that his narration helped to highlight how horrible Snow could be at times. I also liked how Fontana’s narration worked with the multiple songs that Collins featured throughout the novel, and his spoken version of them sounded rather cool. As a result, I would definitely recommend the audiobook version of The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes to people interested in checking this book out, as it was a wonderful format to enjoy this great story with.

The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes was a curious and unique new addition to The Hunger Games franchise, which I thought turned out to be a rather good read. Collins ended up writing an intriguing, character-based narrative that showed a new side to the main antagonist of her original trilogy. While this book is not without its flaws, I had a wonderful time reading it, and once I got into its plot I had a hard time putting it down. Ideal for those fans of the previous Hunger Games novel, this book should make for an interesting movie in the future, and I am planning to grab any future novels from Collins set in this universe.

Guest Review: The Testaments by Margaret Atwood

In her latest guest review, the Unseen Library’s editor, Alex, checks out one of the biggest releases of the year, and also sets herself up to do some more reviews for the blog in the future.

The Testaments Cover

Publisher: Chatto & Windus (Hardcover – 10 September 2019)

Series: The Handmaid’s Tale – Book 2

Length: 419 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Unlike the Unseen Librarian himself, who seems to have no problem zipping through several books a week, I tend to buy books faster than I read them. I was very pleased, and not at all surprised, to find there’s a phrase for this in Japanese: tsundoku, meaning one who acquires books with every intention of reading them, but who never gets around to it. Well, it’s high time that I try to kick this habit and delve into my shelf of unread books, beginning with The Testaments by Margaret Atwood.

We received a copy of The Testaments way back in September 2019, before the honeymoon hiatus, but unfortunately the large, heavy hardback wouldn’t have fared well in my suitcase, so although I was keen to read it I was forced to leave it behind. Unfortunately several other distractions (including Eoin Colfer’s The Fowl Twins) meant it wasn’t until the post-Christmas calm that I took the time to finish it off, but I am so glad that I did, because this is a first-rate book that didn’t deserve to wait so long for my attention.

The Handmaid’s Tale reported the experiences of Offred, a Handmaid to a powerful Commander in the post-revolutionary United States, the totalitarian Republic of Gilead. The Testaments picks up the story several years later, and features accounts of three women and their own struggles for survival in Gilead. I won’t go into detail about the plot of the book (I’m sure reviewers with better time management skills have beaten me to it), only to say that it was incredibly engaging and suspenseful. Those who enjoyed The Handmaid’s Tale will love to see how the world has changed over the years.

I was absolutely thrilled by all of the world-building in The Testaments. The new regime of Gilead is fascinating, but in The Handmaid’s Tale details are limited to what Offred chooses to share in her narrative, which itself is limited by what Offred knows, given the sheltered and isolated life she is forced to live as a Handmaid. The Testaments, on the other hand, with its multiple narrators, presents a far broader view of life in Gilead. The first narrator is an Aunt, one of the powerful matrons who train the Handmaids and teach the children. In fact, she is none other than Aunt Lydia, the indomitable battleaxe responsible for the indoctrination of Offred who features so prominently in the original book. The second narrator is Agnes Jemima, the daughter of a powerful Commander. Her story is recorded after her liberation from Gilead and provides a fascinating insight into the experiences of a child growing up in the regime. The third narrator is Daisy, a child growing up in Canada. From her we get an outside view of Gilead—how the terrible society is viewed by its near neighbours and how the Mayday resistance seeks to help its people. The three tales are each engaging in their own right, but as they become more and more intertwined the story only gets better.

There are elements of the story that tie into the television adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale, but literary purists who have not watched the show will enjoy The Testaments just the same. Since it is a sequel, however, I would say that it will be best enjoyed by those who have read The Handmaid’s Tale or seen at least the first season of the show. The Testaments is a book that was 35 years in the making, but it was well worth the wait.

Starsight by Brandon Sanderson

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Publisher: Gollancz (Trade Paperback – 26 November 2019)

Series: Skyward – Book 2

Length: 461 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

From one of the best authors of fantasy and science fiction in the world today, Brandon Sanderson, comes Starsight, an outstanding and addictive young adult science fiction read which continues the wildly entertaining adventures of a young starfighter years in the future.

Starsight is the second book in the Skyward series and follows on from the 2018 release of the same name. Skyward was a fantastic young adult science fiction book that told a compelling tale of bravery, determination and camaraderie in humanity’s distant future. Skyward was an amazing read, and it was easily one of my favourite books of 2018. As a result, I have been looking forward to Starsight for a while now, and it was one of my most anticipated releases for the second part of this year.

The Skyward series is set on the planet of Detritus, a desolate world that houses a population of humans in the caverns beneath the surface. The humans on Detritus are the remnants of a once great intergalactic human civilisation that has been destroyed in a war with a superior alien civilisation. Forced into hiding within the planet for hundreds of years, humanity eventually returned to the surface utilising scavenged starfighters to escape and build a military outpost to fight back against the alien ships who continue to harass the planet.

In Skyward, the reader is introduced to Spensa Nightshade, a young woman determined to become a pilot in the Defiant Defence Force (DDF), the military organisation that fights the alien invaders. While talented, Spensa faced opposition to being accepted into the military due to an apparent act of cowardice by her father years before. Despite the odds, Spensa was accepted in the DDF and was trained to become a skilled pilot, fighting in a number of actions against the enemy, while also trying to find out what actually happened to her father. Along the way, Spensa discovered an ancient but advanced human ship that had crash-landed on Detritus. Upon repairing the ship, Spensa discovered it had an AI installed in its computers, which she called M-Bot. After stopping an extremely destructive alien attack with the help of M-Bot, Spensa was compelled to fly through Detritus’s atmosphere, where she made several startling discoveries, the first of which was that Spensa and her family are powerful cytonics, beings with mental powers who are capable of traversing vast distances through space with their ability. The second discovery she made was that the aliens attacking Detritus were not simply mindless aggressors determined to wipe out humanity; instead they are members of an interstellar conglomeration called the Superiority, who are attempting to contain humanity within the planet. The Superiority hold a great fear of humans, who they see as an extremely dangerous and violent species, and Detritus is actually a prison planet/wildlife preserve where humans can live without disrupting the rest of the galaxy. Unfortunately, the actions of the DDF in reclaiming the surface and utilising spaceships have forced the Superiority to reconsider their approach, and they are now working to kill all the humans.

