Oath of Loyalty by Kyle Mills (Based on the series by Vince Flynn)

Oath of Loyalty Cover

Publisher: Simon & Schuster Audio (Audiobook – 13 September 2022)

Series: Mitch Rapp – Book 21

Length: 9 hours and 23 minutes

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

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Fantastic spy fiction author Kyle Mills continues his excellent stewardship of the late, great Vince Flynn’s Mitch Rapp series, with the new action-packed thriller, Oath of Loyalty.

I have had a lot of fun with some cool spy thriller series over the last few years, but one series that keeps on pulling me back in is the ultra-compelling Mitch Rapp series.  Originally written by Vince Flynn, the Mitch Rapp series follows rugged American spy Mitch Rapp as he wages a brutal war against America’s enemies.  While sometimes a little too nationalistic for my tastes, the Mitch Rapp series nonetheless has some outstanding and inventive scenarios in its arsenal, with the protagonists forced to take on some dangerous enemies and crazy situations.  Since Flynn’s death, the series has been taken over by Kyle Mills, who has continued the tradition of compelling high-concept spy action.  I have had a great time reading Mills’s recent contributions to this series, with awesome reads like Red War, Lethal Agent, Total Power and Enemy at the Gate, all of which were extremely fascinating stories that proved very hard to put down.  As such, I am always very keen to check out the new Mitch Rapp adventure, and I was really drawn into the fascinating plot of the 21st Mitch Rapp novel, Oath of Loyalty.

After a lifetime of protecting the country he loves from terrorists, enemy nations and foreign spies, the shoe is on the other foot as Mitch Rapp finds himself as America’s most wanted man.  The corrupt and paranoid President Anthony Cook is determined to shape America into a personal kingdom that he and his calculating wife can rule for years.  However, after Mitch Rapp foils Cook’s plan to destroy his greatest rival, Rapp is now in the firing line.

Convinced that Rapp will attempt to assassinate him, especially as his actions have resulted in the death of one of Rapp’s oldest friends, Cook attempts to eliminate him, only to have Rapp slip through his fingers.  With neither side wishing to be at war with the other, the President and Rapp manage to negotiate a truce through former-CIA director Irene Kennedy, by which Rapp will remain untouched if he agrees to leave America and stay in plain sight for as long as the Cooks control the White House.  However, the ambitious new head of the CIA is determined to win the President’s influence and manages to convince Cook that Rapp still plans to kill him.  To stop Rapp from coming after them, the new administration decides to attack those closest to him by leaking the identity and location of Rapp’s partner, Claudia Gould, to her many enemies.

Soon, everyone Claudia and her dead assassin husband ever crossed is out to get her.  Despite Rapp’s violent reprisals against her attackers, the threat increases dramatically when one of Claudia’s old enemies hires the infamous Legion.  Legion is a completely anonymous team of assassins who rely on secrecy and never meet their client in person.  No one knows who they are; all they know is that once Legion accepts a contract they don’t stop until their target is dead, no matter how long that may take.  With their country turned against them, can Rapp and his allies save Claudia from this new threat before it is too late, or will he lose another woman he loves?

Kyle Mills continues to showcase just how awesome a Mitch Rapp novel can be with this fantastic new entry.  Perfectly utilising all the typical action, intrigue and political insight that the latest Mitch Rapp books have all been known for, Oath of Loyalty features a fantastic narrative that I really got stuck into.  This was another impressive and fun spy thriller read, and I ended up powering through this book in no time at all.

Oath of Loyalty had another excellent Mills narrative that took the protagonist on a wild adventure of survival, revenge, and political upheaval.  The start of the book contains a detailed prologue that replays the closing scene of the prior novel, Enemy at the Gate, which was a good recap to start off with.  The rest of Oath of Loyalty seamlessly follows on, showing Mitch Rapp in the crosshairs of the new President and his corrupt administration.  After a great escape sequence, Rapp flees to South Africa and arranges a truce, and begins to watch the decline of America from afar.  However, the President is far from done with him, and his fearmongering advisor convinces him to keep Rapp occupied while they prepare for his potential retaliation.  Rapp is forced to defend Claudia and her daughter from several dangerous assassins, which includes one particularly impressive action sequence as Rapp fends off an entire hit squad by himself.  This results in some A-grade vengeance as Rapp goes after Claudia’s enemies in retaliation, which naturally includes some very over-the-top results.

However, the characters find themselves in dire straights when one enemy hires the unstoppable Legion assassin team, who specialise in elaborate kills.  Mills sets up Legion extremely well, and the reader is soon engrossed in watching the cat-and-mouse game that emerges between them and Rapp.  At the same time, Rapp and his allies are forced to contend with a selfish and power hungry president who is determined to destroy them all.  The second half of the book has some great sequences, and I loved seeing Legion’s actions and their attempts to get past Rapp, and the protagonist finds himself in a tough situation, especially as his limited help sometimes proves to be even more dangerous than his opponents are.  Everything leads up to a fantastic and very entertaining conclusion, which I think worked very well.  While I did think that part of the solution was a little silly when it came to just how threatening the protagonist could be, this was a pretty amazing story and I had a wonderful time getting through it.

I felt that Mills did a great job setting out Oath of Loyalty’s narrative, and there are many great elements to it that make it so much fun to read.  The author makes excellent use of multiple character perspectives to showcase the fun narrative, and it was awesome to see the various sides of the story.  I especially liked the parts of the book shown from several antagonists’ standpoints, and it was great to see the simultaneous moves and counter-moves that Rapp and his opponents put into play.  Like the rest of the Mitch Rapp books, Oath of Loyalty has several great action scenes that come together extremely well.  The brutal combat is crisp and flows off the page perfectly, ensuring that every action junkie can imagine just how the protagonist is kicking ass.  This works in concert with the book’s outstanding espionage elements, which Mills features so very well here.  I love the author’s take on spy craft in Oath of Loyalty, and there is a gritty realism to how Rapp and his allies go up against their foes, especially as this time they are going up against the American intelligence apparatus.  Oath of Loyalty is also well paced out and readers are left with barely a second to breathe between the various exciting or compelling sequences of espionage, or political malfeasance.  All this, and more, definitely helped me stayed glued to Oath of Loyalty and I really got stuck into the cool narrative and couldn’t wait to see how it all came together.

While characters are never the strongest part of a Mitch Rapp novel (I always felt that the protagonist was a tad one-dimensional), I did like how some of the recurring figures turned out in Oath of Loyalty.  There was some interesting work on Mitch Rapp himself in this book.  While he is still the same highly feared and insanely talented assassin and general sadist, you can see that the years are really starting to get to him in this book as he starts to think about winding down.  The cynical weariness that infects him in this book as his country turns against him is pretty compelling, and it was interesting to see him as America’s enemy for once.  Throw in some growing family concerns and touching relationship moments, and this was an interesting book for Rapp, and I quite enjoyed seeing his deeper thoughts on several matters here.

Several other characters had some fantastic moments in Oath of Loyalty.  Irene Kennedy and several of Rapp’s allies find themselves on the wrong side of politics here, and it was compelling to see the loyal American soldiers realise they have been betrayed by their country.  Claudia gets quite a lot of focus, especially as her past mistakes are brought into focus, and Mills does a good job of examining how she fits into Rapp’s life and how their relationship has grown.  I liked the fantastic backstory around Legion, and Rapp manages to make them appear dangerous and interesting in a very short amount of time, which I really appreciated.  Without ruining too much, I also was highly entertained by Rapp’s allies in the second half of the book, especially as they result in a really mental minefield for the protagonist, who finds himself stuck with two damaged people he has no idea how to deal with.  Finally, President Cook and his inner circle prove to be entertaining antagonists, and I loved seeing them abuse their power all in an attempt to kill one man.  Their ambition, ruthless political savvy and complete disregard for the people they serve makes them quite unlikeable, and it was fun to see them thrown for a loop by a single man as they live in fear of what Rapp may do to them.  The growing instability of the president as he gets consumed by his paranoia is particularly fun, and Mills comes up with a great crony character who feeds on that for unique reasons, all of which is very amusing to see.  I had an excellent time with all these fantastic characters, and Mills certainly wrapped an awesome story around them.

One of the things I have appreciated with Mills’s last few Mitch Rapp novels is his insights into the current state of American politics and the country’s current divides.  All his major American protagonists, who are old hats at politics and espionage, are disillusioned by the direction the country has taken, and this becomes apparent in their discussions and inner thoughts, as many of them begin to wonder what they were fighting to preserve all these years.  At the same time, several of the villainous political figures in this book are shown to be quite aware of the divides occurring in America, and are very willing to manipulate it to their own ends.  Indeed, many of their discussions about strategy show them actively doing this, and there are several scenes with them attending the sort of rallies and conventions that people familiar with contemporary politics will know and loath.  I really appreciated this frank and intriguing look into American politics and the state of the country in Oath of Loyalty, and I honestly felt that the author and the characters were even more critical than in recent books (although some of that was tied into the plot).  It is honestly a little refreshing to see this sort of introspection from a series that has always been very pro-American, and it is definitely a sign of the times.  However, these political insights aren’t just there for the sake of making the novel stand out, and they play quite a vital role in the plot.  The characters have many discussions about the future of America, and their decisions are very tied into how they want it to proceed.  It proved to be quite a key part of Oath of Loyalty’s narrative, and I think that Mills did a pretty good job of utilising this modern-day elements in his latest book.  It will be quite interesting to see how this is presented going forward, and I really appreciated how Mills is trying to keep the series relevant.

As I have with the last few Mitch Rapp novels, I chose to check out Oath of Loyalty’s audiobook format, which was a great way to enjoy this book.  With a run time of just under nine and a half hours, this a relatively short audiobook and I managed to get through it quite quickly once I got stuck into the story.  I had an excellent time getting through the Oath of Loyalty audiobook, and I felt that it did a great job enhancing the narrative, especially by picking up the pace of the awesome action sequences.  I am however, once again on the fence when it comes to narrator George Guidall, who has lent his voice to most of the Mitch Rapp audiobooks.  I always find that Guidall’s voice sounds a little tired when he reads these audiobooks and there really is not that much variation between the various characters, although I never had any issue working out who was talking.  While this would ordinarily put me off, I have actually gotten quite used to Guidall as narrator for this series, and I honestly could not imagine anyone else voicing these cool books.  I also feel that Guidall’s older, wearier voice perfectly fits the character of Mitch Rapp in these latest books, especially as he is getting sick and tired of all the political games and general BS surrounding him.  I was quite happy to listen to Guidall once again in Oath of Loyalty, and I look forward to hearing him again with the next Mitch Rapp audiobook.

Overall, I was very happy with this great book and Oath of Loyalty proved to be an excellent addition to this brilliant long-running series.  Kyle Mills continues his impressive run of elaborate and clever Mitch Rapp stories here, and Oath of Loyalty served as an outstanding sequel to the author’s previous book while perfectly continuing some amazing storylines.  Exciting, intense and loaded with so much action, Oath of Loyalty is a very easy book to fall in love with, and I had a brilliant time getting through it.

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Warhammer 40,000: Assassinorum: Kingmaker by Robert Rath

Assassinorum Kingmaker Cover

Publisher: Black Library (Audiobook – 2 April 2022)

Series: Warhammer 40,000

Length: 11 hours and 12 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 hours

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The most lethal assassins in the Warhammer 40,000 universe go face to face with a gigantic foe in the impressive and deeply thrilling Assassinorum: Kingmaker by amazing author Robert Rath.

I know I’ve said this before, but 2022 is turning out to be a fantastic year for Warhammer fiction.  Thanks to my recent obsession with this franchise, I have been deeply enjoying all the new tie-in novels associated with this table-top game, as a bevy of talented authors seek to expand on the already massive lore.  I have already had a lot of fun with books like Steel Tread, The Bookkeeper’s Skull, Day of Ascension, Kreig, Ghazghkull Thraka: Prophet of the Waagh!, Reign and The Vincula Insurgency, but I may have just finished one of the most purely entertaining and awesome new entries, Assassinorum: Kingmaker.  Written by Robert Rath, who previously wrote the intriguing Necron focused book, The Infinite and The Divine, Assassinorum: Kingmaker had a very appealing story that instantly grabbed my attention and which ended up being an outstanding read.

In the 41st millennium, a new generation of war has engulfed the Imperium of Man, as the forces of Chaos press mankind from all sides and the recently resurrected Roboute Guilliman leads his forces on a new crusade.  Enemies attack the Imperium from all corners, often hidden in the shadows, and all the Emperor’s agents must work to find and eliminate them.  The most deadly, effective and feared of these agents are the members of the Officio Assassinorum, elite modified assassins who kill all of the Emperor’s enemies without mercy or fear, and who many believe are merely myth.

When the mechanical warriors of the Knight World of Dominion fail in their duty, the Imperial overlords task Vindicare assassin, Absolom Raithe, to travel to the planet and kill Dominion’s High Monarch, Lucien Yavarius-Khau, and managed the succession of a suitable replacement.  However, this will be no easy kill as the High Monarch has long ago bonded himself to his massive war machine, remaining permanently within its heavily armoured cockpit.  To kill this near-invulnerable king, Raithe is forced to recruit a kill-team with variable talents, featuring the Callidus assassin Sycorax and the Vanus assassin Avaaris Koln.

