The Queen’s Tiger by Peter Watt

The Queen's Tiger Cover

Publisher: Macmillan (Trade Paperback – 12 November 2019)

Series: The Colonial series – Book 2

Length: 360 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

One of Australia’s best historical fiction writers, Peter Watt, returns with another exciting historical adventure in The Queen’s Tiger, the outstanding sequel to his 2018 release, The Queen’s Colonial.

Following on from the events of The Queen’s Colonial, in 1857, former Australian settler Ian Steele is still living under the guise of Samuel Forbes, a rich English noble who Ian bears an uncanny resemblance to. Ian switched places with Samuel in order to help him meet the required military service he needs to receive a vast inheritance. Serving as a captain in Queen Victoria’s army, Ian has proven himself to be a natural soldier, fighting against the odds dozens of times over against the most vicious enemies of the crown. However, despite the formidable enemies he has faced on the battlefield, Ian has encountered greater dangers far closer to home, as Samuel’s father and his murderous brother Charles are determined that Samuel will never receive his inheritance.

As Ian and his men, including his old friends Sergeant Conan Curry and Corporal Owen Williams, return from fighting the Persian army in Iran, a dangerous threat to the empire is brewing in India. Indian troops under the employ of the British East India Company have begun to mutiny, and the country, caught up in a swell of anti-British nationalism, is beginning to violently rebel against British rule. Among those caught up in the chaos are Samuel’s sister Alice and her husband the surgeon Peter Campbell, whose honeymoon turns into a brutal fight for survival.

Redeployed to India, Ian is once again leading the charge in some of the campaign’s most deadly battles against a determined foe. However, the biggest threat to his survival is happening half a world away back in England, as the real Samuel Forbes returns to London for a personal meeting under the name Ian Steele. When Samuel is spotted and his true identity is suspected, he finds himself hunted throughout England by Charles’s agents, determined to prove that Ian is an imposter. Can Ian and Samuel continue their ruse amidst the tragedy, tribulations and conflicts they encounter, or will the evil forces arrayed against them finally bring them down?

This was another fantastic book from Peter Watt, who has a true knack for producing compelling historical adventures filled with action, intrigue and family drama. The Queen’s Tiger is the second book in Watt’s Colonial series, which follows its protagonists through some of the most dangerous conflicts that the British army found itself involved with during the 19th century. I have to admit that I have been quite keen to check this book out for a little while, and not just because it quotes one of my Canberra Weekly reviews on the cover. The first book in this series, The Queen’s Colonial was an excellent read, and it did a good job following up Watt’s long-running Frontier series of which I was a big fan (make sure to check out my Canberra Weekly reviews for the last two books in this series, While the Moon Burns and From the Stars Above).

The Queen’s Tiger continues the intriguing story from the first book, which saw a simple Australian blacksmith pretend to be an English gentleman in order to serve as an officer in the Queen’s army. This was a compelling start the series, and I am glad that Watt has continued to follow through the fun blend of military action, intrigue and character interactions that have been a signature writing trend of his for some time. The Queen’s Tiger contains a wide-ranging story that covers several characters across a number of continents. This allows the author to showcase a number of different and enjoyable storylines within one book, and as such we can have one section of a book that focuses on the military action and adventure being undertaken by several of the characters in India, and the next section than looks at the sinister plotting of the book’s antagonists, or the desperate attempts of the real Samuel to keep his identity secret in England. In addition to their ongoing adventures, the author also explores the various relationships and romances that the various characters have, painting a rich tapestry of these point-of-view characters’ lives. This is a wonderful combination of storylines, all of which comes together into an excellent and highly enjoyable read.

Just like he did with the Crimean War in The Queen’s Colonial, Watt does a fantastic job bringing an intriguing historical conflict to life in this book, with his focus and examination of the Indian Mutiny of 1857. The book actually follows the entire duration of the Indian Mutiny and showcases most of the key moments of the rebellion that turned into full-scale war for independence. As a result of the way that Watt positioned his characters from the first book, the reader gets to see two separate parts of the mutiny. Alice and Peter’s storyline, which also features the new major character of Scott Campbell, focuses on how the English people who were living in India when the mutiny started would have perceived what was going on, and the desperate battle that the English forces garrisoned in India faced against a mass rebellion of their Indian soldiers. Ian’s storyline, on the other hand, shows the battles that the English relief force faced as they tried to retake the country and rescue the English citizens trapped within. This was an extremely fascinating historical event, and I think that Watt’s portrayal of this conflict was extremely intriguing and compelling. Based on the comments in the historical notes section of this book, it looks like Watt is planning to take his characters through a number of England’s various 19th century military campaigns in the following books, and I look forward to seeing where they end up next.

Needless to say, a book that has such a strong focus on soldiers and the Indian Mutiny is going to be very heavy on the action, as the protagonists fight in several battles across Indian and Iran. There are a significant number of fast-paced sequences throughout this book, from the various battles and skirmishes that occur during the mutiny, to thrilling chase scenes in the backstreets of London. Watt’s grasp of 19th century military combat is quite impressive, and there is a very realistic feel to the huge number of fight sequences that occur throughout the book, as he focuses on the tactics and weaponry of the British infantry man. As a result, there is rarely a dull or quiet moment in this book, and action fans will really appreciate the cool fights occurring throughout the book.

Peter Watt has once again delivered an electrifying and enthralling piece of historical fiction with The Queen’s Tiger. Featuring some amazing depictions of a deadly part of history, as well as a bunch of great characters whose various adventures, deceptions and relationships are particularly intriguing, this is a fantastic piece of Australian fiction that is really worth checking out.

Red Metal by Mark Greaney and Lt. Col. Hunter Ripley Rawlings IV. USMC

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Publisher: Audible Studios (Audiobook – 16 July 2019)

Series: Standalone/Book One

Length: 21 hours and 21 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Get ready for World War III, because bestselling author Mark Greaney has teamed up with Lt. Col. Hunter Ripley Rawlings IV. USMC to create an absolutely incredible military thriller, Red Metal, which looks at how a potential invasion from Russia would unfold.

