Howling Dark by Christopher Ruocchio

Howling Dark Cover

Publisher: Gollancz and Recorded Books (16 July 2019)

Series: Sun Eater – Book 2

Length: 679 pages or 28 hours and 3 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Usagi Yojimbo – Vol 33: The Hidden by Stan Sakai

Usagi Yojimbo The Hidden Cover

Publisher: Dark Horse Books (9 July 2019)

Series: Usagi Yojimbo – Volume 33

Length: 200 pages

My Rating: 5 out of stars

While there are a number of great books and comics coming out this year, one of the releases that I have been most keenly looking forward to was this year’s volume of Usagi Yojimbo. Usagi Yojimbo by Stan Sakai is a fantastic comic book series that utilises Japanese style, characters and history into an excellent series. This series is one of my favourite bodies of work, and I will move heaven and earth to get each instalment, and I especially loved last year’s volume, Mysteries. I was pretty darn excited to get the 33rd volume, The Hidden, and powered through it the afternoon that I received it.

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The Hidden continues the story of Miyamoto Usagi, a wandering ronin samurai who lives in a version of medieval Japan populated by anthropomorphic animals. Usagi’s life occurs in the early 17th century, during the Edo era of Japan. This is a pretty interesting time period to set a story, as with the land mostly at formal peace thanks to the rule of the Shogun, many samurai have been forced to roam the land without a master to serve. Usagi, a highly skilled samurai based on the legendary historical warrior Miyamoto Musashi, has been forced to live the ronin lifestyle after the death of his lord. Wandering the roads and seeking employment as a Yojimbo (a bodyguard), Usagi encounters all manner of rogues, bandits and criminals, as well as a number of supernatural foes from Japanese folklore.

The Hidden is made up of issues #166-#172 of the series and is actually one of the rare Usagi Yojimbo volumes to feature just one single adventure rather than multiple interconnected or standalone stories. This volume also continues to pair Usagi with Inspector Ishida for the entire volume. Ishida, who is essentially a Japanese Sherlock Holmes (although based on real-life Honolulu policeman Chang Apana), is a recurring character within the Usagi series who has appeared in multiple volumes, often for just one issue or adventure. However, after teaming up to investigate a murder a couple of volumes ago, Usagi has been living in Ishida’s town and assisting him with his investigations. As a result, Ishida has become a secondary protagonist for the last two volumes, with Mysteries, for example, focusing on the two solving several different crimes.

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This new volume starts with a brand-new case, when two samurai are pursued into the city and brutally murdered. When Usagi and Ishida discover crucifixes on the dead samurai’s bodies, they quickly realise that both the victims where Kirishitans (Christians). Christianity, which has been bought into the country by European missionaries, has recently been outlawed in Japan by the Shogun, and his agents are hunting down all practitioners. It soon becomes clear that the dead samurai were killed by agents of the Shogun who were attempting to recover a mysterious book of foreign design.

However, in a twist of fate, a petty thief manages to steal the book off the corpse of one of the samurai. This thief is now the most wanted man in the city, as the Shogunate agents and their hired killers attempt to find him and the book at all costs. As Usagi and Ishida work out what has happened, they are determined to bring the killers to justice. Hunting for both the book and the criminal who stole it, Usagi and Ishida, with the help of the masked master-thief Nezumi, manage to locate part of the book, and what they discover could rock the entirety of Japan. As they attempt to come to terms with their discovery, the Shogunate agents determine that the two investigators are a threat and decide to eliminate once and for all.

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While I may have had to wait a whole year to read this latest volume, it was definitely worth it. Sakai has once again produced an outstanding comic book that I could not have put down for anything. Not only has Sakai written an intriguing and clever story with a great mystery and an informative look at a new aspect of Japanese history, but he tells it through his beautiful Japanese-inspired artwork that really brings the characters and the landscape to life. Together this results in another exceptional piece of work that I absolutely loved.

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The main story focuses upon Usagi and Ishida’s investigation into the murders of Christian samurai and the hunt for the mysterious book the Shogunate agents are searching for. This was a really interesting story, and I liked how Sakai took the entire volume to really flesh out the investigation. The two characters go on a compelling adventure in this book, running into a number of colourful characters, dodging political restraints, interrogating a number of suspicious characters and getting into several deadly fights. However, what starts out as an intriguing investigation soon turns into a deep and powerful tale of convictions, belief and faith, and the things one must do to preserve all three. This is shown by a number of characters, including Usagi and Ishida, who risk everything to find the truth and more. There is also the amazing character arc of new character Hama, whose heart-rending sacrifice is one of the most memorable parts of this book. There is also a fairly major revelation about one of the other characters towards the end of the volume that actually changes the way you see the story and is guaranteed to make you look back to see the various things you missed the first time. Several recurring Usagi characters are used exceedingly well in this book. The mysterious masked thief Nezumi makes a great return, helping the protagonists with their investigation. It is always cool to see Nezumi in action, and I enjoy seeing the grudging respect build between him and Ishida, despite them living on opposite sides of the law. Everyone’s favourite snitch, Toady, makes another appearance, adding a lot of humour to the story as he attempts to weasel his way into more gold. Overall, this was another well-written and captivating story that was a real pleasure to read.

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One of my favourite aspects of the Usagi Yojimbo books is that Sakai often uses them to explore some fascinating piece of Japanese history, culture, mythology or industry and present them in a way that his western audience can appreciate. I was really glad that he continued this trend in The Hidden, as this time he takes an intriguing look at the role of early Japanese Christians in 17th century Japan. These Christians, who are the titular hidden ones of this volume, were an outlawed minority, due to Christianity directly contradicting a number of traditional Japanese beliefs and therefore challenging the authority of the Shogun. This latest volume shows this persecution in action, as the city is locked down by agents of the Shogun who are hunting for a valuable Christian item. The reader gets a sense of the illicit and hidden nature of these Christians and the way they were hunted, and Sakai also shows certain unique parts of this hunt, such as the fumi-e (trampling image). The fumi-e was an image of a cross that the Shogun’s enforcers placed on the ground in front of the gates of barricades that were set up at key points of the city. In order to pass through the barricades, pedestrians were forced to stamp on the image, showing their disdain for the Christian religion, and those who refused to step on the image were arrested as Christians. This was a fascinating part of Japanese history that I found incredibly interesting to see in action, and one that Sakai was able to cleverly work into the book’s plot. There were also a few fun scenes which looked at a black-market dealer who sold items which originated outside of Japan. Due to the Shogun isolating the country, these were incredibly valuable items, and I liked seeing what items this dealer considered valuable (the dealer’s European dress also made for a stunning visual as well). All of this was really cool to learn about, and I cannot wait to see what aspects of historical Japan the author explores in his next volume.

