Lady Smoke by Laura Sebastian

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Publisher: Pan Macmillan Australia (Trade Paperback Edition – 12 February 2019)

Series: Ash Princess Trilogy

Length: 496 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

 

Bestselling young adult fantasy author Laura Sebastian presents an outstanding follow-up to her 2018 debut with this superb novel which builds on the author’s original book and uses it to create a fantastic story.

For many years, Theodosia was a prisoner in her own palace.  The brutal warrior race, the Kalovaxians conquered Theo’s country of Astrea, enslaving her people and killing her mother, the Fire Queen.  Forced to live as a trophy prisoner and ridiculed as the Ash Princess, Theo eventually rebelled, escaping from the Kalovaxian ruler, the Kaiser.  However, her escape had complications, as she was forced to kidnap the Kaiser’s son, Prinz Soren, and poison her only Kalovaxian friend, Crescentia.

Now freed and claiming her birthright as Queen of Astrea, Theodosia is determined to take her country back.  With no troops of her own and only a handful of followers, Theo is forced to rely on her aunt, the pirate known as Dragonsbane, for support.  However, her aunt believes that the only way to liberate Astrea is for Theo to marry a foreign ruler and use their army to fight the Kalovaxians.  No Astrean Queen has ever married before, but with the desperate situation that Theo finds herself in, she has no choice but to allow Dragonsbane to organise a meeting with a number of potential suitors from the lands not controlled by the Kalovaxian armies.

Descending on the wealthy nation of Sta’Crivero, Theo is thrust into a dangerous hive of foreign royals and nobles, all of whom seek to use the newly released Astrean Queen to their own advantage.  Forced to decide between her heart and the needs of her people, Theo has to play along in order to find a way to defeat the Kalovaxians.  But sinister forces are at work within the Sta’Crivero palace: politicians are playing with her people’s lives, a sinister poisoner is targeting those closest to Theo, and the Kaiser has placed a price on her head.  Theo must rely on those closest to her, but even those she cares about the most could bring her down.

Lady Smoke is Laura Sebastian’s second novel, which follows on from her debut book, Ash PrincessAsh Princess was a fantastic fantasy debut which I enjoyed thanks to its interesting blend of political intrigue and clever fantasy elements.  However, I felt that Lady Smoke was an even better book, as Sebastian creates a much more compelling story while also expanding her fantasy universe and looking at the relationships between her characters.

Sebastian continues to focus on the growth of her protagonist and point-of-view character, Theo, as she rises to become the queen her people need.  In this book, Theo is recovering, both physically and emotionally from her years of captivity in the Kalovaxian court.  She is haunted by her decisions, including her ruthless manipulation and poisoning of Cress, one of the few people who considered Theo to be a friend.  In order to obtain the power she needs to free her kingdom, she must try use a strategic marriage to arrange an alliance with one of the countries outside of Kalovaxian’s influence.  The storyline focusing on her adventures within Sta’Crivero takes up a large portion of the book, and is an interesting piece of political intrigue.  Theo and her companions must attempt to find a political suitable match while also avoiding being manipulated by the rich and powerful rulers who all want to control or exploit her or her country.  There are a variety of layers to this story, as many of the rulers she encounters have their own agendas, and she must try and unravel them while also bringing some other nations to her cause.  Add to that, a mysterious poisoner is at large within the palace, attempting to kill Theo’s favoured suitors and allies while also framing one of her advisers.  Each of these parts of the story is deeply compelling, and I was very curious to see how this part of the story turned out.  These sequences also had some great emotional depth, as Theo is forced to balance her personal desires and opinions about arranged marriages, with the requirements of an army to free her enslaved people.

I thought that the main political intrigue and arranged marriage storyline of Lady Smoke was done amazingly and was one of the most enjoyable parts of the book.  The eventual conclusion of this storyline was handled pretty well, and readers will love the solution that the protagonist came up with.  I really liked the reveal about who the poisoner was, although I kind of saw the twist coming far in advance.  Even though I knew it was coming, I felt that the reveal was done extremely well, and the sinister motivations behind them made for some extremely compelling reading.  The final twists of the book were also very shocking, and I definitely did not see one particular event coming.  Overall, I had an absolute blast with this story, and thought it was substantially better than the awesome first book in the series.

Aside from the great story, one of the things I really enjoyed about Lady Smoke was the author’s superb universe expansion.  While a number of other nations that make up Sebastian’s fantasy world were mentioned within Ash Princess, the entirety of the plot took place within the conquered country of Astrea.  The plot for Lady Smoke, however, takes place in an entirely new setting, the kingdom of Sta’Crivero, which is an extremely wealthy and elitist realm.  While the people of Sta’Crivero initially appear supportive of Theo and the Astreans, it is revealed that they look down on the refugees and treat them as slave labour.  Sebastian does an amazing job of making the Sta’Crivero nobles sound exceedingly arrogant, and her descriptions of the rich and elaborate palace are stunningly decadent.  Once Sta’Crivero has been introduced as an excellent new setting for the story, the author brings in the rulers from all the nations that have not been conquered by the Kalovaxians.  Each of these new rulers is given an introduction, and their countries’ strengths and weaknesses are explored in various degrees of detail.  As Theo interacts with each of these rulers, the reader gets a better idea of the world outside of Astra and Sta’Crivero, resulting in a richer world tapestry for the audience to enjoy.  By the end of the book, Theo has made a number of allies and enemies from amongst these various nations, and it will be extremely fascinating to see how this comes into play within any future books in the series.

I quite enjoyed the unique and somewhat subtle magical elements that were shown throughout Ash Princess.  In this second book, the author continues to expand on her interesting magical inclusions by showing her magical characters utilising their powers to a greater and more obvious degree and using their powers in different situations.  I rather liked the exploration of ‘mine madness’, the process by which some Astrean magic users become overloaded with magic, especially those who have spent significant time in their magical mines as slave labour under the Kalovaxians.  Alternate explanations for this condition are given throughout Lady Smoke, and the author also examines the destructive nature of the condition, through several impressive scenes.  Other magical maladies are also featured within this book, and I liked how several unexpected characters were affected by these changes.

Sebastian does an amazing job of exploring the main character’s relationship with her friends and companions, and this forms an intriguing part of the plot.  There is a bit of a focus on her friendships with her companions, Artemisia and Heron.  Due to story reasons (Theo spent most of the first book on the other side of a wall), Theo was unable to build much of a relationship with either of these characters, so I liked how she started to bond with both of them.  This deepening relationship results in some character development of these two interesting side characters, and some interesting explorations of their life are explored, such as Artemisia’s relationship with her mother, the Dragonsbane, and Heron’s homosexuality.

