The Two-Faced Queen by Nick Martell

The Two-Faced Queen Cover

Publisher: Gollancz (Audiobook – 25 March 2021)

Series: The Legacy of the Mercenary Kings – Book Two

Length: 20 hours and 6 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Following his epic 2020 debut, one of the fastest rising stars in fantasy fiction, Nick Martell, returns with the second entry in his The Legacy of the Mercenary Kings series, The Two-Faced Queen.

Last year I was lucky enough to listen to a copy of Martell’s incredible first novel, The Kingdom of LiarsThe Kingdom of Liars was a gripping and impressive fantasy read set in Hollow, a crumbling city surrounded by an army of rebels, which followed the misadventures of the infamous Michael Kingman.  Michael is the scion of the legendary Kingman family, a noble clan of heroes and leaders who have guided Hollow for generations, serving as both supporters to the royal family and a check on their power.  However, the legacy of the Kingman family has been severely tarnished in recent years as Michael’s father was executed for the murder of the heir to the throne.  With their family disenfranchised, Michael grew up as an outcast in his own city, acting out against authority.  This changed when a chance encounter allowed him to investigate who was responsible for his family’s downfall and the death of the prince of Hollow.  While he was eventually able to discover the true murderer, his investigation also resulted in the King’s suicide, which subsequently saw him tried for regicide and sentenced to death.  The end of the book saw him manage to escape his execution, while also setting up several of the storylines for future entries in the series.  I deeply enjoyed the cool story of this first entry in The Legacy of the Mercenary Kings, and The Kingdom of Liars ended up being one of my favourite novels, audiobooks and debuts of 2020.  As a result, The Two-Faced Queen was one of my most anticipated reads of 2021.

Michael Kingman is a dead man walking.  Still accused of killing the King of Hollow, Michael is now under the protection of the Orbus mercenary company, serving as an apprentice under the mysterious mercenary Dark.  However, even with Orbus’s protection, everyone in Hollow still wants to either kill him or use him for their own dark ends.  The deadliest of these is the one person Michael is sworn to protect above all others, the heir to the throne, Princess Serena.  After spending years away, a vengeful Serena has returned to claim her throne and end Michael’s life.  Wielding great power, a lethal attitude and holding the keys to Michael’s heart, nothing will stand in the way of her wrath.

To restore his family’s position, save his home and convince Serena of his innocence, Michael needs to unravel the various conspiracies that have encircled Hollow and uncover the true motivations of the various power players in the city.  However, to succeed, Michael is forced to go up against a magnitude of foes, from the Corrupt Prince, the unhinged Rebel Emperor besieging the city, enraged royal guards, conspiring nobles, a scheming immortal, an insane serial killer, dangerous assassins and his former foster father, the man responsible for all his family’s ills.

But the more Michael attempts to understand Hollow’s hidden past and the dangerous plots surrounding his city, the more it becomes apparent that his is a mere pawn in a very dangerous game.  Immortals, monsters and mercenaries are all present in Hollow, and each of them has their own nefarious designs for Michael and his family.  Can he save everyone he loves before it is too late or has the Kingman family finally breathed its last?  Michael’s rise to become a Mercenary King continues, but who will truly wield power when the dust settles?

Now that was one hell of a sequel!  Martell absolutely crushed this second entry in this outstanding and exceptional fantasy series, producing a five-star novel that is extremely compelling, intense and so damn exciting.  I was absolutely enthralled with this book the moment I started listening to it and I loved every second.  The Two-Faced Queen is easily one of the best books I have read in 2021 and I think that any other fantasy novel coming out this year is going to be extremely hard-pressed to outdo it.

Martell has come up with a pretty incredible and intense narrative for The Two-Faced Queen, one that proves to be extremely addictive and insanely good.  Starting shortly after the events of The Kingdom of Liars, this novel starts fast and hard, with Michael following up on a number of storylines and revelations from the previous novel.  There is already so much going on right from the start of the novel, as the protagonist finds himself surrounded by enemies and conspiracies, both old and new.  While several secrets were revealed at the end of the first novel, there is still so much that Michael needs to understand.  However, as he attempts to learn these additional secrets, he must also try to avoid the deadly attentions of his beloved princess, end the rebellion plaguing the city, restore his family, defy a dangerous immortal, and make up with his betrayed friends.  While this is already a substantial amount of story, Martell keeps adding to it, as Michael also soon encounters a deadly assassin with a contract on him, and a deranged and unnatural serial killer.

While this may seem like too many story elements for one novel, it actually works extremely well, and the reader quickly becomes engrossed in Michael’s various adventures throughout the city.  I loved the inclusion of the serial killer storyline, as not only does it add some fantastic mystery elements, but it also proves to be a gateway to some intriguing world building, revealing more of the dark, immortal forces manipulating events from the shadows.  This storyline also results in several epic action scenes that place the protagonist and his friends in mortal danger from some unusual foes.  I had an outstanding time getting through this complex and well-constructed narrative, especially as every single scene has an intriguing revelation, intense character development or subtle clue to the future of the series.  Several key mysteries and secrets from the first novel are answered, partially or wholly, in this novel, although many more are introduced.  This really helps to keep the reader’s attention focused on The Two-Faced Queen’s plot, and I am not exaggerating when I talk about how addictive the secret-ridden narrative proves to be.  Readers are hammered with large amounts of lore and history in places, so I would recommend reading the first novel in the series, The Kingdom of Liars, before reading this book, although binge-reading this series is hardly a chore.  Overall, The Two-Faced Queen’s narrative is epic story writing at its best, and readers will love this terrific tale.

I absolutely must highlight the awesome and well-developed characters featured within The Two-Faced Queen.  The most prominent is series protagonist Michael Kingman.  Michael is an intriguing and distinctive figure through whose eyes most of the plot unfolds.  I have to admit that Michael was not my most favourite character in the first book, mostly because of his impetuous nature and selfish behaviour at times.  However, it was revealed that the reason for some of his annoying behaviour was due to some magic affecting his memories and personality.  As a result, Michael’s behaviour is substantially changed in The Two-Faced Queen and he comes across as a more considerate figure in this book.  He still has quite a few flashes of recklessness and stubbornness, but many of the rougher edges from the first novel are worn away here.  Still, a lot of people call Michael out for his crap in this book, including his friends and family, and it was great to see him finally heed their words.  There was also some additional exploration of how Michael deals with the legacy of being a Kingman; he is forced to live up to some big expectations.  There is a rather good scene where Michael is exploring the crypt of his ancestors with some of his friends, describing why some of them are famous and others are considered failures because they never achieved anything remarkable but just lived a normal life.  Seeing this, Michael’s friends, both of whom have been some of his greatest critics, start to understand just how much pressure he is under.  I really appreciated the way in which Martell continues to develop his protagonist, and it will be very fascinating to see how Michael’s story continues in the future novels.

Aside from Michael, there is an impressive collection of interesting supporting characters, each of whom have some fascinating storylines, as well as secrets or details from their past which helps to move the story along.  They also have their own motivations and plans to shape Hollow and the rest of the world to their advantage, which results in additional plots and conspiracies that the protagonists have to overcome.  The most prominent supporting character is probably Serena, the titular Two-Faced Queen.  Serena is Michael’s childhood friend and the royal he was sworn to, meaning that he was always destined to be her protector, advisor, and conscience.  However, after the death of her brother and Michael’s family were declared traitors, their relationship effectively ended.  Now returned, Serena is determined to destroy Michael for the apparent murder of her father, even if it leads to her own ruin.  The novel starts up with Michael visiting Serena only to find that she has hand-dug a grave for him, showing her resolve for killing him.  This forces Michael to attempt to change her mind, which is no easy prospect, and results in great calamity.  Naturally, these two characters share thorny romantic feelings for each other, which complicates Michael’s plans to stay alive, as Serena is a major blind spot in his defences.  Their entire joint character arc in this novel is extremely good, and I really appreciated the author’s take on their complex relationship.

Another key character is Dark, Michael’s mercenary master, who, aside from having his own mysterious past and motivations, is the son of Michael’s nemesis, Angelo Shade.  Due to Michael and Dark working together closely, the protagonist learns several of Dark’s secrets, especially those related to his troubled childhood and his encounters with the Heartbreaker serial killer.  While you don’t learn everything about Dark’s past in this novel (Martell is the master of dolling out just enough character detail to keep you interested, while also keeping plenty back for future novels), you do find out quite a lot, and what is revealed is extremely memorable.  Dark has a real dark side to him, no pun intended, and while Michael initially believes that Dark is his ally, he is soon faced with the possibility that he might have placed all his trust in a monster.  This results in a very interesting mentor/student relationship between the two, filled with much conflict and mistrust.  I really enjoyed learning more about Dark in The Two-Faced Queen, and it will be fascinating to see how the rest of his story unfolds in the future.

Other intriguing characters in this novel include Michael’s best friend Trey, who is attempting to forge his own path and take down both the nobles and the rebels, even if this leads him into conflict with Michael.  Trey has a fantastic arc as dangerous antihero in this book, taking control of the city’s criminal element in order to protect its citizens.  While a lot of his hostility towards Michael has ended, Trey and the protagonist still have a strained relationship, although Trey does go out of his way to help his friend.  Despite their friendship, it is clear that there is a major schism between the two planned in the future, which no doubt will result in all manner of pain and regret.  The ruthless immortal Charles Domet is still a firm favourite of mine, and it was fun to see his attempts to manipulate Michael, especially as Michael is now well aware of his true nature.  There are some interesting hints to Domet’s past in this novel, and he is clearly working up to something big.  The ambitious social climber Naomi also returns, although now she is suffering from a bad drug addiction which makes her even more entertaining, especially as she decides to torment Michael through embarrassment.  I also quite liked the expanded use of the chronicler, Symon.  Symon, who is determined to record and analyse every secret of Michael and his family, has taken to stalking them by living at the Kingman family home, and it is always entertaining to see his take on the events occurring before him.  He ends up actually narrating several interludes in The Two-Faced Queen, which are laid out as parts of his in-novel chronicles as part of a very clever and amusing supplement to the main story.  Symon really endeared himself to me in this novel, especially after his insulting descriptions of Michael in his proposed history book, and I deeply appreciated his increased presence.

I honestly could go on and on about the various characters featured within this novel; indeed, I have only just scratched the surface of the support cast in the paragraphs above.  However, it is more than clear that Martell does an excellent job in introducing and developing complex characters, and I loved the detailed and intriguing depictions of them throughout the novel.  Nearly every character featured within The Two-Faced Queen gets at least one big moment, and there are plenty of revelations and compelling backstories that are really cool to uncover.  I will say that you should probably not get too attached to the characters; however, I am very much looking forward to seeing what happens to each of the survivors, especially as Martell has set up some deeply captivating and powerful character arcs around them.