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Sakai’s fantastic artwork is once again one of the major highlights of this volume. Sakai is a particularly skilled artist who always does a fantastic job bringing the beauty and grace of Japan and its culture to life. The artwork on the surrounding landscape is just spectacular, and I always love attention to the historical detail on the buildings and people inhabiting his towns. One of the highlights of The Hidden that I particularly liked was the consecutive prayer gates leading up to a shrine that the characters visit. The visuals on all these gates were just amazing and very distinctive. I also really enjoyed the way that Sakai portrays his battle sequences in his series; he has a real talent for bring multiple high-energy battle scenes to life. I especially like how he manages to convey so much action and intensity in his still frames, and it really shows off some cool aspects of Japanese sword play. This was another beautifully illustrated volume, and the great art goes exceedingly well with the fantastic story Sakai has devised.

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Volume 33 of Usagi Yojimbo, The Hidden, was another excellent addition to this amazing series. Sakai once again produces a compelling story in his unique comic-book universe which results in a spectacular volume that I know I am going to read again and again in the future. While this was an outstanding Usagi Yojimbo story, I now have the downside of having to wait a whole other year to get my next Usagi fix. Make sure to check back next year when I will no doubt gush about how much I loved volume 34 of this series.

Commodus by Simon Turney

Commodus Cover

Publisher: Orion (Trade Paperback – 11 June 2019)

Series: The Damned Emperors – Book 2

Length: 482 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Acclaimed historical fiction author Simon Turney catalogues another infamous ruler of Rome in the second book of his The Damned Emperors series, Commodus.

Rome, 162 AD. The Roman Empire is in a rare period of peace and stability, with two brothers, Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus, both ruling as Emperor. The future also looks bright, as for the first time in Rome’s history, two male heirs have been born to a ruling Emperor. However, only one of these children is destined to become Emperor and make his own mark on history. His name is Commodus.

Raised as Rome’s golden child, Commodus eventually succeeds his father as Emperor following a period of war, rebellion and disease. Beloved by the people and loathed by the Senate, Commodus styles himself as Hercules reborn, becoming a great patron and competitor of gladiatorial fights, chariot races and other feats of martial strength. However, behind the scenes, Commodus’s life has been filled with tragedy and despair, and he hides a darker side beneath his golden exterior.

As Commodus succumbs more and more to his inner demons, Rome is rocked by power struggles and plots, as his family and servants attempt to control or usurp the unpredictable Emperor. Only one woman, Marcia, truly understands Commodus and can keep his mind together. Born a simple palace servant, Marcia was the love of Commodus’s life and a skilled player of Roman politics. However, not even Marcia can contain Commodus’s self-destructive urges forever, and eventually she must decide whether she will die at the hands of her great love or make the ultimate betrayal.

Commodus is the second book in Turney’s The Damned Emperors series, which takes a look at some of the most tragic, infamous and self-destructive rulers of ancient Rome. After presenting an exciting tale of insanity and vengeance in Caligula, Turney now takes a look at one of the most intriguing emperors in Roman history, Commodus. The result is a powerful, well-written and captivating piece of historical fiction that I absolutely fell in love with and which easily earns a full five-star rating from me.

Commodus is truly one of the more fascinating figures in Roman history, which is saying a lot. While most would probably know him as the villain in the movie Gladiator, as portrayed by Joaquin Phoenix, he actually had a long and controversial reign, with many events that are hard to believe. As a result, a book focusing on his life is bound to be interesting; however, Turney goes above and beyond, presenting a well-researched and deeply compelling novelisation of Commodus’s life. Not only does Turney explore some of the more extraordinary aspects of Commodus’s reign, such as his devotion to becoming the new Hercules, his exploits in the arena or the cult of personality he formed around himself, but Turney also attempts to explain why he may have done them. This results in a clever and thought-provoking look at the entirety of Commodus’s life, including several formative events that are known, or are likely to have happened, and which may have led to some of his more extreme actions later in life. I really enjoyed the potential scenarios that Turney came up with to explain Commodus’s personality, and his justifications featured towards the end of the book are really quite interesting and very compelling. There are also some interesting historical tweaks to some of Commodus’s actions, but I feel that these work in the wider aspect of the story and help to create a more believable narrative. The end result is an outstanding examination of this fascinating historical figure which will allow the reader to see Commodus in a whole new light.

Turney has done an amazing job telling this story, thanks in part to the use of an excellent point-of-view character. The story is told from the perspective of Marcia, the women in love with Commodus, and is set out as a personal chronicle of Marcia’s actions, which run parallel to the life of Commodus. Turney takes more historical liberties with this character and re-imagines Marcia as a close childhood friend of Commodus. The use of Marcia as the story’s narrator and the subsequent re-imagining of parts of her life story are done extremely well, allowing the author to have a single, consistent narrator who is constantly close to the main character. This was the best way to tell the complete story of Commodus’s life, and it was an amazing storytelling device from Turney which completely justifies historical variations in the character.

Using Marcia as the point-of-view character also allowed Turney to tell an addictive historical tale of love, revenge, ambition and tragedy. Marcia is a tragic character in this book, and her storyline is really quite powerful. The daughter of a servant in the Imperial Palace, Marcia is allowed to grow close to Commodus, becoming his childhood friend and confidant before circumstances conspire to keep them apart. However, Marcia’s determination to be with Commodus results in a series of power plays, plots and other nefarious actions as she tries both to free herself and to deal with other people who wish to influence the Emperor. Despite some of the terrible actions she commits, Marcia comes across as a very sympathetic character in this book, and your heart goes out to her with some of the setbacks she encounters. Her romance with Commodus, while caring and filled with love, is also very dramatic, as Commodus’s moods and the influences of others in his circle often place strains and boundaries on them being together. The final, tragic result of this story is told extremely well, as the reader gets to see the highs of their love, swiftly followed by the swift, one-sided deterioration of their relationship. This results in a devastating conclusion to the book, and the reader is left reeling at how this romance comes to an end.