Infiltrating the planet using returning Knight, Sir Linoleus Rakkan, who has been co-opted into their plans, the assassins arrive to find a world in turmoil.  The planet’s two rival ruling houses are in constant battle with each other, and in the ensuing chaos, anti-Imperial sentiment is high, and the already invincible High Monarch is under heavy guard.  Seeking to infiltrate the court of Dominion, the kill team begin to manoeuvre themselves into position, while manipulating the feuding knights around them.  However, the assassins soon begin to realise that not everything is as it seems, and a dark secret lies at the heart of this noble planet.  Can Raithe’s team achieve their goals, or are they destined to die at the hands of a dangerous foe with malicious plans for the entire Imperium?

Damn! Damn! Damn! What an over-the-top and extremely cool Warhammer 40,000 novel that I deeply, deeply loved.  Robert Rath really went out of his way to make Kingmaker as awesome as possible, and the result is an extremely thrilling, electrifying and epic read, loaded with so many cool elements.  This was honestly one of the best Warhammer novels I have had the pleasure of reading and I have very little choice but to give it a full-five star read.

I really, really loved the cool story in this book, which essentially boiled down to ultra-elite assassins attempting to kill the king of a planet of mecha, which is such an awesome idea.  Despite this being a heavy concept to achieve, Rath managed to achieve it in spades, providing readers a fantastic and clever narrative that instantly grabs your attention.  This book starts off extremely well, introducing the world of Dominion, the unique mission, and the four central characters of the three assassins, and their Knight patsy, and generally setting up all the key elements of Kingmaker to ensure some outstanding moments later.  From there, the story turns into a bit of an espionage thriller, as the three assassins begin their infiltration of the court, impersonating the knight Rakkan, and coming to grips with the unique world they have arrived at.  Rath provides an excellent balance of story elements in this first half of the novel, and the reader gets a fantastic mixture of character development, massive universe building, political intrigue, spy elements and some early mecha-action, all of which is a ton of fun and ensures that the reader is firmly addicted with this novel.

While I deeply enjoyed the excellent story elements contained with this first half of Kingmaker, it’s the second half that made me a major fan of this book, as Rath amps up the action, excitement and thrills in a massive way.  Following a major, action-packed moment around the halfway mark that sees all the characters in their element, the protagonists soon have a new objective.  This leads to several great sequences of entertaining mayhem and death as the protagonists attempt to manipulate local politics to their advantage.  However, the fun doesn’t last much longer, as the book enters its final phase and big conclusion.  While it initially appears that everything is going to plan, you just know it will end badly as there is still a lot of book left to go.  However, you do not appreciate just how bad things have gotten for the protagonists until they are suddenly hit from every direction and hell reigns down all around them.

The story essentially devolves into all-out war for its last quarter, as the protagonists find themselves facing enemies all around, and all four main characters are forced go in some amazing directions at this point as they attempt to stymie the damage before them, with varying degrees of success.  Rath really pulls out all the stops here, and the reader is dragged into non-stop action on every front, from a mass of deadly mecha fights, close combat against abominations in the bowels of an ancient castle, and an intense gun fight against overwhelming numbers.  At the same time, there are a ton of big revelations occurring here as a lot of the storylines Rath has been patiently setting up throughout the rest of Kingmaker finally come to fruition.  I honestly did not notice some of the clues that Rath set out in the earlier stages of the novel, but once you realise what he has done, it really becomes apparent how much detail and planning the author put into the story.  Everything comes together extremely well at the very end, and Rath wraps up most of the storylines perfectly, leaving the reader very, very satisfied, with all their action needs firmly quenched.  However, he also leaves a couple of storylines opened, which could potentially lead to some form of sequel in the future, which I would be very excited for.  An, epic story with so much going for it!

Rath has a great and exciting writing style which I deeply enjoyed and which I found to really enhance the cool story.  The author was able to successfully blend multiple key elements together into a very cohesive narrative which delivered the right combination of action, intrigue, character moments, world building, a little humour and more.  This was a very fast-paced and exciting story, especially during some of the key moments at the centre and towards the end, and there was honestly not a single slow moment that made me even considering turning this book off.  With the use of multiple character perspectives, particularly of the four main characters, the reader is gifted a massive overarching view of the key events occurring throughout the novel, and they are always right in the centre of the story.  I particularly need to highlight the very impressive action sequences, as Rath had a real talent when it came to displaying violence and death, whether it be by the hands of the assassins, or via the multiple Knights featured throughout the book.  There is a wonderful interchange between perspectives during some of the more impressive action sequences, with the reader is shown multiple angles of key events, which really helped to enhance how epic they were.  I was really drawn to one sequence where you see a group of characters “talking” before it flashes over to another character quickly and efficiently killing everyone nearby.  Elements like this really drew me into Kingmaker’s story and were a lot of fun to see in action.

Kingmaker proves to be a very impressive addition to the Warhammer 40,000 canon, especially as Rath ensures that the reader leaves with a healthy amount of knowledge about the universe, and several major factions within it.  Ostensibly a standalone read (although there is room to expand out into an extended series), this is a book that will appeal to a wide range of Warhammer fans, especially as it focuses on two particularly unique and brilliant Imperial sub-factions, the dual use of which clash together perfectly to create an awesome narrative.  As such, a little bit of pre-knowledge about the Warhammer 40,000 universe, its recent history and the various major groups are useful to help you enjoy this story fully.  However, Rath did a great job of explaining a lot of these key universe elements throughout his story, and general science fiction fans should be able to pick up on the context easily enough.  As such, Kingmaker has a pretty broad appeal, and I loved seeing the great ways he expanded and explored some crazy groups.

The first faction that Rath deeply explored in Kingmaker is the Officio Assassinorum, the Imperium’s elite, hidden network of ruthless trained killers, who most people believe are a myth.  Trained, conditioned and modified to become the deadliest killers in the galaxy, the Officio Assassinorum are a pretty badass part of the Warhammer 40,000 universe, and there are only a few novels currently about them.  However, Rath really goes to town exploring them, and as they come together as a Kill Team to take facilitate the plot’s main mission.  Kingmaker features three different types of Imperial assassins from Officio Assassinorum temples, each of whom has their own unique skills, methods and technology.  As such, you are given a great insight into three additional sub-factions, with the Vindicare, Callidus and Vanus temples all featured here.  Rath really does a great job showcasing these different assassins throughout Kingmaker, and you come away with some major insights into how these assassins operate, what their skills are, and how they work or don’t work together.  There is also a deep and intriguing examination of the inner minds of these assassins, and you get a good idea of their opinions on the events unfolding, as well as their general thoughts on being deadly killers in service to the Emperor.  I really enjoyed the unique and compelling team-up of assassins featured in Kingmaker, and their technologically focussed attacks and elaborate methods worked well in contrast to the other major faction in this book, the Imperial Knights.

Imperial Knights are another great human sub-faction from the Warhammer 40,000 game, and one that I really didn’t know too much about before this novel.  However, that changed really quickly as, despite Kingmaker being labelled as an Assassinorum novel, Rath spent just as much time, if not more, examining members of a Knight World.  Knight Worlds in the Warhammer 40,000 universe are unique planets that have evolved into a feudal system equivalent to Earth’s medieval period, with peasants and other servants serving the noble houses who field Knights for war.  I always love seeing the cool range of different societies, cultures and technology levels throughout the Warhammer universe, and the Knight Worlds are especially fun, as they have gone out of their way to stay as a feudal society, rather than become standard Imperial worlds.  The contrast between the spoiled nobility and the poorer peasants in this futuristic context is just great, and I loved seeing so many Medieval elements being altered to fit into a degree of advanced technology, while still retaining a lot of traditional elements (e.g. footmen with laser rifles).  However, rather than riding to battle on a horse, these knights are mounted in the Imperial Knight war machines, massive mecha that, while not as large as the god-sized Titans, are still impressive walking weapons.  Rath has a lot of fun showcasing these Knights throughout Kingmaker, and you end up getting a good look at the unique machines, which are bounded to their pilot, and which contain the spirts of all their previous riders.  The impressive Knight-on-Knight battles throughout the book are extremely good, no matter their context, and I particularly enjoyed the focused look at the war machines’ apparent sentience, as the riders are bombarded with the thoughts and voices of the previous riders.

Dominion also proves to be a great and complex setting for Kingmaker, and I loved all the unique politics and elaborate back stabbings it created.  Featuring two rival houses, Stryder and Rau, as they battle for supremacy, Rath explores its rather elaborate and distinctive rulership and court as the assassin characters search for a weak spot.  Dominion’s status as a somewhat independent planet in the Imperium was also pretty intriguing, and it was fascinating to see members of the planet arguing over whether they should serve themselves or help the Emperor.  An overall deeply impressive examination of the Imperial Knights and their worlds, I deeply enjoyed how well Rath was able to work this faction into his complex narrative and it really highlighted his attention to detail and his love for the lore.

I also need to highlight the great characters featured within Kingmaker as Rath has created an excellent collection of enticing figures whose unique personal stories deeply enhanced the overall tale.  This was a fantastic group of deep and complex characters, and their statuses within this universe ensured that they all had some unique experiences.  Most of Kingmaker’s narrative is spread amongst the three members of the Assassinorum who represent a different Assassinorum Temple, and as such have very different viewpoints on the universe and the best way to operate as killers.  This provides some compelling initial conflict amongst them as they try to work together, something none of them are really good at.  However, they soon start to come together as a team as the novel continues, and they ended up playing off each other’s strengths and personalities to create an excellent, core group of protagonists.

The Assassinorum characters in Kingmaker are headlined by Absolom Raithe, the Vindicare assassin who has been appointed team leader.  An infamous sniper, tactician, and resolute loner, Raithe struggles the most with working as a team, and his initial attempts at leadership aren’t that successful.  The author adds in some additional issues for Raithe as the story continues, especially as he is forced to deal with an injury and taking on roles that are outside his comfort zone, producing some dangerous risks for the team.  However, Raithe ends up growing a lot as a leader as the book continues, while his multiple sniper scenes contain some of the best action in the entire novels.

Apart from Raithe, there is also a lot of focus on Sycorax, a Callidus assassin who specialises in infiltration and whose enhanced abilities allow her to morph her shape.  Due to her role impersonating Rakkan for most of the novel, Sycorax is one of the most significant characters in the book, and she ends up with some thrilling and intrigue laden sequences.  Watching her take on multiple personalities throughout the novel is really cool, and it was captivating to watch her more elaborate methods strongly clash with Raithe’s more direct attempts throughout the book.  Sycorax also provides the reader with some of the best and most intense insights into being an Imperial Knight pilot, as she is required to bond with Rakkan’s Knight Jester for much of the book.  Seeing an outsider character interact with Jester’s mind, which contains the spirits of its previous riders, was extremely fascinating, and you get a good sense of the difficulties and insanities involved with piloting such a machine.  In addition, the experiences and memories she obtained from the link impacted on Sycorax’s psyche and ensure that she gets some fantastic interactions with Rakkan, while also gaining a better understanding of the people and machines she is trying to manipulate.

The final assassin character in Kingmaker is Koln, a Vanus assassin with a skill in technology, data manipulation and analysis.  Even though Koln tended to get the least focus of the assassin characters, I really grew to like this tech-focused assassin, especially after her awesome introduction at the start of the book.  Koln proved to be an excellent third member of the Assassinorum team, balancing out the impulsive Raith and manipulative Sycorax well.  Her ability to kill just by manipulating some data, providing an elaborate forgery, or by hacking into a device was really fun, and I really appreciated the examination of the lesser utilised Vanus assassins.  Koln had some interesting story moments in Kingmaker, particularly towards the end of the novel, and it sounds like the author has some intriguing plans for her in the future.

I also need to highlight the character of Sir Linoleus Rakkan, a noble of Dominion who is co-opted into the plans to kill the high monarch and becomes a member of the assassin team.  At the start of the book, he is introduced as an ambitious pilot attempting to raise his fortunes.  However, after nearly being killed, he becomes a mercenary Freeblade, fighting against the forces of Chaos, before being kidnapped by the assassins.  Initially a depressed prisoner who relies heavily on drink to mask his emotional pain and the issues surrounding his disabled legs, the assassins manage to convince him to help Sycorax impersonate him on Dominion and use his return to gain access to the court.  Due to being a son of both the rival Stryder and Rau houses, Rakkan provides some great insights into both houses and the royal court, as well providing instruction on how to pilot a Knight.  It was a lot of fun to see Rakkan’s reactions to many of the early events of the book, especially as he is forced to watch himself being impersonated, providing information to help them pull off the charade.  While Rath could have left Rakkan as a useful, one-note character, he instead spent a good portion of the novel evolving Rakkan and ensuring that he ended up being a key part of the plot.  Not only does he mature greatly after witnessing some of the key moments of the mission and Sycorax’s impersonation of him, but Rath also dives into his past and the connection he has to his father, a Dominion hero whose glorious death Rakkan continually witnesses due to his connection to Jester, which his father died in.  This obsession with his family and the past eventually leads him to some big revelations in the present, and he ends up having some major and exciting moments in the last half of the novel.  Rakkan ended up being one of the most complex and entertaining characters in Kingmaker, and I really appreciate the excellent way in which the author developed him.