In addition to the fantastic story and amazing character work, Martell has also invested a lot of time in expanding his enthralling fantasy world.  The first entry in The Legacy of the Mercenary Kings did a great job setting up the key elements of Hollow, such as the noble families, the people of the city and the various problems they faced.  This unique setting of a besieged city filled with scheming nobles and set on a world where pieces of a shattered moon fall to the ground was so cool, and The Two-Faced Queen continues to expand on these previous elements, while also adding to the history and geography of the city and its surrounding nations.  Not only do you learn of several outside nations and locations but you also get to see how the key characters of this novel, or their ancestors, have impacted them, as well as the various dangers these realms represent.  However, some of the most substantial world-building revolves around some of the unusual creatures residing in this world, including a range of dangerous and destructive immortal creatures.  In the previous novel we only encountered one immortal (that we knew of), whose plots and schemes were a major part of the book’s plot.  This second novel, in contrast, is loaded with many more immortals, each of whom has their own unique abilities and plans for the world.  Martell introduces the lore around these immortals extremely well, and their various traits and schemes are worked into the plot extremely well.  It sounds like we are going to encounter a whole raft of intriguing and monstrous immortals in the future of this series, and I am very much looking forward to seeing what happens there.  The next book also looks like it will be set in a whole new location, and I will be extremely intrigued to see how that impacts the narrative.

One particular bit of world-building that I really enjoyed was the excellent expansions of Martell’s unique magical system.  The main magic of Hollow is known as Fabrication, which allows its users certain control over certain elements or phenomena at the cost of their own memories.  This is a really cool magical system, and Martell uses it to great effect throughout his novels, ensuring that there is all manner of destruction and manipulation throughout the narrative.  The Two-Faced Queen features multiple new Fabrication types, as Martell introduces unique Fabrications throughout the story, including several that even the protagonists have never heard of.  Examples include a particularly dangerous telekinetic Fabrication, which forces everyone to their knees (perfect for its user), while I was also very impressed with the disturbing blood Fabrication that one of the supporting characters pulled out.  In addition, Martell also introduces some different forms of magic from some of the other countries in his fantasy world.  While you only get to see one or two of these new magical abilities, they are still fun to see and they stand as an intriguing counterpoint to the already established magical abilities.  It looks like Martell is setting up some sort of mystery around the origins of all these different powers and it should prove pretty interesting to see how that turns out.

Martell also does an incredible job fitting the downsides of this magical Fabrication into the plot, as several characters experience memory loss, which affects their plans, reactions and relationships.  This is most obvious in Michael; as narrator, he loses several days of his life, resulting in him being unaware of plans he puts into motion or certain secrets that he learnt in these missing days.  Because the reader does not see these missing pieces of time either, this adds an extra amount of mystery and uncertainty into the narrative, as you try to work out both what is being deliberately hidden from Michael and what he has simply forgotten.  These bigger lapses in memory are a fantastic part of The Two-Faced Queen’s narrative, and it helps to make the flow of this book unique and compelling.  However, you also have to appreciate some of the smaller examples of memory loss throughout the book, some of which are quite heartbreaking in nature as the characters forget elements of their friends and families without realising it.  There is one extremely poignant scene in which Michael confesses to forgetting something very important to him, with the reader only then realises that a certain normal-sounding character description was evidence of memory loss all along.  Some of these subtle details are really impressive, and I deeply enjoyed seeing the hurtful side effects of this magical system.

To enjoy this awesome book, I ended up grabbing its audiobook format, mainly because I had such a great time listening to the first novel.  There were actually two audiobook versions of The Two-Faced Queen, and I ended up grabbing the Joe Jameson narrated version.  Jameson is a fantastic audiobook narrator who has previously lent his voice to amazing fantasy novels like King of Assassins by RJ Barker.  I loved his narration for The Kingdom of Liars last year and I was really keen to continue to listen to him in this sequel.  Jameson has a great voice for this complex fantasy read, and you swiftly become enthralled by the way he narrates the events occurring, as well as the fantastic voices he comes up with for his characters.  All the characters are given a unique voice in a variety of different accents, and each of them really helps to capture the character’s emotions and personality perfectly, whether it is the constant confusion and hurt in Michael, the raging anger of Serena, the cold menace of Dark or the calculating and manipulative voice of Charles Domet.  All this voice work is perfect and spot on and I really appreciated the effort that Martell put into this book.  Despite its runtime of 20 hours, I got through this audiobook in no time at all and I honestly wished it was a lot longer by the end.  This was another outstanding audiobook, and this format comes highly recommended to anyone interested in this fantastic novel.

With this epic and captivating second novel, Nick Martell has cemented his position as one of the best new fantasy authors out there.  The Two-Faced Queen was absolutely incredible, and I loved the complex and addictive story, set in a unique fantasy world.  There are just so many cool elements to this awesome novel and it really does not take long for the reader to become hooked on every single mystery, secret and hidden past that Martell features within this great read.  I cannot wait to see what happens next in this series, but it is already perfectly clear that The Legacy of the Mercenary King books are going to be one of the defining fantasy series of the next few years.

The Two-Faced Queen Cover 2

Star Wars: Thrawn Ascendancy: Greater Good by Timothy Zahn

Star Wars - Thrawn Ascendancy - Greater Good Cover

Publisher: Penguin Random House Audio (Audiobook – 27 April 2021)

Series: Thrawn Ascendancy – Book Two

Length: 16 hours and 17 minutes

My Rating: 4.75 out of 5

One of the most impressive authors of Star Wars fiction in the world today, the legendary Timothy Zahn, returns with another epic entry in his Thrawn Ascendancy series, Greater Good, which continues to explore the early life of that awesome Star Wars character, Grand Admiral Thrawn.

Zahn is an outstanding author who has been writing Star Wars fiction since 1991, with the highly regarded Heir to the Empire.  Since then, Zahn has written several amazing Star Wars novels in both the current canon and the Star Wars Legends canon.  While I have not read all of Zahn’s Star Wars novels (yet!), the ones I have were all incredible and are some of my all-time favourite Star Wars novels (such as the awesome Star Wars: Scoundrels).  However, his most distinctive works have all surrounded the awesome character of Thrawn.

Grand Admiral Thrawn is an alien officer in the Imperial Navy, renowned for his amazing tactical knowledge, brilliance in battle and ability to discern insights about his opponents by observing their personality or culture, especially art.  Ever since his introduction in Heir to the Empire, Thrawn has been a firm favourite among the fans, so much so that he was one of the few characters from the Legends extended universe reintroduced in the new canon.  This reintroduction was done in the third season of the Star Wars: Rebels animated series, where he served as an impactful antagonist for the third and fourth season.  It also looks like Thrawn will also be getting a live-action appearance at some point in the future after his name was dropped in The Mandalorian, which is pretty damn exciting.

The character has been heavily featured in the current range of Star Wars novels, as Zahn was brought back in to write some exciting new Thrawn-based novels.  This started with a brand new Thrawn trilogy in 2017, made up of Thrawn, Alliances and Treason, which showed how Thrawn joined the Imperial Navy and his early career as an officer.  These novels were all incredible reads (Thrawn got a five-star review from me, and Treason was one of the best books I read in 2019), and I loved the character’s unique adventures.  Thrawn’s story was furthered expanded last year with Chaos Rising; the first novel in Zhan’s Thrawn Ascendancy series, which examines the character’s pre-Empire life. 

While the armies of the Republic and the Separatists battle for supremacy in the Clone Wars, another deadly conflict is occurring beyond the bounds of known space.  Deep in the unexplored regions, known as the Chaos, the mighty Chiss Ascendancy have just defeated the forces of General Yiv the Benevolent, shattering his empire, the Nikardun Destiny, and bringing peace back to their territories.  As the Chiss Ascendancy returns to normal, they are unaware that they are still under attack from a malevolent and clever foe that is determined to finish off the Chiss once and for all.

On a Chiss agricultural planet, a group of peaceful and seemingly harmless aliens have arrived, seeking to temporarily make a home.  In addition to their good nature, kind hearts and unique spices, these aliens have also brought something of great value that many people will kill for.  As news of the alien’s resources spread, cracks begin to appear in the very foundation of the Ascendancy, as the various powerful families fight for supremacy.

With civil war on the horizon, the future of the Chiss Ascendancy may lay in the hands of the brilliant and infamous Senior Captain Mitth’raw’nuruodo of the Chiss Expansionary Defence Fleet.  Thrawn, who is personally responsible for the defeat of Yiv and the Nikardun, is currently investigating the origins of their attack on the Ascendancy and, in doing so, comes across a previously unknown planet destroyed by its own deadly civil war.  As Thrawn attempts to explore this new mystery, he soon finds himself in the midst of a dark conspiracy.  An unseen force is attempting to take control of the entire Chaos, and the Chiss are the greatest obstacle to their plot.  Hamstrung by politics, family ties and his own inability to see the deeper motivations of his fellow Chiss, can Thrawn stop the oncoming conflict before it is too late, or will the Chiss Ascendancy burn from the inside out?

Zahn has once again produced an exceptional and outstanding piece of Star Wars fiction that further explores the fantastic early adventures of his greatest creation.  Greater Good is an excellent middle novel in this cool trilogy, and readers will deeply enjoy this book’s blend of intricate storytelling, great characters and impressive universe-building.  All of this results in an exciting and compelling novel that quickly draws readers in and has absolutely no trouble keeping their attention.  I had an outstanding time getting through this great novel and I was able to power through its audiobook format in no time at all.

At the heart of this outstanding novel is a clever and addictive narrative that follows Thrawn and a bevy of supporting characters as the Chiss Ascendancy finds itself in danger from an indirect attack.  Greater Good follows on immediately after Chaos Rising, and examines the next stage of a compelling conspiracy against the Chiss, while also focusing on Thrawn’s battles during this period.  The author utilises a substantial number of alternate perspectives to tell a rich and varied story and, while Thrawn is the centre of much of the book’s plot, Zahn has widened the focus of the novel with several compelling storylines and characters.  These include an investigation into the origins of a Nikardun attack on a remote planet, several jaunts out into different parts of space, internal political conflicts that are a threat to Thrawn, and exciting encounters with other inhabitants of the Chaos.  There is also a substantial focus on a new plot to destroy the Chiss, which includes several compelling flashback sequences that examines the origins and initial planning of the conspiracy.  This use of flashback is pretty impressive, and while certain aspects of the antagonist’s storyline are a tad odd, it was still an interesting tale.  I really enjoyed the vast array of different storylines and character arcs that really highlighted the richness of the setting and the unique plotlines they could inspire.  While some of these storylines might seem rather disconnected at times, Zahn cleverly brings them together at the end of the novel, resulting in a very impressive and intriguing conclusion.

As with most of Zahn’s novels, Greater Good is loaded to the brim with Star Wars lore and intriguing universe-expanding ideas as the author dives deeper into the origins, culture and history of the Chiss Ascendancy.  Zahn really expands on what he introduced in his previous Thrawn and Thrawn Ascendancy novels, especially Chaos Rising, and highlights the proud Chiss warrior culture.  A vast amount of new information of the Ascendancy is featured within this latest book, and the reader gets a fascinating look at the planets, political makeup and social hierarchy of this race, especially at the family level.  Not only is this really intriguing, especially for those readers who have enjoyed Zahn’s previous additions to the Star Wars canon, but the author uses it extremely well within the plot.  Much of the main narrative, including the conspiracy that threatens to destroy the Chiss, is based on their family makeup and the accompanying politics and family mentalities that go along with that.  I felt that Zahn integrated this into the narrative extremely well, forcing the characters to navigate their unusual and insane politics in order to survive.