In addition to the story of Commodus and Marcia, Turney also does an excellent job exploring Roman history and events during the span of Commodus’s life in the second half of the second century. Some truly fascinating events occurred during this period of Roman history, including wars, plagues and the reign of proxy tyrants such as Cleander and Perennis. The author covers these events in some detail, and it is really interesting to see how some of the events unfolded, how long they lasted and what actions led up to them. Commodus is also filled with a number of intriguing depictions of Roman life, and the various ancient Roman settings proved to be an amazing background for this great story.

Commodus is a first-rate novel and easily one of my favourite pieces of historical fiction for 2019. Turney is an incredibly skilled author whose dedication to historical detail pairs well with his amazing ability to tell a dramatic and powerful story. Commodus comes highly recommended, and I cannot wait to see which flawed ruler of Rome Turney focuses on in his next instalment of The Damned Emperors series.

War of the Bastards by Andrew Shvarts

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Publisher: Hyperion (Hardcover – 4 June 2019)

Series: Royal Bastards trilogy – Book 3/Final

Length: 392 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

War, rebellion, magic and one hell of kickass story! Shvarts brings the outstanding Royal Bastards trilogy to an end with War of the Bastards, the relentlessly entertaining conclusion that rounds out the series with an epic bang. The Royal Bastards trilogy is the debut work of author Andrew Shvarts, who has produced an incredible young adult fantasy series that has been an absolute delight to read over the last three years. Set in the fantasy nation of Noveris, the series follows the adventures of its protagonist, Tilla, and her friends as they try to navigate the treachery and war that has engulfed their nation.

I had an absolute blast reading the second book in the trilogy, City of Bastards, last year. Not only did the book feature a compelling story style and an amazingly captivating plot, but it ended with an outstanding cliff hanger with the protagonist failing to stop the antagonist’s sinister plot, which results in the entire royal family being killed off and the enemy gaining control of the throne. This was such an epic ending, especially because the massacre of the entire royal family was just so unexpected (I really was expecting a last-minute rescue from the protagonists), and I have been extremely curious to see how this story ended for quite a while.

It has been a year since the destructive events that changed Noveris forever. After orchestrating the explosion that decimated the royal court of Noveris, killing the King and Queen and most of Noveris’s nobles, Lord Elric Kent has assumed the throne. With a huge number of powerful bloodmages under the command of his ruthless Inquisitor, Miles Hampstedt, Kent’s rule over Noveris looks to be nearly absolute. However, many are still fighting back against the despotic new rule, including Kent’s bastard daughter, Tilla.

Tilla is a member of the resistance group known as the Unbroken, which fights to return Tilla’s friend, the rightful Queen, Lyriana Volaris, back to the throne. With the help of her lover, Zell, and Lyriana’s cousin, Ellarion, Tilla and the Unbroken are engaged in a brutal guerrilla war against the new regime. However, the situation looks dire and victory near impossible to achieve, until a mission to rescue a major source of rebel intelligence reveals that their informant was none other than King Kent himself. Kent’s rule has been usurped by Miles, whose absolute control over the bloodmages has allowed him to take over Noveris without anyone noticing. While attempting to deal with the implications of capturing Tilla’s father, the Unbroken also free Syan Syee, a young woman from the Red Wastes with mysterious magical powers, who brings an urgent message to the people of Noveris. Syan warns of a coming apocalypse and believes that defeating Miles is the key to stopping it. Needing new allies, Tilla, Lyriana, Zell, Ellarion, Kent and Syan journey to the Red Wastes, hoping to recruit Syan’s people to their cause. However, what they discover in the Red Wastes will change everything. With this new knowledge, can Tilla and her friends save Noveris, or will Miles’s lust for power and control tear their world apart?

Before I started reading this book, I honestly thought that Shvarts was going to have an extremely hard time matching the awesomeness of City of Bastards. However, I am pleased to report that War of the Bastards is an incredible and massively compelling read that I enjoyed just as much as the second book in the series. While it may lack the shocking cliff hanger ending of City of Bastards, War of the Bastards has an excellent fast-paced story that proves extremely hard to put down once you start.

I really loved the story contained within War of the Bastards and felt that it was an amazing conclusion to the trilogy. The tale of an epic battle to free a kingdom is a classic, but the author has put some fantastic modern twists on it, and his entertaining writing style and dedication to bringing out huge moments, really turns this into something special. Shvarts has included a number of cool twists and turns throughout this book, and I really liked where the story went at times. There was also a slight turn away from fantasy towards another genre about two-thirds through the story that proved to be a bit surprising, but I found it to be an interesting addition to the story. Without giving too much away, I was very satisfied with the clever way that the antagonist was taken down at the end of the book, and it was a nice call-back to earlier events in the series. I really enjoyed how this story turned out, and it was an outstanding conclusion to the epic tale that had been told throughout the Royal Bastards trilogy.

In the previous books in the series, the author tended to only set the story in one general setting, such as the West for the first book and the Lightspire for the second book. In War of the Bastards, Shvarts continues to expand on his fantasy world, but this time he takes his characters to several new locations that had been alluded to in the other books. The story starts in the Heartlands and focuses on the characters fighting their guerrilla war there. This land has been transformed by the oppression of Kent and Miles, and it was intriguing to see how bad things had gotten under their rule. The protagonists also journey through the Southlands and the Red Wastes, both of which are pretty fascinating and distinctive locales. The Red Wastes was definitely the most unique location, ravaged by terrifying magical storms and featuring interesting new civilisation. Overall, these new locations are pretty cool, and readers will enjoy exploring more of this great fantasy world.

One of the major strengths of Shvarts’s previous books has been the excellent character work. Each of the major characters has gone through tremendous growth through the course of the first two books, and this growth has continued through the course of War of the Bastards. Tilla has gone from being two different types of social outcast (a bastard in the first book and a traitor’s daughter in the second) to a respected rebel warrior fighting the good fight. However, despite knowing she is fighting for what is right, Tilla is not natural killer and has to constantly deal with the guilt of her actions, keeping a running mental count of all those she has killed. She also has to finally come to terms with her strained relationship with her father once he joins them on their quest. Due to her status as a bastard, her father has always kept a certain distance with her. Now, with him joining their band, Tilla is forced to have several emotional confrontations with him over the terrible things he has done in previous books and how he treated her in the past. This results in some dramatic moments within the book, and the exploration of their relationship makes for great reading. Tilla still serves as the book’s narrator and point-of-view character, and it is through her eyes that we see the story unfold. This is extremely fortunate, as her sassy and sarcastic outlook on the events occurring around her leads to a lot of the book’s humour. All in all, I have always found Tilla to be a pretty awesome main character, and it was great to see how her story ended.