After years of war in the Middle East, the United States and their allies are preparing themselves for the next conflict. Many believe that this war will occur in the Pacific Ocean against China, especially after the Chinese begin to interfere in Taiwanese politics in an attempt to reunify the island nation with the mainland. As Chinese troops gather just outside of Taiwan and the United States military is rocked by a debilitating scandal, hardly anyone is expecting a move from Russia.

Since the end of the Cold War, Russia has been in an economic decline, and it desperately requires access to various advanced resources to remain a world power. An ambitious Russian colonel has come up with a complex plan to secure a vital Rare Earth mine that has the potential to secure the country’s future. Launching a high-speed and ruthlessly coordinated attack as Christmas falls, Russian forces stream across the border into Europe, crippling NATO and cutting the continent off from the United States. As America and NATO attempt to work out the extent of Russia’s plans in Europe and counter them, they are left distracted from Russia’s true goal as a second Russian army is secretly heading towards the African coast in order to reach the mine in Kenya.

As Russia continues its advance, the fate of the free world lies in the hands of several different individuals. In Washington, a veteran Marine Lieutenant Colonel and his colleagues attempt to decipher the Russian strategy before it is too late, while in Africa, a wily old French Intelligence agent and his Special Forces son must uncover why undercover Russian agents are abroad in Djibouti. In Europe, a mixture of unprepared NATO soldiers, including a young member of the Polish militia, an out-of-his-depth American tank commander and a high-flying US pilot must fight against the odds to push back against the invading Russian force. As epic battles erupt across several countries, one thing is clear: the world will never be the same again.

Wow, just wow. A few months ago, I predicted that along with The Kremlin Strike, Red Metal was going to be one of the top military thrillers of 2019. I am more than happy to report that I was 100 per cent right, as this was an outstanding read that I had an absolute blast listening to. The team of experienced thriller writer Mark Greaney, who is best known for his work on Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan Universe and his own bestselling Gray Man series (make sure to check out my review for the latest book in this series, Mission Critical, here) and debuting author Lt. Col. Hunter Ripley Rawlings IV. USMC, have created a sensational book that I have no choice but to award a full five stars to.

Contemporary military thriller is a genre that I have only started getting into recently, although so far I have enjoyed some great examples, including The Moscow Offensive by Dale Brown, Treason by Rick Campbell and Red War by Kyle Mills. However, in my opinion Red Metal stands heads and shoulders above all of these books and it is probably the best pure military thriller that I have read. The authors of this book have come up with a truly fascinating military scenario that sees Russia sweep across two continents and influence conflict in a third. The Russians in this book have a really clever and effective military strategy that results in a massive, widespread conflict, and the reader gets to see every step of it unfold. This entire plan seems exceedingly realistic, and it is clear that Greaney and Rawlings have put some real thought into how war could break out and how the various participants would react. They really dive into the minutiae of the whole scenario and try to cover all the angles of an invasion of Europe and Africa, including cutting off communications, setting up an alternate navigation system, hacking the US and creating a number of plausible diversions. Never before has a discussion about the different sized rail tracks and rail switching stations in Europe been so fascinating. The scope of this conflict is really impressive, and the authors do a fantastic job showcasing the various types of battle that would occur in this sort of modern-day war between major superpowers. As a result, this book is filled with fighting on land, sea, air, underwater and even in cyber space, in an impressive thought exercise which translates into a compelling piece of fiction.

I really liked how the authors chose to tell this story from a variety of different perspectives, as Red Metal features a huge number of point-of-view characters. While the story is mostly focused on a few key characters, a number of minor characters often get one or two scenes, and the reader gets to see how the war unfolds from both sides of the conflict. As a result, the reader gets a much fuller understanding of how this potential scenario would unfold and how various countries or organisations such as NATO would react to war breaking out. The authors also make great use of the various perspectives to ratchet up tension throughout the book as the readers are privy to the full extent of the Russians plans. This results in the reader being fully aware of all the mistakes that the Americans and their allies are making in this war, and by the time they get their act together it seems like it is too little, too late.

The use of various perspectives also helps to create a number of different characters that the reader can really get invested in. While many of characters introduced only have small roles in the overall narrative, the authors do some detailed explorations of the backgrounds and story arcs of several key characters. Some of these characters have really well-written and have some enjoyable or intriguing storylines. I personally enjoyed the story of Paulina, a young recruit in Poland’s Territorial Defence Force (a volunteer military reserve) the most. Paulina finds herself thrust into the middle of the Russian invasion and is quickly transformed from an innocent girl to a hard-eyed killer in a few short days thanks to the horrors of war. Paulina’s story is extremely captivating, and it is potentially the character that most non-soldiers reading this book are going to identify with as they are left thinking how they would react in a similar situation. It was really quite interesting to see what role people in the various scenarios could potentially play, and I really liked seeing what sort of difference a small group of determined soldiers could make in a conflict such this.

One of the things that I really loved about this story was the realistic portrayal of the various armed forces involved in this book and the detailed examination of everything that needs to be considered in a war. This book is chocked full of military terminology, descriptions of various weapons and tactics, slang, military history and a variety of other complex features. You have to imagine the inclusion of all of these details is largely thanks to Rawlings and his extensive military experience, and I really enjoyed how the authors were able to seamlessly insert all of this knowledge into the story. Having all this information as the story progresses is extremely fascinating and I learnt a lot of cool facts. It also really amped up the realism of the whole story, in my opinion, and I found the story to be a whole lot more compelling as a result.