The author also expands the reader’s knowledge of the previously unexplored area of the Star Wars universe known as the Chaos.  The Chaos, thanks to certain celestial anomalies, is harder to navigate and transverse than regular space; it is a mess of isolated planets, unknown societies and new alien races.  Zahn introduces several new aliens throughout this novel, with each unusual race playing an interesting role in the overall story.  I love the unique Star Wars setting of the Chaos, especially as many of the established Star Wars rules and technology are not as present.  For example, the various warships have some different armaments and shielding, such as acid-filled missiles, resulting in some unique and previously unseen battle tactics.  It was also interesting to see the different takes on the Force that the inhabitants of the Chaos have come up with.  Without any Jedi present, the various races within the Chaos each have their own interpretations or uses for the Force, such as the Chiss Sky-Walkers, young children who can use the Force to help ships navigate the Chaos more effectively, and it was intriguing to encounter different views of this throughout Greater Good.  Hardcore Star Wars fans will enjoy the intriguing additions that Zahn makes to the expanded universe, and the final few pages hint at some major lore introductions occurring in the next Thrawn Ascendancy novel that I am rather curious about.

While this was a great book and piece of Star Wars fiction, I did feel that it required some pre-knowledge of Zahn’s prior works.  The narrative of Greater Good is heavily linked to the events of its preceding novel, Chaos Rising, and while the author does re-explain some of the elements or storylines, a lot of the plot does rather assume you read the first book.  Having greatly enjoyed Chaos Rising, I was able to follow this quite easily, but I could easily see some newer readers getting a little lost or overwhelmed in places.  In addition, parts of the Thrawn Ascendancy series are heavily linked to the events of the previous Thrawn trilogy, and certain references or comments might not make much sense unless you had already read these books.  As a result, I would suggest newer readers check out some of Zahn’s earlier novels first, although it is still possible to enjoy Greater Good without it.  Those readers who have enjoyed these prior books are definitely in for a great treat though and will find the deeper dive into the Chiss and Thrawn’s past to be really enjoyable.

I cannot review one of Zahn’s Thrawn-centric novels without talking about the awesome space battle sequences they contain.  Each of these awesome books features some impressive and detailed space battles as the protagonists encounter a range of ships and fleets that they must fight against.  Greater Good is a particularly good example of this, as Zahn has written several outstanding sequences that are attention-grabbing and fun.  The sheer level of detail and planning that Zahn puts into these action sequences is incredible, and you get an amazing sense of what is occurring during the battle as well as the associated tactics and plans.  The sequences involving Thrawn are easily the best, as Zahn goes out of his way to showcase the character’s tactical brilliance.  This results in some very elaborate sequences, as Thrawn quickly determines the weaknesses of his opponents and uses that knowledge to craft intricate and somewhat insane strategies to utterly defeat them.  Watching these plans come to fruition is always amazing, especially as the reader has no idea in advance what is going on in Thrawn’s mind.  Instead, you only get to see the brilliance and impact of his tactics at the same time as the other characters, and it is always a lot of fun seeing how Thrawn was able to come to his conclusions about his opponents and use them against him.  Zahn comes up with some outstanding sequences for Greater Good that are guaranteed to leave readers on the edge of their seats.

In addition to the awesome narrative, action and universe-building, Greater Good also features an awesome collection of characters, each of whom add so much to the novel.  Naturally, the most impressive character is Thrawn himself.  Even amongst his own people, Thrawn is a strange being who sees the world in a very unique way, and everyone he encounters is impressed by his tactical know-how and unnatural observational skills.  I always enjoy the way in which Zahn depicts Thrawn’s actions in the novel, as Thrawn is one of the few characters whose perspective we do not see.  Instead, Thrawn is only portrayed through the eyes of the major point-of-view characters who observe and react to his actions.  Not only does this remove the inherent difficulties in depicting Thrawn’s mind, but it really enhances the impacts of his deductions and subsequent reactions.  The observing characters view Thrawn making his moves or claiming some impossible bit of knowledge, and then slowly work out how he did it, either through their own observations or thanks to comments by Thrawn.  This is done in a similar manner to the classic Sherlock Holmes novels, with the supporting characters in Greater Good acting in the role of Watson to witness and be impressed by the protagonist’s intelligent leaps.  Like with Sherlock Holmes, the use of the outside narrator in Greater Good deeply enhances the impact of Thrawn’s action, resulting in some awesome scenes.

One of the intriguing aspects of Thrawn’s character in Greater Good that I appreciated was the way in which Zahn continued to highlight his character’s one major weakness: politics.  Thrawn has absolutely no concept of politics, family alliances or some of the inner conflicts impacting the Chiss, and as such is unable to defend himself or others against political ambitions or vindictiveness.  I always really enjoy this trait in the Thrawn novels, especially as it gives Thrawn a noticeable weakness, while also enhancing the impact his fellow supporting characters have, as all of them understand politics better and can help Thrawn in this arena.  This blindness to political realities is particularly important in Greater Good, as not only is Thrawn being attacked by politicians from within his own family but the main threat facing the Chiss is more political than militaristic in nature.  This results in a rather intriguing handicap for Thrawn throughout Greater Good, and it was cool to see the sort of plan that the character came up with to compensate for it, as well as the mistakes he then makes.  Overall, Thrawn is a pretty awesome and fascinating character to follow, and I cannot wait to see what events happen to him in the final book in the trilogy.

Aside from Thrawn, I also really enjoyed some of the supporting characters featured throughout Greater Good.  In addition to being perfect conduits to observing Thrawn’s actions, each of these characters have their own intriguing storylines, many of which are continuing from Chaos Rising.  Examples of this include Thrawn’s old friend, Admiral Ar’alani, Thrawn’s second in command Mid Captain Samakro, the former Sky-Walker Thalias, who has tied her fate with that of Thrawn, and the powerful Mitth family politician, Thurfian, who serves as a secondary antagonist.  Each of these characters is further developed in Greater Good, and I enjoyed some of the cool storylines that Zhan is coming up for them.  Thurfian’s storyline is particularly intriguing going into the next novel, as the final scenes hint that he is going to come into possession of some very interesting knowledge soon.

Zhan also introduces several great new characters throughout Greater Good, many of whose narratives are tied into the malevolent plot to destroy the Chiss.  I found myself quite intrigued by the character of Lakinda, a fellow Senior Captain in the Chiss Expansionary Defence Fleet, who serves alongside Thrawn.  Not only does Lakinda offer an intriguing alternate observation angle on Thrawn, tinged with a bit of jealously and mistrust, but this character provides greater insight into the Chiss family structure.  Lakinda is an extremely loyal member of a mid-tier Chiss family, and she often finds her loyalties conflicted as she attempts to choose between family and the fleet.  This results in some captivating and emotional sequences which really help to highlight the unusual nature of Chiss society.

I also quite liked how Zahn spends time following the main antagonist of Greater Good, the mysterious alien Haplif.  Haplif and his people have been hired by a mysterious third party to orchestrate chaos and dissent within the Chiss Ascendancy to destroy them.  As a result, he masterminds an ingenious plot to promote conflict between various members of the Ascendancy.  I really enjoyed the complex and clever plot that this character came up with, and it was really cool to see him manage to manipulate several people throughout the course of the book, and he was an interesting alternative to the previous antagonist, Yiv.  It was a little odd to see Haplif, a supposedly brilliant planner and master manipulator, find his plans constantly stymied by a spoiled teenager and a backwater rancher, but it was fun to see his arrogance work against him.  All of these characters are amazing, and I really appreciate the time and effort that Zahn put into developing them.

It will not surprise anyone that I ended up listening to this Star Wars novel’s audiobook format rather than seeking out a physical copy of the book.  I absolutely love Star Wars audiobooks, and this was another excellent example that comes highly recommended.  The Greater Good audiobook has a runtime of just over 16 hours, which, while substantial for a Star Wars novel, is extremely easy to get through, especially once you become engrossed in Zahn’s cool story.  Like most modern Star Wars audiobooks, Greater Good makes amazing use of the classic Star Wars sound effects and film score to enhance the story.  I particularly enjoyed its use in Greater Good’s various space combat sequences, and it really amps up how epic those scenes were.

The real standout of this audiobook was the outstanding narration by Marc Thompson.  Thompson is an experienced narrator of Star Wars fiction who, aside from contributing his voice to all the books in the Thrawn and Thrawn Ascendancy novels, has also narrated awesome audiobooks like Light of the Jedi, Doctor Aphra, Dooku: Jedi Lost, Dark Disciple and more.  Thompson does an incredible voice for Thrawn that is filled with the character’s control, intelligence, and gentle menace, and which is very, very close to how the character is portrayed in Star Wars: Rebels.  This amazing voice for Thrawn is easily one of the best parts of the audiobook, and it is fun to listen to the character lay out his elaborate strategies in Thompsons’s awesome tones.  Aside from Thrawn, Thompson also produces a great range of different voices for Greater Good’s supporting characters.  Each character gets their own distinctive voice, which matches their personality and physical qualities, and the listener is never in doubt about who is talking.  I also quite enjoyed how Zahn makes fun accommodations for the various different species featured within the audiobook, tailoring his voices to make them sound more alien at times.  Zahn also gives more rural accents to some of the Chiss characters featured in this novel who are from, or are located on more backwater planets, which I thought was a very nice touch.  All of these amazing features help to turn the Greater Good audiobook in an absolute treat for your ears, and it is an incredible way to enjoy this epic novel.

Thrawn Ascendancy: Greater Good is another exceptional piece of Star Wars fiction from Timothy Zahn.  Featuring his iconic and impressive creation, Grand Admiral Thrawn, Greater Good serves as an outstanding second entry in the Thrawn Ascendancy series, which charts the early life of this great character.  With a clever and exciting story, chock full of universe building, fantastic characters and some unique and memorable battle moments, Greater Good is an excellent novel that comes highly recommended.  I have so much love for Zahn’s Thrawn and Thrawn Ascendancy novels and, after really enjoying Greater Good, I am very excited to see how this series ends.  The final book in the Thrawn Ascendancy trilogy, Lesser Evil, is coming out in November 2021, and I cannot wait to get my hands on it.

The Girls I’ve Been by Tess Sharpe

The Girls I've Been Cover

Publisher: Hodder Children’s Books (Trade Paperback – 9 February 2021)

Series: Standalone/Book One

Length: 361 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

From bestselling young adult author Tess Sharpe comes an outstanding and deeply impressive new novel, The Girls I’ve Been, an extremely clever and emotionally rich young adult thriller that is easily one of my favourite books of 2021 so far.