The most compelling character interactions occur between Theo and her two love interests, Blaise and Soren.  Blaise is her oldest friend, her most loyal companion and the man who broke her out of the Astrean palace.  Soren, on the other hand, is the son of the Kaiser, her most hated enemy, and the man who Theo spent the majority of Ash Princess seducing and manipulating for her own ends.  Throughout the course of Lady Smoke, Theo finds herself attracted to both of these men, and must find a way to balance her feelings for them while also having to reconcile the possibility of choosing neither of them in order to secure her country’s freedom.  Adding to this drama, both Blaise and Soren have their own storylines and character development that they must undergo.  Blaise is suffering from mine madness, which has amplified his earth-based magic to a dangerous degree.  As a result, Theo has to spend a significant part of the book as his emotional tether, trying to rein in his temper and creating chaos.  Soren, on the other hand, must reconcile the evils that his countrymen and himself have undertaken while also trying to escape his father’s cruel legacy.  In order to make amends and to get revenge on his father, he finds himself on Theo’s side, but his relationship proves to be more of a liability to Astrea in a number of ways.  All of these issues make for an utterly captivating love triangle that really adds some interesting elements to the story.

In the follow-up to her debut novel, Ash Princess, Laura Sebastian continues her incredible fantasy series.  Lady Smoke is an amazing sequel that really highlights Sebastian’s growth as an author.  Not only does Sebastian successfully expand her fantasy universe, but she further develops her characters and provides the reader with an outstanding story.  I am very much looking forward to the sequel to this book, Ember Queen, which is coming out in 2020, and I am extremely curious to see how several story developments at the end of Lady Smoke take form.  Exceptional fantasy fiction from a creative and talented new author, Lady Smoke comes highly recommended.

Stranger Things: Suspicious Minds by Gwenda Bond

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Publisher: Century (Trade Paperback Edition – 5 February 2019)

Series: Stranger Things

Length: 301 pages

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

 

From acclaimed young adult fiction author Gwenda Bond comes this first official tie-in novel to the television sensation, Stranger Things.

It is 1969, and while America languishes in the midst of the Vietnam War, shadowy events with long-term implications are starting to take place in the small town of Hawkins, Indiana.  The enigmatic Dr Martin Brenner has arrived at the Hawkins National Laboratory to start conducting a series of experiments as part of the CIA’s secretive MKUltra program.  Arriving with him is the doctor’s most gifted test subject, a young girl simply known by the number Eight, who can create illusions with her mind.

In a nearby college campus in Bloomington a young student, Terry Ives, signs up as a test subject for a government experiment at her university.  When she meets Dr Brenner her determination and curiosity impresses him enough to include her in his new experiment.  Travelling to and from the Hawkins National Laboratory in an unmarked van, Terry meets her fellow participants in the experiment, Alice, Gloria and Ken.  Each of the participants has a unique set of skills or abilities, which Brenner hopes to draw out through administration of psychedelic drugs and other invasive techniques.

As the months pass and the experiments become harsher and even more unethical, Terry attempts to find out more about who Dr Brenner really is and what the objective of his experiments are.  When Terry discovers Eight, she begins to question everything that Dr Brenner has done.  With their academic and personal lives deeply tied to the experiment, Terry and her fellow test subjects must find a way to leave the program.  But Dr Brenner is determined to keep each of them involved in his project, and he will do whatever he can to not only trap each of them, including doing the unthinkable to Terry.

It is near impossible to be unaware of the cultural phenomenon that is Stranger Things, the Netflix show that takes its audience on a dark journey into a world of alternate universes and psychokinetic powers with a healthy dose of 80s nostalgia.  Stranger Things: Suspicious Minds is the first official tie-in novel to the television series, and it provides its readers with a prequel story that not only reveals some much-needed backstory to one of the series’ most beloved protagonists (no, not Barb), but also highlights the true nature of a sinister character from the first series.  Suspicious Minds is written by young adult author Gwenda Bond, who has significant experience writing tie-in novels, having previously written the intriguing-sounding Lois Lane series, which focuses on a younger version of the famed comic book journalist.

Despite Bond’s background as a young adult fiction author, this book is much more targeted towards an older audience.  The overall story can be quite dark in places, featuring canon-typical violence and horror themes, and the final chapters of the book show the antagonist doing some exceedingly cold and ruthless actions towards the protagonists.  Due to me being a fan of the television series, I did have a good inkling about how this story was going to end, but I still really enjoyed the dark twist regarding the main character and antagonist at the conclusion of the book and thought that it was quite cleverly done.  One of the other reasons I enjoyed Suspicious Minds was due to Bond’s outstanding story that contained some excellent allusions to the Stranger Things television show and a brand-new historical context to set the story within.

It does need to be said that Suspicious Minds is really a story for those fans of the Stranger Things television show.  This book is set some years before the television show and reveals how Eleven came to be in the custody of the Hawkins National Laboratory.  As a result, one of the main characters of this book is Eleven’s mother, Terry Ives, who was briefly seen in Season 1 and Season 2 of the show.  Some investigation in the first season and pretty powerful flashback in the second season have revealed some of these events, but not a lot of context was given.  As a result, viewers were uncertain about how Terry came to the attention of the government, who or where Eleven’s father was, or why Eleven was considered to be so special even before she was born.  All of these questions and more are answered within Suspicious Minds, and Bond is able to construct a fantastic background for this part of the television show.

In addition to the focus on Terry Ives and the origin of Eleven, Bond spends a significant amount of time focusing on the character of Dr Martin Brenner.  Dr Brenner is one of the main antagonists of the first season of Stranger Things, as he is not only the person responsible for containing and abusing Eleven but also the man in charge of the cover-up surrounding Will Byers’s disappearance.  For a good part of Season 2 of the show, it was assumed that Dr Brenner had died in the Demogorgon attack in the Season 1 finale; however, it was eventually revealed that he was alive and in hiding.  This probably means that he will be a major character again in Season 3 of the show, which means that the content of this book is extremely interesting for fans of the show.  Throughout Suspicious Minds, Bond goes out of her way to highlight what a cold and calculating character Brenner really is and to examine in more detail the crimes that he perpetuated against Eleven’s mother.  I found this examination of Dr Brenner to be absolutely fascinating, and the battle of wits that occurred between Terry and Brenner was a fantastic plot focus for this book.  By the end of the story, Brenner has been built up as a considerable antagonist, and it will be extremely interesting to see how much of Suspicious Minds’ characterisation of him will appear in future episodes of the show.

Aside from the necessary focus on these main two characters and their creation of Eleven, Bond also included a few curious connections to the show that I did quite enjoyed.  For example, there is a bit of a focus on the character of Eight/Kali, who appeared in a second season episode of the television show.  Suspicious Minds shows her as a young child, and focuses on her relationship with the Dr Brenner and some other characters.  There are also a few obligatory references to the Upside Down and the Demogorgon which, while interesting, do not overwhelm the rest of the plot.  I was also rather amused by Bond spending some time explaining how a photograph of Dr Brenner and his test subjects was taken so it could fit into the plot of Season 1.  Overall, I did enjoy these references, but I was relieved that Bond did not go too overboard with them and instead focused on her own unique story, resulting in a narrative that stood by itself and could potentially be enjoyed by someone who has not watched the show.