It is important to point out that Red Metal is not the male character dominated, exceedingly pro-American story that some military thrillers are; instead the writers went out of their way to produce a more balanced story. For example, the book features a number of great female characters, most of whom are involved in the war in some way or another, and it was cool to see how women are utilised in the modern military. The authors also take the time to show Russia’s side of the conflict and explain their motivations for engaging in this battle against the west. While a number or Russian characters are pretty villainous and/or murderous, they do tend to have some reasonable motivations for their actions, and indeed they see themselves as the good guys in this conflict. There are also a few more pragmatic Russian officers featured in the book who are a lot more likeable, especially as they come across as a bit more compassionate and less eager for war and destruction. The United States is also not heavily portrayed as the world’s most awesome country, as some military thrillers do. Instead the country is shown to be extremely unprepared for a Russian invasion, their military command is initially easily manipulated and a response to Russia’s actions is hampered by politics or pettiness from a superior officer. That being said, the book does feature a number of extremely pro-American scenes and sentiments, and there is even a sequence where an American pilot flies into combat shouting “die Commie die”, although to be fair, it is described as a historical military mantra developed in the Cold War to help pilots time their length of fire. The end result of the conflict between America and Russia is also what you’d pretty much expect, but it still makes for one hell of a read.

While the authors have added some interesting depth to this story, at its heart it is a military thriller, and that means that this book is chocked full of action. There are a huge number of fantastic and extended battle sequences throughout the entire book, some of which are truly epic in their size and content. Readers are really spoiled for action in Red Metal, as the authors have included all manner of different types of battles with a huge range of different vehicles and weapons. This book features battles in the air, at sea, underwater in submarines, on the ground with the grunts and in a variety of locations with Special Forces regiments. There are a number of impressive and memorable sequences, including a large amount of tank on tank combat, as two enemy armoured regiments face off against each other. I personally really enjoyed a particularly brutal ambush of Russian tanks in Poland, as Polish militia attempt to defeat a superior force in the middle of a city. The main set-piece has to be an extended battle between a variety of Russian units, and a force of United States Marines down in Africa. This battle down in Africa is particularly impressive, as the authors do an awesome job of bringing the fighting to life, and the sheer chaos of war and the ferocity of both sides as they try to win through any means necessary. All this action is pretty darn amazing, and the authors really outdid themselves with it.

I chose to listen to the audiobook format of Red Metal, which is narrated by experienced audiobook narrator Marc Vietor. I am really glad that I picked up the Red Metal audiobook as it was an amazing way to enjoy this fantastic book. Vietor did an excellent job narrating this book, and I felt that listening to the story brought all the intense action to life and helped place me in the centre of the story. Due to the book featuring a huge number of different nationalities, the story featured a range of character accents, all of which Vietor did extremely well, producing distinctive and memorable voices for each of his characters. The Red Metal audiobook runs for 21 hours and 21 minutes and it is an excellent format to consume this incredible novel.

Red Metal is a tour-de-force from Greaney and Rawlings, who have produced one hell of a military thriller. These two authors are a potent writing team, as Greaney’s experience as a thriller writer and Rawlings’s military knowledge helps create an epic read that just pumps the reader full of intense action, clever storylines and memorable characters. I really hope that these two authors continue to work together in the future, as Red Metal was a really impressive first collaboration. Five out of five stars all the way, you have to check out this book.

Throwback Thursday – The King of Plagues by Jonathan Maberry – Audiobook Review

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Publisher: Blackstone Audio (8 April 2011)

Series: Joe Ledger series – Book 3

Length: 16 hours and 10 minutes

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.

Over the last year or so, reading and reviewing all of the books in Jonathan Maberry’s Joe Ledger series has been something of a passion project for me. I absolutely loved the 10th and latest book in the series, Deep Silence, when I read it last year and found its superb blend of the horror, science fiction and thriller genres to be incredibly compelling and a whole lot of fun to read. Since then, I have gone back and read and reviewed the first two books in the series, Patient Zero and The Dragon Factory, and I found that I enjoyed them just as much as Deep Silence. As a result, when I got a gap in my reading schedule recently, I decided to check out the third book in the series, The King of Plagues, and once again found myself drawn into the world of Joe Ledger and the DMS.

Following the events of The Dragon Factory, which saw the death of the women he loved, Joe Ledger has left the chaotic world of the Department of Military Sciences (DMS) behind. Living in London, Ledger is suddenly thrust back into the field when an explosion levels a busy London hospital, killing everyone inside in one of the worst acts of terrorism the world has ever seen. Horrified by this callous attack, Ledger returns to active duty with the DMS and is immediately targeted by a hit team, before traveling to investigate a second attack at an Ebola research laboratory.

It does not take long to identify that the people behind these attacks are the group known as the Seven Kings. The Seven Kings are a mysterious secret society that Ledger and the DMS have dealt with before, as they influence and equip terrorist organisations around the world. Pledging fealty to a shadowy goddess and having a small army of highly trained mercenaries and the ability to influence highly placed people around the world, the Seven Kings are determined to change the world for their own benefit and are willing to kill anyone to achieve their goals.

As part of their plan to destabilise the world and benefit from the resulting economic chaos, the Seven Kings are planning to unleash weaponised versions of the Ten Plagues of Egypt that will not only kill untold masses but which will cripple the Seven Kings’ major opponents. If that was not bad enough, an old enemy from Joe Ledger’s past has resurfaced and is working with the Seven Kings to extract his revenge as the King of Plagues. Can Ledger and the DMS stop the devastating plans of the Seven Kings, or will the world once again bear witness to the devastation of the Ten Plagues?

The King of Plagues was another excellent addition to the Joe Ledger series that I had a fantastic time listening to. Maberry once again presents an exciting and addictive story that combines thriller action, a despicable evil scheme and a great group of characters, all told in Maberry’s distinctive writing style. This was an outstanding novel and yet another book in the Joe Ledger series that gets a five-star rating from me.

I always really enjoy the way that Maberry sets out the plots of his Joe Ledger books. The author utilises a huge range of different character perspectives across a number of different time periods to tell a full and complex overall story. By doing this the author is able to showcase a number of sides of the story. Not only does the reader get to see the protagonist’s story, but they also get to see how the antagonist’s evil scheme was planned and executed. Overall, this was a spectacular way to tell the story, and I always think that the reader gets so much more out of these books as a result. Maberry also did a fantastic job making this book accessible to readers unfamiliar with the series. While reading the Joe Ledger series out of order may result in some series spoilers for some of the earlier books, readers are easily able to start exploring this series with The King of Plagues and not have their enjoyment of the story suffer as a result.