When young teen Nora O’Malley started her day, she thought that the worst thing she would have to deal with would be an awkward chance meeting with her ex-boyfriend at the local bank with her new girlfriend in tow.  However, things get decidedly worse when two armed men storm the bank, shooting wildly and demanding the manager.  When their plan goes awry, the two robbers take the staff and customers hostage, locking them in and barricading the doors.  With only a small police force in town, the nearest SWAT team hours away and the gunmen getting more and more antsy, things look grim for the hostages until Nora takes the lead.

Despite only being 17, Nora has a complicated and terrible past.  Born the daughter of a self-centred and manipulative con artist mother, Nora spent the first 12 years of her life helping her mother run her dangerous cons, first as a prop, then as an active participant, learning everything there is about lies, deceit and becoming a whole different person.  However, after their final job went terribly wrong, Nora eventually left her mother behind to escape and become Nora.  Despite living a relatively quiet life for the last five years with her long-lost sister, Nora is prepared to dive back into her past lives as a conwoman to ensure that everyone gets out this dangerous situation alive.

Using every trick and subtle deception at her disposal, Nora must try to manipulate the two robbers into letting them go, while also attempting to distract them from her friend’s escape attempts.  But as conditions in the bank get even worse, Nora begins to realise that these robbers have their own deadly plan, and that the only chance to survive is to reveal her true identity to her captors.  Nora has a deadly secret in her past, one that she has been running from for years, and which may prove to be far more dangerous than anything the robbers can throw at her.

The Girls I’ve Been is an impressive and captivating young adult thriller that I was lucky enough to receive a copy of a few weeks ago.  This is the latest novel from Tess Sharpe, an author who specialises in novels with strong female protagonists, including Barbed Wire Heart, Far From You and the Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom tie-in novel, The Evolution of Claire.  I must admit that before receiving her latest novel, I was a little unfamiliar with Sharpe’s work, although I did hear good things about her Marvel Comics tie-in book, Captain Marvel: Liberation Run.  However, the moment I received The Girls I’ve Been, I knew that I had to read it as I really liked the cool synopsis and the fantastic-sounding plot.  I ended up powering through it in a few short days as I quickly became engrossed in the excellent and complex narrative that Sharpe weaved around her damaged protagonist.  I had an outstanding time reading this book and, considering how engrossing and powerful I found it, I have no choice but to give it a full five-star rating.

For this amazing book, Sharpe has come up with an exceptional story primarily told from the point of view of the book’s protagonist and narrator, Nora.  The author starts the story off quick, pushing the protagonist and her friends, the dramatic pairing of her hurt ex-boyfriend and her long-time crush turned recent girlfriend, into the midst of a violent and dangerous situation when the bank they are in is stormed by two gunmen.  After this explosive start, Nora quickly slips into action, plotting her escape while trying to find some way to manipulate their captors into letting them go, which in turn reveals her past as a conwoman’s daughter.  The author then starts layering in a series of fantastic flashback sequences or chapters loaded with details about the protagonist’s past or her relevant skills and experiences.  Not only do these become relevant to the current crisis that the characters find themselves in, but they also provide more context for Nora’s actions, as well as containing hints about her troubled past.  These flashbacks fit seamlessly into the main narrative, and as the book progresses and the situation in the bank gets worse, the reader becomes more and more aware of just how dangerous and messed up Nora’s childhood.  The depictions of the character’s past are exceedingly fascinating, and this entire flashback narrative proves to be an awesome addition to the plot, especially as some of her previous actions have severe consequences on current events.  Both the past and present come together extremely well to form an impressive conclusion, which also leaves open the potential for sequels in the future.  I really enjoyed this awesome overarching narrative, due to its fast-paced intensity, clever humour (I particularly liked the inclusion of text at the start of some chapters describing the progress of Nora’s various plans), and impressive character development, and it really did not take me long to get invested in the story.

Easily the best thing about The Girls I’ve Been is the extraordinary amount of character development that Sharpe puts into her point-of-view protagonist, Nora.  Nora (not her real name) is a character who has a unique outlook on life due to her past, which she is constantly haunted by.  When we are first introduced to Nora, the reader is shown a seemingly normal girl, albeit with a complex love life, but it does not take long for the reader to understand just how different she is.  Not only do we witness her immediately take control of the situation inside the bank, but soon the reader sees a powerful series of flashbacks showing the character’s chaotic early life.  Each of these great flashbacks help to produce a layered and captivating figure and it was truly fascinating to see how Nora was born and raised as a criminal conwoman.  Sharpe really dives down deep in Nora’s psyche, allowing you to see how messed up she is and how her past shaped her.  I particularly enjoyed the various flashback chapters that show her committing cons when she was younger, each time with a different name.  With each of these cons, the protagonist learns a whole new set of skills and personality traits, either because her mother demanded it to make the con work or because the trials she underwent during this job required her to learn them.  The protagonist attributes each of these traits to the distinct person she was during the job, and she calls on each of these personalities to shape her into the mostly stable and capable person that she is today.  The author pulls no punches in showing the reader all the terrible things that Nora experienced as a child, and I think she did an outstanding job capturing the lasting impact painful events would have on a young person.  Despite this trauma there is a noticeable strength to Nora that drives her to survive and help others, even if it means sacrificing herself or taking a more lethal approach to solving a problem.  Naturally, all this impressive backstory helps to produce a truly compelling protagonist who the reader cannot help to pull for, especially as Sharpe also imbues her with a sarcastic and clever sense of humour that really appealed to me.  It will be interesting to see if Sharpe continues utilising this unique character in the future and I for one would love to see what happens to her next.

In addition to Nora, Sharpe has also included several other great supporting characters who help to turn The Girls I’ve Been into a first-rate novel.  While none of these characters get as developed as Nora, Sharpe has ensured that each of them is just as complex and nearly as damaged.  The main two supporting characters are Iris, Nora’s quirky current girlfriend, and Wes, Nora’s ex-boyfriend, both of whom are trapped in the bank with her.  While you would assume that this combination of characters would result in petty drama, Sharpe has come up with an intriguing relationship dynamic between the three of them which becomes a fantastic part of the narrative.  They prove to be quite supportive of each other, as all three have experienced various forms of neglect or abuse in the past, and together they are able to face their demons and become more stable people.  I really liked the way that Sharpe utilised Iris and Wes in the story, especially as both characters have some interesting characteristics, and it was amazing to see them all develop them throughout the course of the novel.

In addition to her friends, there is also a significant focus on Nora’s family, her sister Lee, and her mother, both of whom have had a major impact on her life.  I enjoyed both characters for very different reasons.  Lee is the strong older sister who, after experiencing a similar traumatic childhood like Nora, dedicates her life to saving Nora, even if she must ruin everything she loves.  Their mother, on the other hand, is a selfish, manipulative creature, who lives for the scam and is willing to drag her children through hell to get what she wants.  Both characters are great additions to the narrative, and it was fascinating to see what motivated them and what terrible things they are willing to do for different reasons.  All these characters add so much to The Girls I’ve Been, and I was really impressed with Sharpe’s excellent work on them.

Like several of Sharpe’s previous novels, The Girls I’ve Been is marketed as a young adult fiction novel for a younger audience.  I would say that this is an exceptional novel for teenage readers, as The Girls I’ve Been contains a complex and powerful story that features a young girl forced to endure amazing hardships and overcoming them in an intelligent way.  There are some deep and emotional issues that are hit on throughout this book, including children forced to deal with abusive parents, as nearly every parental figure in this novel is either abusive or complicit through negligence.  I think the author addressed these issues in an excellent way, especially as she did not try to talk down her intended audience, and I have no doubt that these elements will strongly resonate with some readers.  In addition, Sharpe also discusses some other important issues in this novel, such as endometriosis, as well as depicting some very positive LGTB+ relationships, all of which I think a lot of teenagers will also really appreciate seeing.  The novel does contain some more mature themes and elements, which might not be appropriate for younger readers, but which make it a great teen read.  This is also one of those young adult novels that can be quite easily enjoyed by an older audience, and I think that a wide range of readers will deeply enjoy this amazing novel.

The Girls I’ve Been is an outstanding and exceptional novel that I cannot give enough praise to.  Tess Sharpe has come up with a truly impressive young adult thriller, containing an amazing story and some exceedingly compelling characters.  I had an awesome time with this book, and I cannot recommend it enough.  I look forward to seeing what Sharpe will come up with next and I can certainly say that this is an author that I will be keeping a very close eye on.  I hope that she considers a sequel to The Girls I’ve Been in the future, although this great novel already has a pretty fantastic self-contained story to it, still it might be interesting to revisits the cool characters again.  There is apparently a movie adaptation of The Girls I’ve Been in the works, starring Millie Bobby Brown.  I think that this book would make for a really good movie, and Millie Bobby Brown is a fantastic choice to play Nora (I only just watched her in Enola Holmes).  In the meantime, do yourself a favour and check out The Girls I’ve Been, because you really will not be disappointed.

Prodigal Son by Gregg Hurwitz

Prodigal Son Cover

Publisher: Macmillan Audio (Audiobook – 2 February 2021)

Series: Orphan X – Book Six

Length: 13 hours and 42 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

One of the most exciting and impressive thriller series out there returns with the sixth entry in Gregg Hurwitz’s Orphan X series, Prodigal Son.

Over the last couple of years I have really been expanding my love for the thriller genre and I have been getting into several cool series, many of which have been spectacular reads.  One of my favourites at the moment is the fantastic Orphan X series by Gregg Hurwitz.  The Orphan X series follows protagonist Evan Smoak, the titular Orphan X, a lethal and highly capable special operator who was recruited out of an orphanage when he was 12 and trained in every conceivable aspect of combat and spycraft.  After breaking from the Orphan Program and moving to Los Angeles, Evan has taken on a new moniker as The Nowhere Man, a vigilante who helps those in desperate situations as penance for his former life as an assassin.  I had a lot of fun reading the fourth book in the series, Out of the Dark, which saw Evan go up against the corrupt President of the United States.  I also deeply enjoyed the fifth book, Into the Fire, which was one of my favourite books from the first half of 2020 and one of the best audiobooks of the year.  As a result, I have been really looking forward to reading the new Orphan X novel for a while now and I was excited to see what sort of fascinating story Prodigal Son would have.

After successfully taking down the shadowy forces behind the Orphan Program, Evan Smoak is ready to retire.  With an unofficial pardon from the new President, all Evan has to do to stay off the government’s radar is to stop his activities as The Nowhere Man and live a normal life.  However, the past once again returns to haunt Evan when he receives a phone call from a woman claiming to be his long lost mother, asking for his help.

Shocked and rattled by the revelations, Evan’s curiosity and need for family drives him to meet with this woman and discover what she wants.  After tracking her down, Evan is surprised at the woman’s one request: to find and help Andrew Duran, a nobody living in LA whose life has gone off the rails.  Working a dead-end job at an impound lot, Andrew witnesses the mysterious death of a former drone pilot, and now finds himself being hunted by a pair of brutal killers.

