Dragon Mage by M. L. Spencer

Dragon Mage Cover

Publisher: Stoneguard Publications/Podium Audio (Audiobook – 19 December 2020)
Series: Rivenworld – Book One

Length: 27 hours and 18 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 hours

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Prepare for an epic fantasy adventure with a great classic feel to it, as awesome author M. L. Spencer presents the massive and captivating fantasy novel, Dragon Mage.

Back in 2020, the fantasy book world was abuzz with talk about the compelling and impressive fantasy fiction epic, Dragon Mage by M. L. Spencer, who was already known for her Rhenwars Saga and Chaos Cycle books.  While I have not had the opportunity to read any of her previous works, Dragon Mage definitely caught my eye, especially with the very cool cover with the awesome art.  While I never got the chance to read this book when it was first released, I did grab an audiobook copy of it and have been looking for an opportunity to listen to it for some time.  When I found myself in the mood for some great high fantasy a few weeks ago, I decided it was finally time to listen to Dragon Mage, especially as a future Rivenworld book is apparently on the horizon, and boy did I have an outstanding time with it.

Aram Raythe is a simple lad from a small fishing village in the middle of nowhere.  A strange boy with a love of knots and an inability to understand people, Aram thinks that he will go through life alone and hopes for a quiet existence as a sailor.  However, Aram has a secret that he has never told anyone: he can see the colourful strands that make up the world, and he can manipulate them to do magic.

When a bard arrives at the village, seeking an apprentice, Aram uses his powers to help the only person who was ever nice to him, fellow teen Markus Galliar, get chosen; however, he is unprepared for the chaos that this action will unleash upon his life.  While the bard, who recognises his potential, attempts to take him to safety, Aram accidently unleashes his power to cause a rift in the world.  Soon the village is visited by an Exilari sorcerer, who captures Aram and Markus, seeking to drain Aram’s essence and use it to power his own magical abilities. 

Aram’s destiny lies not in the torturous extraction cellars of the Exilari but with an order of dragon riders from another world.  When fate drags him to them, Aram will find acceptance and friendship for the first time in his life, as well as the opportunity to fight against the Exilari, their dark allies in this new world, and the ancient monsters who control them.  But to do that, Aram will need to learn to tap into the massive power lying deep within him and figure out how to use it to become a true Champion, the most powerful beings in two worlds.  Can Aram become both a Champion and a dragon rider, and what role will Markus play in his turbulent life?

I am really regretting not reading this book when it first came out.  While it was a lengthy read, Dragon Mage proved to be an excellent and captivating high fantasy adventure, and it was exactly what I was in the mood for.  Featuring an elaborate and massive narrative, complete with unique fantasy elements and some exceptional characters, Dragon Mage was an outstanding book that gets a full five-star rating from me.

Spencer produced an extremely epic and complex narrative for Dragon Mage that I had a particularly awesome time getting through.  Now, I do have to admit that Dragon Mage has a pretty lengthy story and it takes a considerable amount of time and effort to get through it.  In addition, the narrative does get a bit slow in places, especially at the beginning, and there were a few points where I struggled to make progress.  However, if you set aside the time for it and make an effort to keep going, I guarantee that it is more than worth it, as it unfolds into an epic, multidimensional coming-of-age story that has a real classic fantasy vibe to it.  The impressive, self-contained tale within will keep you entertained and stick with you well after you have finished reading it.

The story itself starts off with an extended introduction to the main characters of Aram and Markus, which showcases their personalities, histories and views of the world, while also featuring their first meeting and the start of their friendship.  I struggled a little to get through this opening part of Dragon Mage, mainly because I did not initially connect with Aram and his distinctive personality.  However, once you get several chapters in, the excitement starts to increase, as you see the full potential of the protagonist, as well as the introduction of a brilliant antagonist, Sergan Parsigal, who really moves the narrative along.  He quickly captures the two protagonists, which leads to several brilliant scenes, including an awesome and exciting escape from monsters from outside of reality.  From there, the story evolves into more of a magical school narrative, which I naturally loved (see my recent list about favourite books with magical schools in them), although it doesn’t last too long, as Spencer throws in a pretty dark twist and a heartbreaking time skip.