One of the most beloved parts of the Stranger Things television show is its use of 80s nostalgia, as it provides its viewers with epic amounts of cultural and historical references.  Bond does a good job replicating this scene-setting in the book by highlighting parts of that late 60s and early 70s American culture and society.  While there are several fun cultural references throughout the book, I liked how a large amount of the plot and background story focused on America’s involvement in the Vietnam War, which was dominating society at this point.  Suspicious Minds contains a number of references to the war, and Bond spends a good amount of time highlighting the various attitudes towards the war, including the divide between younger students and the older generations.  Several key events of this time are either shown or alluded to, such as Nixon’s “Silent Majority” speech, the 1969 National Draft Lottery and the Kent State University Massacre.  These result in some great settings for the story, and the impacts that they have on the characters and the overall plot of this book are really quite clever and interesting.  I also quite enjoyed how Bond tried to replicate the fantasy roleplaying vibe of the Stranger Things kids in this book by having her protagonists take inspiration from a fantasy source.  As Dungeons & Dragons would not be released until a few years after the events of this book, Terry and her friends refer to themselves as the Fellowship of the Ring, as each of them are major fans of The Lord of the Rings books.  I really enjoyed Bond’s decision to include this as a reflection of the show, and I loved how she chose a more time-appropriate series to serve as their inspiration.

Gwenda Bond’s novel, Suspicious Minds, is a compelling new addition to the Stranger Things universe which serves as a fantastic prequel to the television series.  Utilising an excellent combination of Stranger Things characters and intriguing historical events, this novel paints a dark and tragic picture of the origins of one of the franchise’s most iconic characters, while also examining the dark side of an early antagonist.  Highly recommend for those readers interested in expanding their knowledge of the Stranger Things’ universe, this book is also a dark and captivating story that will stick in the reader’s minds even if they are not fans of the franchise.

The Gutter Prayer by Gareth Hanrahan

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Publisher: Orbit (Paperback Edition – 17 January 2019)

Series: Black Iron Legacy (Book 1)

Length: 512 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

 

From debuting author Gareth Hanrahan comes the grimdark fantasy book that everyone has been talking about, The Gutter Prayer.  This debut novel has been getting some serious hype from a lot of fantasy reviewers, so I was very happy when I got my copy earlier in the week, as it will give me a chance to check it out for myself.

For thousands of years, the large, sprawling city of Guerdon has survived against all manner of attacks and calamity.  In recent years, the city’s alchemical industry has taken off, producing powerful weapons and twisted creations to sell to Guerdon’s warring neighbours, involved in the destructive Godswar.  But with the rival nation’s eyes on Guerdon, refugees flooding into the city and the city’s various factions fighting for power, the potential for chaos is great.

In the middle of all this, three mismatched young thieves – stranger to the city, Cari; the Stone Man, Spar; and Rat the ghoul – find their lives changed forever.  Hired by the leader of the city’s criminal element, these three thieves attempt to break into an important civic building, only to be nearly killed by a massive explosion and framed for the crime.  Pursued by the Alchemist Guild’s murderous enforcers, the Tallowmen, and the relentless thief-taker, Jere, the three friends attempt to escape their pursuers, but find themselves entangled in a terrible plot to bring destruction to the city.

Ancient creatures are rising from the city’s bloody past, and the city’s old gods are prepared to rise once again.  As Cari, Spar and Rat uncover the full extent of these gods’ power, they must contend with others who seek to use the chaos for their own ends.  With everything on the line, can the three friends find a way to stop the events unfolding, or will their failure result in the destruction of everything they hold dear?

This is Hanrahan’s first fictional book, although the author has written a number of gaming manuals and fantasy guides over the years.  However, with the evident popularity of The Gutter Prayer among the fantasy community, it seems extremely likely that this will not be Hanrahan’s only book.  Indeed, the author already has plans for a sequel, and The Gutter Prayer will form part of this planned Black Iron Legacy series.

I thought that The Gutter Prayer was an ambitious and intriguing new entry to the fantasy genre, and it is definitely worthy of the hype around it.  Hanrahan presents a wide-ranging and dark story of magic, religion and betrayal, and he sets it within an imaginative new fantasy landscape with a ton of unique fantasy elements and creatures.  The story is then based around several great characters, each of whom has their own compelling arc within the narrative.  The result is an excellent and memorable novel that showcases Hanrahan’s creativity and serves as an amazing introduction into a bold new fantasy universe.

This book contained a fantastic and intense story which focused on a variety of different characters and follows their attempts to investigate and forestall the strange events occurring around them.  I really enjoyed this story, although I had a little bit of a hard time getting into it at the start of the book due to mass of story and fantasy elements I was bombarded with.  However, I am extremely glad that I powered past this first part of the book because once I was able to place all the story elements together I appreciated the book’s wild and intricate plot.  One of the main things that I really loved about this book was the inclusion of a significant number of different characters and factions, each with their own motivations and hidden secrets.  As a result, you have no idea who is going to do what next and who is going to betray the protagonists to serve their own needs, creating an unpredictable story.  The narrative is also extremely dark, and readers should be prepared for characters dying or being altered in some way or another.  This is some fantastic storytelling from Hanrahan, and an overall clever narrative.

One of the most talked-about elements of this book is the author’s use of a huge range of unique fantasy elements.  Hanrahan has come up with and expertly utilised a ton of creative, inventive and at times just plain creepy new fantasy elements.  The best example of this has to be the Tallowmen, humans that have been turned into living candles, often as punishment for crimes.  These creatures are strong, lethal and fast, serving as the guards and law enforcers of the Alchemist Guild.  Their terrifying appearance, distinctive abilities and the glow of their candle flames as they hunt down the protagonists are extremely memorable.  Another terrifying inclusion is the Ravellers, servants of the city’s ancient gods who have the ability to unravel people out of existence and take on their appearance.  There are also the ghouls and Stone Men.  Stone Men are humans infected with a disease that slowly turns them into stone, although their condition can be held back by an alchemical compound.  The depictions of their condition are pretty horrific, and there is the interesting double-edged sword of the disease: they become stronger the more their condition progresses, but they also become less able to live normal lives.  The ghouls, humanoid creatures who feast of the dead flesh of humans, are an element that most fantasy fans will be familiar with, but Hanrahan has made some clever alterations to these creatures by expanding on their life cycle and making them a key part of the city’s history.  Another awesome creation is the Crawling Ones, a sentient hive of worms who take a human shape and are powerful magic users.

In addition to the above unique fantasy creatures, The Gutter Prayer also introduces the author’s great new twist on fantasy gods.  The world of the Dark Iron Legacy is filled with a vast pantheon of powerful gods, which forms a critical part of this universe.  Many of the deities outside of the city are engaged in a massive conflict known as the Godswar, where these gods and their followers are involved in battles against each other for supremacy.  While we get a brief look at this in The Gutter Prayer, most of the focus of this book is on the gods of Guerdon.  While a few other religions are mentioned within the city, the main two pantheons are the Kept Gods and the Black Iron Gods.  Both of these different gods are extremely intriguing, and I particularly loved the concept of the Kept Gods, who are chained and whose intake of prayer is controlled by their church to limit their power and control their actions.  The Black Iron Gods are a darker and more ancient pantheon with a great history, a horde of sinister followers and a captivating physical presence.  I also liked this universe’s concept of saints, those humans gifted power by their connection to the gods.  There are a couple of saints featured throughout the book who form an integral part of the plot, powering through the story with a range of different powers and abilities.  Quite frankly, all of these unique fantasy elements are deeply intriguing, and Hanrahan uses all of them perfectly to enhance his outstanding story.  I do hope that the Godswar will be explored in future books, as that sounded like a really fun concept that I would be deeply interested in.