Aside from these four main characters, Kingmaker is loaded with an excellent group of supporting characters, most of whom are members of the Dominion nobility.  As I mentioned above, I had an amazing time seeing the diverse and contentious Knights of Dominion, especially as most of them are engaged in a brutal blood feud between the two ruling families.  Several of these noble characters have some intriguing storylines throughout Kingmaker, with an interesting focus on the members of the Court, the king’s inner circle who are hiding some major and disturbing secrets.  Of the rest of the noble characters, the best is probably Rakkan’s mother, the leader of the Stryder family, Baroness Hawthorn Astair-Rakkan, a domineering and ambitious woman who spends most of the novel trying to manipulate Rakkan for her own gain.  Baroness Hawthorn had some excellent moments throughout the novel, and I especially loved her collection of hounds, each of whom are humorously named after famous Imperial commanders, just to show off her arrogance and disrespect to the Imperial Guards.  Hawthorn’s story arc really changes towards the end of the book, and it will be interesting to see if we get some extra appearances from her in the future.  The other major supporting character of Kingmaker is Gwynne, Rakkan’s loyal Sacristan (Jester’s mechanic, a low-level Tech Priest with some additional cultural restrictions).  Gwynne serves as another ally to the main characters, and her knowledge of the Knights and their inner workings proves invaluable, as does her inquiring mind.  The author weaves some subtle, but important, storylines around Gwynne in Kingmaker, and she ends up serving a key and impressive role.  Overall, this was an excellent collection of characters, and I deeply enjoyed how well Rath used them throughout Kingmaker’s narrative.

Like many of the newer Warhammer novels I have been lucky enough to enjoy, I chose to check out Kingmaker on audiobook, which I found to be an awesome way to enjoy this book.  Coming in with a run time of just over 11 hours, this was a decently long Warhammer novel, but I honestly flew through it in just a few days, especially once I got fully addicted to its impressive story.  The audiobook format really helped me dive into the highly detailed setting and narrative, and I deeply appreciated how much more epic it made the action sequences.  Having the intense and over-the-top fighting between the various mechanical Knights was an outstanding experience, and you got the full impact of every powerful strike.  I also really enjoyed the excellent narration of veteran audiobook voice actor Gareth Armstrong, who has done a ton of other narration for the Warhammer franchise.  Armstrong’s work in Kingmaker was very good, and I loved the great array of voices he features for the various characters, capturing the ethereal and strange nature of the assassin characters and the more robust, proud and arrogant nobles of Dominion.  There was a great contrast between these two groups, and I loved how Armstrong succeeded in making every single character stand out on their own.  An overall exceptional way to enjoy this wonderful Warhammer book, the Kingmaker audiobook is without a doubt the best way to enjoy this novel, and I deeply enjoyed every single second I spent listening to it.

I think it is fair to say that I deeply enjoyed Assassinorum: Kingmaker.  Robert Rath crafted together a brilliant and exceptionally entertaining Warhammer 40,000 novel that was loaded with action, fun and great characters.  Featuring lethal assassins facing down massive Imperial Knights, Kingmaker has a little bit of everything, including political intrigue, impressive use of Warhammer elements, and some fantastic war sequences towards the end.  Easily one of the most impressive and captivating Warhammer novels of 2022, Kingmaker is a must-read for all fans of the franchise, and you are guaranteed to have an incredible time with this epic book.

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Black Drop by Leonora Nattrass

Black Drop Cover

Publisher: Viper (Trade Paperback – 15 February 2022)

Series: Laurence Jago – Book One

Length: 343 pages

My Rating: 4.25 out of 5 stars

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Intriguing and talented new author Leonora Nattrass presents a compelling historical thriller debut with Black Drop, a fantastic novel that drags readers into the conspiracies and issues of late 18th century London.

In July of 1794, as the terror of the French Revolution reaches its height and the war on the continent goes poorly for the British army, uncertainty and fear of violent change infect the people of London.  For Laurence Jago, clerk to the Foreign Office, his position is even more uncertain that those around him.  A young man with hidden French heritage, Jago fears the day that his connections to his mother’s nation will be discovered, especially after spending years serving as a spy for sinister French agent Aglantine.

Now believing himself to be free from Aglantine’s employment, Jago is thrust into an untenable situation when vital confidential information about the British army is leaked from his office to the press.  Suspected by his peers of leaking the information and under investigation, Jago fears that all his secrets and former dealings are about to come out.  His problems are only further compounded when he discovers the body of a fellow clerk in his rooms, supposedly dead by suicide.

When the blame for the leak is shifted onto the dead man, Jago is freed of the suspicion against him.  However, Jago knows that the dead clerk was incapable of stealing the letter and believes that he was murdered.  Determined to find out the truth behind the death, Jago finds himself investigating the highest level of the British civil service and their political masters.  Out of his depth and thwarted at every turn, Jago will risk everything to root out the culprit before they strike to disrupt England again.  However, can he succeed without revealing his own dark secrets, or will Jago hang as a traitor instead of the murderer?

Black Drop is an excellent and clever novel that I had a great time reading as Nattrass perfectly combines a compelling spy thriller/murder mystery storyline with intriguing and detailed historical fiction elements.  This resulted in one of the more unique and fantastic debuts of 2022 and I really enjoyed Black Drop’s impressive story.

This awesome debut novel has an excellent story that expertly combines intriguing spy thriller and murder mystery elements with a character driven historical narrative to create a compelling and impressive read.  Set throughout key events of 1794 and told as a chronicle from the perspective of central character, Laurence Jago, Black Drop presents the reader with an intriguing tale of murder, political machinations and the threat of revolution at the heart of the period’s government.  Nattrass sets the scene perfectly at the start, introducing the key characters while also highlighting the feelings of unrest and dissent as the fear and inspiration from the French revolution hits London.  From there, the story starts to unfold in some interesting directions as the protagonist finds himself involved in political and espionage adventures while also investigating the murder of a fellow clerk, which appears to be connected.  At the same time, the slow-paced story utilises some intriguing aspects from the protagonist’s life as he struggles with dark secrets from his past that have potential implications on the current events.

Following this introduction and the initial parts of the narrative, the middle of Black Drop starts to bring in certain key historical events and figures, which results in some fantastic moments and character interactions, especially once an antagonistic figure becomes more prominent.  While the middle of this novel did drag in places, I felt that Nattrass was providing the reader with the right blend of intrigue, mystery, historical detail and character growth to produce a great overall story.  You really get to grips with the protagonist and the key aspects of the setting during this part of the book, especially when Jago hits a major personal downturn earlier than expected, and interesting reveals enhance the reader’s attachment to the mystery.  The story really starts to pick up once it gets to Nattrass’s recreation of the infamous trial surrounding supposed radical and revolutionary Thomas Hardy.  The ridiculous, and mostly accurate depiction of the trial (with certain elements from other trials thrown in for greater effect), proves to be a great high point for the novel, especially as other key parts of the plot are slotted in perfectly around it.  I did feel that the novel started to come undone around the conclusion a little, especially when it came to the big reveal.  While there were a couple of good twists around certain characters, the solution to the main mystery and the intrigue seemed a little weak to me, and I was a little disappointed with how it turned out, especially as you barely get to see anything about the final confrontation.  Still, this did not affect the overall quality of the story too much, especially as the author throws in an excellent wrap-up for the protagonist’s storyline in this novel which has a lot of potential for a sequel.  While much of the story can be a little sluggish and lacking a lot of action, I had a great time getting through Black Drop, and I loved how the excellent interplay of elements came together so well.

One of the most distinctive parts of Black Drop is the sheer amount of fascinating historical detail that was fit into the story.  Nattrass has clearly done her research on the period and the reader is presented with a fantastic and powerful view of London in the late 18th century.  Not only are there some brilliant and vibrant depictions of historical London but the reader gets some fascinating views into the inner workings of the government at the time.  Substantial parts of the book are dedicated to examining the civil service and the political hierarchy of the day, with multiple influential figures featured as supporting characters.  This proves to be a deeply fascinating part of the book, and I loved how Nattrass was able to weave these intriguing details into the thriller plot, becoming a key part of Black Drop’s story.  I also deeply appreciated the way in which Nattrass explores the social and political issues of the day, especially where it relates to the concerns in London about an uprising similar to what happened in France.  As such, you get a full spectrum of personalities from across London, as royalists and loyalists clash with potential radicals who are targeted by the worried government.  This all cumulates in the fantastic court case of Thomas Hardy, a shoemaker accused of radical actions and attempted rebellion.  This historical trial is expertly recreated by Nattrass to include all of its most interesting parts, including several extremely ridiculous elements from history (a blowgun murder conspiracy).  Nattrass also cleverly combines in some elements from related trials that occurred around the same time as the Hardy case for some amusing dramatic effect, and this extended sequence ended up being one of my favourite parts of the novel.  The overall hint of discontent by many members of London’s society, as well as the innate fear of the established institutions, is portrayed beautifully, and you get a great sense of the public issues during this period.  All these impressive historical elements are handled extremely well by Nattrass, and while it did get a tad tedious in places, it was an excellent part of the book that I deeply enjoyed.

To back up her unique historical tale, Nattrass has furnished Black Drop with a compelling array of characters with some complex and compelling character arcs.  This book actually contains a great combination of original characters and historical figures, with many major figures in 18th century British politics and the civil service featured in substantial roles throughout the book.  Not only does this brilliantly enhance the already substantial historical details of Black Drop, but it also results in some fascinating interactions and depictions as the fictional characters, including the point-of-view character, observe them.  Due to the complexity of the story, Black Drop makes use of a pretty large cast of characters, and while a few of them blend together, most come across as pretty distinctive with some interesting and fun character traits.

The best character of Black Drop is the protagonist Laurence Jago, who also serves as the book’s sole point-of-view character.  Jago turns out to be a particularly complex and damaged individual whose emotional attachment to the case and the state of London society provides some intriguing drama and insight into the events of the book.  Already made quite distinctive by his unique green-glass spectacles, Jago proves to be an impressive and captivating figure, especially as he has some major issues.  Secretly half-French, Jago lives a conflicted and fear-filled life, especially with the intense anti-French attitudes sprinkling the city.  This, combined with his foolish youthful dalliance of being a spy for France, ensures that he has a powerful sense of guilt, and is constantly worried about being discovered, especially once other accusations are made against him.  The discovery of a dead friend, combined with his guilt, the pressures of work, and the constant fear of discovery really strain his mind, and while he doggedly tries to find out the truth behind the murder, he starts to crack and nearly blows his cover.  Watching him trying to hide his own secrets while uncovering the lies and machinations of those around him becomes pretty intense, especially as you grow quite attached to this damaged soul.  His mental state further deteriorates once he becomes addicted to Black Drop (an opium concoction), which dulls his worried and troubled mind, while also leaving him lethargic and susceptible to danger.  This proves to be a serious handicap to his abilities, and it is fascinating to see him try to balance all his issues with the hunt for the truth.  All these issues and concerns result in a very conflicted and emotionally drained character, who Nattrass portrays perfectly, and it was very powerful to see Jago’s entire story unfold.

Aside from Jago there is a rich cast of supporting characters, each of whom add to the story in their own distinct way.  I particularly want to focus on two who ended up being the best supporting figures in different ways.  The first of these is William Philpott, a fiction British reporter character, who arrives in England from and extended stay in America and sets up his paper and family residence next to Jago’s lodgings.  An eccentric, rambunctious and slightly uncouth fellow, Philpott stands in stark contrast to the various stuffy characters that make up the majority of the cast, which ensures that the reader is quickly drawn to him.  Not only does he serve as a lighter character in the novel and a firm confidant for the protagonist, but you also get an interesting viewpoint into his changing feelings about the events occurring throughout London.  Philpott starts the novel as a strong, patriotic figure who fully intends to support the government in his paper when it comes to the court cases against the supposed radicals.  However, upon viewing some of the injustices they are committing, such as their harassment of and unfair case against Thomas Hardy, Philpott becomes more sympathetic, supporting the dissenting voices and writing fair accounts of the proceedings.  This interesting middle ground perspective on the historical events of the book proves to be extremely interesting, and I loved how Philpott’s unique storyline unfolded, especially as it results in him throwing some valuable lifelines to the troubled Jago.

The other character of note is real-life historical figure and future British Prime Minister George Canning, who serves a much more antagonistic role in this novel.  Canning, who at this point in the time period was a young MP with connections to the sitting PM, William Pitt, gets embroiled in the case quite early in the novel, thanks to his connection to the dead man and the suspicions surrounding Jago.  Portrayed in Black Drop as an uncaring and malicious man, Canning is a menacing antagonist for much of the novel, constantly butting heads with Jago and complicating his investigation.  I loved the use of this intriguing historical character, especially as Nattrass turns him into a very unlikable figure, who you cannot help but hate.  Not only does Nattrass do a great job of examining some of the historical elements surrounding him at this period of time but she also layers in some fantastic references to future events in his life, such as the infamous duel that he would eventually take part in.  However, his real benefit is the impact he has on the story and the deep rivalry he forms with the protagonist.  Watching these two battle it out in different arenas is very amusing, especially as Jago is constantly outmatched by this influential politician, and I do hope that we see more of Canning in future books in this series.  These great characters, and more, all add a great deal to this intriguing novel, and I really appreciated how fantastic and compelling they turned out to be.