While initially reluctant to take the case and risk his pardon, Evan’s interest is piqued when he barely survives a hellfire missile strike on Andrew’s house.  Digging deeper in the circumstances around the murder at the impound lot, Evan begins to uncover a deadly conspiracy involving a ruthless weapons contractor and his next generation drone weaponry.  However, the biggest dangers to Evan may come from a direction he would never expect, as his new client, Andrew, brings up unwanted memories from his traumatic past.  What is Andrew’s connection to Evan’s mother and his childhood and how will an emotionally compromised Evan save everyone important to him?

Wow, that was impressive.  Hurwitz has once again come up with an epic and exciting Orphan X novel that combines high-octane action, with a fantastic plot, some excellent characters and an intense amount of growth and emotional turmoil surrounding the series’ protagonist.  The combination of this results in a deeply addictive and extremely captivating read that ended up getting a full five-star rating from me, and it proved extremely hard to put Prodigal Son down.

This latest Orphan X novel contains a particularly clever and enjoyable narrative that sees Evan once again engage in a deadly mission as The Nowhere Man, although this time he is drawn in for far more personal reasons than usual.  Hurwitz starts Prodigal Son off with a fun introduction, as Evan attempts to live a peaceful life in retirement (which goes about as well as expected), before his curiosity at the cliffhanger ending of the previous novel, Into the Fire, drives him to seek out the woman claiming to be his mother.  This in turn leads him to attempt to save another lost soul from dangerous forces, as he goes up against a sociopathic tech genius and their ruthless assassins (as well as some repugnant bastards he encounters along the way).  The rest of the story progresses at an intense and enjoyable pace as Evan attempts to get to the bottom of the plot that his client finds himself in.  This results in several really impressive fight scenes, including a particularly brutal sequence in a impound lot (I will never, ever think about putting a torch in my mouth again).  Hurwitz really has a talent for writing action scenes, and I loved all the ruthless detail and fun moments that he features within them (never bring a Tesla to a gun fight).  In addition, there are some cleverly written infiltration scenes that I had fun with, especially when it comes to Evan breaking into some very high-security places with some elaborate disguises and a vape pen.  All of this comes to a head with an explosive conclusion which, while a tad predictable, was still a fun way to end the book and should make for some interesting future entries in the series.  I really enjoyed getting through Prodigal Son’s story and I found it to be particularly addictive and fun.

One of the most impressive and distinguishing highlights of the Orphan X series has always been its compelling and complex protagonist, Evan Smoak.  Evan is a highly trained professional assassin who learnt a meticulous code of honour and responsibility as a child and now seeks to redeem himself by helping those in trouble.  Thanks to his troubled and complicated past, as well as some mild OCD (brought on by a need for perfection in his work), Evan has been a particularly compelling character to follow, and there has been an intriguing subplot about his troubles connecting to other people.  However, the emotional turmoil hidden within the character really comes to a head in Prodigal Son when Evan is reunited with the woman who abandoned him as a baby.  Hurwitz really dives deep into the character’s psyche for this latest novel, presenting an intricate and powerful picture of a conflicted person, one who is torn between his long-repressed desire for family and to fit in and his training to be independent and alone.  This emotional turmoil becomes even more pronounced when several secrets and revelations come to the surface, and this really throws Evan for a lot of the book.  These added emotional distractions prove to be an intriguing part of the book’s plot, especially as it dulls Evan’s usual keen senses and amps up the risk during his missions.  Hurwitz also spends time diving back into Evan’s childhood, including through a series of flashbacks to when he was first recruited to the Orphan Program, and it was fascinating to see more of his early life, especially when it impacts on his current state of mind.  I also quite enjoyed the way in which Hurwitz explores Evan’s relationship with several other characters, and it was fascinating to see more of this killer’s paternal instincts and cravings come to life, especially after he finally comes face to face with his mother.  In addition, Hurwitz also explores his protagonist’s mentality when it comes to retirement, and it proved interesting to see how Evan reacts when he is once again exposed to danger and violence.  This is easily some of the best character development and exploration that Hurwitz has ever done, and I really appreciated the dramatic edge that it gave to Prodigal Son’s story.

Aside from Evan, this novel is filled with a selection of amazing and well-developed characters.  The most prominent of these are probably Evan’s client, Andrew, and his long-lost mother, Veronica.  Both serve as intriguing catalysts to Evan’s own development, and it was fascinating to see how their introduction to the plot impacted the protagonist’s mentality, especially when their various secrets come to life.  Andrew in particular proves to be a great addition to the plot, and I liked to see another one of Evan’s clients whose life is both upended and improved by his interactions with The Nowhere Man.  Several recurring characters from the previous Orphan X series also have some fantastic roles in this book, and I really enjoyed seeing more of Joey, a former Orphan Program participant and master hacker, who Evan treats like a little sister/daughter.  Joey is a very fun character whose style, personality and expertise in all things technological strongly clash with Evan, but together they form a great team, and they have some amusing interactions throughout the book, especially when Evan finds out that Joey is dating and instantly enters protective dad mode.  There is also the usual inclusion of the other residents of Evan’s apartment complex, including his love interest Mia and her young son Peter.  While many of the characters in this complex seem a bit weird or one-dimensional, they actually prove to be an intriguing part of the book’s plot, especially as Evan is able to reconcile his own emotional issues with some of the problems they are facing.  This is particularly true when it comes to Mia and Peter, and there are some interesting developments on that relationship throughout Prodigal Son.

Aside from these excellent side characters, Hurwitz has also come up with some fun villains for this latest novel that Evan needs to contend with.  The main three villains of the story are a pretty unique group of antagonists, including the brother-sister team of Declan and Queenie Gentner, contracted assassins who have been hired to kill Andrew and other witnesses to their boss’s plot.  Declan and Queenie are an interesting and sadistic pair of killers who prove to be a bit of a challenge for Evan throughout the book.  I really appreciated that Hurwitz spent the time developing both of them, especially Declan, who has some major childhood traumas, and I felt that their arc throughout Prodigal Son was rather clever.  The main villain of this story is the Gentner’s employer, known as the Doctor, who has access to some rather dangerous technology.  The Doctor has a very James Bond villain feel to him, right down to having an odd and distinguishing physical characteristic and a sinister vision for the future.  While a little more mystery or a twist about who the Doctor ultimately was might have worked out well, I still thought they were a great villain.  I particularly liked the inclusion of all the drones that they used, and it was really fascinating to see how the author envisioned the future of warfare and how a trained agent like Evan would deal with them.  Overall, there are some great side characters in this novel, and I look forward to seeing how Hurwitz utilises them in future Orphan X entries.

Like I did with the previous novel in the Orphan X series, I ended up choosing to listen to Prodigal Son’s audiobook format.  This was a fantastic decision as this version of Prodigal Son was well put together and proved to be an excellent way to enjoy this amazing story.  Prodigal Son has a decent run time of 13 hours and 42 minutes, which dedicated listeners can get through fairly quickly, and was narrated by the talented Scott Brick.  Brick is an exceptional narrator who has lent his voice to an impressive catalogue of audiobooks, including several excellent thrillers, such as the Steve Berry’s Cotton Malone series (I enjoyed his narration for The Malta Exchange and The Warsaw Protocol) and the rest of the Orphan X novels.  For Prodigal Son, Brick once again gives an excellent performance, providing the characters with some tough voices which fit each of the perfectly and helped to bring the story to life.  I ended up getting really wrapped up in this audiobook and I felt that it was an amazing way to experience and step inside of this fantastic novel.

Prodigal Son by Gregg Hurwitz is an exceptional and powerful read that serves a great new addition to the amazing Orphan X series.  I had an outstanding time listening to this fantastic new book, especially with its epic story and terrifically deep characters, and this is swiftly becoming one of my favourite thriller series.  Prodigal Son comes highly recommended and I cannot wait to see how Hurwitz continues this in the future.

Harrow the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir

Publisher: Recorded Books (Audiobook – 4 August 2020)

Series: The Locked Tomb – Book Two

Length: 19 hours and 51 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Sensational author Tamsyn Muir follows up her incredible 2019 debut with another epic, complex and infinitely entertaining hybrid novel, Harrow the Ninth.

Tamsyn Muir burst onto the writing scene with a real vengeance last year with her debut novel, Gideon the Ninth, the first book in The Locked Tomb series.  Gideon the Ninth was an extremely clever and compelling novel that followed a group of spacefaring necromancers who were summoned to the house of their Emperor and god, and given an opportunity to learn from him and become Lyctors, immortal beings with immense necromantic power who are considered to be living saints.  What they instead found was a haunted manor filled with secrets, weird experiments and mysterious hints at the past.  The protagonist of this first novel was the titular Gideon, a smart assed, foul mouthed lesbian swordswoman who was reluctantly serving the necromantic lady of the Ninth House, Harrowhark Nonagesimus.  I absolutely loved Gideon the Ninth and it was easily one of my favourite debuts of 2019.  As a result, I was rather intrigued when I heard about its sequel, Harrow the Ninth (which, as you can see above, featured another intense and beautiful cover by the talented Tommy Arnold) and I eagerly grabbed an audiobook copy of it when it came out.  I have to say that I am extremely glad that I decided to do so as Harrow the Ninth turned out to be a truly outstanding book and I had an incredible time reading it.

Harrow the Ninth is set shortly after the dramatic conclusion to Gideon the Ninth and switches the focus of the novel over to Harrowhark, who has succeeded in becoming a Lyctor at great personal cost.  Now alone, mentally scarred and more powerful than ever, Harrow finds herself in the personal care of the Emperor of the Nine Houses, who is determined to use his new Lyctor in a deadly war against an ancient and powerful terror, a Resurrection Beast, the insane and vengeful ghost of a murdered planet.

Travelling to the Mithraeum, the Emperor’s isolated sanctum, Harrow finds herself trapped aboard a desolate space station with her god and her fellow Lyctors.  Each of her companions on the station has their own agenda and motive for being there, and all of them are seeking to use Harrow for their own ends.  Worse, as Harrow attempts to learn the full extent of her new powers and abilities, it becomes apparent that something has gone wrong with her transition to Lyctorhood.  Her body keeps failing her, her swordcraft is shoddy, her blade makes her nauseous and her mind keeps presenting her with impossible scenarios.

As the Resurrection Beast comes ever closer to the Mithraeum, Harrow desperately attempts to understand everything that is happening to her and learn how to survive the oncoming attack.  However, she finds herself distracted with the machinations and plots of her untrustworthy rival and the attitudes of her three ancient tutors, especially as at least one of them is trying to kill her.  Can Harrow unwrap all of the dark secrets that lie hidden on the Mithraeum before it is too late, or will the entire Empire fall into ruin before them?

Well damn, now that was a truly enjoyable and incredible read.  Harrow the Ninth is a complex, clever, entertaining and exceptionally well written novel that does an awesome job following on from Muir’s impressive first novel.  I had an absolutely amazing time reading this fantastic book, which I think in many ways is somewhat stronger than Gideon the Ninth.  Not only does Harrow the Ninth have a deeply captivating story that successfully utilises elements from a range of different genres, but it also features some memorable and compelling characters, excellent universe building and a magical system that really stands out thanks to its descriptive necromantic powers.  Harrow the Ninth also serves as a marvellous follow-up to Gideon the Ninth, continuing the clever story from the first book with the same distinctive tone and writing style, while also featuring an intriguing reimagining of prior events.  All of these makes for an epic read which gets a full five-star rating from me.