In addition to Tilla, the other three main characters from the previous Royal Bastards books all get great character arcs within this book. Lyriana spends this book as the Queen in exile of her people and is burdened with the responsibility of being a figurehead. However, she rises to the challenge and proves herself to be powerful badass and war leader thanks to her epic magical abilities. This was a massive change in her character from the second book, where she was devastated with loss and trauma, and it was great to see her at her full potential. Readers will also like the new relationship she finds herself in, and it was nice to see her finally get some emotional happiness. I would say that Zell is character least utilised in this book, but we do get to witness him trying to come to terms with guilt from the previous book thanks to the inadvertent role he had in facilitating the massacre. The character most impacted by the events of the previous book is Ellarion, Lyriana’s cousin and the most powerful magician in the lands. He lost his hands at the end of City of Bastards when defending his friends from the massive explosion and must now learn how to live without them and, more importantly, the magic they allowed him to perform. Shvarts did an amazing job portraying Ellarion’s despair at his situation and the longing he has for his lost magical arts. Some interesting things happen to him in this book and he has a major moment that readers will absolutely love.

Two new characters join the main characters in this book: Syan from the Red Wastes and Tilla’s father, Lord Kent. Syan is a pretty cool lesbian character who has some significant secrets in her past. Shvarts does a great job telling her entire story within this one book, and I found her to be quite an enjoyable character. Lord Kent was another fantastic addition to the main group of protagonists. While he has appeared in both of the previous books in the trilogy, we have never really gotten his side of the story before. In addition to all the drama surrounding his relationship with Tilla, we also get to see his motivations for his actions, as well as the regret for what he has brought about. I really liked the inclusion of Kent in War of the Bastards and thought it was a clever touch from Shvarts because of all the extra emotional complexities and drama he brings to the story.

I should quickly mention the main antagonist of this book, Miles. Miles has always been a pretty unlikeable character, especially after betraying the group in the first book due to his jealousy over Tilla choosing Zell. Shvarts really makes him even more despicable in War of the Bastards by showing him as the facilitator of all the worst things that have been done in Noveris in the last year. Later confrontations with him reveal that he has no remorse and really does not see himself as the bad guy. His continued obsession with Tilla is pretty messed up (cough, harem, cough), but I do like how that was used against him at times. Overall, Miles makes for an excellent series villain, and Shvarts did an amazing job utilising him in this final book.

The author has a very creative mind when it comes to the magic and fantasy elements contained within this series. The magical abilities and rules that govern the lands of Noveris are extremely interesting and have led to some impressive magical destruction and battles in the past. Shvarts continues to do this in the final book, and the exploration of the origins of magic and the devastating consequences of using it are really fascinating. Shvarts came up with some cool and unique new magical abilities in War of the Bastards, especially for the magic utilised by the people of the Red Wastes. The author has been really creative in this final book, and I am sure readers will like some of the ideas he comes up with.

Like the previous books in the series, War of the Bastards is being marketed towards the young adult audience. However, it should only really be read by the older teen audience, as it features a lot of adult content. While it does not have as much sex, drugs and drinking as City of Bastards did, it does feature a heck of a lot more violence, and some of the action scenes are pretty gruesome. This does mean the book is really easy for older readers to enjoy, and I would strongly recommend this to all adult fantasy readers.

While I am sad to see the Royal Bastards series end, War of the Bastards was such an incredible conclusion to the story that it does not seem too devastating. Due to its near perfect blend of electrifying story content, excellent characters and entertaining writing style, I found that it was near impossible to put War of the Bastards down, and I had an amazing time reading it. This is easily a five-star read, and I reckon this is my favourite young adult book of 2019 so far. With his debut trilogy, Andrew Shvarts has shown himself to be an extremely talented author, and I will be eagerly keeping an eye out for his next series.

Throwback Thursday – Star Wars: Darth Vader: Volume 1 – Vader

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Publisher: Marvel COmics

Writer: Kieron Gillen

Artist: Salvador Larroca

Colourist: Edgar Delgado

Publication Date: 20 October 2015

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

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

For this week’s Throwback Thursday, I check out the fun and exciting first volume of the Darth Vader comic book series, Vader, which features the destructive adventures of the Star Wars trilogy’s greatest villain, Darth Vader, and presents a new story for Disney’s extended universe.

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When I previously reviewed two volumes of the Darth Vader: Dark Lord of the Sith comic book series (Legacy’s End and The Burning Seas), I mentioned how much I love the classic Star Wars movie villain Darth Vader. This current series is pretty epic and does an amazing job of telling the story of Darth Vader’s early adventures following the fall of the Jedi and the rise of the Empire. However, another Darth Vader series, helmed by writer Kieron Gillen and artist Salvador Larroca, commenced in 2015 off the heels of the Star Wars comic book series.

This first volume of this Darth Vader series is set after the events of A New Hope and deals with the fallout of the destruction of the Death Star. It is also deeply connected with the Marvel 2015 Star Wars comic series that started around the same time, especially the first volume of this series, Skywalker Strikes. Issue #1 of the Darth Vader comic, for example, starts just after the events that occurred in first three issues featured in the Skywalker Strikes, and both Star Wars #6 and Darth Vader #6, which close out each series’ respective first volume, end at the exact same moment of time.

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For nearly 20 years, Darth Vader has been the most feared being in the Empire, loyally serving under the Emperor as his most effective enforcer and most trusted subordinate. However, recent failures have damaged his relationship with his master. The destruction of the Death Star on his watch has left the Empire vulnerable, and his failure to stop the recent Rebel assault on Cymoon (as seen in Star Wars issues #1- #3) has made them look weak. The Emperor, displeased with his apprentice’s failures, has placed Grand General Tagge in command of Vader and is keeping secrets that could prove deadly to him. At the same time, Vader finds himself intrigued by the young, unnamed Rebel who is responsible for the destruction of the Death Star, especially after their encounter on Cymoon, where he discovered that his old master, Obi-Wan Kenobi, gifted the boy the lightsabre Vader once wielded as Anakin Skywalker.