Overall, Black Drop by Leonora Nattrass is an impressive and captivating piece of historical crime fiction that I am really glad I decided to check out.  Making excellent use of some fascinating historical elements, Nattrass did an amazing job of producing a clever and enjoyable spy thriller/murder mystery storyline in 18th century London, which came together very well.  Filled with great historical events and compelling characters, Black Drop was an absolute treat to read, and I look forward to seeing how Nattrass’s next book will turn out, especially as the sequel, Blue Water, is apparently set for release in October this year.

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Outcast by Louise Carey

Outcast Cover

Publisher: Gollancz (Trade Paperback – 25 January 2022)

Series: Inscape – Book Two

Length: 394

My Rating: 4.75 out of 5

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Impressive rising science fiction author Louise Carey continues her awesome first series with Outcast, a brilliant and powerful cyberpunk thriller read that is incredibly fun and very clever.

Outcast is a sequel to Carey’s debut novel from last year, Inscape, which told a unique and intriguing story about espionage, betrayal and corporate politics in a cyberpunk world.  Set in the distant future after a major calamity, the fractured world is now ruled over by all-powerful and advanced corporations who battle for dominance while they attempt to create the latest in weaponry and bio-tech upgrades.  The protagonist of the series, Tantra, works as an intelligence operative for one of the largest companies, InTech, and investigates a mysterious theft that could have dire consequences for her company.  Filled with dystopian cyberpunk elements, such the built-in communication and information technology known as scapes, this ended up being an excellent and captivating science fiction thriller that was one of my favourite debuts of 2021.  Carey has continued her amazing series in a big way here with Outcast, which serves as an outstanding and impressive sequel to her first solo book.

Following the success of her first mission, Tantra’s life has been turned upside down.  Despite saving her company and uncovering a traitor, Tantra has been sidelined by a jealous supervisor and now works as a lowly security guard.  Worse, Tantra now knows the terrible truth: that the company who gave her everything has long controlled her mind with the invasive Harlow Programming, which she has since been freed from.  With her loyalties tested, Tantra is thrust back into the thick of the action when she discovers a bomb sent to InTech’s headquarters.

InTech soon finds itself thrust into a brutal corporate war with its main competitor, Throughfront.  The bombing of their headquarters is the latest in a series of attacks on InTech assets, and the board are desperate to get them under control.  Determining that she is their best operative to stop the culprits behind the attack, Tantra is assigned to the case.  Teaming up once again with her former partner, Cole, the brilliant scientist with severe gaps in his memory, Tantra attempts to find the culprit before they cripple InTech for good.

But, facing opposition from both deadly internal InTech politics and lethal external forces, their chance of succeeding seems slim, especially when they are banished to a remote InTech facility in the Unaffiliated Zone for the remainder of their investigation.  Barely escaping a deadly assassination attempt, this unconventional team find themselves caught in the middle of a dangerous conspiracy that is determined to bring InTech down for good.  However, when they discover that InTech is planning their own sinister machinations, will Tantra and Cole still be as eager to save their company?

Wow, Carey follows up her excellent solo debut in a big way here with Outcast.  This second book was even better than Inscape, taking the reader on a wild and action-packed adventure through the author’s unique cyberpunk world.  Bringing together some amazing characters with a powerful and thought-provoking narrative about control and the potential evils of technology, this was an exceptional read I powered through in a few short days.

Outcast has an excellent story that perfectly continues the fantastic narrative started in Inscape.  Taking place shortly after the events of the first book, Outcast sees a struggling Tantra and Cole once again placed in the middle of a big investigation with major implications, this time involving the destruction of company drones outside the city, which is impacting the company’s food supply.  At the same time, Tantra finds herself forced to deal with deadly company internal politics, while Cole finds himself involved with a mysterious rebel group who are attempting to stop InTech’s more troublesome activities, including their latest upgrade.  This forces them to venture outside of the city where they encounter unaffiliated mercenaries, enemy agents, dangerous rebels and deep secrets about InTech’s past.  The middle of this novel is filled with an excellent series of great emotional sequences, action scenes, world building, character development and shocking twists, as the protagonists get closer to finding out who is behind the attacks, as well as the true plans of their parent company.  This leads up to a brilliant final sequence where the protagonists are forced to make some very hard decisions in a great no-winners situation.  This leads up to the amazing and powerful conclusion where the protagonists, despite their best efforts, are left devastated by the events that unfolded, and which ensures that all the readers will be back for the third entry in this awesome series.

There are so many cool elements to Outcast which really help to turn it into a first-class read.  I deeply enjoyed the way the impressive story unfolded, and Carey makes great use of a couple of alternate character perspectives to tell a unique and multifaceted tale, such as the entertaining scenes told from the perspective of a smarmy and desperate secondary antagonist.  The author does a great job of combining a thriller storyline with the unique science fiction elements, and it results in a fast-paced and action-packed story that takes the time to explore certain technological implications.  There are some brilliant twists loaded throughout the book which are well paced out and ensure that the reader is constantly on their toes.  I liked how, despite the sheer amount of world building featured in the first book, Outcast still came across as an accessible novel, and new readers can probably jump into the series here.  That being said, I think you would be missing out if you didn’t try Inscape first as this sequel does an amazing job building on and expanding some excellent storylines from Carey’s debut.  However, nothing will compete with the awesome ending that this novel has, and the reader is chucked through the emotional wringer as the book’s characters are put into an impossible situation, which produces some very dark results for them.

The excellent cyberpunk science fiction elements of this series once again shine in Outcast as Carey continues to explore the advanced biotech that was such a great feature of the first novel.  Not only is a lot of this technology very cool, especially as it results in some brilliant moments in some of the action sequences, but this mind-connected technology continues to be a key part of the plot.  Multiple storylines examine the ethics behind this technology, especially as the protagonists are now fully aware of the full extent of their parent company’s attempts to program their employees’/residents’ minds using their scapes.  This leads to some intriguing and deep discussions, especially as you get to see corporate greed and a desire for control weighed up against the rights of a person and their desire for independent thought and identity.  This exciting look at the series’ unique technology becomes even more intense and important as Outcast continues, especially when certain new advancements are revealed which could have devastating impacts on all the characters.  I loved how deep and captivating some of the scenes involving this technology get, and it results in some of the best bits of the entire book.  I cannot wait to see what happens with these cool technological aspects later in the series and I imagine it is going to be very fun.

I was also very impressed with the incredible character work featured throughout this book as Carey did a wonderful job expanding on her complex and damaged protagonists.  Like Inscape, Outcast is primarily focused on the characters of Tantra, a young intelligence officer, and Cole a formerly unethical scientist whose memory was completely erased, giving him a very different personality while retaining his brilliant mind.  These two formed a unique and fun pairing in Inscape, where they both experienced a lot of development and trauma, and it was great to see them back together again here.

Both characters had some brilliant moments throughout the novel, especially Tantra, who realised in the first book that her mind and her actions have been subtly controlled by a program her entire life.  Now rid of the Harlow Programming, Tantra is in full control of her mind, but must keep this hidden from InTech, who would kill her or reprogram her if they found out.  Forced to act like the obedient drone they think she is, Tantra chafes against the restrictions and contradictions of her superiors and the company, as she can see many of the injustices or manipulations now that her mind is solely hers.  This also results in are also some excellent ethical and loyalty implications for her as she can finally see how nefarious InTech, the company who raised her, really are, and she must decide whether she is still loyal to them.  It was especially powerful to see how her relationship with Reet, her lifelong romantic partner, has been changed.  Reet is still infected by the Harlow Programming, and Tantra can only watch as she toes the company line and fails to understand Tantra’s many concerns, criticisms or newly awakened point of view.  This puts some real strain on their relationship, and it was heartbreaking to see Tantra suffer even though she is now free.  This was easily the best character work in the entire book, and if the tragedies and hard decisions that occurred towards the end of Outcast are any indication, Tantra is going to be in for a rough ride in the third book.

Cole also had some outstanding moments in Outcast as he continues to struggle with his sense of self and identity following his memory loss and the eventual revelation that his past self was responsible for many of InTech’s evils, including the Harlow Programming.  Now mistreated and mistrusted by InTech, Cole works with a mysterious group outside of InTech to try and bring them down, while also attempting to learn more about his past actions and what led him to do what he did.  He does get some of the answers he wants as the story progresses, especially when he is reunited with an old colleague, but it only leads to tragedy and despair.  Cole’s story gets pretty dark in places, especially when he realises how InTech have repurposed and enhanced his original work, and it was fascinating to learn more about his past mistakes.

Aside from these two, there are several awesome supporting characters who also add a lot to the novel, especially as several of them are utilised as point of view characters.  This includes Douglas Kenway, a senior director at InTech and Tantra’s boss, who is determined to keep his position and power no matter what.  Convinced that Tantra is gunning for his job, he spends most of the novel trying to undermine her, while also inching closer to discovering the truth about her lack of Harlow Programming.  Kenway serves as an excellent secondary antagonist, and his dive into company politics and sabotage of the protagonist adds a fantastic and entertaining edge to the novel that I really enjoyed.  Despite his self-centred nature, Kenway does provide an intriguing alternate perspective on the events of the book, and he gives some corporate context for much of what is going on.  I also really liked how his fears were mostly realised towards the end of the book, although not in the way he expected.  I should also mention new character, Fliss, the leader of a rogue gang out in the Unaffiliated Zone who gets dragged into the conspiracy attacking InTech.  Fliss provides another great alternate perspective, especially as she and her friends have no technological upgrades to their bodies and are naturally human.  I liked the story that surrounded Fliss, especially as she struggles to control her gang when forced to work for a corporation, and she ended up being an excellent addition to the plot.  These characters, and more, help to turn Outcast into a first-rate book, and I deeply enjoyed seeing all these amazing personal stories unfold.

Louise Carey continues to shine as one of the most impressive new authors of cyberpunk fiction out there with her second novel, Outcast.  This outstanding sequel does a brilliant job of continuing the powerful storylines from Inscape, while also introducing new dangers, betrayals, and some great characters.  Filled with action, intense character moments and captivating cyberpunk science fiction elements, Outcast is a fantastic novel that proves to be exceedingly addictive and fun.  I am really starting to get hooked on this outstanding series, and all cyberpunk and science fiction fans need to do themselves a favour and check out Carey’s impressive Inscape series.

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Sierra Six by Mark Greaney

Sierra Six Cover

Publisher: Sphere/Audible Audio (Audiobook – 15 February 2022)

Series: Gray Man – Book 11

Length: 15 hours and 58 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

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Epic thriller author Mark Greaney returns with the latest entry in his incredible Gray Man series with Sierra Six, an intense and captivating spy thriller that will grab your attention and refuse to let go until the final explosion.

Over the last few years, I have been absolutely hooked on the incredible thrillers of Mark Greaney, who is easily one of the best authors of spy fiction in the world today.  Not only did he cowrite a very cool military thriller, Red Metal (one of my favourite books and audiobooks of 2019), but he has continued his exceptional Gray Man series.  The Gray Man books follow Court Gentry, the titular Gray Man, an elite assassin and undercover operator who has worked both for and against the CIA.  This series has been so very cool, from the first novel The Gray Man (set to become a Netflix movie later this year), to the last three awesome entries, Mission Critical, One Minute Out (one of my favourite books and audiobooks of 2020) and Relentless (one of my favourite books and audiobooks of 2021).  Due to how impressive this series has been, I have been really excited to read the next book, Sierra Six, and it was one of my most anticipated releases of 2022, especially as it had a very cool plot to it.

Court Gentry, the Gray Man, is once again the world’s most wanted spy, hunted by his former employers, the CIA, and every other intelligence agency on the planet.  Looking for work, Gentry accepts an easy infiltration mission in Algeria to spy on a delegation from Pakistan.  However, the mission goes sideways when Gentry recognises one of the Pakistanis and his rookie technical officer is captured.  Chasing after the kidnappers, Gentry follows their trail to India and must relive one of the darkest moments from his past.

12 years ago, long before he became the Gray Man, Court Gentry was a talented young agent for the CIA.  Specialising in solo operations, Gentry is suddenly reassigned to Ground Branch and must work as the junior member of veteran CIA action team, Golf Sierra.  Given a new designation, Sierra Six, Gentry is forced to adapt to a new way of fighting as he and his team attempt to hunt down a dangerous terrorist leader in Pakistan.  However, their mission resulted in a high body count and a great personal loss that has haunted Gentry ever since.

Now, as Gentry works his way through Mumbai, he must face the realisation that the target of his original Sierra Six mission is still alive and active after all these years.  Determined to finish the job once and for all, Gentry works with a small team of rogue operators to find his target.  However, his old foe has initiated a bold new plan that could have devastating consequences for all of India.  Can Gentry get his revenge before it is too late, or will the ghosts of his past finally finish him off?

Greaney is in fine form with Sierra Six as he has written another excellent and intense spy thriller that I deeply enjoyed.  Containing an action-packed and multilayered narrative loaded with major set pieces, exciting spy elements and some complex characters, this was another awesome Gray Man novel from Greaney.