Usually this is the part of the review where I would give a brief plot synopsis of the new book and then go into an analysis of what I liked about it. However, this is going to prove a little hard to do without revealing some spoilers. While I don’t typically avoid talking about plot points that occur around 50-100 pages into book (I don’t particularly consider something happening that early to be a spoiler), I am a little more wary with Starsight. This is mainly because the plot of the book features some immediate substantial changes from the story that appeared in Skyward, none of which are really hinted at in any of the official online plot synopsis or book blurbs. As I am publishing this review a week before Starsight’s official release date, I think it is best that I put up a spoiler alert below, before I start going into the book in any real detail.

For those readers who do not want to risk any spoilers, I will say now that Starsight is an incredible book that I really, really enjoyed. Sanderson tells a wildly entertaining and highly addictive story that features some memorable characters, high-stakes events, some of the best science fiction action I have ever read and a ton of inventive world building. I honestly think that this is one of the best releases of 2019, and it easily gets a full five-star rating from me (if only I could go higher). I would highly recommend this book to anyone interested in an epic science fiction read, and if you loved Skyward, you are going to love this book.

Anyway, if you are not interested in learning any more details about this book’s plot or characters (which I do explore to a substantial degree), I would suggest you stop reading now, as everything below this paragraph has a spoiler alert in effect.

 

SPOILER ALERT:

 

Starsight is set a few months after the events of Skyward, and humanity has been busy. Thanks to Spensa and Skyward Flight, as well as the advanced technology contained with M-Bot, the DDF has managed to capture several of the planet’s ancient orbiting defensive platforms, which have allowed them to push the Superiority forces out of Detritus’s obit. However, despite these successes, humanity is still trapped on Detritus, and the eventual Superiority mass retaliation will likely wipe out everyone on the planet. Their only chance at survival is to flee from Detritus and find a new planet to make their home, somewhere the Superiority cannot find them. However, the only way to do this is with some form of hyperdrive, which humanity lacks access to, and Spensa’s cytonic teleportation abilities are too restrictive for mass use.

The crash-landing of an unknown alien spacecraft on Detritus may provide the solution that will ensure humanity’s survival. The pilot of this craft is a member of a non-Superiority species who has been invited for diplomatic reasons to enlist in a new Superiority fighter squadron, and she is able to pass on the cytonic coordinates to the squadron’s base to Spensa. Disguised with M-Bot’s holographic technology, Spensa travels to the Superiority space city, Starsight, in order to infiltrate the Superiority military and find and steal a working hyperdrive.

Joining the new Superiority squadron, Spensa discovers that she and her fellow recruits are being trained to fight the delvers, titanic inter-dimensional beings that dwell in the nowhere, who are capable of devastating planets if they are drawn into our dimension by an over-use of cytonic ability. But as Spensa attempts to complete her mission, she finds herself caught amidst the politics of the various Superiority races, many of whom wish for the complete and utter destruction of her people. Can Spensa navigate the strange new world she finds herself in, or will her actions result in the destruction of all she knows?

As you can see from the above synopsis, Starsight goes in some very interesting and unpredictable directions. I personally loved all of these new story elements, and the idea of Spensa having to infiltrate a mostly unknown alien society was a really clever and intriguing central plot idea that I think worked extremely well. The subsequent narrative is a fantastic blend of different story elements, which includes some great new characters, settings and plot directions, as well as some of the best parts of Skyward. For example, not only do you get to see a whole new take on the excellent space fighter training plot point that made the first book so amazing, but you also get a science fiction spy thriller story filled with all manner of political intrigue. This was a fantastic book to get into, and Sanderson has made sure that the plot is accessible to readers who did not get a chance to check out Skyward last year. However, I would strongly recommend reading Skyward first, not only because it will give you a better idea of the characters and certain plot elements, but because it is such an awesome book in its own right.

One of my favourite things about the first book in the Skyward series was the excellent group of characters that Sanderson focused on, including Spensa, M-Bot and the members of Skyward Flight. Throughout Skyward the reader got to know and care for these characters, and it was actually a little bit distressing when bad things happened to them. Skyward continues to look at several of the characters from the first book, although readers who grew attached to Skyward Flight might be a tad disappointed as Sanderson shifts the focus away from them and introduces the reader to a whole new group of alien characters.

Spensa is still the main point-of-view character for this second book and serves as a fantastic central protagonist. In many ways, Spensa is still the same impatient and reckless pilot that was such to see in the first book. However, it soon becomes obvious that the experiences, relationships and life lessons that she has faced since joining the DDF have tempered her in many ways, especially as she has to deal with the intense responsibility of being her people’s greatest hope for survival. I really enjoyed watching Spensa as she was forced to assimilate into the alien cultures on Starsight, and it was interesting to see how she reacted when she realised not everyone there is as evil as she believed. The opinions and support she gives to her alien friends result in some emotional moments, and it was really heart-warming to see how far she has progressed since the last book.

While Spensa is a great central protagonist, to my mind the best character in the entire book is still her sentient ship, M-Bot. M-Bot is the snarky and hilarious artificial intelligence that Spensa discovered crashed on Detritus, and together they form an efficient and enjoyable team. M-Bot honestly has all the best lines in the book, and nearly every interaction with Spensa results in some excellent jokes or banter. Despite the humour, M-Bot is a pretty complicated character, especially as in this book he is attempting to work out the full limits of his consciousness and code. He is continuously attempting to prove that he is actually alive, and these attempts result in safeguards in his system attempting to shut him down. I really enjoyed the way that Sanderson continues to utilise M-Bot. Even though he is a ship, he is still a fantastic and highly enjoyable character to focus on and we even get a reason for his mushroom obsession in this book.

Spensa’s new flight of Superiority comrades features an eclectic bunch of aliens, each with their own quirks and unique personalities. These include a figment called Vapour, who is essentially a sentient smell that can take control of ships and pilot them. Vapour is the ultimate spy and requires Spensa to be constantly on her toes. There is also the dione draft, Morriumur. Dione are a race of non-violent aliens high up in the Superiority hierarchy, who have a unique breeding system that combines the parents into one new being. This is a process that can take several goes, as the family of the newly bred dione may choose to reform a young dione so that they have an ideal personality. Morriumur is a draft, spending the first few months of their life testing out their personality to see if they are an ideal member of the species. Morriumur, who has slightly more violent tendencies than most of their species, is trying to prove that they belong as a starfighter, but the combined expectations of their family and the inner thoughts that they are not worthy, are a constant hindrance to them as a pilot.