The King of Plagues is filled with an amazing roster of characters, each of whom brings a lot of depth and emotion to the story. The main protagonist, Joe Ledger, has to be one of the biggest smartasses in fiction, and it is always a delight to watch him quip and make sarcastic comments across the world. However, despite that flippant exterior, Ledger is a complex emotional wreck who is still dealing with all manner of trauma and is barely containing his anger and bloodlust, especially when dealing with terrible events like the one in this book. I always find it fascinating when Maberry dives into the psyche of the series’ titular character, and it was especially poignant in The King of Plagues, as Ledger is still dealing with the loss of his love interest from the first two books, Grace Courtland. However, Ledger is not the only great character in this book. One of my favourites has to be Mr Church, the mysterious leader of the DMS, who everyone seems to be afraid of. Church once again shines in his role as the ultimate spymaster, but in this book he has some additional scenes that add to his character. In just one scene he shows the reader just why everyone is so afraid of him. There is also an attempt to humanise the character with some interesting reveals towards the end of the book, and I found those worked well and helped me like Church even more.

This book also featured the introduction of several other new characters. The main one of these, Circe O’Tree, is a brilliant young woman with a major chip on her shoulder who works as an analyst helping the DMS. I thought she was an intriguing character, especially due to her connections with the Seven Kings and several members of the DMS and her ability to analyse human behaviour. The King of Plagues also saw the introduction of the infamous Aunt Sallie, the second-in-command of the DMS, who is fearfully mentioned several times in the first two books. Aunt Sallie is a pretty fun character, and I am looking forward to seeing more of her scary, no-nonsense charm in the future. Funnily enough, one of my favourite characters was actually a dog, as The King of Plagues sees the inclusion of Ledger’s DMS attack dog, Ghost. Ghost was actually introduced in short story set between the second and third novels, Dog Days, but this is the first time readers of the main series get to see him in action. Despite being a ferocious and well-trained killing machine, Ghost is an absolutely adorable character who is responsible for some very funny moments in the story. Also, because he is such a good boy, you cannot help but get attached to him, and really get worried when he is in danger.

In addition to the great cast of protagonists, Maberry also utilises a great cast of antagonists in this novel in the form of The Seven Kings. The Seven Kings are an evil secret organisation who revel in deception and lies as they put their various plots and schemes into place. The identities of the various members of the Seven Kings is certainly interesting, and I really enjoyed this group and found them to be a fantastic group of antagonists. I absolutely loved the complex and devastating grand evil plan that they came up with in this story, and the full scope of their plot was pretty darn impressive. I was a little wary of this group at first, as they were introduced as some great threat that the DMS had apparently faced before, although there hadn’t been any mention of them in any of the previous books. However, in a number of interlude chapters set in the months before the current events of the plot, their lack of mention in the previous book is explained and they are presented as a force to be reckoned with. I quite liked this group of antagonists, and while certain revelations about them were not as surprising as in other Joe Ledger books, such as The Dragon Factory, for example, I did like certain developments that occurred within the Seven Kings, and I look forward to seeing how certain members show up again.

One of the things that makes the Seven Kings really sinister is their use of coercion and manipulation to achieve all their goals. At the most disturbing level, they target a number of people across the world with families and manage to terrify them so much that they will commit terrorist acts in order to save their loved ones. There are some quite chilling scenes in this book where the chief enforcer for the Seven Kings threatens these victims, and the lengths these innocent people will go to and the evils they will commit in the name of their families are horrifying at times. In addition, the Seven Kings use Twitter and other social media to fan the fires of hatred around the world, creating conspiracies and prejudice against certain ethnic groups that eventually result in violence. This examination of the evils of social media and how it can be used to spread hate is pretty fascinating, and it’s interesting to note that, as the book was written in 2011, it precedes a lot of the more recent and highly publicised incidents of Twitter being used to influence people. These inclusions really help set the Seven Kings apart from other villains in the Joe Ledger series and makes sure the reader is both disgusted and impressed by their methods.

The King of Plagues also saw the return of two antagonists from a previous book in the series, who join up with the Seven Kings to help them fulfil their master plan. I felt that both of these characters were used to their full potential within this book, and both had some truly intriguing and clever story arcs which contrasted quite impressively. For example, one starts on the long, hard road to redemption, while the other falls even further down the rabbit hole to pure evil. I won’t go into any more detail in order to avoid spoilers, but these two characters were extremely impressive, and were the main characters showing the inner workings of the Seven Kings.

Like the rest of the books in the Joe Ledger series, The King of Plagues is rich with action and firefights, as the protagonists engage in a number of battles with the minions of the Seven Kings. The action comes thick and fast throughout the book, and Maberry’s knowledge and research into various forms of armed and unarmed combat is extremely obvious. The way some of the firefights are paced out is pretty spectacular, and it is always impressive what a well-trained special operations team can do. Maberry really shines when it comes to the hand-to-hand combat sequences, though, as Ledger rips through his opponents with his martial arts prowess. The fight sequences in this book are straight up awesome, and those readers who love an action-packed book will be well catered to with The King of Plagues.

One of the things that I quite enjoyed about The King of Plagues was the author’s decision to include a number of celebrity cameos throughout the story. Not only does the protagonist encounter some famous singers and actors as part of the plot (including having a weird conversation at the end of the book with a famous rock star), but a number of celebrities are put into some interesting and deadly positions throughout the plot. I also had a good laugh at Maberry’s inclusion of a terrorist think tank made up of thriller writers coming up with the most outrageous situations they could think of, especially as that becomes a major plot point later in the book (and may have serious ramifications later in the series). The authors named dropped in these scenes are pretty impressive, and I thought it was a cute touch from Maberry to include his contemporaries like that. The use of the celebrities was an interesting choice from Maberry, but I think it fits into the wacky vibe of the Joe Ledger series quite well, and it was not too distracting from the main plot.