Sierra Six was an absolutely thrilling read and I had an outstanding time getting through the impressive and addictive narrative.  Greaney does something a little different for this book and features an excellent and intricate split timeline narrative, with the book divided between the events of the past when Gentry was part of Golf Sierra, and the current events in Mumbai which see Gentry again contending with the target of this original mission.  The narrative switches between the two timelines every chapter or two and you get a great sense of what is happening in both well-established storylines.  These two plot lines advance at a great pace throughout the entire novel and feature their own range of distinctive and fun supporting characters, some of whom appear in both the contemporary and past storylines.  I had a lot of fun with the two separate periods, and I loved how they both made excellent use of interesting characters, fantastic developments and a ton of high-octane action sequences.

The timelines support each other extremely well, with certain hints about the events of the past contained in the contemporary storyline increasing anticipation for the historical storyline, while revealed details about the villain and the young Court Gentry from 12 years ago enhance the protagonist’s current adventure.  In both cases, Gentry and his allies embark on a methodical hunt for their quarry, with a high body count accumulating as they follow various leads and respond to their opponent’s counter plays.  While primarily told from Gentry’s perspective, both timelines utilise distinctive side characters to great effect, and you see intriguing supporting perspectives, including from the antagonist, that help to widen the picture and enhance the richness of the story.  Both timelines eventually lead up to an awesome final sequence, comprised of two near-suicidal missions that the protagonist is engaged in.  This final section of the novel is extremely fast paced, especially as Greaney shortens the chapters and introduces more frequent jumps between the timelines to make everything seem even more frenetic.  Both timelines end with some incredible and awesome major set pieces, and I loved how Greaney used the end of the past storyline to set up the antagonist’s eventual return.  The novel ends on a great note, with the two separate storylines coming together perfectly, and the reader is left very satisfied, if a little moved, at the tragic ending of the events from 12 years ago.  I was extremely impressed with how this fantastic story came together, and this ended up being an addictive read with so many awesome moments in it.

Sierra Six was a particularly good entry in this already awesome series, and I loved how Greaney was able to create a book that both stands on its own as a thriller, while also serving as an amazing entry in the wider series.  This novel is structured to be very accessible to new readers, and anyone can easily pick up this book and start reading it without any knowledge of the prior entries in the series, especially as certain key elements are carefully explained when necessary.  There is also a lot for established Gray Man fans to enjoy here, as Greaney provides a bit of an origin story for his long-running protagonist.  Not only do we get to see Court Gentry do some of his earliest work for the CIA, but you also get to see his first interactions with key supporting characters, including Matthew Hanley and Zack Hightower.  I also loved a couple of fun little cameo appearances and throwaway lines that reference some of the earlier books, including the quick but enjoyable inclusion of the antagonist from the original novel.  While there is are no major continuations of some of the established storylines this is still a key and intriguing Gray Man novel, and it is one that people familiar with this series will deeply enjoy.

I was very impressed with some of the unique elements of this book, particularly those involving tradecraft, espionage work and covert combat teams.  There is a real focus on tradecraft throughout Sierra Six, and the author ensures that everything feels exceedingly realistic and gritty as the characters play their spy games.  Not only do you get to see some of the usual undercover work that Gentry excels in but you also get a great look at paramilitary combat, as the protagonist learns from scratch the rules of fighting as part of a combat team.  All this tradecraft really adds to the authenticity of the story, although it did make parts of the book a little clunky in places, especially when the narrator or the characters explain certain espionage or military elements multiple times in overly descriptive ways.

I also rather enjoyed the exciting settings of the various timelines, as Greaney takes the reader to wartime Afghanistan, Pakistan and modern-day India.  This is an interesting change of pace from most of the Gray Man novels I have read, which have been primarily set in Europe, and I liked seeing the various descriptive landscapes and unique people.  Mumbai proved to be a great setting for most of the contemporary storyline, and it was very fun to see Gentry manoeuvre his way through the crowded districts and locals.  I also really enjoyed the focus on Pakistani intelligence and the Indian underworld, which proved to be very fascinating.  For example, the fiction criminal group B-Company are clearly based on the infamous real-life D-Company, and it was quite intriguing to see them worked into the story, while also examining their origin and goals of their leadership.  All these cool tradecraft elements and intriguing settings deeply enhanced the overall story, and it made for quite a fascinating and distinctive read.

There was some rather interesting character work going on in Sierra Six as Greaney takes his fantastic protagonist to some very dark places at various points in his timeline.  I really appreciated the dive back into the period before Court Gentry became the Gray Man, and Greaney paints a compelling figure of a habitual loner with no personal attachments only at the beginning of his espionage career.  Watching Gentry join a team and try to play nice with others was a captivating part of the book, and it was fascinating to see the rookie Gentry get rattled by stuff he’ll become much more used to in the future.  Greaney also enhances Gentry’s development by including a curious, but touching, relationship in the earlier timeline, which helped to humanise Gentry a lot.  However, certain tragic elements from this help mould him into the killer we all know and love, and Greaney subtly introduced the ripples from this into the contemporary storyline.  The reader leaves Sierra Six with a much better understanding of this cool character, and I had a great time seeing more of the Gray Man’s past.

Both timelines are filled with an excellent and comprehensive cast of side characters, each of whom add a great deal to the narrative and Gentry’s development in their own way.  While there are a few recurring characters from the previous Gray Man novels, most of the focus are on newer figures, who Greaney provides with compelling and interesting backstories.  I liked how the past and modern-day storylines both featured great female side characters who helped move the story along in their own distinctive ways.  This includes the socially awkward intelligence officer Julie Marquez, from the original Golf Sierra mission, and Indian tech guru Priyanka Bandari, who Gentry is forced to work with after saving her from kidnappers.  Both female characters add to the plot a great deal, and it is fascinating to see events unfold from their eyes, especially as they have diverse life experiences and are also seeing very different versions of the protagonist.  The storylines around both women are written extremely well, and I really appreciated where both went, especially as they both included tragedy, regret and definitive action.  I also must really highlight the use of long-running supporting character Zack Hightower, who was an excellent inclusion in the historical storyline.  Zack is always a great foil to Gentry, and I really enjoyed seeing him interact with the younger, cockier version here, especially as it shows some of the earlier dynamics between them.  Watching Gentry meet his mentor and friend for the first time was great, and I really enjoyed the cool storyline that developed between them and the other members of the Golf Sierra kill team.  All these characters were extremely impressive and I had a brilliant time getting to know them throughout the course of Sierra Six.

While I did receive a paperback version of Sierra Six, I went out of my way to also get this novel on audiobook as I have had some awesome experiences with the Gray Man books in this format before.  This proved to be an excellent decision as the Sierra Six audiobook was amazing, perfectly telling the cool story while enhancing the intriguing tradecraft and action elements.  The Sierra Six audiobook has a run time just short of 16 hours and so requires a bit of a time investment to get through it, although I think this was more than worth it and dedicated listeners should be able to get through rather quickly.  I was also very happy to see that this audiobook once again featured the vocal talents of Jay Snyder, who is one of my favourite audiobook narrators at the moment.  Snyder has a gruff and distinctive voice that fits the harder spy thriller feel of this novel perfectly and drags the listener into the intense tale.  Snyder does a brilliant voice with all the characters featured within, and you get a good sense of their various emotions and feelings, especially during some of the more action-packed sequences.  I had an outstanding time listening to this audiobook and it is an excellent format for anyone interested in trying out this latest Gray Man novel.

The always impressive Mark Greaney has done it again, producing an incredible and exciting new Gray Man novel.  Sierra Six, features a bold and captivating story that cleverly utilises two distinctive timelines to tell its intense and moving tale.  Loaded with fun character, brutal action sequences, and some intriguing espionage moments, this was another outstanding book I had a brilliant time reading.  Sierra Six comes highly recommended from me and I cannot wait to get my hands on the next Greaney book.

Sierra Six Cover 2

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Engines of Empire by R. S. Ford

Engines of Empire Cover

Publisher: Hachette Audio (Audiobook – 18 January 2022)

Series: The Age of Uprising – Book One

Length: 22 hours and 3 minutes

My Rating: 4.25 out of 5 stars

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Bestselling fantasy author R. S. Ford starts off an intriguing and compelling new epic fantasy series with the powerful Engines of Empire, a great read that I had a wonderful time reading.

Ford is an author who has been writing some interesting books in the last few years.  His big works include the Steelhaven and War of the Archons series, both of which have some very intriguing plots.  While I have not had the pleasure of reading any of his previous work, I have heard some great things about his War of the Archons books, and I might have to go back and check it out at some point.  After reading some early positive reviews of Ford’s latest novel, Engines of Empire, I decided to check it out, grabbing an audiobook version, which proved to be extremely good.  This cool book serves as the first entry in Ford’s new The Age of Uprising series and sets the scene for a captivating and exciting new trilogy.

For generations, the nation of Torwyn has been ruled by the Guilds, industrial powerhouses who provide the nation its food, weapons, transportation and invaluable devices that fuse magic with technology.  One of the most prominent Guilds is the Hawkspurs, an ancient and powerful family who have long held the empire together and ensured its position in the world.  However, the current generation of Hawkspurs are about to find that everything they thought they knew is about to change.

As the matriarch of the family, Rosomon Hawkspur, attempts to maintain her family’s status and standing in Torwyn’s capital, the Anvil, her children each head off to find their own destinies.  The oldest son, Conall, departs to the empire’s distant frontier to prove his worth as a military commander.  The rebellious and magical Hawkspur daughter, Tyreta, is sent to an important imperial holding to facilitate her training as the future head of the family business.  The youngest son, Fulren, a talented artificer, finds himself involved in foreign politics when he is tasked with guiding an emissary from a powerful rival nation.

However, forces of chaos, fanaticism and destruction are all around them, and soon all the Hawkspurs are placed in mortal danger.  At the frontier, Conall attempts to prove himself, but only finds rejection and hints at a rising evil.  Tyreta’s reckless actions place her in mortal danger, and her only path to salvation lies in understanding the people her nation has hurt the most.  Back in the Anvil, Fulren is framed for murder and is soon banished to a hostile foreign nation ruled by dark gods.  Rosomon, desperate to save her fractured family, finds herself thrust into the middle treachery and dark revolution, as unseen hands plot against the guilds.  As the entirety of the world changes all around them and dangerous forces reveal themselves, can the Hawkspurs endure, or will they, and the entirety of Torwyn, come to utter ruin?

Engines of Empire was a captivating and entertaining fantasy epic that transports the reader to intricate new world, filled with interesting characters, political intrigue, and intense action, and makes for an excellent and exciting read.

At the centre of Engines of Empire is a massive and complex narrative that fully explores the various main characters while also plunging the intriguing new setting into chaos and anarchy.  Ford utilises a great multiple perspective storytelling device that splits the overall book into some compelling, separate chunks.  The story initially has four distinctive storylines that follow the Hawkspur family members as they go off on their own separate adventures.  This results in an interesting blend of plotlines as you have a more military story with Conall, a survival/adventure storyline with Tyreta, Rosomon’s political intrigue narrative, and Fulren’s life-or-death struggle in a foreign land.  These storylines are mostly unconnected to each other and not only allow the point of view protagonists to grow and develop independently with their own group of supporting characters, but it also ensures that the reader gets to explore various aspects of the new fantasy realm and see the range of different problems affecting it.  These four storylines develop at a reasonable and compelling pace, and the reader soon is drawn into their individual storylines, as well as some of the overlapping conspiracies that are featured throughout.  A fifth point-of-view character is introduced about halfway through the novel, which mainly acts to bolster one of the existing storylines and proves to be an excellent feature filled with action and espionage.  This leads to the final stretch of the novel, where several big events and twists occur that shake the foundation of the novel and take it in an excellent new direction.  Several of the separate plot lines start to come together more closely towards the end, and there are some excellent moments as the characters reunite to face a common foe.  This leads to an exciting and intense conclusion that takes several of the character storylines in interesting direction and sets up the rest of the trilogy extremely well.

I really liked how Engines of Empire came together as Ford wrote an excellent fantasy tale that made sure to cover a vast range of people and places.  The entirety of Engines of Empire has a great combination of story elements that ensures there is something for all sorts of readers here, including massive world building, great action, clever political intrigue, dangerous adventures or interesting characters.  I particularly enjoyed the great use of five character driven storylines centred on different point-of-view protagonists.  Not only did they come together well to produce a great overall narrative but they also provided the reader with several unique adventures with their own appeal.  I particularly enjoyed Fulren’s story, as it featured an excellent blend of interesting world building in a rival nation ruled by dark magic and impressive character moments.  Tyreta’s jungle-based survival mission was also really cool, especially with the intriguing side characters and brutal combat, while the fifth storyline introduced halfway through the book was filled with some amazing sequences and intriguing international espionage.  Unfortunately, the remaining two storylines surrounding Rosomon and Conall were a little slower and I didn’t have as much fun reading them, even with their respective political intrigue and desert action elements.  I struggled a little to get through these specific storylines at times, especially towards the centre of the novel, and it slowed down my overall reading of Engines of Empire.  Still, both storylines end on interesting notes, and I think they might have more potential in the sequel.