Concerned with the events occurring around him, Vader decides it is time to start operating outside of the Emperor’s orders. Not only does he send the bounty hunter Bobba Fett to capture the mysterious Rebel pilot and bring him directly to Vader; he also recruits the rogue archaeologist, Doctor Aphra, as his agent. Using Aphra’s knowledge and contacts and the two murderous droids she has assembled, Vader amasses the resources needed to investigate the Emperor’s hidden agenda. However, his investigation reveals that the Emperor has commissioned research into a series of deadly individuals meant to take Vader’s place at the Emperor’s side. As he attempts to deal with this new competition, Vader finds himself rocked by another revelation: the pilot who destroyed the Death Star is named Skywalker!

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Darth Vader: Volume 1: Vader features issues #1-6 of this series, and features the writing of Kieron Gillian and the artistic talents of Salvador Larroca. Gillian and Larroca are veteran comic book talents with a variety of different titles under their belts, although both are probably best known for their work with Marvel Comics. The two of them have formed an effective creative team in the last few years, as they have worked together on a number of Star Wars comic book titles, including all 25 issues of this Darth Vader series. The two have also produced the last 30 or so issues of the amazing Star Wars series, creating several of the series best moments, and have worked together on the entertaining Doctor Aphra title, which follows the adventures of the popular character, Doctor Aphra, who is introduced in this volume of Darth Vader. I think at this point I actually have a copy of every Star Wars comic this pair have created together, and it is almost guaranteed that I will feature more of their work in the future.

I started getting into the 2015 Darth Vader series late last year after I was blown away by the Darth Vader: Dark Lord of the Sith comics. I am extremely happy that I decided to check out the 2015 Darth Vader series, because I absolutely loved this first volume of the series, Vader, and had an amazing time reading it. Not only was this one of the first comic book volumes in the new Star Wars canon that showed what an absolute badass Darth Vader is but it features a captivating story, some major Star Wars moments, incredible artwork and iconic new characters.

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This first volume of Darth Vader contains some epic sequences that really highlight how awesome and destructive the character of Vader really is. I loved the opening scene in particular, which features Vader having a covert meeting with Jabba the Hutt at Jabba’s palace on Tatooine. This meeting is in some ways very similar to the meeting Luke has with Jabba at the start of Return of the Jedi, with Vader entering alone to stand before Jabba in his audience chamber. However, some key alterations really show how different Vader’s style is compared to his son’s. Rather than attempting to negotiate like a Jedi, Vader slaughters his way in, deliberately avoids standing on Jabba’s hidden trap door, kills every minion that Jabba ambushes him with and then proceeds to force choke Jabba until he gets his way. It makes for one hell of an introduction to the series, and does an incredibly successful job of setting up Vader as a major badass. This first issue #1 also has a great ending, showing Vader nonchalantly having a conversation over a smoking pile of Tusken Raiders that he spent the day killing. This is a nice call-back to his past as Anakin Skywalker and it also shows how much more causal he now is around death and destruction, especially as he leaves simply saying, “All my present business is concluded.”

I also liked how this volume showed a completely different side to Vader’s relationship with the Emperor. The series is set in some unique circumstances, as it occurs right after the destruction of the Death Star, and the Emperor’s displeasure at Vader for allowing it to happen is vast. Vader in turn is suspicious of the Emperor’s secrets, and actively starts working behind the Emperor’s back for the first time. The sequences featuring Vader assembling his own private resources and working against the benefits of the Empire are quite fascinating, and results in some interesting missions. I also really liked the part of the book when Vader and the Emperor eventually find out each other’s secrets, especially as it results in an interesting discussion. While the Emperor is actually impressed with Vader showing initiative and working outside the system, Vader is outraged that the Emperor has been creating abominations to replace him for the last 20 years. The Emperor reveals that he has been disappointed with Vader ever since he was defeated at the end of Revenge of the Sith, and that he needs to prove himself worthy of the Emperor again.

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While all the above scenes are pretty awesome, the best part of this volume is the incredible conclusion of the volume in issue #6. Vader, already enraged after his talk with the Emperor, finds out that the young Jedi he encountered is named Skywalker. The building anger within Vader as he finds out is palpable as he flashes back to the events of Revenge of the Sith and realises that the Emperor lied to him; he did not actually kill Padmé before she gave birth to their child. The switch between Vader’s reaction in the present and the scenes from the past is done perfectly, building up the tension around Vader and making for some amazing pages. The scene then continues with Vader calling up the Emperor to confront him, in a nice continuation of the storyline I mentioned above. However, rather than revealing that he knows the Emperor lied to him all those years ago, he instead keeps it secret and indicates he understands his place with the Emperor. The final pages reveal Vader staring off into space and stating, “I have a son. He will be mine. It will all be mine”, referring to the Empire and the galaxy with the last part. There is so much in this scene to love. Not only do we actually get to see the moment where Vader finds out Luke is his son, a major moment in Star Wars history that ties together parts of the prequel series with the original trilogy, but we also get a look into Vader’s mind when he finds out the truth after all these years. This whole sequence is just incredible and has to be one of my favourite moments in this entire series. It also cleverly matches the end of the first volume of the related Star Wars comic book series and actually expands on that original comic for fans who were curious about it.

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While the focus on Darth Vader is amazing, this volume also features the introduction of several outstanding new characters in the Star Wars canon, Doctor Aphra and her droids. Dr Aphra is an awesome character, as she is essentially an anti-Indiana Jones living in the Star Wars universe. Aphra recovers valuable (and often extremely dangerous) artefacts from across the galaxy, either for her own use or to sell for a profit. However, in this first volume, Aphra is forced into Vader’s employ and must help him obtain the means to act outside the Emperor’s notice. Aphra story arc in the first volume is pretty darn compelling. While Aphra is willing to help Vader, and even thinks of it as a cool opportunity, she is under no illusions about the fact that Vader will kill her at some point in the future and is a constant mess of emotions as a result. There is a fantastic scene in this volume where Aphra makes it clear to Vader that she knows he is eventually going to kill her and begs him to show some mercy when the time comes and use his lightsabre rather than worse methods, such as chucking her out of an airlock (this actually comes into play later in quite a clever way). I also liked that the creative team really played up the Indian Jones aspects of her character at times, such as her introductory sequence, where she is forced to escape a series of booby traps, including a spherical droid, similar to the boulder sequence in Raiders of the Lost Ark. Humour like that really makes Aphra an excellent addition to this volume, and I love how the creative team are able to get some dark moments out of her relationship with Darth Vader.