While both of the above characters are pretty cool, and Sanderson spends a good amount of time exploring them, two members of Spensa’s new flight really stood out. The first of these is Brade, a human from another prison world who has been recruited as a cytonic enforcer by one of the book’s central antagonists. Brade, after being taken from her parents as a child, has essentially been brainwashed all her life to consider humans as evil and inferior, and this has a major damaging effect on her psyche. The interactions between her and Spensa throughout the book are quite fascinating, and she proved to be one of the most complex characters in this book. My favourite new character, however, had to be Hesho, who is totally not king of the kitsen. The kitsen are a race of tiny gerbil-like aliens who have recently converted from a monarchy to a democracy in an attempt to become a Superiority race. Hesho leads a group of around 50 kitsen who pilot one heavily armed fighter in Spensa’s squadron like it’s a capital ship. Hesho and the kitsen are really hilarious characters, mainly because Hesho is attempting to convince the Superiority that he is no longer ruling his people as a king, and instead the kitsen have embraced democracy. Unfortunately, despite Hesho insisting he is no longer a monarch in every interaction he has, his people continue to worship him, which kind of undercuts this message. I also found the similarities in the personalities between the kitsen and the Spensa we first encountered in Skyward to be very amusing, as the kitsen attempt to compensate for their size with extreme confidence and boasting like Spensa used to (for example, the first ship we see the kitsen flying is called Big Enough to Kill You).

All of the above characters are great, and I really loved the way that I was once again drawn into their various personalities and histories. It was a bit of a shame not to see too much of the characters I liked so much from the first book (although we do get an idea of what various members of Skyward Flight are up to), but I think the new characters that Sanderson introduced more than made up for it.

In addition to the fantastic character work, one of the other best features of Starsight is the epic and fast-paced action sequences that punctuate much of the book. Just like in Skyward, Sanderson presents a huge number of different scenes where Spensa is fighting or training in a fighter. The sheer amount of detail that goes into these various action sequences is pretty amazing, and I was able to picture all the flying and manoeuvres perfectly. The author comes up with a number of clever new scenarios in this book, including the fancy flying and combat required to fight a delver, or having Spensa fly in the type of craft she has been fighting against for her entire military career. All of the action in this book is first-rate, and I can guarantee that you will get lost in some of the incredible action sequences.

I have always been impressed by the elaborate worlds that Sanderson can create for his stories. Whether it is the vast fantasy world that he came up with for The Stormlight Archive, the supervillain dominated alternate version of Earth that appeared in The Reckoners trilogy, or the fantastic science fiction planet of Detritus that was the main setting for Skyward, Sanderson always delivers complex and intricate settings for his story, complete with huge amounts of backstory. In Starsight, Sanderson once again produces a huge and detailed new setting for his outstanding story. The alien civilisation that is living on Starsight is very impressive, and I love all the different alien races that he has come up with for this story. Many of the aliens have some very complex and fascinating history, a great deal of which featured in the story. I really look forward to seeing how Sanderson expands this universe even further in the final book in the trilogy, and I cannot wait to see what new aliens or civilisations he comes up with.

As you can see from this rather lengthy review, there is a lot to love about this book. Sanderson does an impressive job of combining the intriguing new story direction, the amazing characters, intense action and fascinating new setting into one concise narrative, and the end result is a perfect book. While Starsight is being marketed as a young adult book, and indeed it would prove appropriate for most young readers, it is really a novel that can be enjoyed by any reader of any age. I cannot recommend this book enough, and I am eagerly awaiting the next book in this series (which seems to be 2021 at this point, so far away!).

Waiting on Wednesday – The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes by Suzanne Collins

Welcome to my weekly segment, Waiting on Wednesday, where I look at upcoming books that I am planning to order and review in the next few months and which I think I will really enjoy.  I run this segment in conjunction with the Can’t-Wait Wednesday meme that is currently running at Wishful Endings. Stay tuned to see reviews of these books when I get a copy of them. In this week’s Waiting on Wednesday entry, I look at the young adult novel that I am most excited to read next year, the upcoming prequel to Suzanne Collins’s epic The Hunger Games series, The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes.

The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes Cover.jpg

For those of you who have been living under a literary and cinematic rock for the last 10 years, The Hunger Games books were a trilogy of extremely popular young adult dystopian novels. Starting in 2008 with The Hunger Games and followed up with 2009’s Catching Fire and 2010’s Mockingjay, The Hunger Games books followed the adventures of protagonist Katniss Everdeen in Panem, the nation that formed in the ruins of North America. Katniss, a sixteen-year-old girl from District 12, is forced to compete in the titular Hunger Games, a yearly spectacle that sees 24 teens from the 12 districts fight to the death in an elaborate arena for the amusement of the Capitol. The Hunger Games are a designated punishment for the districts after their defeat in a brutal civil war by the Capitol 74 years before. The books are pretty amazing, and they were quickly adapted into a series of four extremely popular movies, resulting in a huge following for The Hunger Games franchise.

As a result, I think that it is fair to say that The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, which is set to be released on 19 May next year, is probably going to be biggest young adult fiction release of 2020. Not only is this the first book that Collins has written since Mockingjay (with the exception of the children’s book Year of the Jungle) but it will return readers to the world of Panem and show a whole new side of this dystopian future.

Goodreads Synopsis:

The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes will revisit the world of Panem sixty-four years before the events of The Hunger Games, starting on the morning of the reaping of the Tenth Hunger Games.

I admit that this is a rather sparse synopsis that does not give a lot of plot details away. While I imagine that a much more comprehensive synopsis will be released in the future, the details released above, combined with information contained within the original three books, allows us to make a number of educated guesses about the plot of this book.

The most important detail contained within the synopsis is that this book will feature the 10th Hunger Games. To me, this is a very exciting development, and I am really glad that we are getting a prequel. While I am sure that Collins would be able to write a compelling sequel to The Hunger Games trilogy, I think that most readers will be keen to see an earlier adventure that contains a Hunger Games (I suppose a sequel could also contain a Hunger Games, but I do not think that would work). The whole battle royale concept of the Hunger Games is pretty darn compelling (I mean, if you don’t mind stories about fictional children murdering each other), and the idea of checking out some of the historical Hunger Games in any format is pretty awesome. I personally would love to see a book or movie based around the 50th Hunger Games, the second Quarter Quell games, in which fan-favourite character Haymitch Abernathy won, as I reckon you could get a pretty fun and dramatic story out of it, even if it is based on only a few pages from Catching Fire.