Guerdon is a decent grimdark fantasy city, and it serves as the primary setting for most of the city.  The city’s range of interesting and unique residence allows for a fascinating overall story and makes this a fantastic setting.  I really like how the city is home to a range of competing factions, such as the Alchemists, the Church, the criminal organisation known as the Brotherhood, politicians and the city’s non-human races, each of whom have different plans for the future of the city.  This is a pretty typical dark, crime-ridden fantasy city, but it works really well as a setting for this story.  The author’s deep exploration of the history of his fantasy city served as a useful plot point, and I love how the city’s past came back to haunt it in a number of ways.

I have to say that I was really impressed with Hanrahan’s character work within this book.  The author introduces a number of amazing characters, most of whom get deep and satisfying story arcs.  The main three characters are particularly great.  I really liked Spar, who is not only the son of one of the city’s most famous criminals, but who is also a Stone Man.  It is through this character’s eyes that we get the best view of the living hell of life as a Stone Man, as Spar is forced to deal with all the unpleasant side effects that his condition brings.  At the same time he must deal with his family legacy as he fights to achieve his father’s dream of a more noble Brotherhood while forced to work for its current corrupt leader.  Rat the ghoul is another interesting character.  As a ghoul, he is generally supposed to live under the city, but he likes living above the streets with his friends.  Rat is constantly conflicted between loyalty to his friends and to his race’s ancient promises, as well as dislike for the traditional ghoul lifestyle.  Finally, there is the mysterious young thief, Cari, who holds a dark secret in her past.  Cari is a rebellious young female protagonist who is developing strange new powers.  The exploration of her past and her abilities is a key part of the book and a good basis for a large portion of this plot.  I liked the way that these three characters cared for each other and how their stories remain interconnected even as they have their own unique adventures within the story.

While these three main characters serve as an extremely powerful narrative base for The Gutter Prayer, the author also focuses on a couple of additional point-of-view characters, including the veteran thief-taker, Jere; Cari’s cousin, Eladora; and the saint of the Kept Gods, Arla.  These characters do not get as large a focus as the book’s three main characters, but their parts of the book are quite significant.  Each of them also has a full character arc within the book, and they all develop or change in substantial ways.  Jere is a grizzled private investigator obsessed with taking down the Brotherhood, and his investigations for the first two-thirds of the book provide the reader with some vital plot detail.  I really liked the end to Jere’s character arc, which was both dark and satisfying.  Eladora is a sheltered scholar who gets a rather rude awakening about life throughout the course of this book.  Eladora is not my favourite character, but I did like her gradual transformation from damsel in distress to something more useful.  Finally, there is Arla, who would have to be my favourite side character.  Arla is a saint of the Kept Gods blessed with fiery powers as a result.  Arla is a badass and entertaining character who spends most of the book fighting her opponents with her fiery sword and generally not acting in a way most people would consider saint-like.  I especially love when she utilises her god-empowered voice to command people, as she is usually swearing while doing this.  This comes up in the text in all caps, and you have to imagine it sounds pretty impressive in this book’s audiobook format.  There were a number of other entertaining side or minor characters throughout the book that the author put to good use, and I will enjoy seeing what role they will play in any future books in the series.

Overall, I truly enjoyed The Gutter Prayer and was impressed by Hanrahan’s magnificent debut.  This was an excellent piece of grimdark fantasy which expertly combined some very inventive fantasy elements together with a fantastic story and some excellent characters.  With this first book Hanrahan has shown some incredible talent as a fantasy storyteller whose outstanding imagination is his biggest asset.  This is a highly recommended book which lives up to the substantial hype surrounding it.  I am already extremely keen for any additional books in the Black Iron Legacy, especially as the interview at the end of the book implies that Hanrahan has some brilliant ideas for the rest of the series.

Shadow Captain by Alastair Reynolds

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Publisher: Gollancz

Publication Date – 8 January 2019

 

Tens of millions of the years in Earth’s future, during the period known as the Thirteenth Occupation, humanity travels across space in sailed spaceships, with many crews searching for relics and treasures from previous eras of human and alien occupation.  For years, the greatest threat to these ships was the legendary pirate Bosa Sennen, whose deadly black ship, the Nightjammer, ruthlessly hunted down and ambushed hundreds of ships, killing all onboard, before vanishing back into the darkness.  Continuously moving her consciousness from one body to the next, Bosa was able to keep her reign of terror going for years, becoming a near-horrifying myth throughout space.  However, Bosa unexpectedly lost everything when she came up against the Ness sisters, Adrana and Fura, whose courage and daring resulted in them taking Bosa’s ship and her life.

Now the Ness sisters command Bosa’s infamous ship, rechristened as Revenger, and seek to make their own fortunes.  Veering away from the ship’s previous profession of piracy, the Ness sisters and their crew scavenge through old abandoned bases, attempting to find lost treasures or supplies as they slowly establish a new life for themselves.  But the legacy of Bosa Sennen is constantly around them, and not even her death is enough to end her legend.

While Adrana seeks to come to turns with the horrors she witnessed as Bosa’s captive, Fura becomes obsessed with finding Bosa’s hidden cache of treasure from her extended lifetime of piracy.  En route to the planet of Wheel Strizzardy to find a source who may be able to lead them to the pirate trove, Revenger is attacked, forcing the crew to brutally defend themselves.  Arriving at their destination, they find that ships they encountered were hired by a consortium of hundreds of planets who have placed a massive bounty on Bosa Sennen’s head.  What’s more, they do not particularly care if she is already dead, as long as her ship and all aboard are captured and destroyed.  Now, with an armada behind them and the crew of Revenger stuck on the gangster-controlled world of Wheel Strizzardy, the Ness sisters must find a way to escape with the information they need.  But are they prepared for the devastating secrets their search will uncover?

Reynolds is a highly regarded science fiction writer who has been writing since the 1990s.  Throughout his career he has written a slew of short stories, novels and other works of fiction.  His main body of work include the Revelation Space series, The Prefect Dreyfus Emergencies, the Poseidon’s Children series and several standalone novels.  Shadow Captain is the second book in his Revenger series, and follows on from the first book in the series, 2016’s Revenger.

Shadow Captain is an intriguing and enjoyable piece of science fiction that follows a mismatched group of semi-pirates as they navigate their way through space.  Reynolds has created an ambitious new universe for this series, and set an interesting and compelling story in the heart of it.  Unfortunately, I never got a chance to read the first book in the series, Revenger, beforehand, and this somewhat negatively impacted my enjoyment of this book, as I failed to understand several key aspects of the series universe.  Despite this, I ended up really liking this fantastic read and I am looking forward to the next book in the series.