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In addition to Aphra, we are introduced to her droids 0-0-0 (Triple Zero) and BT-1, who are fun parodies of C-3PO and R2-D2. Like C-3PO and R2-D2, Triple Zero and BT-1 are a protocol droid and astromech duo, but with a few key differences. Triple Zero has been programmed with a number of languages and human protocols, but he has also been programmed for torture and is equipped with a number of syringes and other torture implements. BT-1, on the other hand, is actually a lethal assassin droid disguised as an astromech in order to appear harmless, and is loaded with multiple weapons, including a massive cannon and a flamethrower. Both of them had been decommissioned by the Empire for being too dangerous (which tells you a lot), but are brought back online by Aphra and Vader. These two droids are an extremely fun duo, acting a lot like the iconic C-3PO and R2-D2, except with a complete disregard for human life and a desire for as much destruction and death as possible. The discussion the two have in this first volume about killing the various creatures they come into contact with are very funny: “Hahaha! You are on fire and also dead.” I also found it amusing that, even though they are remorseless killers, the two droids get along better than C-3PO and R2-D2 ever did, with Triple Zero actually complimenting BT-1 and appreciating everything he does, especially all the murder. These two are an extremely entertaining couple of characters, and it was fun to see them parody the classic Star Wars droids in such a clever way.

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I loved the artwork in this volume, and some of the cool details that were included in the various scenes added so much to the story. For example, the fantastic closing sequence where Vader finds out his son is still alive is superbly enhanced by the cracks that appear on all the glass around Vader as he comes to his realisations. This looks so cool and really highlights how angry he is feeling. The art also showcases all the awesome action contained within this book, especially when it comes to all the destruction Vader and his cohorts unleash to achieve their goals. There are so many explosions and so much destruction laced throughout the book, and the artists who contributed to this first volume make them look pretty darn spectacular. I also loved the close-up action when Vader gets to work with the force and his lightsabre. The artists do an impressive job showcasing all the destruction he is capable of, and the reader is constantly reminded of that amazing Darth Vader scene at the end of Rogue One. The artists also do an amazing job conveying character emotion through the subtleties of their facial expressions. You get a real idea of what the characters are feeling thanks to the artwork, whether it is Doctor Aphra’s fear whenever she has to deal with a pissed of Vader, or the constant anger Vader is feeling throughout this volume. I am particularly impressed with how they were able to compensate for the helmet Vader is always wearing in order to show off Vader’s various emotions. Subtle things like the tilt or shape of the mask and the character’s body language seemed to speak volumes at times, and I think that they captured Vader’s emotions perfectly every time. Vader featured some very clever and very impressive artwork, which not only stand on its own, but which enhances the book’s story substantially.

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The first volume of the 2015 Darth Vader series was an outstanding example of Star Wars fiction which really modernises one of the most iconic Star Wars characters of all times. Darth Vader is masterfully reborn here as a being of pure destruction, as this first volume places him in some extremely compelling situations. I loved where the story went in this first volume, and the creative team have come up with some amazing scenarios and several excellent new characters who are so unique and creative they manage to escape Vader’s sizeable shadow. Overall, this first volume did a fantastic job setting the stage for the rest of the series, and I had an incredible time reading this comic.

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.

Throwback Thursday – Star Wars: Thrawn by Timothy Zahn – Audiobook Review

Thrawn Cover.jpg

Publisher: Random House Audio (11 April 2017)

Series: Star Wars

Length: 16 hours and 56 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.

While Disney are currently releasing quite a large number of Star Wars tie-in novels and comics, none of them quite had the history behind them that Thrawn did. Timothy Zahn is probably one of the best authors of Star Wars fiction of all time, having written several books in the previous Star Wars expanded universe (now rebranded as Star Wars Legends) before Lucasfilm was bought out in 2012. Without a doubt, his most iconic contribution to the Star Wars universe was the character of Grand Admiral Thrawn, who was introduced in his 1991 book, Heir the Empire, the first book in Zahn’s original Thrawn trilogy. Grand Admiral Thrawn was the Empire’s greatest tactician and naval commander, who led the war against the protagonists of the original Star Wars trilogy following the events of Return of the Jedi and proved to be an effective major antagonist. Thrawn swiftly became a fan favourite, and Zahn revisited the character several times.

While Thrawn was an amazing character, many assumed that he was unlikely to be seen again after Disney shelved the original expanded universe to allow for their own stories and characters. However, Disney surprised many when they announced that Thrawn would be brought back to their extended universe in the Star Wars Rebels animated show. Thrawn was introduced as the show’s main antagonist for the third and fourth season and he shone as the villain of the show, bringing his tactical abilities and unique view of war to bear against the rebels. Brought to life with the voice work of the extremely talented Lars Mikkelsen, Thrawn is easily one of my favourite things about the show’s last two seasons and was a fantastic addition to the plot.

Disney also decided to include Thrawn in their slowly building collection of Star Wars novels, with a whole new Thrawn trilogy commissioned from Timothy Zahn. Given the unique opportunity to have a second go at introducing one of his most iconic creation, Zahn has so far written two books in this series, Thrawn and Alliances. I read and reviewed Alliances last year, but I unfortunately missed getting a copy of Thrawn when it first came out. With the third and final book, Treason, coming out at the end of July, I decided to finally go back and check out an audiobook copy of Thrawn.

In the Star Wars Legends canon, Thrawn was active for a long period of time, essentially from before the events of Attack of the Clones until several years after the events of Return of the Jedi, with a lengthy service in the Imperial Navy. In this book, however, Zahn has to reintroduce his character in a much earlier and compacted period of Star Wars history, as his character could only have come to prominence between Revenge of the Sith and the third season of Star Wars Rebels in the Disney canon. I was quite keen to see this new version of the character, especially as Zahn gets to once again show how an alien managed to rise to the highest of ranks in the xenophobic Imperial military.

Several years after the fall of the Galactic Republic and the Jedi, the Empire reigns supreme throughout the galaxy and is always looking to expand its control. A routine survey of an unexplored world in Wild Space uncovers a small, ramshackle settlement with items featuring writing in an unknown alien language. As the Imperial survey team investigates, they find themselves under attack from an unseen adversary who manages to inflict heavy causalities with minimal resources. Retreating back to their ship, the Imperials discover that their attacker, a blue-skinned, blue-haired alien, has stowed away on their transport. The alien identifies himself as Mitth’raw’nuruodo, a member of the Chiss Ascendency, a legendary race from the Unknown Regions. The Imperial commander takes Mitth’raw’nuruodo, or Thrawn, to Coruscant to be presented to the Emperor, who he impresses with his tactical ability and his mysterious connection to the Clone War General, Anakin Skywalker.