As with the previous books in the Joe Ledger series, I listened to The King of Plagues on audiobook. The audiobook is around 16 hours and 10 minutes long and is narrated by Ray Porter, who has to be my favourite audiobook narrator at the moment. Porter has an amazing vocal range, and I love the way that he portrays the main character of this book, Joe Ledger. Porter really brings Ledger to life in these audiobooks, not only amplifying the character’s sarcasm and smartass nature, giving real anger and sadness to Ledger when needed. The rest of the characters in this series are also really well done. I have mentioned before how much I love the voice he uses for Mr Church, and Porter really gets a lot of mileage out his Boston accent for some of the other characters. In addition to Porter’s awesome vocal work, I found that listening to The King of Plagues really helped bring me into the story. Not only does the action really pop in this format but listening to the antagonists come up with their evil plans and threats can be quite chilling at times. As a result, I would strongly recommend that readers check out the audiobook version of The King of Plagues. I know I will be checking out the rest of the books in the Joe Ledger series on audiobook as well.

Once again, I had an absolute blast listening to a book in Jonathan Maberry’s Joe Ledger series, as The King of Plagues was another outstanding addition to this fantastic series. Featuring a well-written and captivating story, some amazing characters, an evil and over-the-top plot, a number of intriguing plot points and some of the best action sequences in modern thriller fiction, this was an incredible read. I cannot wait to check out the fourth book in this series, and quite frankly all of the upcoming books sound like they have some truly outrageous stories.

Cold Iron by Miles Cameron

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Publisher: Hachette Audio (Audiobook Format – 30 August 2018

Series: Masters & Mages – Book 1

Length: 19 hours, 29 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

 

I recently managed to read one of the books that was featured in my Top Ten Books I Wish I Had Read In 2018 list.  I have to say I was quite impressed with this book, Cold Iron by Miles Cameron, as it is one of last year’s most intriguing fantasy reads.

Miles Cameron is the pseudonym historical fiction author Christian Cameron uses when he writes fantasy novels.  Cameron debuted in 1999 with Rules of Engagement, the first book in the seven-book long Alan Craik thriller series, which he wrote with his father, Kenneth Cameron, under the joint pseudonym of Gordon Kent.  In addition to this joint series, Cameron started writing his own novels in 2003 when he wrote his first historical fiction novel, Washington and Caesar.  Since then, Cameron has written over 15 historical fiction novels, including the multiple books in his Tyrant, Long War and Chivalry series.  In 2013, Cameron branched off again into a new genre, fantasy, with his five-book long Traitor Son Cycle, which he wrote as Miles Cameron.  Cold Iron is the first book in his brand-new fantasy series, called the Masters & Mages series.

I am mostly familiar with Cameron through his historical fiction works, having read and reviewed a couple of books in his Tyrant and Long War series early in my career.  I particularly enjoyed the first book in his Long War series, Killer of Men, which set a young protagonist from Plataea on an adventure across ancient Greece and Persia.  Unfortunately, I failed to get any of Cameron’s books in the intervening years and was completely unaware that he had written any fantasy books.  So when I came across Cold Iron and recognised the author, I was deeply intrigued and thought it would be an interesting book to check out, especially as it had been receiving some great reviews.  After mentioning it in one of my Top Ten lists, I decided to check out the audiobook version of this book a few weeks ago.  I was especially keen to check it out as the second book in the Masters & Mages series, Dark Forge, has recently been released, although it looks like this second book will be released in a number of different formats throughout the year.

Cold Iron follows Aranthur Timos, a young student at The Academy, a prestigious institute of magic, science and other scholarly pursuits that lies at the heart of a mighty empire.  Aranthur, a poor farmer’s son, is not the best student at The Academy, and aside from some slight skill with the sword, nothing sets him apart from any of the other students.  But fate has something special in store for Aranthur.  Travelling back to his family farm for the holidays, Aranthur stops at a small inn.  When bandits attack the owners of the inn, Aranthur steps in to try and help, and in doing so sets a momentous series of events into play.  His actions that night inadvertently place him in the middle of a vast and terrible conspiracy, as he comes to the attention of the inn’s other guests, including a powerful priest, a master swordsman, a young gentleman spy and an enigmatic and dangerous beauty.

After returning to The Academy, the results of Aranthur’s actions at the inn indirectly introduce him to a number of new friends that help him excel at his studies.  But a series of chaotic events are occurring across the lands.  The city surrounding The Academy is in turmoil, as factions and noble houses fight against each other.  Worse, refugees are flooding in from lands to the east, driven out of their homes by a group known as the Disciples, followers of a shadowy figure known as the Master, who seek to return the world to an ancient status quo where only the nobles have access to magic.  Despite being a simple student, Aranthur keeps finding himself in the centre of the momentous events sweeping the city.  Can Aranthur survive all the mysterious events occurring around him, and, if he does, what sort of person will he become?

I absolutely loved this book; it gets a well-deserved five stars from me.  Cold Iron is an extremely clever coming-of-age fantasy story set within an immensely detailed and inventive new world.  I have found with some of Cameron’s previous works, such as the books in his Chivalry series, that the author has a very particular writing style, such as his propensity to include large amounts of detail in his paragraphs and the utilisation of a somewhat more formal dialogue.  This style has always worked well with the author’s historical fiction work, and I felt that this writing style translated across well to this fantasy book.  It was reminiscent of some of the older classical fantasy stories, although with some more modern language.  This results in the book having a much more unique feel to it, which I found to be quite curious and actually helped draw me into the story.