This main reason why my lack of experience with this series impacted how much I enjoyed Shadow Captain is the detailed new science fiction universe that Reynold’s has created.  This universe is pretty impressive, with a number of unique flourishes and a fascinating-sounding history made up of multiple, distinctive eras of widespread human occupation across space.  While this is a really fun feature, I found that Reynolds did a poor job of re-explaining a number of key features of his universe that were introduced in his first book.  Without these explanations I was somewhat lost during a number of important discussions that took place during the early parts of the story.  This was not a massively widespread issue and quite a few important elements were explained to the reader at various points of the book, although Reynolds did delay some explanations longer than necessary.  However, it was a bit frustrating not having an understanding of what some key elements of universe were, or what some slang or terms being discussed by the protagonists in the early parts of the book were, and there are still one or two elements that were mentioned in Shadow Captain that I am not 100 percent certain about.

I also did find the first third of the book was a little slow going, and it took me a while to really get into the story.  This was due to an early combination of not completely knowing what the characters were talking about at certain points, and some slower pacing as the author sets the scene.  While there were some good points to the start of the book, including an great summary of events in Revenger, and some intriguing scenes inside a ‘bauble’, an ancient and abandoned human construction in space, I did find it a little hard to stay interested.  However, I stuck with it and was very glad that I did, as the rest of Shadow Captain was a very entertaining and exciting read.  The last two thirds of the book are an excellent, fast-paced adventure, which features some great battles in space, an intrigue-laced period on the planet of Wheel Strizzardy and a hunt for a hidden trove of treasure.  I really enjoyed the part of the book set on Wheel Strizzardy, as it featured the crew going up against a bunch of ruthless gangsters on a backwater planet.  While there, they have to face off against a cannibalistic crime lord, deal with the secrets of aliens and attempt to outsmart several of the planet’s colourful inhabitants, all the while the bounty hunters chasing after them quickly get closer towards them.  This awesome last two-thirds of the book more than makes up for the slower start to the narrative, and makes Shadow Captain into a very good book overall.

One of the things I liked the most about Shadow Captain was the lingering impacts of events that occurred in the first book, which results in some fantastic character work from Reynolds.  In the first book, Revenger, the primary antagonist, Bosa Sennen, was a fairly impressive villain who perpetrated a number of terrible acts against many of the book’s characters.  Both of the book’s protagonists, the Ness sisters, were impacted in different ways by her actions.  Adrana was kidnapped in Revenger in order to be conditioned to become Bosa’s next host, a process that required her to endure significant torture and physiological abuse.  As a result, throughout Shadow Captain, Adrana must constantly deal with lingering issues impacting her psyche.  She is continuously angry throughout the book, and finds herself constantly holding back new and terrible thoughts that she is convinced are the last lingering aspects of Bosa’s mind and personality that might have been partially imprinted on her.  Fura is also severely impacted by the events of the first book, and has become angry and secretive, with goals she is hiding from her crew and even her own sister.  I liked the reasons behind Fura’s change in personality, as the character was forced to become more ruthless and paranoid in order to get into the mind of her foe, Bosa.  The focus on these characters’ changes in personality is an outstanding addition to the book that results in some significant and intriguing drama throughout the book.  I personally enjoyed seeing a villain’s impact continue so significantly after their death, and it was absolutely fascinating to see the various ways she lived, especially in these different but devasting impacts on the Ness sisters.

In the end, I am going to award Shadow Captain four stars out of five.  While I really enjoyed the book as a whole, the initial problems I experience with the early story and the somewhat ordinary job that Reynolds did re-explaining all of the significant elements of his universe lowered my overall rating.  As a result, I would highly recommend that readers interested in checking out Shadow Captain should probably read Revenger beforehand, as it may increase their overall experience.  There is still an amazing amount to enjoy about Shadow Captain, including an inventive science fiction setting, an entertaining story that ramps up as the book continues and some excellent character work surrounding the actions of the first book’s primary antagonist.  Overall, this is a great piece of science fiction that is well worth checking out, and any future books in the Revenger series will definitely be on my radar.

My Rating:

Four stars

Skyward by Brandon Sanderson

Skyward Cover.jpg

Publishers: Gollancz

                        Audible Studios

Publication Date – 6 November 2018

 

Legendary fantasy and science fiction author Brandon Sanderson once again delivers an incredible five-star read with Skyward, a brilliant young adult science fiction story that follows the journey of an energetic young protagonist at she attempts to claim the stars.

As of right now, I have only had the opportunity to read one of Sanderson’s novels, the epic fantasy book, The Way of Kings, which was easily one of the best fantasy reads of the last decade and which I gave a five-star review here.  After enjoying The Way of Kings I was keen to see how Sanderson’s writing ability translated to the young adult science fiction genre.  I have to say I was in no way disappointed, as Sanderson once again creates an amazing and exciting piece of literature, all set within an incredibly detailed new fictional landscape.  Skyward is the first book in Sanderson’s planned Skyward series, which is to be made up of a total of four books.  The second book in this series, Starsight, has apparently already been written, with a release planned for November 2019, while the third and fourth books, both yet untitled, already have tentative release dates in 2021 and 2022.  Starsight is already on my must-read list for next year, and will appear in my Waiting-on-Wednesday series of blog posts the moment the cover gets released.

Far in the future and on another planet, humanity has been under constant attack for hundreds of years.  A mysterious alien race known as the Krell pursued the human fleet across the stars, forcing it to crash on a desolate planet.  Those humans that survived were forced to flee below the planet’s surface, hiding in caves and only re-emerging when they gained the ability to create space fighters capable of fighting off the alien craft.  Now the Defiance Defence League (DFF) fights a constant war against the Krell, who are determined to wipe out the DFF’s main base and the production facilities beneath it.

Since she was a young girl, Spencer Nightshade has always dreamed of becoming a DDF pilot, the elite defenders of humanity, in order to claim the stars.  However, years ago, her father deserted during the most famous battle in DDF history and was shot down by his comrades.  Having been forced to live for years as a daughter of a coward, Spencer is eager to forge her own heroic destiny, but the DDF will never accept her into their flight program.

But with the war going badly and new pilots needed, Spencer is given a chance to join the DDF, thanks to the actions of her father’s old wingmate.  Joining a class of misfit cadets who dub themselves Skyward Flight, Spencer learns to fly the DDF’s ships against the Krell and quickly shows her determination and skill.  However, her father’s legacy is constantly weighing her down, whether by the sabotage of the DDF or the constant fear that deep down she might also be a coward.  With the Krell attacks getting worse, will Spencer find her place as a pilot, or will a terrible secret from the past come back to haunt her?  And through it all, what role will the ancient spaceship Spencer discovers have on the fate of humanity?