At the heart of this amazing novel is an intense and multilayered narrative that presents a compelling tale of love, tragedy, treachery and self-discovery.  The story is actually split into several distinct sections, with the main storyline focusing on Harrow after her transformation to Lyctorhood as she spends time in the Mithraeum with the Emperor and the other Lyctors.  This part of the book expertly jumps back and forth through time and is an extremely entertaining part of the book, detailing Harrow’s education under the Emperor and the other Lyctors and her attempts to survive the various internal politics, plots and personal chaos.  The other major part of the story shows a curious alternate version of the events of Gideon the Ninth, shown from Harrow’s point of view, made distinctive due to the complete lack of Gideon, who appears to be erased out of existence.  This alternate version of the prior book is a really intriguing part of Harrow the Ninth’s story, and while I was initially a little confused about why it was included and where Gideon had disappeared to, it proved to be an extremely clever and compelling part of the book, especially when everything becomes fully revealed.  Due to this reimagining of already existing narrative, as well as the continued references to the events of the first book, readers interested in checking out Harrow the Ninth really do need to have read Gideon the Ninth first, as the story gets a little confusing and significantly less impactful without this established knowledge.

These separate storylines complement each other is exceedingly cleverly.  This novel does start off a tad slow, but this is mainly because Muir is re-establishing the narrative from the previous book and loading up the front end of the story with hints and foreshadowing about the multitude or revelations that come throughout the course of the plot.  A lot of big events and reveals occur towards the end of Harrow the Ninth, including a few reveals that were hinted at in the previous novel, and I felt that the author set all of these up perfectly.  This results in an extremely epic conclusion to the novel and I was really impressed by how it all turned out.  This novel contains a unique blend of genres, as Harrow the Ninth features elements from the fantasy, science fiction, psychological thriller and murder mystery genres.  All of these disparate features work together extremely well in the story and it helps to produce a distinctive and entertaining narrative, especially as Muir adds on a rather good comedic edge.  The end result is a fascinating and exceedingly captivating overarching narrative, and I had an outstanding time getting pleasantly blindsided by the inventive twists and turns.

This excellent and unique story is expertly supported by a distinctive writing style that I felt did an amazing job enhancing the narrative.  Perhaps one of the most noticeable elements is the clever narration that accompanies the story.  While Harrow is the point of view character for most of the novel, she is not actually the one narrating the story.  Instead Harrow’s actions, emotions and thoughts are identified, summarised, and relayed back to Harrow by an unidentified second person narrator.  Naturally, this proved to be an interesting and unusual way to tell this story, although it works well in the context of the overall narrative, even if it takes a little to get used to.  This narrative format plays into certain character reveals and plot points of the novel and it makes a lot of sense once you get further into the book, with the style itself actually being a hint about what is happening with Harrow.  This narration style changes at a certain point towards the end of the book in accordance with certain plot developments and the subsequent deviation is clever and reminiscent of past events.  I also really must highlight the author’s extremely descriptive form of story writing, as every event, person or location is described in overly vivid detail.  Not only did this ensure that the reader got the full breadth of certain magical action and developments but it also helped to enhance the overall gothic feel of the book and ensure that reader was able to easily imagine the various locations the protagonist found themself in.  This really helped the story to shine and I have a lot of love for how Muir was able to work story elements into this style.

In addition to the great story that Muir has come up with for this book, Harrow the Ninth also boasts an impressive array of amazing characters.  The central protagonist is the titular Harrow, who takes over from Gideon as the main character after the first book.  Harrow is a vastly different character to Gideon as she has a much more subdued personality, less self-esteem, and a more restrained, subtler sense of humour.  Due to Gideon’s somewhat biased narration in the first novel Harrow was mostly viewed as an extremely arrogant, confident, and brilliant person, and this is how Harrow attempts to act throughout most of the novel.  However, certain vulnerabilities in Harrow’s character that were previously explored in Gideon the Ninth once again come to the fore in this second novel.  Harrow was already an extremely complex individual, having been birthed by dark magic, ended up being responsible for the death of her own parents and having an interesting love interest.  However, following her alteration into Lyctorhood, Harrow is a much more damaged person due to the absorption of her cavalier.  Harrow’s already fractured psyche is made even worse throughout the course of the book, as she sees all manner of things that are not there and has some very different ideas of the past or how she perceives the world.  In addition, Harrow bears an immense amount of guilt on her shoulders as a result of various events in her past and the many deaths on her conscience.  Harrow needs to work through all these issues throughout the course of the story if she has a chance to survive, and this becomes a major and dramatic part of the story that was really intriguing to explore.  I had an amazing time seeing the story primarily through Harrow’s eyes and it was a refreshing and compelling change of pace from the first book.

Harrow the Ninth also focuses on a great collection of supporting characters who add some intrigue and drama to the story.  Perhaps the most distinctive side characters in this novel are the five beings that Harrow finds herself trapped with aboard the Mithraeum, the Emperor of the Nine Houses and his four other Lyctors.  This is an extremely fascinating collection of people and much of the story revolves around Harrow’s unique interactions with them as each of them attempts to teach her, manipulate her or kill her at various points within the book.  These characters are really entertaining and distinctive, from the seemingly kind, patient, and infinitely calm Emperor, to the three ancient Lyctors, the cool and confident Augustine, the exceedingly self-involved Mercymorn and the ultra-focused and lethal Ortus.  In addition, we see the return of the manipulative Ianthe, who became a Lyctor at the same time as Harrow and who forms a very distinctive relationship with her throughout the course of the book.  I really enjoyed the complex interactions and relationships that forms between all of these characters (including some wild relationships between various participants), with the Emperor acting as the father figure, the three existing Lyctors portrayed as older siblings who have a complicated power dynamic with each other, while Ianthe and Harrow are the younger sisters learning the ropes from the others.

I also have to highlight the inclusion of several other characters who previously appeared in Gideon the Ninth.  It was rather intriguing to see many of these characters return, especially as most of them died or appeared to die in the prior novel.  Muir does a fantastic job working them into the fabric of this novel, such as by featuring some of them in the alternate version of the events of the first book, changing their roles and impacts on the story as a result.  I particularly enjoyed the extended role of Ortus, cavalier of the Ninth House.  Ortus, not to be confused with the Lyctor mentioned above (although the names are actually a clever clue to a big reveal), died early on in the events of Gideon the Ninth.  But in this book the dour Ortus serves as a fantastic yet reluctant companion to Harrow, with surprising hidden depths and an entertaining obsession with gloomy epic poems and verse.  He is also essentially the complete opposite to Gideon, resulting in a very different dynamic between necromancer and cavalier then we saw in the prior book.  Overall, I have to say that I was exceedingly impressed with the characters featured within this amazing novel.  Each of these complex and memorable characters added a heck of a lot to the story and it was deeply fascinating to see each of their storylines unravel and come to their compelling conclusions.

One of the major elements of this series that I love so much is the weird and wonderful necromantic magical system complements the science fiction of the book.  Pretty much all of the main characters in this book are powerful necromancers, specialising in a different form or style of necromantic magic.  All of this magic is extremely cool, and it was really awesome seeing it utilised in fight sequences and other scenes throughout the book.  Most of the magical elements revolve around Harrow’s bone magic, as she creates skeleton and bone constructs, manipulates her own bones to either enhance herself or detach them to make weapons or other creations, as well as elements of biological alteration.  Muir does an outstanding job explaining the full range of different powers that Harrow has, and there are some amazing scenes where the young necromancer does some really inventive and clever things with her bones.  There is one sequence in particular that sticks in the mind, and I’ll certainly remember it when eating soup in the future. 

In addition to Harrow’s abilities, Muir also showcases the creative and impactful abilities and magical powers that some of the other characters have.  These various abilities are all biological or spiritual in nature, and it was quite fun to see what the different necromancers can do, especially when they go up against Harrow’s bone magic.  All these magic scenes feature some rather vivid imagery and descriptions from Muir as she tries to show the full biological manipulations that are occurring, which really help to make these scenes pop.  The author also does a truly fascinating deep dive into the origins and mechanics of her unique magical system.  A lot of these new magical elements are explained to protagonist in some detail from one of her teachers, so the reader is able to understand these elements really well, and a lot of the lessons and explanations of magic have major impacts on the story down the line.  This proved to be an extremely interesting and enjoyable part of the book and I have a lot of love for Muir’s creativity when it comes to her version of necromantic magic.

I also have a lot of love for the distinctive gothic settings that Muir has imagined up for this series.  Each of the central story locations are filled up with all manner of dark and macabre trappings and features, which the author does a fantastic job bringing to life with her descriptive writing.  This includes the dreary and dark Mithraeum, a vast and mostly abandoned space station where most of the story takes place, as well as an alternate version of the First House that appeared in Gideon the Ninth.  All of these locations are described in great detail and each of these fun and distinctive settings helps to present a darker vibe to story and helps makes this series more unique and memorable as a result.  Harrow the Ninth also contains some rather captivating and inventive universe building expansions as the author attempts to introduce new things into her universe.  All of these extensions to this universe are really clever, playing into the story really well and I loved learning more about this fun fictional setting which does so much to enhance the story. 

I found that the audiobook format of Harrow the Ninth proved to be an excellent way to enjoy this amazing novel.  With a run length of just under 20 hours the Harrow the Ninth audiobook does require a bit of a commitment to get through it, although I felt that it was really worth the time investment.  I do have to admit that it took me a little while to finish this audiobook, especially at the start.  However, I absolutely flew through the second half of the novel once I became extremely invested in the story, and I managed to knock out the final six hours in rather short succession.  I have to highlight the fantastic narrator for this audiobook, Moria Quirk, who does an outstanding job telling the story and bringing the various characters to life.  I felt that Quirk utilised perfect voices for each of the main characters and you get a real sense of each character’s personalities and emotions from this vocal work, from the calm, composed tones of the Emperor to the exceedingly petulant voice of the Lyctor Mercymorn.  This excellent voice work really added a lot to this audiobook. I really think that Harrow the Ninth translates well into the audiobook format, and listening to it really added to my enjoyment of this second novel, especially as I absorbed a lot more of the detail and gothic atmosphere through the narration.

Harrow the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir was an epic and exceptional piece of fiction that I deeply enjoyed, and which comes highly recommended.  Not only did Muir present an impressive follow-up to her amazing debut novel, Gideon the Ninth, but she was able to turn out a complex and beautifully written sequel that proved extremely hard to stop listening to.  Powerful, cleverly written and just generally outrageous, Harrow the Ninth is an outstanding read and you have no discovered Tamysn Muir and her fantastic pieces of literature, you are really missing out. 

Aurora Burning by Amie Kaufman by Jay Kristoff

Aurora Burning Cover

Publisher: Allen & Unwin (Trade Paperback – 5 May 2020)

Series: Aurora Cycle – Book Two

Length: 497 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

The powerhouse writing team of Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff, two of Australia’s best authors, return with the second book in their epic young adult science fiction series, the Aurora Cycle, with Aurora Burning.