The overall story of Cold Iron is quite an intriguing fantasy read that places its protagonists and point-of-view character in the centre of a worldwide conspiracy.  There are so many elements to this story to enjoy, including an excellent coming-of-age focus.  Throughout the course of the book, the protagonist, Aranthur, grows from a poor and insignificant student to a central figure in the fight for kingdoms and the freedom of magic.  The story is quite clever as it focuses on a character who, rather than being the dreaded “chosen one” fantasy trope, is instead thrust into events by accidentally being in a certain place at a certain time.  I really enjoyed how everything that happens to Aranthur throughout the book is the direct result of the one tavern fight at the start of the book, and he is drawn into the subsequent events or introduced to key characters through sheer coincidence.  The resultant conspiracy is deeply intriguing and ties in really well with Cameron’s excellent fantasy elements.  I am also a sucker for a storyline involving magical schooling or training, so I loved how this story was set within a magical university and focused quite a bit on the protagonist’s training.  All of these elements work together to produce an incredible overall narrative that I really enjoyed listening to.

For this new series, Cameron has come up with a fun and detailed fantasy world.  The Masters & Mages series is set in a sprawling world that features a number of diverse human nations.  Only a small part of this world is explored within this first book, although there are quite a number of references to nations outside of the central settings, and events occurring in these locations impact on the main story.  This world appears to be in a post-medieval point of its history, with early firearms starting to be utilised, although older technologies such as crossbows are still in use.  The setting comes across a bit like Italy or France during a similar time period, but with a magical edge to it that works quite well.  The main setting is a gigantic and rich city of canals and elaborate architecture that hosts The Academy, and this serves as a perfect location for the intriguing, conspiracy-laden fantasy story.  The city is filled with a huge number of factions, refugees and competing noble houses, creating quite a significant amount of internal political strife which plays into the story quite well.  There are also some examinations of some more rural areas within the world, and Cameron does a spectacular job of presenting the more down-to-earth folk that live in these locations.  The locations featured within this book were very well done and I look forward to seeing what new lands are explored in future books.

One of the most interesting things about the setting of the book was how several of the issues and plot points have some interesting parallels with modern issues.  For a bit of context, the world that the Masters & Mages series is set within a world where a historical revolution installed a series of reforms that granted magic and education to the lower classes.  Now even quite poor families have access to basic magic that cleanses water, helps create fires and heal people, resulting in a better class of life for the common people.  At the same time, women are able to attend classes at The Academy and learn magic and other skills.  The book’s antagonists are determined to reverse these reforms and return magic to the rich and the nobles and ensure women have no more power.  This has resulted in a number of invasions and wars that have resulted in a huge number of refugees entering the city and other locations, much to dismay of the city’s rich and powerful.  I found the motivations of the antagonists to be very interesting, and it is easy to see some real-life parallels.  Intolerance towards refugees is a major issue at the moment, and it is deeply fascinating to see this reflected in a work of fantasy fiction.  In addition, the book featured quite a lot of intolerance towards people of certain nationalities, including the protagonist’s nationality.

Highlights of Cold Iron the spectacular action sequences that occur throughout the book.  There are a substantial number of fight scenes throughout the book, featuring magic, firearms, crossbows and swordplay.  All of these action elements are pretty impressive, and I especially love some of the larger sequences, where all the above methods of combat are being utilised by both sides.  For the most part, only some basic magical techniques are used within fights, which while intriguing, do not result in any eye-popping scenes.  However, there is one sequence where two powerful magic users fight in front of the protagonist, and he sees the destructive potential of their respective magic abilities.  Without a doubt, the most amazing action element is the swordplay.  There is quite a focus on swords throughout the book as the protagonist spends a large amount of time learning and training with them before using them in a number of duals and fights.  Cameron’s insane attention to detail and incredible knowledge of sword fighting makes these scenes absolutely incredible and produce some amazing fight sequences that feel extremely realistic.  These sword fight scenes are some of the best parts of this book and I really enjoyed having them narrated to me.

I had a lot of fun with several of the characters in this book.  The main character, Aranthur, is a pretty good protagonist who goes through some substantial character development in this book.  Not only does he grow to appreciate different points of view and increase his abilities as a warrior and scholar but he actually learns from his mistakes, although in some cases, such as when it comes to learning about women, it takes a little too long.  The other characters featured within Cold Iron are an interesting group.  My favourites include Ansu, a noble from another land who brings some amusing cultural differences; Tiy Draco, a gentleman spy with unclear allegiances; and Dahlia, the feisty warrior student who highlights the abilities and determination of the female students in The Academy.  My favourite character, however, had to be Sasan, the sarcastic and fatalistic refugee and drug addict who Aranthur attempts to help.  Sasan has some of the best lines in the entire book, and his exclamations and actions when under the effect of an enhancement spell were really funny.  Each of these characters is a lot of fun, and I will be intrigued to see what future development awaits them.

I listened to Cold Iron’s audiobook format, narrated by Mark Meadows, and I had a good time listening to this book.  Clocking in at around 19 and a half hours, this is a fairly long audiobook; however, I found myself really drawn into the story, so I was able to get through it fairly quickly.  I personally thought that the audiobook format was the best way to enjoy this book due to the huge amount of detail and worldbuilding that went into this story.  I was able to focus on all the details a hell of a lot more by listening to them, and I think this helped me follow the plot with a lot less confusion.  Cold Iron’s action sequences are particularly good when narrated, and I found that the intense and elaborate sword sequences were really enhanced by this format.  Mark Meadows does a fantastic job of narrating Cold Iron and I really appreciated his work in bringing the story to life.  I felt that the voice Meadows used for the narration of Cold Iron was very appropriate, and I liked listening to all the descriptions and actions that Cameron had inserted into his story.  Meadows also came up with a range of unique voices for his various characters, each of which did a great job of conveying the character’s emotions and personality.  Part of the reason why I liked the character of Sasan so much was because of the voice that Meadows created for him and used to exclaim some of his best lines.  Overall, I would strongly recommend that readers interested in checking out Cold Iron should try its audiobook format, and I was quite glad that I did.