Following this time skip, the story evolves again, with Markus and Aram separated for a while after Markus rescues Aram.  The two characters soon develop in different story arcs, with Aram spending time in a completely new world, which sees him finally starts to explore his full potential.  After some more chapters in a whole different magical school setting, the main characters converge again, with some great drama.  Without going into too much detail, the rest of Dragon Mage keeps building on the plot from the first half of the book, and the characters are thrown into a ton of deadly situations as they continue to grow and discover their destiny.  Spencer layers the rest of Dragon Mage with a great combination of adventure, war, character development, training, romance, friendship, conflict and tragedy, which comes together into an extremely powerful narrative.  There are some truly epic scenes throughout this second half of the book, and you really grow attached to all the major characters in the book, which Spencer will make you pay for in some dark sequences.  Some of the major appeal is watching the slow but steady growth of the protagonist as he evolves from being unconfident and isolated to a powerful hero, helped along by the friendships he forms with those close to him.  Everything ends with a massive pulse-pounding confrontation that will keep you on your toes and ensure you cannot put down this book as you wait to see how everything turns out.  Readers will come away from Dragon Mage extremely satisfied, and the author leaves open some intriguing storylines for the future, that I hope the author will continue. 

One of the things that I particularly appreciated about Dragon Mage was the elaborate and compelling fantasy elements that Spencer introduced.  Dragon Mage actually features two separate realities, which were previously joined before being separated into The World Above and The World Below during a historical cataclysm.  These worlds can still be journeyed through by breaches caused by magic users and much of the plot revolves around the characters trying to stop an evil plot to recombine the words in a new cataclysm.  The book starts off in The World Above, a typical medieval setting which is ruled over by a despotic empire controlled by an order of magicians known as the Exilari, who gain their power through draining the essence of anyone with magical potential.  The second half of the book is set in The World Below, which features a range of magical creatures, including dragons, magical horses, and other creatures.  The World Below is in the grip of deadly war between an evil demigod (one of several who rule both worlds) and an order of dragon riders, who serve as its primary protectors.  Spencer does a great job introducing both worlds throughout the course of Dragon Mage and while they might not be as heavily explored as if there was only one world, you get a good sense of how they different and the histories that surround them.  Both are very distinct in their own way and I had a lot of fun seeing both, especially as they provide a compelling contrast to each other as two halves of the same coin.  I really like the switch between worlds that occurred halfway through the book and having the focus change to the more magical World Below made for quite an enjoyable and exciting read. 

I was also a fan of the unique magical elements contained within Dragon Mage, which, as the name suggests, is big on magic and dragons.  The magic itself is quite interesting, if a little ethereal in its description, and there are a few different versions of it.  The primary form of magic is shown through Aram’s eyes and is tied into the strands of energy that make up the world.  These strands, which only a few people can see, can be manipulated and tied into knots by the magic user for various magical effects.  This is a very unique system, and it ties in well with Aram’s peculiarities, especially as he spends much of the early part of the book obsessed with knots without anyone understanding why.  This results in some awesome displays of magic, and I found Aram’s perception of the magic and how it works to be extremely fascinating.  Other forms of magic include Markus’ magical immunity, natural passive magic from other characters and items, as well as the magic of the Exilari, which they gain be stealing the essence from magic users like Aram.  The destructive Exilari make for exceptional villains in this book, especially as they bask in their stolen power in a very creepy way, and I deeply appreciated that Spencer spent the time to explore their organisation, especially as the protagonists spend time in their training facility.

Then of course, there are the dragons, which inhabit The World Below.  I always enjoy a good dragon focused story, and this one was pretty fun as Spencer goes for a sentient dragon that bonds with a rider.  While this has been done before, I think that Spencer altered it enough, especially as quite a lot of the book is dedicated to them and their place in the world.  The author spends a substantial time exploring the bond between human and dragon, and you get to see the entire process, from the initial training of the human recruits, the hatching of the dragons, their bonding, and then their eventual use in combat.  There are a huge number of dragon characters in this book, and you get to see inside many of their minds and their bonds, especially as Aram can communicate with all of them.  The bond itself is a deep and personal connection, and I loved the scenes that examine how lethally strong it is, with human or dragon rarely surviving the death of their partner.  Having the emotional connection to a dragon becomes a key aspect of several of the key characters and it was really moving to see characters who have lost a lot in their life find new companionship with a soul bonded dragon.  The subsequent scenes of dragon combat are extremely awesome, and I appreciated that Spencer introduced some equalisers to make sure that they didn’t come across as too overpowered.  I had a wonderful time with all the fantasy elements in this great book and Spencer made great use of all her unique or fun elements to enhance and tell a brilliant story.