I not only received a physical copy of Skyward from Hachette Australia, but I also listened to a copy of this book in its audiobook format, which is narrated by Sophie Aldred and goes for just a little over 15 hours.  Both versions are pretty cool.  The trade paperback version of this novel contains a couple of great maps at the start of the novel that some readers may find useful when it comes to navigating around the story.  There is also a series of intriguing drawings throughout the book that show off several of the ships, both human and alien, that are featured in the story, all of which are juxtaposed against the main ships that the protagonist and her wingmates train and fight in.  The later parts of the book also contain some fantastic illustrations of flight manoeuvres and abilities, which prove informative when utilised with Skyward’s many aerial flight sequences.  I personally preferred the audiobook format of Skyward to the physical copy, as it allowed me to enjoy the many action-packed aerial scenes a whole lot more.  I also loved the narration by Aldred, who was able to create a number of excellent voices for the book’s various characters.

The reason I am giving Skyward such a high-star review is because it is an incredible piece of young adult science fiction that not only has an amazing story but which also contains several outstanding characters and some of the best ship-to-ship action sequences I have ever seen, all of which is combined with Sanderson’s trademark knack for large-scale world building.

I had a lot of fun with the story contained within this book, as Sanderson sets forth a layered and powerful narrative for the reader to enjoy.  Told primarily from the point of view of the protagonist, Spencer, Skyward contains a fantastic coming-of-age storyline set within a flight academy where the cadets learn how to fly in defence of their planet.  I always love a good school based learning narrative, and Sanderson has created an outstanding version of this, where the main characters spend most of the story learning the theory behind flying, while also engaging in real-life combat situations as they train.  As a result, there are heartbreaking losses, great emotional connections forged, and secrets and hints about the overall story slowly released to the reader, all while the protagonist is forced to contend with the machinations of a biased authoritarian figure who even gets to narrate a few chapters to highlight the reasons for her actions.  Overall this is an addictive and exciting story that will really stick in the reader’s imagination.

Sanderson has once again created a detailed and captivating new world in which to set his new series.  The book is set within a new planet that humans from Earth crashed upon years ago in the past, fleeing from a mysterious alien force.  For years the humans lived a nomadic lifestyle in the caves beneath the planet before finally fighting back using newly fabricated fighter craft.  Sanderson has created a fantastic world to host this story, exploring a society forced to live in caves and eventually creating a military base on the surface.  I love how the author has created a ton of new societal rules and features, as well as a world above and beneath the surface of this alien planet.  There is also some really cool and unique technology that comes into play throughout the book, especially in the many aerial combat sequences.  The aliens are mostly a mystery for the entirety of the novel, although I did really enjoy the reveals about them.  I imagine Skyward’s fictional universe will be expanding out in the future instalments of this series and I am very excited to see where this goes.

Some of the best things about this book are the excellent characters that the author has populated his story with.  Of particular note is the main protagonist and point-of-view character, Spencer, who is a really fun and complex character to see this story through.  Spencer is a great character whose life has always been defined by her father’s legacy.  As a result, she puts on an extremely brave and aggressive front to everyone she meets as she tries to convince people she is not a coward.  Because of this, Spencer is quite an eccentric character, spouting out long expositions about how she will harm her opponents, which is quite amusing at times.  However, as the reader gets further into the book, they find out how vulnerable she truly is, as deep down her father’s actions and legacy have had quite an impact on her.  As she progresses into flight training and becomes more and more like her father, she must content with the trials of war, emotional issues with her friends and loved ones, the DDF’s indoctrination against cowards and the secrets that have been kept from her.  The internal conflict and fear that follows is really well written by Sanderson and forms a captivating emotional centre for this amazing narrative.

Quite a lot of time is spent looking at the other cadets that make up Skyward Flight.  Each member of this flight has a unique personality and is given a callsign to make them more distinctive.  There is a fun camaraderie between these characters, and they form quite a close-knit team.  Sanderson spends significant time building up several of these characters, and Spencer, much like the reader, gets quite attached to them.  As a result, when tragedy hits the team, there are some significant emotional blows that come with it.  I liked how the different friendships and relationships help Spencer grow as a character, as she started out the book a bit of a loner.  These side characters are absolutely fantastic, and add another great emotional feature to Skyward’s story.

While Spencer and Skyward Flight are all great characters, my favourite character in all of Skyward had to be the sentient spaceship, M-Bot.  M-Bot is an advanced spaceship who, for various reasons, is obsessed with mushrooms, spends much of the book cracking bad jokes and forms a close relationship with Spencer, the human who discovers it.  M-Bot has to be one of the funniest and quirkiest characters in the whole book, providing several of the book’s best jokes and funniest lines.  The ship’s relationship with Spencer is really well written, as it attempts to balance its existing command code with its new friendship.  This results in some amazing scenes, and I never thought before this book that I would get emotional about a spaceship.  M-Bot is particularly great in the audiobook version, as Aldred gives the ship an excellent Irish accent that really fits the character’s personality perfectly and makes M-Bot stand out throughout the book.

Easily my favourite thing about Skyward has to be the insane and incredibly well-written aerial combat sequences that fill this book.  All of the battles take place within the planet’s atmosphere among falling debris fields, resulting in some elaborate and exciting dog-fights between the DDF fighters and the Krell.  Quite a number of battles feature throughout Skyward, as the protagonist and her companions attempt to stop the Krell destroying humanity’s only hope of leaving the planet.  The author spends significant time exploring the physiology of these aerial fights, including the various tactics, training and technology utilised by the DDF and the Krell.  In particular, Sanderson has created some unique technology to help create some truly amazing combat sequences, including light-lances, which are energy beams that the DDF fighters use to not only throw Krell fighters around but to also help their ships do precise and elaborate manoeuvre around the falling debris.  I also loved how Spencer and her flight got better as the book progressed, reflecting their training and their ability to work together as a team.  All of these battle scenes are fast paced and incredibly well written, and the reader constantly finds themselves placed into the middle of these epic battle sequences.  I found that the audiobook version of Skyward was particularly effective at bringing me into these combat scenes, and I was often on the edge of my seat as I listened to them.  There are a number of these amazing sequences throughout the book, whether they were real battles or simulations.  Highlights for me have to be a high-speed chase through a giant, ancient factory crashing down to the ground, or the final high-stakes battle that serves as an epic conclusion to the whole story.  These battles are truly an amazing feature of Skyward, and I cannot wait to see what incredible aerial battles feature in the future books of this series.

Skyward is one of my favourite books of 2018 and is definitely one of the best young adult books I have read this year.  Brandon Sanderson once again cements his legacy as one of modern fiction’s best fantasy and science fiction authors, as readers are treated to an epic science fiction read set in a rich and detailed new world.  Featuring some amazing characters and outstanding depictions of aerial combat between humans and aliens, this book comes highly recommended.  I have made no secret about how much I am looking forward to future entries in this series and cannot wait to see where Sanderson takes this story next.

My Rating:

Five Stars

Dark Sacred Night by Michael Connelly

Dark Sacred Night.jpg

Publishers: Orion

                       Hachette Audio

Publication Date – 30 October 2018

 

Legendary crime author Michael Connelly returns for another clever and technically detailed crime thriller that teams up his iconic and most utilised protagonist, Harry Bosch, with his recently created female protagonist, Renée Ballard.