Far in the future, and the universe has never been in more trouble.  A sinister new threat has emerged in the galaxy, the ancient menace known as the Ra’haam, plant-like parasites that wish to incorporate all life in the universe into their hivemind.  In order to facilitate their goals, the Ra’haam have taken over humanity’s premier intelligence organisation, the GIA, and are using them to manipulate everyone towards war.  Luckily, a squad of the intergalactic peacekeeping organisation, the Aurora Legion, is on the case, desperate to stop the Ra’haam at any cost.  Unfortunately for us, the scrappy and mismatched Squad 312 are a bunch of hormonal teenagers with some serious personal issues.

Following the tragic events that occurred on Octavia III, which saw one of their members fall, Squad 312 needs to regroup and rethink their strategy.  Already disowned by the Aurora Legion and hunted by GIA, their task becomes infinitely harder when they are framed for a terrible crime and become the most wanted beings in the galaxy.  Worse, the squad’s Syldrathi tank Kal’s long lost sister is also on their trail, determined to achieve a fatal family reunion, and she has a small army of genocidal Syldrathi warriors backing her up.

As the Squad flees from those hunting them, they attempt to work out a plan to save everyone.  Their only hope is to get their resident psychic girl out of time, Auri, to the Trigger, a powerful weapon left behind by an ancient enemy of the Ra’haam, which Auri can use to wipe the plant parasites out and save everyone else.  However, they have no idea where it is, and their only clue is the salvaged remains of the colony ship Auri was trapped on for hundreds of years.  Attempting to recover the ship’s black box, the Squad soon find themselves in a whole new world of trouble.  Can they overcome their various problems and opponents before it is too late, or is the whole universe doomed?

I actually read this book a little while ago, and while I did do a short review of it in the Canberra Weekly I have been meaning to do a longer review for a while as I did have a great time reading this book.  Aurora Burning is another fun and fast-paced novel from Kaufman and Kristoff that serves as an amazing follow up to the epic first entry in the Aurora Cycle, 2019’s Aurora Rising.  This was an absolutely fantastic book that features an amazing young adult science fiction story based around several excellent characters.  Readers are guaranteed an awesome read with Aurora Burning, and it was an absolute treat to read.

At the centre of this book is a fast-paced, action-packed, character-driven narrative that follows the adventures of a mismatched and entertaining group of protagonists as they attempt to save the universe.  The story is deeply enjoyable and very addictive, allowing readers to power through this exciting novel in a remarkably short amount of time.  The story starts off extremely strong, and readers are quickly catapulted into all the fun and excitement as the team encounter all manner of problems and obstacles that they need to overcome in their own special and chaotic way.  The plot is also extremely accessible to those people who have not had the chance to read Aurora Rising first, especially with the exceptionally detailed character synopsis and history contained at the start of the book and the succinct plot replays from the various characters.  I loved the excellent science fiction adventure story that Kaufman and Kristoff have come up with for Aurora Burning, especially as it contains a great blend of action, adventure, drama and romance, all wrapped up with the series’ unique of sense humour.  I also really liked where the story went throughout the course of the book.  The authors drop in some big twists and reveals throughout Aurora Burning which have significant impacts on the plot and ensure some rather dramatic moments in the story.  All of this proves to be extremely compelling, especially as the plot leads up to some high stakes and memorable cliff-hangers at the end of the book, with the fate of many of the characters left to chance.  This pretty much ensures that I am going to have to get the next entry in the series when it comes out next year, and if the authors keep up the amazing writing that they did in Aurora Burning, I really do not have a problem with that.

Just like in the first book, Aurora Burning’s story is told from multiple perspectives, as all of the surviving members of Squad 312 serve as point-of-view characters throughout the course of the novel.  There are currently six members of the squad, including Aurora (Auri), the physic girl who the squad rescued in the first book, Tyler the team’s Alpha (leader), Kalis (Kal) the Tank (fighter extraordinaire), Scarlett the Face (team diplomat), Finian the squad’s Gearhead (mechanic) and Zila the Science Officer.  These protagonists are an eclectic and damaged group of characters, and I liked how each of them represented different young adult fiction character archetypes.  For example, Auri is the powerful chosen one, Tyler is the charismatic leader trying to live up to his heroic father’s legacy, Kal is the broody outsider with secrets, Scarlett is the team’s voice of reason and overconfident heartbreaker, Finian is the insecure one who overcompensates with sarcasm, while Zila is the brilliant but socially awkward one.  Each of these protagonists narrates several chapters throughout the book, which allows the authors to dive into their history and feelings, showing their opinions and thoughts on the events that occur throughout the course of the book.

I personally really enjoyed each of these central characters as individuals as each of them have their own unique personalities and idiosyncrasies which the authors highlight in each character’s various point-of-view chapters.  It was interesting to see how each of them has developed since the first books, with the squad coming together as a team and working together and supporting each other, as well as how the revelations and tragedies that occurred at the end of Aurora Rising have impacted them.  Each of these protagonists have their own specific story arc in Aurora Burning, and the story sees several of the characters get separated from the rest of the group and embarking on their own adventures.  There are some really interesting developments that occur throughout the book, with some characters having more of their backstory revealed, while others have major revelations about themselves be made public.  While the focus of the book is generally split rather fairly between the members of Squad 312, Auri and Tyler did rather stand out in the first novel as the main characters.  This continues in Aurora Burning, although Kal also gets a substantial amount of focus, not only due to his romance with Auri, but because his sister is introduced as a determined antagonist, resulting in secrets from his past coming out.  This does mean that Scarlett, Finian and Zila do get a little less focus, although substantial time is spent on exploring them and their personalities, such as Zila’s previously hidden past, or certain hinted relationships or personal revelations.  These entertaining and neurotic point-of-view characters are one of the main reasons this book was such a fantastic read and I really liked where the authors took their various relationships and story arcs.  It will be really interesting to see where they end up in the third book, and I am looking forward to finding out their final fates.

As a result of where the story goes, the authors continue to explore and expand on the fun and compelling universe that Aurora Burning is set in.  There are a number of interesting new elements to this book as a result, including some great new side characters, such as Kal’s murderous family, more alien races, a dive into the history of this universe and an examination of the Ra’haam and their ancient, long-dead enemies the Eshvaren.  I rather enjoyed learning more about this universe, and I particularly liked how the authors use Aurora’s defective uniglass Magellan (think an advanced iPad with an annoying and snarky AI personality), to explore extra details.  Not only does Magellan act as a sort of seventh protagonist for the book, but he also provides in-universe information summaries at the start of several chapters, as well as providing the readers with the detailed character bios at the start of the novel.  These information summaries are rich in historical and social details about several elements of this universe, and they really help to expand on the information provided throughout the story.  Naturally, Magellan provides entries that are a little more personalised and different that a standard history or encyclopedia record would be, and it was often quite amusing to see the humorous and light-hearted changes that are added in.  Overall, the novel features some rather big and dramatic reveals about the universe and what has been happening in it, resulting in some major story moments with significant and captivating consequences.

Aurora Burning is marketed towards the young adult fiction crowd, and in many ways it is a great book for a younger audience, featuring a group of diverse teens rebelling against authority and doing things their own way.  However, due to the mild sexual content, which includes quite a bit of innuendo, this is probably best suited to older teenagers who will no doubt enjoy the exciting narrative and dynamic characters.  Like many young adult fiction novels, Aurora Burning is also quite a good book for older readers who are interested in the story.  Indeed, this is one of the easiest young adult fiction novels for adult readers to get into, as the story is quite well written and exceedingly entertaining.  As result, this second book in the Aurora Cycle is a great read to check and I think that it will appeal to a wide and diverse audience of readers.

I have to say that I had an incredible time reading Aurora Burning and it turned out to be quite an excellent read.  Kaufman and Kristoff do an outstanding job of continuing the fun and action packed narrative that started in Aurora Rising and I loved the blend of fast-paced storytelling, universe building, humour, all told through the eyes of six distinctive and fantastic point-of-view characters.  This book comes highly recommended and I cannot wait to see how these awesome Australian authors finish off this series next year.

The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes by Suzanne Collins

The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes Cover

Publisher: Scholastic Audio (Audiobook – 19 May 2020)

Series: The Hunger Games – Book 0

Length: 16 hours and 16 minutes

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Grove of the Caesars by Lindsey Davis

9781529374278

Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton (Trade Paperback – 2 April 2020)

Series: Flavia Albia – Book Eight

Length: 399 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Get ready for an outstanding historical murder mystery as one of my favourite authors, Lindsey Davis, returns with another book in her amazing Flavia Albia series, The Grove of the Caesars.

“Don’t go to the Grove.”

Rome, 89 AD. Flavia Albia, professional informer and all-around busy body, is still adjusting to domestic life with her new husband. When he is called away for a family emergency, Flavia takes up the reins of his construction business and begins to supervise several of their projects, especially a demolition and construction job within the sprawling gardens outside the city that Caesar long ago gifted to the people of Rome.

Ignoring the subtle warnings of those men familiar with the gardens to stay away from them and their accompanying sacred grove, Flavia visits the worksite, where she finds a series of mysterious scrolls buried in a cave. Why has someone buried a mass of scrolls from obscure Greek philosophers, and what dark secrets do the scrolls hold? Before Flavia can investigate any further, a woman is brutally murdered at a party held at the grove, and two of Flavia’s slaves go missing.

It turns out that there is a killer lurking in the sacred grove; one who targets women and who has successfully avoided detection for years. With the local vigiles failing to properly investigate the crime, Flavia decides to take on the case. However, can Flavia catch a murderer clever enough to escape justice for two decades, especially once the Emperor’s sinister secret agent Karus takes over the investigation? Forced to work with Karus once again, can Flavia find justice for all the murdered women, or will she end up as the next victim of one of Rome’s most dangerous killers?

The Grove of the Caesars is a deeply compelling and highly entertaining novel that once again follows the clever and likeable protagonist, Flavia Albia, as she investigates a gruesome murder in the heart of ancient Rome. This is the eighth book in the excellent Flavia Albia series, which acts as a sequel to the 20-book long Marcus Didius Falco series of historical murder mystery novels. I have been a major fan of the Flavia Albia books for years, having read and reviewed all the previous novels in the series as soon as they came out (make sure to check out my reviews for the previous three books, The Third Nero, Pandora’s Boy and A Capitol Death). All of Davis’s previous novels have been extremely enjoyable, and I have been looking forward to reading The Grove of the Caesars for some time now, and once again Davis did not disappoint. The Grove of the Caesars is another outstanding read that successfully combines together a great murder mystery storyline with a detailed historical setting and engaging central protagonist to produce a captivating narrative that I ended up reading in very short order.