On top of the elaborate narrative and compelling fantasy elements, I was also very impressed by the amazing characters that Spencer featured in Dragon Mage.  The story revolves around an outstanding cast of complex and damaged characters, each of whom brings their own light and pull to the book.  Spencer sets all of these characters up extremely well, and while it might take you a while to appreciate a couple of them, once you do, you become extremely invested in their story and want to find out what is going to happen to them next.

The most prominent character in Dragon Mage is the extremely unique character of Aram Raythe, and this book is primarily his story from childhood to adulthood.  Aram is a particularly fascinating choice for central protagonist; while he is shown to be a chosen one with great power, he also portrayed as socially inept and with many strange behaviours.  I believe that Spencer wrote Aram as an autistic character (or the fantasy equivalent), especially as he is usually described as a Savant.  I personally really enjoyed this, as you don’t see a lot of autistic characters in fiction, and it was a great twist on the classic chosen one story.  Aram has a very different viewpoint of the world, and once you understand him you find that he is one of the sweetest and nicest fantasy protagonists you are likely to find, and you really start to care.  Unfortunately, Spencer decides to punish you for caring for this character, as the author puts Aram through all manner of hell and torture which really ups the emotional impact of the story.  Not only does Aram already have a distinct lack of confidence and social issues, but he is also repeatedly tortured and is deeply traumatised for much of the book.  There is also a hidden history to his parentage and a ton of secrets that his mentors are keeping from him that will cause him further grief and impact his confidence.  Watching him overcome all of this is very moving, and it is nice to seem him find some friends and slowly build up his confidence.  Of course, there is still a lot of trauma coming for him, and you will continue to suffer as you watch him grow.  Personally, I deeply appreciated Aram’s powerful character arc and it was one of the most enjoyable and compelling things about Dragon Mage.  His entire character history and personality really set him apart from other fantasy protagonists and I appreciated the work that Spencer put into developing him and making him so appealing to the reader, especially as it pays off once he finally finds his confidence and starts to truly become a Champion.

While much of the narrative focuses on Aram, Dragon Mage is also the story of Markus Galliar, who befriends Aram early in the story and shares in many of his adventures as they become close.  Markus becomes fascinated by Aram and his unique view of the world, especially when Aram tries to help him escape his abusive father.  This friendship soon takes on new heights once Markus discovers Aram’s abilities and he starts to become his protector, a job helped by his own immunity to magic.  Constantly forced together, they form a strong bond which survives being captured by the Exilari and several other misadventures.  Despite being separated several times throughout the book, the two keep getting drawn back together and Spencer writes a great continuous narrative about their strong connection.  The two share a very heartwarming friendship throughout Dragon Mage, and I really appreciate the interesting dynamic they form which sees Markus act as both protector and social guide, even when Aram develops his immense power.  While this did have the potential to be a bit one-note, and indeed Spencer did feature way too many scenes of Markus worrying about Aram or waiting over his sick bed, I felt that the author featured a great balance with their relationship, which really pays off once Aram matures and becomes a better friend.  The author also ensures that Markus develops outside of his friendship with Aram, and he soon becomes his own man, forced to deal with the horrors of his past to survive.  Markus ends up being an extremely compelling and well-rounded protagonist and the author used him perfectly in combination with his unique central character.