Due to the narrative being focused on five specific central characters, Ford spends a lot of time in Engines of Empire exploring and building up some of the characters.  The main protagonists are the four members of the Hawkspur family, Rosomon, Conall, Tyreta and Fulren, each of whom have their own skill.  Due to certain tragedies in their past, the family is a bit dysfunctional, and there is a noticeable distance between them.  I liked seeing each of them go on their own distinctive journey throughout the book, and each of them does develop to a degree, especially Fulren and Tyreta.  However, I did find myself getting rather frustrated with some of the protagonists as the book continued, especially as there is a lot of narrative stupidity and inconsistent character work.  This is particularly true for Conall, who comes across as a whiney idiot for most of the novel, while Rosomon, who is supposed to be a brilliant leader and tactician, is soundly outsmarted at every turn and can’t even see the most obvious of traps.  I felt these negative character traits deeply impacted their individual storylines, and it made them harder to care for.  On the other hand, I felt the fifth point-of-view character, Lancelin Jagdor, rounded out the main cast extremely well.  Lancelin is a master swordsman who has a very complicated relationship with the Hawkspurs.  He finds himself getting dragged into their issues about halfway through the book, and I think his interesting outlook and unique experiences help to balance out the less enjoyable protagonists and produce a better story.

Aside from these five main protagonists, Ford has also included a great collection of supporting characters.  These supporting characters are usually unique to one of the main protagonists’ storylines and are primarily shown through their eyes.  Many of these characters prove to be allies or friends of the protagonist, although there are a few good antagonists thrown in there as well.  Some of my favourites include Sted, Conall’s hard-drinking second in command, whose fun, no nonsense personality helps to enhance Conall’s storyline to a degree.  I also had fun with Kosma Khonos, a ruthless Torwyn spy in the kingdom of Nyrakkis, Saranor the Bleeder, an over-the-top barbarian war chief, and Wenis, a foreign witch who becomes both a jailor and love interest to Fulren, which ends up being one of the more interesting relationships in the entire novel.  This huge web of supporting characters really helps to enhance the overall story and I look forward to seeing some of these elaborate and distinctive figures again in the future.

I was deeply impressed with the amazing new fantasy world featured in Engines of Empire, and it appears that Ford spent a significant amount of time developing it.  The main setting for the novel is the fascinating nation of Torwyn, a former religious nation that has been taken over by the Guilds, industrial powerhouses who now hold sway over the various industries.  Torwyn is built up beautifully by Ford, and you soon get the full sense of it, including its intriguing industrial aspects, magic-powered technology, dragon-based religion, and ruthless politics.  The arrangement of Torwyn leads to an intense civil war that looks set to shape the future of much of the novel and serves as a brutal and fantastic central setting for several storylines.  While Torwyn proves to be an exceptional area to explore, Ford goes above and beyond and takes the reader to several other intriguing locations within and without it.  Thanks to the adventurous characters, you see some of the more desolate and dangerous locations in the lands, such as the jungle-covered Sundered Isles, the war riven frontier, the snow-covered, barbarian-infested Huntan Reach, and the magical controlled nation of Nyrakkis.  While all these locations were pretty cool, I particularly loved the dive into Nyrakkis, which proved to be a very intricate location filled with intrigue and demonic magic.  The jungles of the Sundered Isles were also extremely awesome, and Ford provides an interesting examination of the tribes who were displaced by the Torwyn settlers, especially as Tyreta spends time amongst them and getting to know their culture.  Throw in an interesting blend of different magical practices and technologies, as well as a few fun creatures (giant war eagles and beast men for the win), and you have an extremely awesome world that I can’t wait to return to in the future books.

I ended up grabbing the audiobook version of Engines of Empire, which ended up being a very enjoyable experience.  With a run time of just over 22 hours, this is a pretty substantial audiobook (it would have come in at number 18 on my Top Ten Longest Audiobooks list), and it did take a fair bit of effort to get through, especially in some of the slower parts of the story.  Despite its length, I think that it is worth the time to get through this audiobook, especially as it proves to be an excellent way to absorb Engines of Empire’s story.  I always find myself really connecting more to new fantasy settings and characters in this format, and this happened again with Engines of Empire, as I really found myself absorbing all the interesting details about this world.  I also loved how the Engines of Empire audiobook had several different narrators including Alison Campbell, Ciaran Saward, Phoebe McIntosh, Ewan Goddard, Andrew Kingston, Martin Reeve and Stephen Perry.  These narrators provide a rich and powerful audible tapestry, with one narrator assigned to voice all the chapters told from the perspective of a specific point-of-view character.  Not only do the narrators do a good job capturing the personalities of the main characters they are portraying but they also provide some fun voices for the various supporting figures and antagonists.  While it is occasionally odd to hear a narrator start voicing a character who had appeared in other chapters, this ended being a great collection of voices and I loved how well they all brought the characters to life.  An overall excellent audiobook, I would strongly recommend this format to anyone who wants to check out Engines of Empire and I had a brilliant time listening to it.

I have to say that I was quite impressed with my first book from R. S. Ford.  Engines of Empire was an excellent read that takes the reader on an epic fantasy adventure.  Making awesome use of a big cast of characters, Ford transports his audience to a brilliant and elaborate fantasy realm filled with adventure, intrigue and betrayal.  I had an amazing time getting throughout Ford’s captivating narrative, and I loved the exception world building that he did.  While I didn’t enjoy all of the characters, Engines of Empire ended up being an outstanding read that does a wonderful job setting up his next The Age of Uprising novel.  A great fantasy novel that is really worth checking out, especially in its audiobook format.

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Quick Review – Resistance by Mara Timon

Resistance Cover

Publisher: Zaffre (Trade Paperback – 30 November 2021)

Series: City of Spies – Book Two

Length: 416 pages

My Rating: 4.25 out of 5 stars

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Prepare to dive into the intricacies of World War II espionage with a second fantastic historical thriller from Mara Timon, Resistance.

Timon is a brilliant author who debuted in 2020 with her intriguing novel, City of Spies, which followed a British agent sent to infiltrate neutral Portugal and encounter all manner of dangers and deceit.  Timon has now followed up this impressive debut with an intriguing sequel, Resistance, which follows the protagonist of City of Spies as she is sent to German-occupied Normandy days before the Allies invade.

Synopsis:

Three women. One mission. Enemies everywhere.

May 1944. When spy Elisabeth de Mornay, code name Cécile, notices a coded transmission from an agent in the field does not bear his usual signature, she suspects his cover has been blown– something that is happening with increasing frequency. With the situation in Occupied France worsening and growing fears that the Resistance has been compromised, Cécile is ordered behind enemy lines.

Having rendezvoused with her fellow agents, Léonie and Dominique, together they have one mission: help the Resistance destabilise German operations to pave the way for the Normandy landings.

But the life of a spy is never straightforward, and the in-fighting within the Resistance makes knowing who to trust ever more difficult. With their lives on the line, all three women will have to make decisions that could cost them everything – for not all their enemies are German.


Resistance
was an impressive and clever historical spy thriller that proves to be extremely addictive and exciting.  Set several months after the events of City of Spies, Resistance sees the protagonist and point-of-view character Elisabeth sent to infiltrate occupied Normandy under a new cover identity to assist the local French Resistance as a wireless operator.  Simultaneously gathering intelligence and investigating a potential mole in the French organisation, Elisabeth works with several other female spies in the area and is forced to contend with traitors, radicals and the Gestapo.  This story gets even more intense the further it goes, not only because a figure from the protagonist’s past comes into the picture and complicates events, but because the last third of the novel features the D-Day landings at the nearby Normandy beaches.  This forces the protagonist and her friends to encounter several attacks and betrayals amid the chaos of invasion and it leads to an incredibly exciting and captivating final section that is honestly impossible to put down.  While I did think that a couple of character arcs were a bit underdeveloped and unnecessary to the plot, this was an overall epic story and I really appreciated the complex and powerful narrative that Timon came up with.

I felt that new readers could easily get into Resistance with having read the preceding novel City of Spies.  Timon does an excellent job of explaining all the key events of the first novel, and readers are quickly informed of everything that would impact that plot of this sequel.  That said, fans of City of Spies will find this to be a pretty good sequel as several intriguing storylines are continued throughout the plot of the book.  Not only do key characters make significant reappearances but you also have a continuation of the fantastic romantic arc between Elisabeth and German officer Eduard Graf, who got married in the first novel.  Despite being an unusual relationship, this was an excellent storyline to continue and it was great to see the two interesting characters continue their forbidden love in the midst of war and intrigue, especially as both have major secrets (one is a spy, the other is planning to assassinate Hitler; it’s complicated) and are trying not to expose each other to their enemies.  I will be really intrigued to see where this series goes next, especially if Elisabeth is dropped into Germany either during Operation Valkyrie or the dying days of the war

One of the things that I most liked about Resistance was how this book ended up being a particularly solid and compelling historical thriller that emphasised its gritty and realistic spy elements.  Timon strives to strongly emphasise all the historical espionage aspects of the plot, and it was fascinating to see all the cool details about spy craft and being an undercover radio operator.  There was also a great focus on the abilities of Britain’s legendary female operatives, and Timon ensured that this book felt as realistic and compelling as possible.  Throw in some cool historical characters, such as members of the SOE and key German soldiers, like Erwin Rommel, and you have a particularly good historical thriller that was a lot of fun to explore.

With her second book, Resistance, impressive author Mara Timon continues to shine as a bright new figure in the historical thriller genre.  Perfectly combining realistic espionage elements with an iconic and dangerous historical setting, Resistance serves as an excellent sequel to Timon’s debut, City of Spies, and proves to be extremely addictive and compelling.  An awesome and highly recommended read.

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The Apollo Murders by Chris Hadfield

The Apollo Murders Cover

Publisher: Quercus/Hachette Audio (Audiobook – 12 October 2021)

Series: Standalone/Book One

Length: 15 hours and 14 minutes

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

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Prepare for one of the most impressive and complex debuts of 2021, with the exciting alternate history science fiction thriller, The Apollo Murders, by former astronaut Chris Hadfield.

In 1973, former test pilot turned government liaison officer Kazimieras “Kaz” Zemeckis arrives at Huston to supervise NASA’s latest voyage into space for their 18th Apollo mission.  On paper, NASA plans to send three astronauts to the moon, seemingly on a scientific expedition.  However, Kaz is also under orders to prepare the military astronauts on board for a covert operation to investigate the Russians’ recent rover mission to the moon as well as a secret spy satellite orbiting Earth that could give the Soviets an invaluable advantage in the Cold War.

As the crew prepares for their mission, tragedy strikes when a helicopter crash results in the death of one of the astronauts.  Forced to take on a new crew member at the last minute, the team launches and begins to make for their primary mission, the spy satellite.  However, the Americans are unprepared for the satellite to be manned by Russian cosmonauts determined to defend their station.  The encounter results in a terrible accident and a cosmonaut being trapped aboard the Apollo craft as it hurtles towards the moon.

As the American and Soviet governments argue over the unfortunate events, the Apollo crew attempt to undertake a moon landing with limited crew and resources.  Forced to work together with their Russian stowaway, the crew begins to descend towards the moon on an apparent joint venture.  However, back on Earth, the Soviet government is determined to turn this to their advantage by any means necessary, even if it means utilising a long-hidden intelligence asset.  Worse, it soon becomes clear that the helicopter crash that killed one of the astronauts was no accident.  Forced to contend with the knowledge that an Apollo astronaut in space might be a murderous saboteur with nothing to lose, Kaz and the flight team at Huston can only watch helplessly as events unfold and the future of space travel is changed forever.

This was a pretty impressive debut from Chris Hadfield, who really showed a lot of talent in this book.  Hadfield, a former astronaut known for his excellent rendition of ‘Space Oddity‘ filmed aboard the ISS, was able to construct a compelling and fast-paced novel with an amazing story to it.  Combining detailed science with a complex alternate history thriller, The Apollo Murders ended up being an excellent and powerful read that I deeply enjoyed.

At the heart of this novel lies a captivating and multilayered narrative surrounding a doomed mission into space.  Set in the 1970s during the golden age of spaceflight, The Apollo Murders follows a fictional 18th Apollo mission that goes very differently than intended, with fantastic espionage thriller elements combining with the science and historical fiction storyline.  Told from a huge range of different perspectives, this book initially focuses on the planning for an Apollo flight, which intends to both explore the moon and disable a Soviet spy satellite.  However, the story takes a turn when one of the astronauts is killed, and from there the story ramps up as the astronauts blast off into space while the other characters, both American and Russian, attempt to follow them while also conducting their own investigations and espionage missions.  The novel has an explosive middle, in which the American and Soviet astronauts encounter each other in space with disastrous results.  The consequences of this encounter lead into an epic second half filled with lies, deceit, sabotage and backstabbing, as two characters in space attempt to manipulate the situation to their advantage, while everyone on the ground, including Kaz, the astronauts, mission control, the Russians and a variety of other characters try to influence what is happening.  This all builds to one hell of a conclusion, with interesting consequences for several of the characters, and one surprise after another.

I really enjoyed this cool story, and I loved the fun blend of genres that Hadfield featured throughout it.  On paper, a thriller and murder mystery set around a fictional historical space flight seems a bit too complex for its own good, but Hadfield made it work, and the story is crisp and easy to follow, with none of the component parts overwhelming any of the others.  The reader is swiftly drawn into the story and it was fun to see everything unfold, especially as Hadfield ensures that you can see all the various angles and treacheries as they occur.  The author made excellent use of multiple character perspectives to tell a rich and captivating story, and it was extremely fun to see how the various characters viewed the situation and reacted to certain events.  Each of the characters featured in this novel is set up extremely well, and the reader quickly get to see their unique personalities, history and motivations surrounding the events of this book, which makes them extremely relatable and easily to follow.  While the identity of the person responsible for the murder at the start of the novel was a tad obvious, Hadfield uses this to its full advantage, helping to establish the book’s main antagonist, turning him into quite an arrogant and unlikable figure whom the reader really starts to root against.  It was really fascinating to see all the various character arcs and storylines come full circle by the end of the narrative, and The Apollo Murders ended up being a brilliant and compelling self-contained novel.