In the chaotic world of the LAPD, Renée Ballard is an outsider who has found herself permanently on the graveyard shift of the Hollywood beat.  Returning to the near-abandoned station after a callout, Ballard is surprised to find a stranger rifling through her unit’s filing cabinets.  The intruder is maverick retired detective Harry Bosch, formally of the LAPD, now currently working as a contractor for the San Fernando police.

Bosch is working a cold case for personal reasons.  The victim, a 15-year-old runaway, Daisy Clayton, was brutally murdered several years before and Bosch has gotten close to the girl’s devastated mother.  Initially kicking him out the station, Ballard’s subsequent investigation of Bosch’s actions reveals the full details of the case to her and she finds herself drawn to Bosch’s hunt for justice.  As the two outsider detectives join forces in order to solve the case, they are once again thrust into the grimy underworld of Hollywood.  But as they attempt to find justice, a cornered killer, departmental politics and the dangerous suspects of the two detectives other investigations may cause the case to come crashing down around them.

Michael Connelly is a prolific and award-winning crime novelist who has been writing since 1992.  During that period he has written over 30 books, all of which are set in the same shared universe.  Connelly’s debut book, The Black Echo, introduced his most iconic character, Harry Bosch, who has been the protagonist of 21 of Connelly’s books, as well as being a supporting character in several other books.  Due to the author’s focus on this character, Connelly’s extended crime universe is often referred to as the Harry Bosch universe.  Connelly has also written a number of other thrillers in this universe, featuring several other protagonists, such as lawyer Mickey Haller, reporter Jack McEvoy and investigator Terry McCaleb.  Many of the characters introduced in previous books often have small roles in later books, while Bosch has had interactions with most of Connelly’s other protagonists.  The second protagonist in Dark Scared Night, Renée Ballard, is a more recent creation who was introduced in the 2017 novel The Late Show, and this is her first interaction with Bosch in Connelly’s wider universe.

Outside of the literary world, Connelly’s works have been adapted to film and screen.  His Harry Bosch novels have been adapted into the current Bosch television series, which will air its fifth season in 2019.  Two of his books have also been adapted into movies.  His novel, Blood Work was adapted into film in 2002 with Clint Eastwood, while his first legal novel, The Lincoln Lawyer was adapted into film in 2011 with Matthew McConaughey.

Dark Sacred Night is an excellent piece of crime fiction that presents the reader with a series of interesting investigations, told from the perspectives of two fantastic police protagonists.  I listened to this book in its audiobook format, which is jointly narrated by Christine Lakin and Titus Welliver, and runs for 10 hours and 39 minutes.  Dark Sacred Night primarily focuses on the investigation into a cold case of a young runaway girl who was brutally killed nine years previously.  This central case is massively intriguing and takes the reader deep into the sordid and disturbing criminal nightlife of Hollywood.  The main case is a gritty and unique investigation as the protagonists are forced to rely on different methods than they would usually utilise to solve the case.  Rather than having any recent evidence, the detectives are forced to rely on old interviews and pieces of police intelligence to identify any potential suspects or witnesses.  This is an intriguing way to investigate an old crime, and I really enjoyed the way they were forced to utilise this less substantial evidence to find their killer.  This method results in the protagonists identifying and investigating several distinctive suspects, and the reader is presented with a series of false leads and suggested possibilities.  I was able to identify who the killer was quite early in the book, but I still had a lot of fun following the investigation to its conclusion.

I really enjoyed the way that Connelly seeded a large number of smaller cases throughout the novel for the protagonists to solve, as well as a number of examples of police work in action.  There is an interesting split here as Ballard, the full-time detective, is given a series of more official and everyday crimes to solve, such as a suspicious death, a missing persons, a theft, trespassing and a kidnapping that she investigates to various degrees throughout the book.  Bosch, on the other hand, only has one case, an old, unsolved gang execution that he is pursuing in San Fernando and which is the focus for a good portion of his chapters.  The inclusion of these smaller cases is a clever move from Connelly as it breaks up the story from a pure focus on the main case and presents a wider viewpoint of crime and policing in the book’s setting.  It also allows the author to showcase his protagonists’ divergent investigative skills and presents the readers with an additional number of compelling mysteries and adventures that they can sink their teeth into.  Some of these additional cases tie into the main mystery in some surprising ways and clues or suspects may be revealed through this.

All of these mysteries do an amazing job showing of the author’s obvious knowledge of police procedures and law enforcement techniques.  Connelly, a former crime reporter for the Los Angeles Times, has an amazing grasp of the minutiae of police work and he expertly inserts these details into his story.  As a result his police characters mostly investigate crimes, examine evidence and file the paperwork in a way that feel extremely realistic and which adds a huge amount to the books authenticity.  Connelly’s police characters even feel like real cops, as the way that they act or think feels like real life police would act.  All of this combines with the amazing mysteries to create a first-rate piece of crime fiction.

Dark Sacred Night is the first time that Connelly’s main protagonist, Bosch, engages with the author’s newest protagonist, Ballard.  There are some interesting similarities between the two characters, which makes for a great story.  Both detectives have a similar maverick style when it comes to investigating crimes, and both have been screwed over by LAPD politics and had their careers impacted as a result.  As a result, both characters are dogged in their pursuit of criminals, especially those guilty of sex crimes, and both are willing to bend the rules to get their suspects.  However, the main difference between them is how far they will go to get justice.  While Ballard is happy to bend rules, she doesn’t go too far over the line or deliberately hurt or damage her suspects.  Bosch on the other hand has a much more flexible idea of where the line is and engages in some questionable behaviour that could be seeing as going too far. The two characters work well together during this book, and I hope that Connelly continues to use his latest protagonist in the future, especially as there are some interesting stories available when it comes to her complex police past.

The audiobook version of Long Dark Night is a great way to enjoy this crime novel and I found that I quickly powered through the book with this format.  The audiobook format utilises two separate narrators to describe the adventure contained within, broken up by whichever protagonist is narrating that chapter.  For example, Christine Lakin narrates the chapters told from Ballard’s point of view, while Titus Welliver narrates Bosch’s chapters.  Both of these narrators have great voices for their central characters, and both of them fit in perfectly in this gritty crime drama.  Lakin captures Ballard’s character perfectly, and you get a real sense of the no-nonsense and wary personality that is Ballard every time you hear Lakin’s voice.  Welliver’s voice, on the other hand, is deep and gruff and really fits Bosch’s old school and veteran personality.  Overall there is some fantastic voice work in the audiobook format of Dark Sacred Night, and I found that listening to this mystery really drew me into the middle of this investigation and helped me remember certain details and clues.

This latest book from veteran crime author Michael Connelly is a fantastic mystery thriller that draws the reader in with two outstanding protagonists and a series of captivating mysteries.  Dark Sacred Night is written in a way that is very easy to get into and the reader can enjoy the full mystery without any details of the previous books in Connelly’s shared universe.  As a result, despite it being such a late book in this long-running series, Dark Sacred Night is also the perfect place to start your investigation into the crime sensation that is Michael Connelly.  First rate crime fiction at it’s very best, this is an outstanding release from Connelly that is guaranteed to draw the reader into the dark and intriguing world of mysteries.