Aside from Aram and Markus, I also really need to highlight two other excellent major characters in Esmir Revin and Sergan Parsigal.  Esmir is a former dragon rider and Warden to the last Champion, who died due to his failure.  Locked in his own despair and regret, as well as the distain of everyone around him, Esmir is given new life when he encounters Aram and Markus and begins training them to be Champion and Warden.  I really enjoyed Esmir as a character, especially as Spencer really captured his grief, regret, and self-loathing over his past mistakes.  Watching him become a gruff, but kind teacher, represented a great redemption arc in the book and I felt that he was a particularly complex and enjoyable supporting figure that the author did a great job with.

I was also really drawn to the character of Sergan Parsigal, who is one of the major villains of Dragon Mage.  The Exilari sorcerer who discovers and initially captures Aram and Markus, Sergan is an ambitious and powerful magic user who seeks to turn his discovery to his advantage.  Highly arrogant and malicious, Sergan cuts a distinctive and sinister figure throughout the story, even when he appears to be on the protagonist’s side, especially as he spends most of the book gobbling up magical essence to power his own spells.  I loved how Spencer portrayed him as both an adversary and a mentor to Aram and Markus at different points of the book and he ends up forming quite a complex relationship with the protagonists.  While at times Sergan is shown to be potentially thoughtful and caring, especially during an early conversation with Aram, he keeps reverting to his own selfish form, and he ended up being one of the best and most complex antagonists in this entire story.  I had a wonderful time with these brilliant characters and I’m barely scratching the surface, as Spencer featured a range of great supporting figures and villains throughout the novel, all of whom deeply enhanced this amazing narrative.

To check out this impressive fantasy read, I chose to grab Dragon Mage on audiobook, which is my go-to for massive pieces of fantasy fiction like this.  With a runtime of over 27 hours (currently the 13th longest audiobook I have ever listened to), the Dragon Mage audiobook represents a substantial time investment for audiobook fans, although I personally think it was worth it.  I tend the find that the audiobook format really enhances my appreciation of the elaborate words that authors create, but it also really brings me into the narrative.  This was definitely the case with Dragon Mage, as this format did an outstanding job enhancing the story and I loved hearing all the intense detail about Spencer’s new, unique world and its fantasy elements.  It also helped that they got an excellent narrator for Dragon Mage in the form of Ben Farrow, who did a remarkable job here.  Farrow is a deeply impressive narrator who perfectly brought this story to life and moved it along at a crisp pace.  Not only was he able to recount the massive amount of detail and lore that Spencer fit into the story, but Farrow also came up with a huge selection of fitting voices for all the characters in Dragon Mage.  Using a range of different tones and accents, Farrow dove into the cast, and I loved how he was able to capture each character’s essence with his voices.  For example, he perfectly showcases Aram’s hope and childlike wonder at the world, while also capturing his fear, uncertainty, and lack of confidence, especially after all the hell he goes through in the early chapters of the book.  Other characters are expertly portrayed as well, and I loved how Farrow showcased Markus’ determination, Esmir’s weariness, and even Sergan’s intense arrogance and distain for everyone else.  This outstanding voice work helped to turn the Dragon Mage audiobook into something very special, and I had an exceptional time listening to it.  I would strongly recommend the audiobook version for anyone interested in checking out Dragon Mage and you are in for an excellent and captivating time if you do.

Overall, Dragon Mage was an amazing fantasy novel that really showcased M. L. Spencer’s skill as an author of epic fantasy.  Featuring a captivating narrative that follows great characters around an elaborate new fantasy world, Dragon Mage is exciting, moving and awesome in all the right ways.  I had an exceptional time reading this outstanding read and I look forward to seeing how Spencer will follow it up in the future.  Recommended reading for anybody looking from some classic fantasy fun.

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Usagi Yojimbo: Volume 37: Crossroads by Stan Sakai

Usagi Yojimbo - Crossroads Cover

Publisher: IDW (Paperback – 15 November 2022)

Series: Usagi Yojimbo – Volume 37

Length: 137 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

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The always impressive Stan Sakai presents another outstanding volume in his epic Usagi Yojimbo comic series with the fantastic and fun 37th volume, Crossroads.