Easily one of the best things about The Apollo Murders was the incredible amount of detail about space flight and the science of space featured within.  Throughout the narrative, Hadfield spends an amazing amount of time explaining all the relevant science and technology that is relevant to the plot as the protagonists encounter it.  At the same time, the author also features a ton of relevant anecdotes or discussion about the history of spaceflight up to this point, which often serves to highlight the scientific information being provided at the same time.  All of this is worked into the plot extremely well, and the reader is soon given insight into what the characters are doing and the significance of their actions.  While all this information had the potential to be extremely overwhelming, Hadfield manages to dole it out in appropriate snippets, ensuring that there is never too much science or history in one scene, only enough for the reader to follow what happens.  This information is usually very easy to follow, and Hadfield’s writing style ensures that all the relevant facts are explained appropriately as the reader requires.  As such, the reader is never left confused at any point, and it leaves them open to enjoy some of the epic scenes.  I really must highlight some of the great spaceflight sequences featured throughout this book, including some of the epic take-off and landing scenes.  Hadfield really paints a beautiful picture here with his writing, and the reader gets a detailed understanding of every element of the flight and what the astronaut characters are experiencing or attempting to do.  These spaceflight elements are extremely well written, and I really must commend Hadfield for the work he put into making them seem as realistic and accurate as possible.

I must also highlight the great historical elements featured in this novel.  I rather expected this to be one of the weaker spots of the book, especially with so much focus on the spaceflight or the thriller parts of the book.  Instead, the reader is treated to a detailed and compelling discussion about the state of the world in the 1970s, especially surrounding the Cold War and the capabilities of both America and the Soviet Union.  A lot of this history relates to space travel, which is probably why Hadfield knows so much about it, and he uses it to great effect throughout the novel, giving the story an appropriate feel.  However, Hadfield also takes the time to examine the competing nations of America and the Soviet Union, and there are some brilliant scenes set in both, especially when it comes to the covert geopolitical battle occurring between them.  Hadfield portrays this period perfectly, and I especially liked his great use of multiple real historical characters, including politicians, NASA flight crew, espionage heads and even a few famous astronauts such as Alan Shepard, all of whom played vital roles in fleshing out the espionage elements of the plot.  While a lot of this book is based on historical events and facts, it is set around a fictional 18th Apollo mission.  This alternate history element is a fun part of the book, and I really appreciated the way in which Hadfield tried to envision how the various governments would react to such as disastrous mission to the moon.  I feel that Hadfield captured the political and social elements of this period extremely well, and I really appreciated this examination into history, especially as it combined with the thriller and space faring elements of the book extremely well to produce an outstanding and compelling narrative.

While I did receive a physical copy of The Apollo Murders, I was unable to resist the audiobook version, which proved to be really impressive.  With a run time of just over 15 hours, I was able to power through this audiobook quickly, especially once I got engrossed in the cool story.  I felt that the audiobook format was very conducive to following the various scientific elements featured throughout the novel, and I had a wonderful time imagining the elaborate space manoeuvres brought to life by the narration.  However, the main reason that I wanted to listen to this book was due to its narrator, Ray Porter.  Porter is one of the best audiobook narrators in the world today, and I am a big fan of his voice work in the thrillers of Jonathan Maberry (such as Code Zero, Deep Silence, Rage, Relentless and Ink).  Porter ended up providing an excellent narration for The Apollo Murders, with each of the various characters presented with a compelling and fitting voice that fit their personalities and nationalities.  While it was a bit weird in places to hear a voice from one of the other books I have heard him narrate, Porter was able to produce an excellent flow throughout The Apollo Murders, and the story swiftly moved across at a great pace.  This ended up being an excellent way to enjoy this novel and I would strongly recommend checking out this audiobook version of The Apollo Murders.

The Apollo Murders is a brilliant and powerful literary debut from former astronaut Chris Hadfield, who blew me away with this amazing first novel.  The Apollo Murders contains a fantastic and complex story that blends several genres into an exciting and clever read that takes the reader on a wild and thrilling adventure into space.  Featuring a deeply fascinating look at historical space flights and based around a fictional 18th Apollo mission, The Apollo Murders was one of the best debuts of 2021 and I had a fantastic time listening to it.  This is a great novel to check out and I cannot wait to see what Hadfield writes next.

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Enemy at the Gates by Kyle Mills (based on the series by Vince Flynn)

Enemy at the Gates Cover

Publisher: Simon & Schuster Audio (Audiobook – 14 September 2021)

Series: Mitch Rapp – Book 20

Length: 8 hours and 36 minutes

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

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Ready for another down-and-dirty spy thriller with America’s most violent secret agent, then make sure to grab a copy of the 20th book in the bestselling Mitch Rapp series, Enemy at the Gates, by the series’ current author Kyle Mills.

One of the most consistently entertaining thriller series of the last few years has been the long-running Mitch Rapp series.  The Mitch Rapp series is an iconic collection of thriller novels originally written by author Vince Flynn, and more recently by Kyle Mills, who took over the series after Flynn’s death.  Mills has been doing an outstanding job with this series, and I have had an incredible time with some of his recent books, including Red War, Lethal Agent and Total Power.  Now, 22 years after Mitch Rapp’s first appearance in Transfer of Power, the 20th book in the series, Enemy at the Gates, has been released, and it was another dark and compelling novel with an awesome story.

Following the resolution of a coordinated terrorist attack aimed at taking down America’s entire power infrastructure, the lights are finally back on across America, and the country seems ready to return to its usual problems.  A new president, Anthony Cook, has been installed in the White House, and many believe that he has the potential to turn the country around.  However, the old guard of American intelligence, CIA Director Irene Kennedy and legendary agent Mitch Rapp, believe that there are dangerous ulterior motives behind many of Cook’s actions.

In Uganda, a high-tech research facility belonging to the world’s first trillionaire, Nick Ward, is attacked by a dangerous and deranged warlord, aiming to capture and ransom the lab’s brilliant head scientist.  Ward, the richest man on the planet, claims to want to make the world a better place, and the research being undertaken by his Ugandan team is rumoured to have the potential to save billions of lives.  Determined to save his people and against the wishes of President Cook, Ward hires Rapp and his friend Scott Coleman to recover his scientist before it is too late.  However, their desperate battle in the jungle soon turns out to be the least of their problems.

As Rapp and Coleman brave the skilled militia in the jungle, a mysterious mole has managed to infiltrate the CIA’s secure computer network, stealing data on Nick Ward and his current security arrangements.  To keep Ward safe and to flush out the source of the leak, Kennedy instructs Rapp to stay close to Ward, just in case.  However, following a vicious and coordinated attack, it soon becomes clear that some very powerful people are determined to kill Ward at any cost.  With all intelligence and communications with their usual sources in the CIA potentially compromised by the mole, Rapp and his team embark on an elaborate scheme to flush the true architects of the attacks out.  But what happens when their plan puts them right in the cross of the ambitious new president who is determined to shape the chaotic world no matter the cost?

This was a high-intensity, action-packed thriller from Mills, who has produced another awesome and fun read.  Enemy at the Gates contains a great narrative that sees its aging but deadly protagonist caught between the very powerful forces of the world’s richest man and the President of the United States.  This is a very fast-paced story, with Mills quickly introducing the new characters, mainly Nick Ward and President Chisholm, as well as some of their key allies, and showcases the first stages of the president’s proxy war against Ward.  From there, Mitch Rapp and his team are drawn into the conflict on Ward’s side, thanks to CIA director Irene Kennedy, resulting in a fun dust-up in the jungle.  The story quickly moves on from there, forcing Rapp to face off against a crazed Ugandan warlord while also trying to uncover the mole in the CIA.  This is an extremely fun story, with the story moving at a very quick and entertaining pace.  Mills writes a great espionage story, and I loved the usage of tradecraft, over-the-top action and general dislike of politicians throughout the story.  The author introduces a couple of great twists, especially around the identity of the mole, and it was excellent to see Rapp and his allies forced to deal with a crooked United States President.  There is a ton of intensely violent scenes throughout this novel, and readers should be prepared for a couple of torture sequences and somewhat disturbing methods of killing (let us just say there is a strategically placed explosive).  Just like all the previous Mitch Rapp novels, Enemy at the Gates is an easy book to enjoy, even for readers unfamiliar with the series.

One of the things I have enjoyed about Mills’s Mitch Rapp novels is the unique insights that the characters have about the world and the United States, and Enemy at the Gates is no exception.  Most of the characters in this novel have been engaged in the political or espionage game for a long time, and all of them share a similar, cynical view about the state of America and its potential future.  While you would mostly expect an ultra-positive American outlook from this sort of thriller novel, Mills apparently has a pretty grim view of the future, which is reiterated multiple times throughout the book.  Making references to a lot of recent events and political schisms, the characters in this novel envision a future filled with increased factionalism, chaos, and political uncertainty, with many of these characters subsequently wondering how they will fit into such a potentially destructive future.  This grim and surprisingly honest viewpoint from Mills sets the stage for the major conflict of this novel, with the president attempting to kill the richest man on the planet, who may be the best chance of saving America.  It was certainly very fascinating to see the author’s views on the role of the uber-rich and corporations will have on the power structure in the future, and the introduction of a trillionaire philanthropist, certainly changed the scales around.  All this political introspection gives Enemy at the Gates an extremely dark and brooding feeling to it, especially as most of the characters full accept this reality and are just waiting for the other shoe to drop.  I personally found Mills’s views to be extremely fascinating and particularly realistic, and I think that he did a great job working them into the narrative and highlighting the impact these opinions could have on modern espionage and world events.

This was another interesting book for protagonist Mitch Rapp, the legendary spy feared throughout the world, especially by all rival intelligence operatives.  Rapp continues to show off his credentials as a genuine badass in this novel, and I liked the fun storylines around the spy getting older and being forced to reconsider his methods and techniques.  It was interesting to see Rapp more on the outs with the American intelligence community in this novel; with the new president in power, he is forced to use some alternative means to complete his missions.  The author also introduces a few interesting storylines in Enemy at the Gates that examine Rapp strongly considering retiring.  This allows the author to include a few emotionally rich scenes of Rapp attempting to settle into the quiet life with his family.  However, despite his best efforts, he is eventually dragged back into the game by a new employer and some old friends.  I liked these inclusions of the character’s personal life, and it was great to see him as a more conflicted figure.  Despite all that, nothing can really disguise the fact that Rapp is a raging psychopath, even for a spy thriller protagonist, whose complete disregard for human life results in some major violence and natural fear and hatred from his enemies.  While this does result in some entertaining moments, it is a bit hard to root for Rapp at times, which does slightly lessen the impact of some of the storylines.  Still, Rapp is a fun character to follow, and it will be intriguing to see what happens to him and his family in the future.

Just like I have with the last few Mitch Rapp novels, I chose to grab a copy of Enemy of the Gates in its audiobook format.  I must admit that the Mitch Rapp audiobooks, which are narrated by George Guidall, are not my absolute favourite audiobooks out there, but with a run time of just eight hours and 36 minutes, it was a quick way to enjoy Enemy at the Gates, which I managed to do in only a couple of days.  Guidall, who has narrated hundreds of audiobooks throughout his career, has his own unique voice for these novels, with a lot of gravitas and cynicism, which helps translate the story extremely well, although he does sound a bit tired as he narrates, and he really does not try to vary his voice too much to distinguish between the various characters featured in the book.  While I was never uncertain who was talking thanks to Mills’s writing, I do think that Guidall could make a little effort to make his narration a little more passionate and his voices a little more distinctive.  Still, this is a fine way to enjoy this novel, and I did have fun getting through Enemy at the Gates.  Despite some of my concerns about Guidall’s performance, I will probably enjoy the audiobook version of the next Mitch Rapp novel in 2022.

After 20 intense books, the Mitch Rapp continues to reign supreme as one of the most entertaining and captivating spy thriller series currently in print.  This latest novel, Enemy at the Gates by Kyle Mills, is a fantastic addition to the series which sets the violent, titular protagonist on another action-packed adventure, this time diving deep into the political and social spectrum of America.  I had an absolute blast listening to this awesome novel and Enemy at the Gates is a great book to check out if you are in the mood for a fun and exciting read.  An overall very fun story that does a great job of continuing this long running series, while also leaving behind a few interesting storylines for later books.

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The Man Who Died Twice by Richard Osman

The Man Who Died Twice Cover

Publisher: Viking/Penguin Audio (Audiobook – 14 September 2021)

Series: The Thursday Murder Club – Book Two

Length: 12 hours and 30 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

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Following on from his epic crime fiction debut last year, writer and television personality Richard Osman presents the second book in his Thursday Murder Club series, The Man Who Died Twice.