Before I wrap up, I just wanted to make a quick comment on Cold Iron’s cover art.  Cold Iron has two separate covers: the one I have included at the top of this review, and the one I have placed below.  I loved both of these covers individually, and I felt that they contrasted with each other quite nicely.  The first cover is very classy and really exudes an old-school fantasy vibe, which I think represents Cameron’s storytelling style quite well.  However, I did enjoy the more modern look of the second cover, and I really enjoyed the artist’s use of the simple, but effective black and white colour scheme.  Both are very impressive, and I have to say that the artists did a fantastic job with both of them.

Cold Iron Cover 2.jpg

I was very impressed by my first foray into Cameron’s fantasy writings.  Cold Iron is an exceptional piece of fantasy fiction and an easy five stars from me.  This book’s story was incredibly well written and contained a very compelling plot filled with wide-reaching conspiracies, magic and excellent characters.  Set in a brilliant new fantasy world, Cold Iron is an excellent start to the Masters & Mages series and sets it up as a fantasy series to watch out for.  Some paperback versions of the second book in the series, Dark Forge, came out a short while ago, and I am tempted to order a copy in.  However, I may wait until September, when the audiobook version is released, as I found this was a great way to enjoy the first book.  Cold Iron is an outstanding read, and I am really glad I went back and checked out this excellent 2018 release.

Throwback Thursday – Promise of Blood by Brian McClellan

Promise of Blood Cover.jpg

Publishers: Orbit

                        Hachette Audio

Publication Date – 16 April 2013

 

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.

One of the saddest realities of being a bibliophile is that no matter how hard you try or how much spare time you have, no one can read every great book that comes out every year.  I am no exception to this rule, as for years I was mainly focused on the historical fiction genre.  While this is a fantastic genre to focus on, it did mean that I missed out on many of the biggest science fiction and fantasy releases for the last several years.  Ever since I expanded my attention to a range of other genres, I have been seeking out and reading a number of different fantasy or science fiction books and series, many of which I have or will review on my blog and on Goodreads.  One of the series that I have heard constantly praised by friends, fantasy fans and other book reviewers is The Powder Mage trilogy by Brian McClellan.  Nearly every fantasy reviewer and their dog has read and said good things about these books and, as a result, The Powder Mage trilogy has long been at the top of my to-read list.  So when I was recently able to fit the first book in the trilogy, Promise of Blood, into my reading schedule, I thought I would try it out and see if it lived up to everyone’s hype.

The Powder Mage trilogy are the debut novels of fantasy author Brian McClellan, and are a flintlock fantasy series, which is a modern fantasy sub-genre that features pre-industrialisation civilisations who utilise flintlock firearms with fantasy elements.  The Powder Mage trilogy started in 2013 with Promise of Blood, which the author followed up with a new book in 2014 and 2015.  Following the success of his initial trilogy, McClellan introduced a second trilogy, the Gods of Blood and Powder trilogy, which is set 10 years after the events of The Powder Mage trilogy.  This second trilogy is still ongoing, with the third and final book set to be released in November of this year.  In addition to these two main trilogies, McClellan has also written a number of novellas and short stories set in the same universe as his main books, which expand on his fantasy world.

McClellan has created a new and captivating fantasy world in order to contain the stories in his two main trilogies.  The Powder Mage trilogy is primarily set in the nation of Adro, one of nine nations that were founded thousands of years ago by the god Kresimir, which are together known as The Nine.  By the start of the first novel, Promise of Blood, the nations of The Nine have reached a level of technology equivalent to Europe’s pre-industrial revolution period, with flintlock firearms in heavy use.  Magic is also common in this world, with the nations of The Nine containing three separate levels of magical ability.  These include the privileged, extremely powerful sorcerers who can wield a range of devastating elemental abilities; the marked, lesser mages with more specific gifts; and the knacked, who have one specific magical talent, like a perfect memory or not needing to sleep.  The privileged of The Nine are generally organised into sorcery cabals, with the most powerful organised into a Royal Cabal loyal to the King of their nation.

Promise of Blood starts with Field Marshal Tamas, the highest-ranked military officer of Adro, leading a bloody coup against his country’s corrupt king and nobility.  During the coup, Tamas and his powder mages, marked whose abilities are powered by gunpowder, assassinate every member of Adro’s Royal Cabal.  However, every member of the Royal Cabal said one thing before they died, “You can’t break Kresimir’s Promise”.  In order to find out the meaning of these mysterious words, Tamas hires former police inspector Adamat to investigate.  While Adamat sets out to uncover meaning behind these mysterious final words, Tamas begins the difficult process bringing order to his country.  However, it soon becomes apparent that staging the coup was the easiest part of his endeavour.

Tamas’s coup provokes a war with the Kez, one of Adro’s rival nations in The Nine, whose previous attempts to control Adro’s king, led to Tamas overthrowing him.  As Tamas deals with assassins, Royalists, deposed nobles and Kez magicians, it soon becomes apparent that someone on Tama’s council has betrayed him.  Brought in by Tamas to investigate who betrayed him, Adamat finds his loyalties tested when mysterious figures target him and his family.  At the same time, Tama’s estranged son, Taniel Two-Shot, embarks on a hunt for a surprisingly powerful member of the Royal Cabal who escaped Tamas’s powder mages.

Both Adamat and Taniel’s missions reveal dark secrets about the formation of their country.  With dark omens in the sky and ancient legends come to life, can Tamas and his forces stop the destruction of Adro, or will the mysterious forces arrayed against them succeed in their mission to summon forth an ancient power?

To be honest, even before I heard about this trilogy from other book lovers and reviewers, I thought the synopsis was pretty cool and the idea of gunpowder-wielding mages was an interesting concept.  I listened to the audiobook format of Promise of Blood, narrated by Christian Rodska, which goes for a lengthy 19 hours.  Now the question is; did this book live up to the hype?  The answer is yes.  I loved this book, I thought it was massively creative, filled with incredible action, had some complex, if mostly male, characters and made use of some excellent fantasy elements.