My Rating:

Four and a half stars

 

 

The Boneless Mercies by April Genevieve Tucholke

The Bonless Mercies Cover.jpg

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Publication Date – 2 October 2018

 

In the dark and cold realm of Vorseland, life is hard and death is easy.  This is especially the case for young women Frey, Ovie, Juniper and Runa, who eke out a living as Boneless Mercies.  Mercies are those people who travel the land exchanging mercy killings for coin in order to alleviate suffering, both mental and physical, in those living in the harsh land.  Only women can become Boneless Mercies, as men cannot do this dark and sad work.

While their roles as Mercies have provided this group of young women with an escape from the horrors or uncertainties of their previous lives, each of them, as well as their young male companion Trigve, seeks something different from this depressing routine of death dealing.  Runa dreams of joining the Quicks, the bands of forest-dwelling hunters and revellers with mastery of the bow; the former Sea Witch Juniper wants to return to her sisters; while Ovie seeks companionship after the trials of her previous life.  But their leader, Frey, wants something very different: fame and glory.

Hearing of a dangerous monster roaming in a far-off land, killing all the men and terrorising the landscape, the girls decide to change their fate and become heroes.  In order to reach their destination, they first have to engage on a dangerous journey through a harsh countryside.  First finding themselves caught up in the middle of a war between rival factions of witches, the Mercies find acceptance and camaraderie in the land they have come to save.  But as the monster they’ve come to face makes an appearance, the girls must finally face up to their destinies.  Will they be able to defeat a creature that so many have already died facing?

The Boneless Mercies is the fourth and latest book from dark fantasy young adult author April Genevieve Tucholke, whose previous works include the two books of the Between series, Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea and Between the Spark and the Burn, as well as her 2016 standalone novel, Wink Poppy Midnight.  All three of these previous novels dealt with a young adult supernatural romance set in a modern-day location.  The Boneless Mercies is Tucholke’s first foray into her own fantasy world, and it is the first book that is not as focused on a major romantic subplot.  The Boneless Mercies serves as a great standalone novel, although it has potential as the first book in a new series that either follows the characters introduced in this volume or that utilises Tucholke’s fantasy landscape.

The overall story of The Boneless Mercies is an interesting creation from Tucholke, as it is a good combination of character development, world building and searches for glory.  The premise of this story is unique.  Four professional mercy killers seeking better lives for themselves through fighting monsters is a fantastic pitch from the author that really drove me to read this story.  The author has made a clear attempt to emulate the sagas of old, and it is easy to note its similarities to Beowulf, especially when it comes to the monster.  The book’s central characters helped reinforce this by reciting several sagas that exist within their fantasy world, even coming up with a few verses for their own adventure.  I was a bit surprised about how only the last third of the book focused on the protagonists’ hunt for the monster; the antagonist that was such a focus of the book’s blurb and publication material, and instead a lot more of the book was spent focusing on the adventure getting there.

This actually works out really well, with the characters’ involvement with the various witch characters serving as the centre of the book.  The protagonists find themselves recruited to fight in a war between two rival factions of witches, which leads to some tough and damaging choices for Frey while the also allowing Tucholke to create a harrowing extended sequence in deadly marsh landscape.  The reversal of gender roles within the story is another great part of the story, and it is intriguing to see women in a more central role of these saga storylines in both the protagonists and antagonist roles.  The Boneless Mercies contains a unique and memorable central story that will prove to be appealing to a huge audience.  With several exciting romps through Tucholke’s new fantasy landscape, the book has an excellent conclusion, as well as several plot threads that could lead to intriguing future stories in the same universe.

Tucholke has woven some wonderful character dynamics into this story and introduced several intriguing protagonists for the reader to enjoy.  The book’s five main characters, Frey, Ovie, Juniper, Runa and Trigve, have all found an escape from their terrible past lives by coming together and following each other down the destructive path of the mercy killing trade.  Each of the characters has their own distinctive traits.  Frey is the big sister and reluctant leader of the group, and must struggle to balance her own desires with the needs of the people under her care.  Runa is the rebellious and free-spirited member of the group, eager to live the carefree life of a Quick in order to escape the horrors of her past.  Juniper is the dreamer, and her minor magical abilities and connection with the Sea Witches are essential to the plot in the middle of the book.  Ovie is the tough, no-nonsense member of the group, and is the group’s main warrior, teaching the others how to fight.  Despite some insights into her past, Ovie is the character who is explored the least out of each of the characters, although she does serve as a bit of a moral compass for Frey’s decision.

The main male character, Trigve is also an interesting inclusion, as he fills the role of the assistant and bastion of knowledge that the girls, especially Frey, go out of the way to protect.  This is a noticeable and intriguing change in the traditional gender roles within an adventurer group, and it is interesting to note that Trigve is usually sent away by the girls before any of the big action scenes.  His relationship with Frey is also one of the book’s main romantic subplots, and I liked the complex and mostly unspoken relationship these two characters had.  Overall, all of these main characters are great additions to the book, and Tucholoke spends considerable time exploring how these characters, all of whom have been forced to sever their previous connections, have come together into a surrogate family.  I really appreciated watching the characters’ relationships with each other build, as that worked really well to make the reader connect with each of them and become concerned with their fates.  The slow reveal of each character’s previous lives and the events that drove them to the other Boneless Mercies was also handled wonderfully and worked with the other story elements to create a powerful overarching narrative.

I also enjoyed the great new fantasy world that Tucholke created for this novel.  The author really gets to grips with the harsh, cold and unforgiving scenery of her Norse-inspired landscape of Vorseland, and the reader gets a real idea of why many inhabitants are tempted to employ the Boneless Mercies.  There are also a number of fantastic elements included throughout this world that really help make it an amazing location for this intriguing adventure.  The various bands of different fantasy professionals, such as the Boneless Mercies or the Quicks, give it an interesting flair.  The various groups of witches, including Marsh Witches, Sea Witches and even a group of pig mystics, become deeply entangled in the main story, and will also be significant players in any future books set in this universe.  This is an excellent and creative new fantasy world from Tucholke that works incredibly well for this book’s story.

April Tucholke has created an exciting and intense piece of young adult fiction in her latest novel, The Boneless Mercies.  Creating an intriguing narrative around a group of female former mercy killers embarking on a quest for glory in a dark and saga-rich fantasy landscape is a masterstroke from Tucholke, especially when she combines it with a fantastic story and close-knit and likeable group of protagonists.  The strong female characters make this an excellent one for a young adult audience, and I enjoyed the story’s darker background and storylines.  Special appreciation goes to the book’s great covers as well; the copy I had an iridescent feather design which was cool, but I also really enjoyed the excellent cover with the red wolf and the protagonist’s shadows.  Overall, The Boneless Mercies is a great piece of young adult fiction which presents the reader with something enjoyably different from the classic fantasy adventure.

My Rating:

Four stars