Taking Thrawn into his service, the Emperor makes him an officer in the Imperial Navy, along with his translator, cadet Eli Vanto. As Thrawn and Vanto are first enrolled in the Imperial Naval Academy and then assigned junior roles on a ship, they face opposition and resentment from other members of Navy. However, thanks to Thrawn’s unparalleled tactical and strategic mind, as well as his ability to understand and predict the actions of his opponents on the battlefield, the two are able to rise in the Imperial hierarchy.

As Thrawn is quickly promoted up the ranks, he starts to become obsessed with the enigmatic Nightswan, a brilliant rogue tactician who has been helping criminals and dissidents defy the Empire across the galaxy. At the same time, Thrawn’s inability to understand the political realities of the Imperial Navy proves to be a major threat. Luckily the politically ambitious Arihnda Pryce is willing to provide help, as long Thrawn assists with her plans to gain political power and become governor of her home planet of Lothal. As rebellion spreads through the galaxy, Thrawn leads the assault to cut it down as he heads towards his promotion as Grand Admiral.

This was a pretty outstanding novel. I absolutely loved Thrawn and it is probably the best canon Star Wars novel in that I have so far had the pleasure of reading. Zahn did an amazing job revamping his iconic character by presenting a fantastic new story that not only harkens back to the author’s original novels but also fits the character perfectly into the Disney timelines. Thrawn is an excellent balance of character work, action, political intrigue and exploration of the Star Wars universe, all of which adds up to an incredible novel that I was nearly unable to stop listening to and which results in an easy five-star rating from me.

The events of this book take place over the course of nine years, between the events of Revenge of the Sith and A New Hope. More specifically, it starts 11 years after Revenge of the Sith, and continues directly at the start of the third season of Star Wars Rebels, approximately two years before A New Hope. Thrawn is split into two separate storylines: one that follows the rise of Thrawn through the Imperial Navy and another that focuses on the machinations of Arihnda Pryce as she becomes governor of Lothal. The Thrawn storyline is mostly told from the perspective of Thrawn’s companion, Eli Vanto, although a few chapters are shown from Thrawn’s perspective alone. While the two storylines start off showing Thrawn and Pryce’s separate rises to power and are not initially connected, once the two characters start working together, their stories mesh together a lot more. While I had a stronger preference for the parts of the book focussing on Thrawn, I did quite enjoy the sections focusing on Pryce, as they had some compelling elements and showed a different side of the Empire. The two separate storylines mesh together quite well, and together they tell a complete and intriguing story that highlights how the characters obtained the relevant positions in the Imperial hierarchy that they had when introduced in Star Wars Rebels.

At the heart of this book is the focus on Thrawn, an absolutely amazing central protagonist, whose escapades and adventures are some of the best parts of the book. Zahn has done an amazing job reinventing Thrawn for this new era of Star Wars history, keeping all the character traits that made him such a hit in the original expanded universe, while fitting his character timeline into a much shorter period. Thrawn is still the same highly intelligent alien with an unmatched tactical mind and an appreciation for the culture and art of the various people he encounters. However, in this universe, he achieves his rank of Grand Admiral in a far shorter period of time. Starting with his rescue on a remote planet after ambushing Imperial forces (the entire scene is a rewrite of Zahn’s 1995 short story, Mist Encounter, although with a few necessary changes), this book shows him joining the Imperial Academy, and then climbing the ranks all the way up to Grand Admiral within a few short years. The entire story of Thrawn’s early career in the Imperial Navy is absolutely fascinating, and I really enjoyed this look at the character’s history, especially as his rapid promotions were due to the multiple intriguing military actions he oversaw. His entire storyline is extremely well paced out, and the reader gets a full story that is incredibly captivating. This was a really clever reimagining of the character’s history, and it is a great story to tell.

Zahn does a great job showcasing Thrawn as an utterly brilliant individual who is clearly smarter than everyone else he encounters. There are some great characteristics to Thrawn, like the way he is able to get into his opponents’ heads and anticipate their actions and intentions. His shear analytic ability is showcased so many times throughout the book, most notably in the way that he analyses the emotions and body language of all the people he encounters. For example, whenever Thrawn is talking with someone, the reader gets a short description of the facial reactions or emotions that the character talking to Thrawn is exhibiting. I’m unsure what this looks like in the hard copy of the book, but in the audiobook version the narrator uses his chilling Thrawn voice rather than his baseline narrator voices. From these short descriptions, the reader gets an idea of what Thrawn thinks the other character is thinking, and it is deeply fascinating to see how this affects Thrawn’s actions. I loved that the author continued to show how Thrawn gains insight into a people’s culture and personalities through their art. Throughout the book, Thrawn is shown appreciating a potential opponent’s art and culture, and then using the conclusions and observations he gleams from the items to alter his strategies or the way that he deals with them. This is a fantastic character trait that I am glad Zahn continued to use in his works.

Probably one of the best things about the character of Thrawn in this book is the inventive and brilliant strategies that he comes up with to defeat his enemies. Throughout the course of the book, Thrawn utilises some deeply inventive plans for both large-scale conflicts and smaller battles, and it is always very entertaining to watch these plans come to fruition. I loved some of the strategies that Thrawn used in this book; whether he is swamping a shielded fortress with artificial tidal waves or using Clone Wars era buzz droids to take out a pirate ship, the end result is just spectacular. In many ways, the Thrawn in this book is a bit like Sherlock Holmes, if Sherlock worked for an evil space empire. His opponent, Nightswan, is essentially Moriarty (a man nearly as smart as Thrawn, who sells his tactical abilities to members of the underworld), and the author uses this to make the battle scenes even more intense, as a brilliant attack from Nightswan is countered by an even more sophisticated move from Thrawn. In addition, Thrawn also has a loyal sidekick in Eli Vanto, who is essentially the Watson to Thrawn’s Sherlock. Not only are there certain similarities between the two within the story, such as the way that Thrawn takes Vanto and train him in his methods, turning Vanto into an extremely competent strategist, but Zahn also uses him in a similar literary way to Watson in the Sherlock Holmes novels. Vanto is used as a proxy for the audience, so when he questions Thrawn on how he came up with his plans or anticipated his opponents, the audience gets a full explanation within the scope of the story. Thrawn was an extremely awesome character in this book, and his presence helps turn this into an outstanding read.