I really enjoyed the story within this book and I thought it was an amazing combination of intrigue, action and fantasy storytelling.  I liked the idea of starting the book just as a successful coup had taken place and the focus on the immediate aftermath of such a significant event.  The story is essentially broken into three main parts.  About a third of the book is told from Adamat’s point of view and really focuses on the intrigue elements of the story.  Adamat at first investigates “Kresimir’s Promise”, which is a fairly interesting part of the book, as it dives into the history of the country, and quickly reveals that shadowy forces are at play behind the scenes.  This initial investigation only lasts for a short part of the book, before Adamat is drawn into the larger investigation about the traitor in Tamas’s council.  This is a very well done investigation part of the book as the reader is presented with five suspects, each of whom is hiding several secrets and many of which have suspicious employees.  In addition, Adamat has to deal with a mysterious figure who is blackmailing him, and who keeps the identity of his employer secret.  These multiple layers of intrigue and lies ensures that the reader is looking in several different directions and have a much harder time guessing who these antagonists are.

Another third of the book is told from Taniel’s point of view, and follows him as he first hunts down a powerful privileged, and then finds himself stuck in the middle of a large battle for the survival of Adro.  While there are quite a lot of reveals about some of the book’s underlying fantasy elements in this part of the book, the main focus is on the action, as Taniel and his allies fight a number of opponents, and Taniel reveals while he is known as Two-Shot.  There is some interesting character work in this section as Taniel works through his feelings for his father, finds himself having to choose between obeying orders and the life of his best friend, and him coming to terms with his weird relationship with the powerful female character, Ka-poel.

The final main part of the book is told from the point-of-view of Tamas himself, and deals with the fallout from his coup and the multitude of issues he has to deal with in the aftermath.  The parts of the book focusing on Tamas are the most important chapters within Promise of Blood, as they bridge the other two sections of the book due to Taniel and Adamat not really interacting too much during the book.  The Tamas chapters have the best balance of Promise of Bloods’ excellent combination of fantasy elements, intrigue and action.  Throughout these chapters, Tamas is constantly forced to deal with the political infighting and betrayals occurring all around him, while also being targeted by assassination or capture by his various enemies.  Tamas also encounters a number of hints about the true nature of the fantasy events impacting Adro, including from a bizarre chef, and I loved the layers of intrigue that surrounded something most of the characters believed was a myth.  I really liked Tamas as a character, and I found him to be an intriguing combination of a calm, tactical genius and an absolute rage monster.  Despite alienating most of the people around him, especially Taniel, deep down Tamas is a good man who has been forced to make the hard decisions no-one else will.  However, when enraged he is an absolute terror to behold, especially to someone who has crossed his friends or family, and during these scenes of anger he gives several of the best lines, such as the one that appears on the cover:  “The age of kings is dead, and I have killed it”.  He is an absolutely great character and a fantastic focus for this trilogy.

In addition to these three main characters, a small portion of the book is narrated by female character Nila.  Nila’s character really is not explored too much in Promise of Blood, although she is given a good introduction, and I understand she will become a much bigger character in the next books in the trilogy.  On top of the main characters, there are several excellent side characters who really make this book extra awesome.  This includes Tamas’s bodyguard, Olem, a sarcastic and funny man who acts as Tamas’s moral compass for much of the book, and who also has certain ideas about people shooting his dog.  There is also Sousmith, Adamat’s bodyguard, a former boxer who acts as a fun foil to Adamat’s detective character.  While several characters at the Mountain Watch are also enjoyable, you have to love Ka-poel, the mute, witch who serves as Taniel’s spotter.  She has some crazy magic to her, and I have a vague feeling (without knowing anything about the plot of the future books) that she is some sort of young god or something.  I liked the way that Ka-poel was able to express everything, despite being a completely non-verbal character, although the implied romance between her and Taniel was a tad weird, especially as it started the moment he realised she was older than she looked.

The world building in this book is extremely impressive and it serves as an outstanding introduction to the key elements of the series’s universe.  While the other magical and fantasy elements of this book are pretty awesome, I especially loved the powder mages, and their magic is easily the best part of the book.  The powder mages have a unique blend of abilities, all of which are powered by eating or snorting gunpowder.  Consuming the powder gives them focus, enhanced perception, great strength and stamina.  In addition, they have control over gunpowder, igniting at will, and using their abilities to manipulate bullets in flight.  Each of the characters have different abilities on top of that.  Tamas can ricochet bullets around a room; Taniel can fire bullets further than anyone else, as well as firing two bullets at once; while another powder mage, Vlora, can ignite powder from a distance.  These characters in battle are absolutely fantastic, and I love it when these characters, especially Tamas, fully unleash their abilities.  The fight scenes between the powder mages and the privileged were exceptionally amazing, and I loved the contrast between the more traditional fantasy magic of the privileged and McClellan’s more unique powder magic.  That being said, when the privileged unleash their abilities they can be much more destructive, and some of their fights are pretty impressive.

I had a wonderful time listening to the audiobook format of Promise of Blood, and I thought that it was a spectacular way to enjoy this amazing story.  The action sequences, especially when the magic and bullets are flying, really come to life when narrated, and audiobooks always help me absorb complex new fantasy worlds such as the one in this series.  Rodska’s narration is really well done, and I found that he really captured the essence of the characters.  I especially thought he got the gruff and powerful voice of Tamas down perfectly, and it was an extremely realistic personification of the character’s voice.  I really hope that Rodska does the narration for the other books in McClellan’s series, and I would easily recommend the audiobook format of Promise of Blood to anyone interested in this series.

Overall, I really loved Promise of Blood and I found that it lived up to its substantial hype.  It’s easily a five-star novel in my eyes.  I loved this book so much that I am planning to listen to the remaining books in The Powder Mage trilogy as soon as I can, and I will probably also try and listen to the first two books in the Gods of Blood and Powder before the final book comes out in November.  McClellan is a fantasy genius, and anybody who loves action and explosions should invest the time to read this book.

My Rating:

Five Stars