At the centre of this amazing novel is a captivating and dark mystery storyline that sets the protagonist against a cunning and vicious serial killer. The Grove of the Caesars actually has two mysteries contained within it, one involving buried scrolls that the protagonist finds hidden within a cave, and the more pressing case of the murderer within the gardens. Flavia ends up working on both cases simultaneously, and the two mysteries wrap together quite well to produce a great storyline, especially when also combined with some of the other plot elements that Davis throws into it. Both of these mysteries are really clever, and the author makes sure to fill the book with all manner of alternative suspects, intriguing swerves and false leads to keep the reader guessing right up to the end. There were a number of fantastic elements to these mysteries, from the impressive way that they were investigated to the stunning developments and the great conclusions both of them had, including some surprising revelations that came out at the end of the case of the buried scrolls. Davis once again makes sure to portray the investigation in a very modern manner, so that this case felt more like a contemporary mystery novel at times, which I thought worked really well with her enjoyable protagonist and which fit in with the very modern way that the author portrays her historical setting. I was a bit surprised about how dark this book got at times, as Davis, usually has a bit of a lighter tone with her writing, even though they follow murder mysteries. However, the central case of the serial killings was pretty gruesome at times as the antagonist, who displayed a number of characteristics associated with more modern serial killers, did some rather horrible things to his various victims. While it did give this book a bit of a stronger tone at times, I felt that having such an evil antagonist really helped to drag me into the story, as I looked forward to seeing him get caught, and this was overall a really excellent mystery storyline.

Another key aspect of the story is the detailed and compelling historical setting of ancient Rome. Historical Rome always has such potential as a setting, and Davis always does a fantastic job of bringing the city to life in all its chaotic glory, while also making all the inhabitants seem a lot more modern in their actions and attitudes. The Grove of the Caesars was no different, and I really enjoyed seeing the fun way that Davis melds her captivating mystery with this cool setting to create a great story. However, Davis also makes sure to set this story apart by her exploration of one of ancient Rome’s most fascinating features, Caesar’s gardens. The gardens are a sprawling set of sacred groves, forested areas, winding paths, statues and other intriguing features that were originally commissioned for Caesar himself and then gifted to the city after his death. Davis does an amazing job exploring this historically impressive garden, including its location, features and history, and I had a fantastic time learning more about it. It also serves as a really distinctive and compelling setting for The Grove of the Caesars’s story, and I enjoyed seeing the protagonist explore it trying to find hints and clues to the various crimes. I also enjoyed the more sinister air Davis gave the gardens once the reader knows that there is a killer stalking them, especially at night, and which helps to add a bit of tension to the story in the scenes where the protagonists is walking in the gardens alone.

One of the best parts of this book has to be the fun central protagonist, Flavia Albia, who is one of my favourite main characters in fiction at the moment. Flavia serves as The Grove of the Caesars’s sole narrator and point-of-view character, and it is through her eyes that we see most of the story unfold. For the most part, Flavia is a very confident and collected individual with bundles of sass and sarcasm and an unbelievable amount of life experience and cynicism after years spent working as an informant and investigator in Rome. It is thanks to this entertaining world view that most of the book’s humour is derived, as Flavia is full of all manner of funny comments and amusing observations about the world around her. This provides a much lighter tone for most of the novel, as Flavia can be rather sarcastic and witty, even during the darkest of moments. However, in The Grove of the Caesars she does get rather angry in places, especially after witnessing so much violence against women and other helpless characters, and her rage towards the book’s primary antagonist is quite palpable at times, making for some rather dramatic scenes. I also enjoyed the way that Davis works in a large amount of the protagonist’s home and family life into the story, and it is always entertaining to see Flavia interact with her outrageous and eccentric extended family, who offer help and hindrances to her life and investigations in equal measures. I also liked how the author has continued the storyline that sees Flavia and her husband take in and adopt a variety of interesting stray characters they encounter in their cases and add them to their growing household. It was rather fun to see characters who were first introduced in prior books make an impact on this novel’s mystery, and it makes for a fun continuity. I look forward to seeing more of Flavia Albia in the future, and I cannot wait to see what crazy adventures she gets up to next time.

I also have to highlight the wildly entertaining big story moment that occurred about two-thirds of the way into the book. In her last few books, Davis has taken to include a major sequence that features Flavia finding herself in the midst of an over-the-top situation. This includes the very funny sequence in Pandora’s Boy which saw an all-out brawl between a huge group of mixed participants in a collapsing temple, or the rather outlandish chase sequence that occurred in The Third Nero, that featured legionnaires, heavy Persian cavalry, chariots and an elephant in the heart of Rome. In The Grove of the Caesars, Davis makes sure to include another of these outrageous moments, this time featuring a desperate boat chase taking place in the middle of a park, thanks to a disused maritime gladiatorial arena. This chase sequence is filled with all manner of mishap and chaotic moment, as Flavia and several other key characters take to several dilapidated boats to try and resolve the situation, which has a rather extreme ending. Needless to say, this was my favourite part of the entire book, and I found myself laughing several times as events unfolded.

Lindsey Davis has once again shown why she is one of the best authors of historical murder mysteries, as The Grove of the Caesars is a wildly entertaining and addictive read. Davis has pulled together and exceptional story, filled with two compelling mysteries, great characters and an intriguing and distinctive historical setting. I had an amazing time reading this book, and it gets a full five-star review from me. I am eagerly awaiting Davis’s next novel (apparently titled A Comedy of Terrors), and I cannot wait to get my next Flavia Albia fix, this time next year. In the meantime, make sure to check out The Grove of the Caesars if you are in the mood for an exciting and clever read.

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

Usagi Yojimbo Circles

Publisher: Fantagraphics Books (Paperback – 1994)

Series: Usagi Yojimbo – Book Six

Length: 164 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Reviewed as part of my Throwback Thursday series, where I republish old reviews, review books I have read before or review older books I have only just had a chance to read.

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

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

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

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

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

Usagi 27

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

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

USagi 28

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

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

Usagi 29

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

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

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

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

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

Where Fortune Lies by Mary-Anne O’Connor

Where Fortune Lies

Publisher: HQ Fiction (Trade Paperback – 23 March 2020)

Series: Standalone

Length: 394 pages

My Rating: 4.25 out of 5 stars

From bestselling Australian author Mary-Anne O’Connor comes another fun and intriguing Australian historical drama, Where Fortune Lies, which tells a multi-layered story of people seeking their fortunes in colonial Australia.

1879, Ireland. Anne Brown is a beaten-down young lady, hoping to escape the harsh life of poverty and misery she sees the rest of the women in her family experience. After a particularly cruel night which sees the one good thing in her life taken away from her, Anne flees her hometown, hoping to make a new life for herself in far-flung Australia.

Several months later in London, young gentleman Will Worthington and his sister Mari are shocked to discover that their recently deceased father has changed his will. Instead of the modest inheritance they were expecting, they find that all his money has been left to a mysterious pregnant painted lady who intends to resettle in Australia. With their social standing in London destroyed, Will and Mari, along with Will’s loyal best friend, artist Charlie Turner, follow their father’s mistress to Australia to seek their fortunes.

Upon their arrival in Melbourne, Will Mari and Charlie quickly befriend local businessman Tom McIntosh and his beautiful daughter, Alice, who Will falls in love with. While Will and Mari enjoy the opportunities afforded to them in Melbourne, Charlie spends time in the Victorian Alps with Alice’s brothers, Harry and Richie, and their wild group of friends, who show him how to live the rough colonial life. While there, Charlie finds his artistic inspiration through his work with the McIntosh boys and their wild horses, as well as his love for a mysterious exotic dancer. However, danger lies on the horizon, as Harry and Richie have been covertly engaging in the deadly trade of bushranging. Soon the fates of all these young people will hang in the balance, as tough choices, dangerous loyalties and harsh heartbreaks will impact them all.

Where Fortune Lies is another fantastic read from O’Connor, who has written some exceptional historical dramas in her five-year career. I read my first Mary-Anne O’Connor book last year, In a Great Southern Land, which told an excellent story about a group of people coming to Australia in the 1850’s to participate in the gold rush and subsequent uprising at the Eureka Stockade. I quite enjoyed In a Great Southern Land and I was rather pleased that my review of it was quoted on the back of the copy of Where Fortune Lies that I received. This latest novel follows a similar concept to O’Connor’s last book, with a diverse group of characters journeying to opportunity-rich Australia in order to seek a better life, and O’Connor is once again able to weave together a rich and compelling story of love, family drama and action in the Australian wilds, and I quite enjoyed the fun blend of story elements that the author was able to come up with.

Where Fortune Lies contains a strong character-based story that follows the lives and adventures of several characters who are drawn together by fate, love and family. O’Connor does a wonderful job of introducing these key point-of-view characters, whose story the reader finds themselves getting quite attached to. I really enjoyed the way that the author spaced out the various character threads, taking the time to explore the lives of each of the separate characters. While some of the character arcs do cross over quite a bit (for example, Charlie Turner directly interacts with all the other major characters and serves as a major bridging character), other characters are kept relatively separate from each other, with only a few scenes together. However, these characters arcs still have some subtle interactions, with their actions indirectly impacting other characters’ lives, or the two characters meet or discuss each other without realising who the other person really is. I liked the method of storytelling, as it allowed the reader to get to know each character individually and see the various struggles and difficulties that they are facing, as well as how they overcome them and evolve as people. I really enjoyed each of the character arcs that O’Connor explored, and I think that all of them came to a satisfying conclusion, especially as the various threads combine together at the end of the book with all the main characters finding their final fates. Each of these character-driven storylines had a good blend of adventure, adversity, romance and drama, which I think came together extremely well as an overall narrative.

I really liked the way that O’Connor once again dived back into Australia’s past, this time looking at the turbulent 1870s, and presenting the reader with another view of the country’s iconic colonial history. Where Fortune Lies contains some fantastic examination of various parts of old-school Victoria, including the busting metropolis of Melbourne, and it was interesting to see O’Connor’s depiction of the crossing to Australia and the things that immigrants back in this period would have experienced. Most of the story, however, takes place in the rugged wilds of outback Australia, particularly in the wilderness and small towns of the Victorian Alps. O’Connor presents a fascinating exploration of these communities, and I really enjoyed her depictions of people capturing the wild horses a la The Man from Snowy River. However, the highlight of this jaunt back into history has to be the author’s focus on the bushrangers, the dangerous highwaymen who stalked the Australian outback. A good part of the book’s plot revolves around some of the characters getting involved in bushranging out of desperation or greed, and it was rather intriguing to see how society perceived these criminals. There are a number of references to real-life bushrangers, such as the Kelly Gang and Captain Thunderbolt, and I really enjoyed the parts of the book that focused on this exciting part of Australia’s history. All of this serves as an incredible background to this fun story, and I look forward to seeing what amazing part of Australia’s past O’Connor will explore in her next book.

Where Fortune Lies is another terrific Australian historical drama from O’Connor, who once again combines a captivating, character-driven narrative with an excellent depiction of Australia’s rich and vibrant history. This turned out to be an elegant and enjoyable read that features amazing romantic and dramatic plots, as well as an intriguing dive into the infamous bushrangers of Victoria. A fantastic new novel that once again sees O’Connor continues to shine as one of the most talented authors of Australian historical dramas.