Focusing on the 10th Hunger Games is a very interesting choice from Collins for a number of reasons. First of all, this is going to be fairly early edition of the Hunger Games, and it will be intriguing to see how different it was during the initial games, and whether it is viewed with as much spectacle as the later games. As it is only 10 years removed from the end of the civil war, I imagine it might be viewed differently, and be less about entertaining the denizens of the Capitol. It also seems likely that Collins is going to explore the events of the civil war and the origins of the Hunger Games in a lot more detail in this book, especially as the events of the war are going to be in all the competitors’ living memory.

Another cool thing that I like about setting The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes during the 10th Hunger Games is that Collins will have to come up with a whole new group of characters from both the districts and the Capitol. Due to the 64-year gap between this book and The Hunger Games, none of the characters who were featured in the original trilogy are likely to appear in this book. The original series’ oldest character, Mags, won the 11th Hunger Games, so it is very unlikely we will see anything from her. We also won’t have President Snow as the book’s antagonist, as he was only 12 years old during the events of the 10th Hunger Games. Instead I reckon that the book’s antagonist will be the person who originally came up with the concept of the Hunger Games, which is a very tantalising prospect. This lack of known characters also means that there are no spoilers for who is going to win the 10th Hunger Games and how they are going to do it. While you would assume that whoever narrates this new book is going to be the eventual winner (if Collin’s uses the same first-person perspective that she used in the original trilogy), it is going to be very interesting to see how the winner ties into the future games and books and what adventures they are going to have. Perhaps they train Mags in the next book, or maybe they are responsible for Snow coming to power. It is going to be very exciting to find out.

I think that is enough theorising for now. Suffice to say, I am pretty thrilled and curious about this new entry in The Hunger Games franchise. The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes has some real potential as a novel, and I cannot wait to see what Collins comes up with in this prequel. This is definitely one of my top anticipated reads for 2020 and I am really looking forward to returning to this dystopian universe.

Howling Dark by Christopher Ruocchio

Howling Dark Cover

Publisher: Gollancz and Recorded Books (16 July 2019)

Series: Sun Eater – Book 2

Length: 679 pages or 28 hours and 3 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Outstanding new author Christopher Ruocchio, who blew me away last year with his debut novel, Empire of Silence, returns with the second book in his brilliant Sun Eater series, Howling Dark.

Empire of Silence was one of my favourite books from last year, easily making my Top Ten Reads for 2018 list, and I absolutely loved the author’s highly addictive story and its vast new science fiction universe. This was a fantastic first book from Ruocchio, and when I finished it, I really wanted to know what happened next. As a result, I have been waiting to read this sequel for a while, having done a Waiting on Wednesday article on it and including it on my Top Ten Most Anticipated July – December 2019 Releases list. I was pretty excited to receive a copy of this book a few weeks ago, especially as Ruocchio was nice enough to mention my blog in his acknowledgements (this has not affected my review or rating in any way). However, due to having a huge number of other books that were high priority reads, I ended up listening to the audiobook format of Howling Dark instead, which is narrated by Samuel Roukin. I had extremely high hopes when I started reading this book, and I was definitely not disappointed by the final result.

The Sun Eater series is set far in humanity’s future, where humans have left Earth and expanded out to thousands of worlds. While humanity, mostly in the form of the Roman-inspired Sollan Empire, has flourished, for the last four hundred years they have been fighting a brutal and destructive war with the Cielcin, a spacefaring race of aliens who have destroyed hundreds of colonies and billons of humans. Each of the books in the series is written as a part of the autobiographical chronicle of series’ protagonist, Hadrian “Halfmortal” Marlowe, otherwise knowns as the Sun Eater. Hadrian is the man who will one day destroy a sun in order to burn every Cielcin to a cinder, and in doing so become both history’s greatest hero and most infamous monster. However, these events are set to occur much further on in the future, and these earlier books focus on the events that formed Hadrian’s character, and show how he became the man to end it all.

In Howling Dark, the story is set some 50 years after the events of Empire of Silence. During this time Hadrian Marlowe has been wandering the outer fringes of the galaxy trying and failing to find a myth. Leading a band of mercenaries, former gladiators and disguised Imperial legionnaires, and carrying a cargo of frozen Cielcin prisoners, Hadrian hopes to travel the lost planet of Vorgossos. The planet’s mysterious master apparently has a way to contact the Cielcin, who Hadrian hopes to finally negotiate peace with, ending the brutal war that has ravaged both races.

However, finding Vorgossos has proven far more difficult than Hadrian initially anticipated. The legendary planet is well hidden, and the only way to uncover its location is to deal with the Extrasolarians, a group of humans who live outside of Imperial control and whose reliance on technology and enhancements borders on the heretical. As Hadrian and his companions locate a promising lead, they are suddenly ordered back to the fleet as the war against the Cielcin needs every soldier.

Determined to bring his plan for peace to fruition, Hadrian and his companions disobey these orders and go rogue. Entering the worlds of the Extrasolarians, the Exalted and other grim horrors at the edge of the known universe, they are able to obtain passage to Vorgossos. However, what they find at their destination may be even worse than the alien foes they are attempting to contact. Between facing technological monstrosities, a cruel, immortal king and the appearance of humanity’s oldest and most feared enemy, Hadrian has his work cut out for him. But the further along his path he travels, the more Hadrian begins to understand the grim destiny in front of him and the terrible cost he will have to pay.

This is another epic book from Ruocchio! Howling Dark is a dark, gothic science fiction masterpiece that was an absolute treat to read, and which really highlights the author’s creativity and ability to create a wide-ranging universe with some unique and captivating features.

This was another incredible and ambitious story from Ruocchio, who takes the reader on an extended and powerful adventure through his great universe. The Howling Dark contains a lengthy and compelling plot which goes in some very interesting directions. While this is a long book, Ruocchio does a great job of pacing the story out, and there is rarely a moment where the plot is not progressing in an intriguing way, or where the reader is left bored. I really enjoyed some of the dark places that the author took the story in this book, and there are a variety of cool new locations, antagonists and other monsters that the protagonist and his friends need to deal with in one way or another. Hadrian goes through some notable character development in this story as he takes more and more steps down the road to becoming the biggest legend in the universe. Howling Dark has a pretty epic conclusion to it, with some major plot developments occurring in the last 100 pages or so, and I really liked how Ruocchio wrapped up the storyline. Overall, this book has an intense and captivating storyline to it, and I am exceedingly glad I got a chance to read it.