In addition to the character of Thrawn, Zahn also looks at Governor Arihnda Pryce, another major antagonist from Star Wars Rebels. Zahn spends a good amount of time showing Pryce’s past and how she went from a nobody to a powerful planetary governor with major political connections and a history working with Grand Admiral Thrawn. I liked this look at Pryce; her story is pretty compelling and it offers a great look at the political side of the Empire. Pryce is already a pretty despicable character in Star Wars Rebels (she is responsible for the tragic death of one of the main characters), but this book does a masterful job of showing just how evil she is. While it starts off showing her experiencing early hardship and difficulties, she quickly stops being a character you can root for the moment she has any sort of power within her grasp. The way she turns on her friends and her extreme act of self-preservation towards the end of the book are pretty dark, and you cannot help but dislike the character even more after reading her full arc in this book. This was some really good character work, and Zahn does an amazing job showcasing Pryce’s motivations and despicable nature.

If you are a fan of massive and electrifying space battles, there is a lot for you to love in Thrawn. Zahn has packed this book with a huge number of large and impressive battles between Imperial ships and the various pirates and rebels that are encountered throughout the story. There are some really fun ship-to-ship battles throughout this book, and they are absolutely spectacular to watch unfold. Thanks to the brilliant adversary that Thrawn faces for most of the book, the characters face some unique opposition, such as Clone War era ships, like the vulture droids, and an impressive island base with massive guns. These result in some amazing sequences, especially when Thrawn comes up with a surprising strategy to defeat the opposition. I had a lot of fun listening to these battle sequences, and they are a real highlight I feel that many readers will enjoy.

Thrawn takes quite an interesting look at certain parts of the Star Wars universe, and fans of the series will enjoy the author’s canonical deep dive into the Empire at the height of its power. Quite a lot of time is spend showcasing the ins and outs of the Imperial Navy, and readers get a good idea of how it operates and its system of command as the main character rises through the ranks during the course of the book. In addition to the military side of the Empire, the storyline focusing on Governor Pryce highlights how brutal Imperial politics is during this period, as she attempts to gain power and influence. Zahn also includes a number of key characters from Star Wars lore and inserts them into his story. Characters such as Grand Moth Tarkin and Colonel Wullf Yularen (a background Imperial character in A New Hope who was given an expanded role in The Clone Wars animated show) are used quite successfully in this book and offer some interesting insights into additional aspects of the Empire. There are also the obligatory hints at the Death Star (seriously, nearly every piece of Star Wars fiction set in the period has some mention of a “secret Imperial project”) and other elements of the Star Wars movies. I quite enjoyed this intriguing look at the Empire between the events of the first two trilogies, and it helped with the story.

Like most Star Wars tie-in novels, Thrawn is intended more for dedicated fans of the franchise, although I felt that this book would be particularly accessible to those readers with only a basic knowledge of the Star Wars franchise. Zahn does an excellent job explaining key aspects of the Star Wars universe that fans who are only familiar with the movies might not understand, and the book features some really fun and exciting moments. As a result, this might be the perfect book to try if you are interested in exploring the Star Wars expanded universe for the first time, especially if you happened to enjoy Thrawn in Star Wars Rebels. There really is so much in here for dedicated Star Wars fans to enjoy, and those readers who grew up with Zahn’s original Thrawn trilogy will no doubt be extremely curious to see this new version of the character.

Like most of the Throwback Thursday books I review, I chose to listen to the audiobook version of Thrawn rather than read the physical copy. The Thrawn audiobook is narrated by veteran Star Wars audiobook narrator Marc Thompson and runs for 16 hours and 56 minutes. I have mentioned before that listening to a Star Wars audiobook is an intriguing experience, as the productions are filled with all manner sound effects, including a number of iconic sounds from the Star Wars franchise. Thrawn continues this tradition, featuring a huge number of sound effects in pretty much every scene. These sound effects are really effective at creating an ambiance and atmosphere, and the reader gets a whole other experience of the events occurring in the book. This includes a background susurration during parties and large gatherings or the sound of blaster fire during a battle sequence. While I really love how most of these sound effects work, I did have a slight issue with an effect used to alter the voices of a certain alien species. The producers added a high-pitched screeching echo to the voices of the aliens known as the Afe in order to simulate their unique vocal patters as described in the book. However, this sound effect is extremely distracting and unpleasant, and I found it hard to listen to the dialogue of the Afe characters. While these characters were only in the book for a short while, their voices were extremely memorable and it is hard to forget that screeching sound. On the plus side, the audiobook also featured several pieces of John Williams’s epic music from the Star Wars films at key parts of the book, which helped enhance several of the scenes and bring the audience into the story.

In addition to all the sound effects and music, the Thrawn audiobook also featured the vocal talents of narrator Marc Thompson. Thompson is an extremely talented voice actor, and his work in Thrawn was pretty amazing. He has an excellent voice for the character of Thrawn that not only sounds like Lars Mikkelsen from Star Wars Rebels but which also carries all of the character’s intelligence and charm. Thompson comes up with a great voice for Eli Vanto, utilising an accent that screams space yokel and which stands out from the voices of other Imperial characters in this book. I was also quite impressed with how Thompson was able to imitate key characters from the Star Wars universe. For example, Thompson does a great Emperor Palpatine voice and also comes up with passable imitation of Grand Moth Tarkin. I felt that Thompson really got the heart of many of the characters he narrated, whether by showcasing Thrawn’s cool intelligent manner or by replicating the arrogance that comes off many of the book’s Imperial characters. As a result, I would wholeheartedly recommend the audiobook version of Thrawn, as not only do the producers continue to make good use of sound effects and music, but they also use an amazing narrator to bring this story to life.

I had an absolute blast going back and listening to Thrawn for the first time. This is an exception piece of Star Wars fiction and Zahn does an outstanding job bringing his iconic character, Grand Admiral Thrawn, into the new Disney canon. Featuring a ton of amazingly entertaining moments and some excellent character work, Thrawn is an exceedingly fun book that will prove to be extremely appealing to both hardcore Star Wars fans and novice readers. This was a wonderful five-star read, and I cannot wait to see how Zahn wraps up this trilogy.