Richard Osman is an awesome comedic talent and personality who I have enjoyed for many years on Pointless, Would I Lie to You and other fun British panel shows.  Known for his clever wit and immense height, Osman has a great sense of humour, and I was pretty excited last year when I saw that he had written a crime fiction novel, The Thursday Murder Club, which followed a group of true crime loving retirees who investigated a nearby murder.  While I knew I was likely to have a great time reading The Thursday Murder Club, I was truly blown away and it ended up being one of the best books, audiobooks and debuts I enjoyed in 2020.  Due to this, and the fact that my review for The Thursday Murder Club received a lot of attention this year, I have been really looking forward to reading the sequel for some time and I was very excited when details about The Man Who Died Twice were finally revealed.  This awesome sequel was one of my most anticipated releases for 2021 and it did not disappoint, presenting another clever and impressive character driven mystery.

Welcome back to Coopers Chase, the sprawling aged-care community near the town of Fairhaven, England, where peace and serenity is guaranteed for all its residents, aside from the thrill-seeking members of the Thursday Murder Club, a small group of friends who spend their Thursdays investigating cold cases and gruesome murders.  Made up of the intrepid Elizabeth, Joyce, Ibrahim and Ron, the Thursday Murder club has already had great success solving the murder of the previous owner of Coopers Chase, and they are now looking for their next batch of excitement.

Their wish appears to be granted when former spy Elizabeth receives a letter from a man she thought was dead, her former colleague and ex-husband, Douglas Middlemiss.  Douglas has recently run afoul of a dangerous English mobster and an international criminal cartel after stealing a bag of valuable diamonds and securing them in a secret hiding place.  Reluctantly put into witness protection by MI5, Douglas is keeping a low profile in Coopers Chase while he plans his escape and new life in retirement.  But when an assassin breaks into his flat and tries to kill him, Douglas turns to Elizabeth for help. 

Rallying the Thursday Murder Club to her side, Elizabeth attempts to figure out which of Douglas’s enemies is trying to take him out and who knew he was hiding at Coopers Chase.  But when tragedy strikes and an unknown enemy appears to have made off with the diamonds, everything seems lost.  But this opponent is unprepared for just how relentless the Thursday Murder Club can be, as Elizabeth and her friends put an ambitious plan in place.  However, this time the Thursday Murder Club aren’t just going after a killer; now they are facing down hardened criminals and assassins with a substantially less compunction about killing senior citizens.  Will the Thursday Murder Club once again solve the unsolvable, or will this be their final case?

Wow, this was amazing novel from Osman that I had an outstanding time getting through.  Featuring another epic and captivating mystery set around a fun group of characters, and featuring Osman’s amazing subtle humour, The Man Who Died Twice was an excellent read that I powered through in a few short days, and which gets another five-star rating from me.

The Man Who Died Twice has an impressive and deeply compelling character driven narrative that follows its various protagonists as they attempt to unravel the compelling case of the twice murdered man and the stolen diamonds.  This second entry in the Thursday Murder Club series can easily be enjoyed as a standalone read, although fans of the first book will no doubt have an amazing time seeing how the various characters continue to progress throughout this second book.  Osman beautifully utilises multiple character perspectives to tell several fantastic stories throughout the book, with the protagonists also involved in several personal battles, as well as attempting to bring down a local crime lord and a vicious young thug.  All of these storylines are chock full of mystery, humour, emotion and personal tragedy, as the protagonists work through the issues and challenges in their own unique ways.  The author balances all the storylines perfectly throughout the novel, eventually producing a clever and very entertaining conclusion.  I loved how the entire narrative came together, and there are some very amusing and compelling moments featured throughout.  Thanks to Osman’s ability to provide a great wrap-up to a story, the readers are left feeling incredibly satisfied and happy, especially after every single twist and bit of character development is revealed.  Combine that with Osman’s subtle sense of humour, mostly relating to the more outrageous situations these unlikely heroes casually wander in and out of, as well as some amusing jokes about being out of touch, and the barrage of references to British pop culture, and you have a very entertaining and addictive story that proves near impossible to put down.

I really enjoyed the central mystery of The Man Who Died Twice as the Thursday Murder Club and their associates are drawn into the case of Elizabeth’s ex-husband, a MI5 agent who has stolen a bunch of diamonds from a crime lord and is now avoiding assassins in the Coopers Chase retirement community.  While the initial hunt is for the location of the hidden diamonds, it soon morphs into another murder when a mysterious killer gets too close to the prize.  This is a very interesting and well-crafted mystery, and I loved how Osman moved away from more traditional murder and into the world of espionage and international crime.  To help solve this crime, the Club are forced to work with MI5 agents and soon find themselves investigating an influential criminal middleman with ties to the Mafia, who are hunting for the diamonds.  However, the nature of the crime also suggests an inside job, and the Club are forced to investigate friends and supposed allies to figure out who is responsible.  I had a great time with this mystery, and I loved the clever misdirection and various suspects that Osman featured throughout the plot.  I was able to pick up one of the twists pretty early in, but the full scope of the conspiracy was a lot more complex than I realised, with some additional unexpected reveals that I didn’t see coming.  I deeply enjoyed the elaborate and entertaining final plan utilised by the protagonists to entrap their opponents, especially when it ends in such a comical and amusing manner.  An overall compelling and fantastic mystery, I cannot wait to see what intriguing case appears in the next book.

You can’t talk about a Thursday Murder Club novel without mentioning the outstanding and loveable characters the story is formed around.  The Man Who Died Twice follows an intriguing and eclectic mix of characters as they find themselves caught up in the events of the latest mystery.  Osman spent a great deal of time in the previous novel introducing these fantastic characters and ensuring that the reader would fall in love with them.  This enjoyment for the characters continues in The Man Who Died Twice, as each character continues to evolve, with some excellent new details revealed about them.  Osman really does a good job of utilising each of these character perspectives in the novel, and I really appreciated the way in which the tone subtly changes for each of the characters.

The main characters of this book are the two female members of the Thursday Murder Club, Elizabeth and Joyce, who have some excellent moments in this latest novel.  The first of these is Elizabeth, the former spy and investigator who is now retired and has formed the Club to keep her mind busy.  Elizabeth gets a lot of attention in this novel as the story focuses on her prior relationship with Douglas, which also examines her career in espionage.  Elizabeth is a great protagonist to follow, mainly because she is bold schemer even now as an old woman.  I always have a fun time seeing her manipulating and outsmarting everyone she comes across, especially now that most of the other characters know her game but still can’t help falling into her webs.  While there is a lot of focus on her abilities and unerring talent for danger and deception, you also get a good look at her somewhat tragic personal life.  Not only is she impacted by the return of Douglas, which raises a lot of memories from her past, but she is also still trying to hold onto her current husband, Stephen, who is suffering from dementia.  I really appreciated the complex storylines around Elizabeth, and I appreciated the way in which Osman did an intriguing dive into her past.

Joyce on the other hand is a pleasant and friendly former nurse who was the last member of the gang to join the Club.  Joyce seems like your typical, well-intentioned older lady, and I am sure that many readers will see a lot of parallels between her and their own parents or grandmothers.  However, Joyce is a brilliant thinker who uses her brain and her friendly personality to make everyone like her and then help her out.  Joyce forms a fantastic partnership with Elizabeth, and the two make an effective double team, with Joyce’s more subtle tactics and insights combining well with Elizabeth’s more direct approach.  It is a lot of fun to see Joyce investigating these brutal crimes, especially as she picks up on just as much, if not more, than the experienced spy Elizabeth.  I also really appreciate the way in which Joyce’s chapters are written, with her point-of-view shown in a series of diary entries.  This different storytelling technique helps Joyce stand out as a protagonist, especially as it highlights her entertaining personality, including the revelations and observations she has about modern technology and younger people (I had so many chuckles at her forays on Instagram).

The male members of the Thursday Murder Club are Ibrahim and Ron,  who are a little underutilised compared to Elizabeth and Joyce in this novel, but they both get their intriguing storylines which were really well-written and compelling.  This is particularly true for Ibrahim, the group’s shy intellectual, who is forced to deal with a brutal physical attack from a young criminal at the start of the book, a scene which really hit me hard due to how much I got to know this harmless character during the first book.  This attack leaves Ibrahim scarred mentally as well as physically, and he spends the rest of the novel feeling quite afraid and unwilling to leave Coopers Chase.  Osman does some deep and emotional character work on Ibrahim here, and readers end up getting quite invested in his recovery as well as his intense mental journey.  This attack on Ibrahim is also the primary catalyst for Ron’s storyline, which probably gets the least amount of attention out of all the main characters.  Ron, the former union leader, who always puts on a classic tough-guy persona, is deeply impacted by the attack on his best friend and spends the early part of the book constantly by his side.  However, once it becomes clear that Ibrahim is alright, he then leads the charge against his friend’s attacker, and uses Elizabeth’s contacts to bring the thug to justice.  I felt that Osman hit the right notes with Ron in this book, and I appreciated seeing both his emotional side and his vengeful side, and I loved how they both came from the same place of love.

The final characters I want to mention are the associated members of the Thursday Murder Club, younger characters who have been drawn into the orbit of the compelling senior citizens.  These include police officers Donna and Chris, both of whom had an entertaining introduction to the Club in the previous novel and are now firm friends with them.  Donna and Chris spend most of the book attempting to bring down a Fairhaven crime lord while also dealing with their personal issues.  Chris, who was a bit of a sad-sack character in the first novel, has been revitalised by his blooming relationship with Donna’s mother.  While happy and now health conscious, this results in a lot of soul-searching by Chris, who is unsure how to pursue the romance, especially once his girlfriend is threatened by the criminal they are hunting.  Donna, on the other hand, continues her unlucky hunt for love and purpose in this novel, going from one bad date to another while also being suitably horrified by her boss sleeping with her mother.  While Donna does not get as much focus in this novel as she did in The Thursday Murder Club, she still had some great character moments, and I deeply appreciated that touching scene she had with Ibrahim.  I also need to mention Bogdan, who, after being a major suspect in the first novel, has moved on to a supporting role in this book due to his firm friendship with Elizabeth and her husband.  Simply put, Bogdan is the coolest person in Fairhaven and a true friend, helping Elizabeth with her projects by doing all manner of unusual requests, from looking after Stephen to buying a large amount of cocaine.  He has some really good scenes in this book, and Osman sets him up as quite the bright, mysterious action man with a heart of gold.  Throw in some other well-established and explored side characters in addition to the above and you have an exciting and compelling cast with a great story around them.

One of the key things about this series that I really appreciate is the way in which Osman attempts to champion the aging process and show how capable and interesting older members of the community can be.  The Man Who Died Twice is another great example of this, as it contains multiple amazing examples of older protagonists doing impossible things and manipulating people half their age in some elaborate and entertaining ways.  It was a lot of fun once again seeing these older characters taking charge, and Osman has a very unique and entertaining take on the aging process and the mindset of older people.  However, not everything is about the positives of aging, as the author once again presents some sad and dark elements that added some powerful drama to the narrative.  Throughout the course of the story, there are plenty of discussions about illness, living with regrets, and the growing realisation that death is just around the corner.  There was a particular focus on the vulnerability of the elderly, especially with Ibrahim’s storyline, as it shakes both the victim and all his friends.  There is also a compelling look at Stephen’s battle with dementia, which includes Elizabeth’s attempt to keep him in their apartment despite what may be medically best for him, resulting in some touching and emotional scenes, especially once the double meaning of the novel’s title becomes clear.  I really appreciated the author’s unique and compelling take on the aging process, and it was great to see more of the novel’s fun senior protagonists.

While I was lucky enough to receive a physical copy of The Man Who Died Twice, I decided in the end to listen to the audiobook format of this novel, which was a fantastic choice.  The Man Who Died Twice has a runtime of 12 and a half hours, although the last 40 minutes or so is an interesting interview.  I found myself getting through this audiobook extremely quickly, not just because of the amazing story but because the audiobook has a great pace to it and some excellent narration by actress Lesley Manville.  Manville, who also narrated The Thursday Murder Club, does another wonderful job in this second novel, and it was great to hear her impressive take on this fantastic story.  Manville has come up with some amazing voices for the various characters, with each person getting their own distinctive and fitting voice, with some great continuation from the first book.  Each of the character’s voices work extremely well, and I really appreciated the way in which Manville can ascribe age, emotion, and personality with her vocal work.  I had an outstanding time listening to Manville tell this cool story, and it was made even better by a fun discussion between Osman and Manville at the end of the book.  This nice and unique talk between author and narrator was an outstanding and fitting way to finish of this audiobook, especially as it offers some cool insights into the book you have just been enjoying.  I particularly enjoyed finally getting an explanation about why Osman doesn’t narrate his own novel, and I actually agree with his reasoning for it.  Overall, this was another exceptional audiobook adaptation, and I would strongly recommend this format to anyone and everyone keen to check out The Man Who Died Twice.

With his second entry in the spectacular Thursday Murder Club series, Richard Osman continues to showcase he is just as talented at writing crime fiction as he is at comedy.  The Man Who Died Twice is an outstanding and wildly entertaining read that combines an impressive story with a clever mystery, some complex and likeable characters, and a brilliant sense of humour.  This was a spectacular read and I had an incredible time getting through this fantastic sequel, especially in its amazing audiobook format.  The Man Who Died Twice was one of the best books of 2021 and I cannot wait to see where Osman takes this series next.

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