I did find that the start of the book was a tad hard to get into. Due to the complex storylines (and possibly because I have read so many different books in the last year) it took me a little while to remember whom some of the characters were and where the plot was up to. It did not help that the story had jumped ahead by 50 years, and some of the events that occurred during this break are mentioned a few times at the start of the book. However, once I was able to get my bearings, it did not take me long to get hooked on the story and I had no problems following the enjoyable plot, especially as the author does a great job explaining these missing events and offering the reader several recaps of the events from the first book. Readers of the physical copy of Howling Dark will also be helped by the detailed dramatis personae, index of worlds and lexicon of terms that is included at the back of the novel, which can really help to clear up some confusion about the events that have occurred. I would say that readers would probably be best served checking out Empire of Silence first before trying to read Howling Dark, but I believe that new readers will be able to fully enjoy this story once they reach the recaps and get a sense of what happened in the previous books.

I really enjoyed how Ruocchio continued to write his story in the chronicle format that worked so well in the first book. Each of the books in the Sun Eater series are presented as part of a self-written chronicle of Hadrian’s life, penned some years in the future after he destroyed the sun. As a result, the story is told exclusively from Hadrian’s perspective and features his memories of the various events that formed his character. This is a great way to tell the story, mainly because the reader gets to see a contemplative version of the narrative. There is a real and palpable sense of regret in Hadrian’s narration, which really adds to the book’s grim tone, as the reader gets to hear the protagonist recount events that are not only traumatic for him, but which set him down the path to his defining moment. Due to Hadrian’s lifetime of self-reflection, you also get a far more in-depth examination of the character’s motivations for taking certain actions, as well as an analysis of why other characters acted the way did, which adds a great edge to the story. I also liked how the protagonist hinted at some of the key moments that occur later in the book or may occur in later books. This dramatic irony does a wonderful job of keeping a sense of tension in the air, as the reader knows that the worst is yet to come. Ruocchio’s use of the chronicle format for these novels is cleverly done, and I really enjoyed how it helped enhance the overall story.

Possibly Ruocchio’s biggest strength as a writer is his amazing ability to come up with a widespread and intriguing new universe to use as a setting for his fantastic story. This was one of my favourite things about Empire of Silence, as I loved the large, sprawling human empire that Hadrian lived in during the first book. This Sollan Empire was created after a major war with artificial intelligences thousands of years before, and therefore any technology that is too advanced or which thinks for itself is considered heretical by a controlling religious organisation. The massive empire is heavily inspired by the Roman Empire, with a similar government, military system, social castes and culture. This also affects the overall tone of the story, as the narrator, Hadrian, is a true son of this empire, and thus has a classical education that guides his overall view of life. As a result, the story is filled with the Hadrian quoting a number of historical verses and aphorisms to tell his tale, which really helps to give the overall story a more classic tone in the science fiction environment. I really liked this cool combination of science fiction elements with this antique mindset, and the general history of the Sollan Empire, with its veneration of other historical empires such as the Romans or the Victorians, is deeply interesting. This Sollan Empire actually reminded me a bit of the Imperium from Warhammer 40k, which also has a Roman inspiration and overarching gothic theme to them. As a fan of Warhammer 40k, it was cool see a universe built along similar ideas, and Ruocchio comes up with a number of clever and unique new elements to make his Sollan Empire stand out. Although most of the story in Howling Dark is spent outside of the main empire, the author still spends time expanding on elements of this massive organisation, and the reader gets more of a sense of them. I especially enjoyed seeing the Imperial legions in battle during this book, and it results in a number of incredible scenes that I really enjoyed.

Ruocchio also does an outstanding job introducing a number of intriguing new universe elements to this book in the form of the Extrasolarians. I found the dive into the world of the Extrasolarians to be extremely fascinating, especially as Ruocchio let his creativity run wild during this part of the books, coming up with all manner of technological marvels, body augmentations, genetic modifications and other science fiction wonders. However, many of these technologies have a darker side to them, which the protagonist and his friends find out the hard way. Some of these modifications are downright creepy, and this really helped the author create a dark and distinctive expansion to his universe. I was especially impressed with one of the new antagonists of this story, Kharn Sagara, a sinister, technologically enhanced ancient with hidden motivations (check out the cover below to see how cool his character design is). The reader also gets a much more in-depth look at the Cielcin in this book, as the protagonist starts to understand more about them and how they think. Ruocchio does a fantastic job exploring the mindset of these creatures and showing them as truly alien beings with very little similarities to humanity, and the reader starts to get an understanding of why Hadrian will eventually be forced to destroy them. All of this is really cool, and I could honestly go on for pages about all the cool world building that Ruocchio does in this book, it was that impressive.

As I mentioned above, I ended up listening to Howling Dark’s audiobook format. The audiobook runs for 28 hours and 3 minutes and is narrated by Samuel Roukin, who does a fantastic job bringing this story and the characters to life. This is a lengthy audiobook, and readers will need to make a bit of room in their listening schedule to get through it. It is actually the longest science fiction audiobook that I have ever listened to (so far) and would easily make my Top Ten Longest Audiobooks That I Have Listened To list. I found that Howling Dark’s audiobook format was a great way to enjoy this epic novel. I always find that listening to a complex story helps me absorb a lot more of the story and universe details, making for a much fuller read. This was definitely true for Howling Dark, as I was able to really appreciate the huge amount of gothic science fiction detail that Ruocchio installed in his work. I also found that Roukin’s narration also did a wonderful job of capturing Hadrian’s inherent regret and despair, and this really helped me appreciate the entirety of the book’s story. Roukin also creates some terrific voices for the various characters and does a fantastic job bringing them to life through the audiobook. This was a fantastic format to enjoy Howling Dark with, and I will strongly consider listening to the audiobook of the next book in this series.

Overall, I think that Christopher Ruocchio does an excellent job following up on his spectacular debut, Empire of Silence. Howling Dark is an amazing read that I absolutely loved. Ruocchio has come up with a complex story for this book, which is massively enhanced by his clever writing style and impressive imagination. Clearly, Empire of Silence was no fluke, as Howling Dark gets a full five stars from me. I am really looking forward to checking out the next book in the series, especially as Ruocchio has left a huge number of intriguing storylines open, and I fully intend to stick with this series until Hadrian destroys that sun.