I think we can all agree that 2022 has been a rather mixed year; while the world of books has been fruitful as ever, the world at large does seem to be getting crazier and crazier.  However, one thing that is guaranteed to make me happy is the fact that, for the first time since 2003, this year has seen the release of not one but two volumes of the exceptional Usagi Yojimbo comic.  Fans of this blog will know that I love, love, love the Usagi Yojimbo series, and it is easily one of my very favourite comic book series.  Written and drawn by the exceedingly talented Stan Sakai, the Usagi Yojimbo series is set in an alternate version of feudal Japan inhabited by anthropomorphic animals.  The series primarily follows the character of Miyamoto Usagi, a rabbit ronin who travels the land facing all manner of evil, including criminals, monsters, ninja and rival samurai.

Usagi Yojimbo - #22 Cover

Thanks to the compelling narratives, complex characters, and exceptional artwork, the Usagi Yojimbo series has always really appealed to me, and I have always tried to grab the new volume as soon as it is released.  The 36th volume, Tengu War! came out in March, and it was pretty damn epic.  Usually, I would have to wait an entire year to get my next Usagi Yojimbo fix, but Sakai appears to be on a roll, as he released the 37th volume, Crossroads, earlier this month.  Needless to say, I was extremely excited about this, and Crossroads was one of my most anticipated reads for the second half of 2022.  I was very happy when I received my copy of Crossroads, and I ended up reading it literally as soon as I got my hands on it.  I of course loved every second of it, and it proved to be another captivating read that really drew me in with its brilliant artwork and cool stories.

Crossroads is the 37th volume of the Usagi Yojimbo series and the fourth volume that has been released in colour by IDW (other volumes in colour include Bunraku and Other Stories and Homecoming).  Containing issues #22-26 of the IDW run on Usagi Yojimbo, this comic was once again completely written and drawn by Sakai, with Hi-Fi Design doing the colouring.  This latest volume only contains two stories over five issues, but Sakai loads up some fantastic narratives and character work into this instalment.

Usagi Yojimbo - #22 Alternate Cover

The first story in this volume is a lengthy entry titled Ransom, which runs for a full three issues.  Following on closely after the last story in Tengu War!, Yukichi, Ransom sees Usagi travelling the roads of Japan with his newly discovered cousin Yukichi, a gifted samurai who is a little naïve of the way of the world.  However, Yukichi is about to get a crash course in the shadier side of life when, upon arriving a new town, the pair of samurai run into the chaotic thief Kitsune and her apprentice Kiyoko.  Up to her usual tricks, Kitsune has stolen a valuable ledger from the local crime boss that she is planning to ransom back to him.  However, the crime boss’ men soon catch up with them, and when Kiyoko is captured, Usagi, Yukichi and Kitsune must launch a desperate rescue before it is too late.

Usagi Yojimbo - #23 Cover

This is a fantastic and fun starting comic for this volume, and it is one that has a lot of excellent great parts to it.  While the story will be familiar, mainly due to Sakai reusing elements of previous Kitsune stories, such as Kitsune trying to sell a stolen document back to a criminal (as in The Return of Kitsune, in Volume 7: Gen’s Story), this still proved to be a relatively fresh narrative, due to some new characters involved and the eventual story progression.  The story moves at an intense and captivating pace, with the protagonists forced into several complex and extended fight sequences throughout the course of the comic.  At the same time, they face other concerns, as a certain Snitch gets involved to undermine their plans, while a rival samurai starts to rediscover his honour.  Sakai’s depictions of these fights are pretty awesome, and the multiple pages of animalistic samurai battling it out are cool as always, especially in colour.  At the same time, there is a good covering of humour to this story, which makes it very light-hearted, even with the kidnapping and threat for life.  I had a fantastic time getting through this amazing story, and it was another classic Usagi Yojimbo romp featuring the always fun Kitsune.