Howling Dark Cover 2

Waiting on Wednesday – The Testaments by Margaret Atwood

Welcome to my weekly segment, Waiting on Wednesday, where I look at upcoming books that I am planning to order and review in the next few months and which I think I will really enjoy.  Stay tuned to see reviews of these books when I get a copy of them.

The Testaments Cover.jpg

For this week’s Waiting on Wednesday, I take a look at one of the biggest upcoming releases of 2019, The Testaments by Margaret Atwood, the sequel to Atwood’s seminal work, The Handmaid’s Tale.

Released back in 1985, The Handmaid’s Tale told the story of Offred, a woman trapped in the oppressive military dictatorship, the Republic of Gilead. Due to her status as one of the few fertile women in Gilead, Offred has been forced into the life of a Handmaid, breeding stock for Gilead’s leaders. The Handmaid’s Tale highlighted the creation of this terrible nation and followed Offred’s attempts to survive in this harsh new reality. The Handmaid’s Tale has subsequently been adapted into a highly successful television series, with the third season starting just last week. Now, over 30 years after its original publication, Atwood has written a sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale that continues its story and looks to the future of Gilead.

Set for release in September 2019, only a few plot details have been revealed so far, but it sounds like this could be quite an interesting read.

Goodreads Synopsis:

In this brilliant sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale, acclaimed author Margaret Atwood answers the questions that have tantalized readers for decades.

When the van door slammed on Offred’s future at the end of The Handmaid’s Tale, readers had no way of telling what lay ahead for her—freedom, prison or death.

With The Testaments, the wait is over.

Margaret Atwood’s sequel picks up the story fifteen years after Offred stepped into the unknown, with the explosive testaments of three female narrators from Gilead.

“Dear Readers: Everything you’ve ever asked me about Gilead and its inner workings is the inspiration for this book. Well, almost everything! The other inspiration is the world we’ve been living in.” —Margaret Atwood

I think that it is fair to say that The Testaments is going to be a book that a lot of people will be excited to read. The Handmaid’s Tale is massive at the moment. Not only is it a major piece of pop culture currently thanks to the television show but the political and social messages contained within the original book are just as relevant today as they were in 1985, if not more so.

There are quite a few interesting elements in the plot details that have so far been provided. For example, it looks like The Testaments will showcase how the world and Gilead have changed in the 15 years following the events of The Handmaid’s Tale. It also sounds like Atwood is going to explore the inner workings of Gilead, which is quite a fascinating and terrible society, and it will be intriguing to see how such a place could come into existence and remain in place. I imagine that a lot of fans of the book will be extremely interested to see if Atwood will reveal the fate of her original protagonist, Offred. When The Handmaid’s Tale novel ended, Offred had an uncertain future—she was either being rescued by Mayday or being arrested by the Eyes—and the reader is left to guess what actually happens to her. I hope that Atwood will tell the rest of Offred’s story and I wonder if Offred may be one of the female narrators giving testimony.

It is uncertain at this point what role the plot of the television show will have on The Testaments’ story. The events of the original book were all covered within the first season, and the show has since gone off on its own tangent. It will be interesting to see if The Testaments will reflect any of the events that occurred within the show’s second or third season. I am also curious to see whether any future seasons of the show will feature events contained within this sequel book. Either way, fans of the show will no doubt be very curious to check this book out.

The Testaments by Margaret Atwood is set to be an amazing book for later in the year and I am very excited about reading it. It will very cool to check out a sequel this long in the making and I will be interested to dive into the world of Gilead and the dark stories no doubt contained within.

#MurderTrending by Gretchen McNeil

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Publisher: Freeform Books

Australian Publication Date – 25 September 2018

World Publication Date – 7 August 2018

 

From one of young adult fiction’s most thrilling authors comes a dark and captivating story of death and madness that is really going to trend online.

When seventeen-year-old Dee Guerrera awakens in a strange room dressed in a princess outfit, she knows she is about to be executed on live TV.  Falsely convicted of the murder of her stepsister, Dee has been sentenced to die on Alcatraz 2.0, America’s most popular reality television show.  Created by a mysterious television producer known only as The Postman, Alcatraz 2.0 is an island prison where America’s most notorious inmates are hunted down by a series of flamboyant and beloved executioners.

So when Dee comes face to face with one of these killers, she’s supposed to run into his murder room and suffer a terrible death for the entertainment of the masses.  However, Dee has other plans, and goes off script in a major way.  Her actions will make her the most notorious girl in the world and move her to the top of every executioner’s kill list.  Teaming up with a posse of other teenage inmates, Dee needs to quickly learn the rules of this island and figure out a way to avoid being picked off by the psychopaths stalking her.  Can Dee and her new friends, the Death Row Breakfast Club, stay alive long enough to prove Dee’s innocence?  A ghost from her past is haunting her, and Dee doesn’t have much time before her execution goes viral.

Gretchen McNeil is an experienced young adult fiction writer, whose previous work includes several books aimed at the older teen audience.  These include the horror suspense book Ten, the supernatural thriller Possess and teen murder mystery series Don’t Get Mad.  #MurderTrending is the seventh book from McNeil, and it follows in a similar vein to her previous books, with teenage protagonists fighting against a dark, murderous force.  #MurderTrending is an extremely fast-paced and crazy read that proves to be very entertaining, and is the first part of McNeil’s MurderTrending series.  A second book in this series has already been announced and #MurderFunding will be released next August, with an interesting-sounding connection to the first book.

The concept of a group of people being hunted or pitted against each other in an isolated area with the whole world watching is an idea that has been utilised many times before.  Movies and shows such as The Condemned, Death Race, Battle Royale, Dead Man Wonderland and The Hunger Games have all used this concept in one way or another.  I personally think that the plot of #MurderTrending is very similar to The Running Man, with eccentrically dressed hunters chasing after criminals, although it is easy to build a connection between this book and The Hunger Games due to the focus on teenagers.  I think that the author is very aware of these previous movies, as not only does the main character mention The Hunger Games within the book, but one of the other protagonists continually quotes old action movies, including several Arnold Schwarzenegger classics.  While this plot device has been used before, McNeil introduces some new elements, while also doubling down on the concept by making his killers and their executions as crazy and over the top as possible.  The killers in particular are extremely eccentric and include among others, an explosive orientated hipster, two murderous twins, a fashionista with some deadly accessories and a Prince Charming stand-in who hunts girls dressed as princesses through a trap-filled maze while brandishing an oversized cake knife.  As a result, this version of the prison reality television show is particularly amusing, and the over-the-top kills sometimes come across as more humorous than sinister.

While the overarching plot premise of an island prison has been used before, McNeil cleverly enhances this story with some great imitation of the current social media and internet communities.  The entire adventure is being livestreamed to the outside world, and is considered to be the most popular form of entertainment in America.  As a result, the world is constantly talking about the murders on social media, and the author has included sections of a number of fictional forums at the end of several chapters, where various online personalities talk about the events in a number of ways.  This includes praise for the inventive kills, requests, opinions on the various inmates, conspiracy theories and competitions to make the most viral #.  These are particularly intriguing and compelling inclusions that also add a bit of realism to the story, as the reader can easily imagine that social media activity like this would totally happen in a dystopian world where executions are streamed as a form of entertainment.  In addition to all the discussion and use of social media in the story, the protagonist also talks about the various internet fandoms, fan clubs, gambling, merchandise, shipping, fan theories, fan fiction and message boards that have formed up around Alcatraz 2.0.  This is again a fascinating inclusion, with a smack of predictive realism to it, and I utterly loved McNeil’s inventive and modern inclusions around the classic murder prison/reality show concept.  It also sounds like this concept will become a major part of the next book in the series, and I am very keen to see how that turns out.

I thought that the overall story for this book was very well done and created an intriguing and entertaining narrative that was really easy to enjoy.  In addition to her ingenious use of the overarching plot device and setting, McNeil has also created a compelling and thrilling story that is filled with a number of great twists and intense scenes where the book’s fun characters are put into real peril.  While the reveal of the final boss is strongly tied into the character’s past, and isn’t too shocking, how that character gets there is fairly clever, and the twist about the mastermind of the island was pretty surprising.  While the ease with which the protagonist was able to defeat some of the infamous murderers who served as secondary antagonists at the end of the book is a bit unbelievable, I did find myself really hooked on this great story, and I powered through the book to find out how it was going to end.

#MurderTrending is marketed towards a young adult audience, and it’s the sort of amusing and crazy book I would have enjoyed when I was younger.  Due to the large amount of violence and pretty graphic killings, I would suggest that this book is probably more appropriate for an older teenage audience, but based on today’s standards it’s really not too bad.  Out of all the potential readers, the older teenage audience will probably enjoy McNeil’s use of social media and internet cultures the most, as they will be able to relate to the characters and fandom subculture of the people posting on social media within the book.  This is one of those young adult books that would really appeal to older readers, and I would really recommend this to anyone who is looking for an enjoyable and over-the-top read.

Gretchen McNeil is once again at top form as she presents a bloody and action-packed young adult adventure.  Featuring a fun and unrestrained take on a classic fictional plot device and some very ingenious use of current social media and internet trends, this extremely entertaining story is a fantastic read for both teenagers and older readers alike.  #MurderTrending is one of the craziest reads of 2018, and I cannot wait to see what insanity McNeil brings to her next adventure.

My Rating:

Four stars

Phantom by Leo Hunt

Phantom Cover.jpg

Publisher: Orchard

Publication Date – 9 August 2018

 

From bestselling author Leo Hunt comes an electrifying and fast-paced young adult science fiction adventure that takes an intriguing look at the future of technology, as well as the crime and consequences these advances could lead to.

In the far future, humanity has built towers and skyscrapers up in a major way, leaving the ground far below.  The rich and powerful live in the City, the highest level of construction, far above the poisoned ground.  Up in the City, luxuries such as sunlight, clean water, jobs and corpbloc homes are available to its hardworking corporate-owned population.  Those who do not have money live in the undercity slums, where the sun never shines and poisoned water is flooding up from the ground.

One of the inhabitants of the undercity is orphaned teenager Nova, who earns a living going up into the City and stealing from the corporate workers.  In a world where everyone has technology implanted in their heads, a skilled hacker like Nova can obtain everything from money to information.  Nova’s most important tool is Phantom, a powerful program created by the shadowy anticorporation hacker, the Moth, which hides the identity of hackers while they commit their crimes.

While Nova is only just scraping by, her skills have caught the attention of the Moth, who has a dangerous job for her.  The Moth needs Nova to infiltrate the powerful Bliss Inc and uncover their most treasured corporate secret.  Posing as a prospective assistant for the CEO of Bliss Inc, Nova goes deep undercover, changing her identity and her appearance to sneak in.  However, her mission is about to get far more complicated then she could have ever imagined.  Caught between the dark secrets of Bliss Inc and the mysterious ambitions of the Moth, Nova is going to be lucky to get out of this heist alive.

Phantom is the latest book from young adult author Leo Hunt and represents his first foray into the science fiction genre.  Hunt’s previous works have mainly focused on the fantasy and horror genres, with his 13 Days of Midnight trilogy featuring a young man who develops necromantic powers.  Phantom is an interesting new direction for Hunt, who has created a fantastic piece of young adult science fiction with strong techno-thriller elements.

This book is contains an intriguing science fiction story that takes the reader through a unique futuristic city and presents them with a thrilling and technology driven adventure.  Phantom’s story contains a superb combination of story elements which come together to form an entertaining and fast-paced plot with compelling pieces of betrayal, technologically assisted espionage and corporate intrigue.  There are a few good twists throughout the book, but I did find that one of the big reveals towards the end of the book was a little easy to predict as a result of the author only utilising on a small number of characters throughout most of the narrative.  This was more than made up for by the shocking and deeply intriguing reveals that followed the protagonist uncovering the hidden secret motivations of the book’s various antagonists.  All of these hidden surprises result in some great story elements and have a strong relation with the book’s focus on technology.

Phantom is intended for a young adult audience, and it works well as an absorbing and exciting introduction into science fiction and technology-based thrillers.  Younger readers will love the interesting examination of the potential future technology and will find the exciting adventure storyline quite fun.  The violence contained within the book is not too graphic whilst also allowing for some strong action-packed scenes.  There are some minor mentions of mind-alerting technology and substances, but nothing too inappropriate for the younger audience.  There are also some subtle but important LGTB elements that come into play later in the story, and Hunt handles these quite well.  Overall, I would recommend this book to all teenagers, and even some younger readers, who will find a lot to enjoy in this wonderful book.

The best and most compelling features of Phantom are the amazing technological elements that form a significant part of the plot and which take a particularly intriguing look into humanity’s reliance on technology and how we are likely to advance in the future.  In this potential future, everyone has neural implants inserted in them at birth that act as a mobile connection to the internet as well as a phone, music player, bank card and personal identification all in one.  This is an interesting thing to examine, especially as humans are constantly getting closer and closer to incorporating our personal technology into our own bodies.  Hunt does a great job presenting some of the potential benefits and problems that humans could experience with this sort of technology, and takes a stimulating look at that the ways that it could impact on our lives.  Quite a few things are explored throughout Phantom, from examinations of how this technology will influence human identity to how it could be abused for criminal reasons, such as stealing money, hacking someone to take control of their body or producing technology that mimics recreational drugs.  Other technological questions come into play later in the book and result in some deep emotional scenes as well as some interesting questions about ethics and the nature of humanity.  These fictional technological elements represent some truly fascinating ideas from Hunt that readers will find very captivating.

In addition to Hunt’s intriguing postulations about future technology, another compelling story element is the inventive and imaginative setting for the story.  The entirety of Phantom is set within a fictional metropolis that is constantly being built up and is split between the soaring spires of the rich and the sprawling slum-like undercity where the poor live.  Throughout the story, the protagonist journeys from areas of the city flooded with poisoned water and inhabited with humans and animals that have never seen sunlight, to the very top of the city, above the clouds.  There is a detailed exploration the city’s disparate economic zones, and significant time is spent interacting with the populace in both these areas, resulting in some fascinating comparisons.  This is an amazing setting for this science fiction and technology focused story and represents another intriguing look into the future by Hunt.

Leo Hunt’s latest book, Phantom, is an absorbing and thrilling tale of adventure and crime in a futuristic city.  Containing some extremely enthralling technological elements and a fantastic city setting where the differences between the rich and poor have never been more obvious, this is another outstanding release from Hunt that will be perfect for those younger readers looking to break into the science fiction or techno-thriller genres.

My Rating:

Four stars

Deep Blue by Jane O’Reilly

Deep Blue Cover.jpg

Publisher: Piatkus

Publication date – 31 July 2018

 

Following on from her 2017 release, Blue Shift, Jane O’Reilly returns to her electrifying science fiction universe for another exciting and action-packed adventure among the stars.

In the distant future of 2207, Earth is dying and humanity’s only hope for survival is a brand new planet on the other side of the galaxy.  Travel to this new sanctuary requires passage through the territory of several alien species who are unwilling to let a ragged human fleet anywhere near their areas of space.  In order to convince these aliens to allow humans access to a new planet, the government has initiated the Second Species programme to create the only resource the aliens want: human slaves genetically altered with alien DNA.

Former bounty hunter Jinnifer Blue, after failing to reveal the terrible truth about the Second Species programme, has been captured by its creator, her mother, Ferona Blue.  Now genetically altered with alien strength and pissed beyond all belief, Jinnifer escapes from the lab where she was held.  Having given up on warning humanity about the government’s sinister plans, Jinnifer’s only desire is to be reunited with her lover, the pirate Caspian Dax.

But Dax was also captured by Ferona and is now serving a brutal alien race as a mindless gladiator on the planet of Sittan.  Jinnifer has no choice but to travel to Sittan and attempt to rescue Dax, while at the same time organising the rescue of another friend, Eve, who has been captured by another dangerous alien species.  Gathering together allies and an old enemy into a ragtag team, Jinnifer initiates two desperate rescue missions to save her friends.  Can Jinnifer succeed, or has Dax fallen too far under the sway of the dangerous Sittan empress?

Deep Blue is the second book in the Second Species trilogy and a brilliant sequel to O’Reilly’s first science fiction book, Blue Shift.  This is a fun and fast-paced action series that makes use of an inventive and dangerous universe filled with unique aliens and desperate humans.  Deep Blue has a very busy plot told from a variety of viewpoints that are combined together in a clever fashion to create one thrilling narrative.  Each of the various exciting storylines also contain some flawed and damaged characters, most of whom are seeking some form of redemption.

Just like in Blue Shift, I found that the parts of the book that I enjoyed the most were the chapters that followed the machinations of the book’s central antagonist Ferona Blue.  Her despicable political manipulation on Earth was a highlight of the first book, and this continues to be the case in Deep Blue.  The added focus on Ferona’s negotiations with alien politicians, including the book’s other main antagonist, the Sittan empress, is a brief but fun addition to this equation.  Deep Blue’s other storylines are also very fascinating and contain some great sequences, including having four storylines featuring rescue missions and alien captivity running simultaneously within the book.

Readers who enjoyed the first book of the Second Species trilogy will also enjoy the significant development that the central character, Jinnifer, has undergone since the start of Blue Shift.  The character has evolved from an uncaring loner to the leader of her own small crew who harbours deep concerns for her friend’s wellbeing.  There is also a shift in the character dynamics between Jinnifer and Dax that is quite noticeable.  In the first book, Jinnifer was constantly being rescued by Dax, who ended up sacrificing everything to save her.  This is reversed in Deep Blue, as Dax is the one who is trapped and Jinnifer is the one attempting to save him by undertaking a dangerous rescue mission.  It is a fun change to the established character dynamic and readers of Blue Shift will appreciate the interesting change of pace O’Reilly takes in this second book.

O’Reilly has also created an excellent original universe to serve as the setting for her series.  There are a ton of intriguing science fiction elements, including an interesting prediction for the future of Earth and humanity and a number of unique alien species.  In Deep Blue, O’Reilly goes into greater detail of two of her alien races, the Sittan and the Shi Fai.  There is some exploration of both races’ history, culture, technology and way of life, as well as a visit to both home planets.  While there is a larger focus on the Sittan and their militaristic, female-dominated society, including using the Sittan empress as one of the book’s main antagonists, the scenes on the Shi Fai home planet are certainly memorable and more disturbing.  Other science fiction elements that readers are bound to find entertaining within Deep Blue include O’Reilly’s look at intergalactic politics, Earth’s political manipulation with advanced technology and the inclusion of human-alien hybrids.

This is a fairly action-packed book with some great combat sequences infused into the story to excite the readers.  The main character spends significant parts of the book utilising the swords she has implanted within her arms to great effect, and O’Reilly ensures that her two main characters spend significant time in gladiator-style death fights.  The author also is not too attached to some of her characters, so prepare for a few shocks and surprises.

O’Reilly once again sends the reader on an imaginative science fiction adventure through a dark and dangerous universe.  Deep Blue is a deeply fun and action-orientated story that will appeal to a wide audience and have readers hanging out for the final book in this exciting trilogy.

My Rating:

Four stars