Usagi Yojimbo - #23 Alternate Cover

Although this story shares similar plot beats with earlier entries, I do think that this one stands apart thanks to Sakai’s excellent character work.  I loved his continued focus on the new character of Yukichi, who has been quite an interesting inclusion to the Usagi Yojimbo series.  Shown as a bit naïve in the ways of the world having spent his entire life inside the rigid confines of a sword school, Yukichi is generally unprepared for the rough life on the road that his cousin has chosen.  As such, watching him interact with the wily and sneaky Kitsune was rather fun, as it put me in mind of Usagi’s initial interactions with the thieving fox, especially as Kitsune and Kiyoko immediately rob him in a very fun scene.  While he does mature a little throughout Ransom, including his constant checking of his purse every time Kitsune touches him, he still has a lot to learn, and I feel that is going to be a recurring theme of the next few stories.  I also quite enjoyed seeing how Usagi interacted with his new companion in this story, and there is a certain protectiveness that was quite touching, and it was great to see Usagi in the mentor role again.  I think that Sakai did a great job with how he featured Yukichi in this story, and I look forward to seeing him interact with some of Usagi’s other outrageous friends in future books.

Uagi Yojimbo - #24 Cover

Aside from Usagi and Yukichi, this was also quite a fun story for established characters Kitsune and Kiyoko, who are once again at their thieving ways.  This fantastic master-and-apprentice thief team is always very entertaining, especially with how they play off the more serious Usagi, and their enjoyable banter with the other characters is always great to see.  This was a very interesting story for both these characters, especially as it continued to showcase the growth of Kiyoko into a master thief, as she is successfully able to change the situation to her own advantage multiple times.  It was also very moving to see how much Kitsune cares for Kiyoko, as she was willing to risk giving up her career to save her (a promise she later recants, but only once Kiyoko is safe).  These two were very humorous, and they always end up being the life of any story they are featured in.  Throw in the curious new character Aoki, the only honourable samurai working for Ransom’s crime lord antagonist, and this excellent story featured an outstanding cast, who really added to the power and impact of this story.  I had a wonderful time reading Ransom, and it ended up being a strong start to this latest volume

Usagi Yojimbo - #24 Alternate Cover

The second story in this volume is the two-issue entry, Crossroads, which the volume is named after.  The Crossroads story sees Usagi and Yukichi once again on the road.  Deciding to take an impromptu shortcut, their road sees them discover the recent massacre of a group of pilgrims.  Determining that the murderers were a group of unsavoury ronin that Usagi and Yukichi passed earlier, the two samurai head back, determined to catch the killers before they strike again.  Their pursuit becomes complicated when, upon reaching a fork in the road, they are unable to determine which way the culprits travelled.  Splitting up, Usagi and Yukichi take a separate path to find the killers, hoping that they will be able to regroup before engaging their foes in battle.  However, while one samurai finds the killers, the other finds something even more dangerous, the dark and soulless Blade of the Gods, Jei.

Whew, now this was an exceptional Usagi Yojimbo entry, and it is easily my favourite of two stories contained in the Crossroads volume.  Sakai tells an intense and captivating tale in this story that really drew me in right away, especially as it starts with a classic Usagi Yojimbo move of the characters choosing a less travelled path only to wind up in trouble.  The initial set up works very well, and the sudden change from light-hearted talk to serious action once the first bodies are found is pretty striking.  The subsequent chase for the killers has some powerful tension to it, especially once the two protagonists are forced the split up.  And that is when the story gets extremely good, as while Usagi finds the culprits and engages them in a brutal fight, Yukichi finds something far more dangerous in Jei and his young ward Keiko.

Usagi Yojimbo - #25 Cover

Now, fans of Usagi Yojimbo will know that Jei is probably the best villain in this entire series, and he has been a wonderful nemesis for Usagi since first appearing in the third volume, The Wanderer’s Road.  A dark and mysterious spear-wielding killer with a unique look and way of speaking, for much of the series Jei has been a constant mystery, with readers unsure if he is an actual demon, a dark warrior of the gods, or just a deluded killer.  While some of that mystery has been revealed, Jei still cuts a fantastically dark figure in Crossroads, especially as it has been several years since his last major appearance, and there was absolutely no warning that he was going to appear in this story until his latest victim was discovered.  His inclusion in this story was just perfect, as you can only watch in horror as the completely unprepared Yukichi runs into Jei and ends up having a lengthy, philosophical conversation with them.  While Yukichi can tell that something is off, he has no idea how much danger he is in, and you spend the entire time worrying that Jei is just about to strike.  Their dark conversation is a real highlight of this entire volume, as not only and you are totally on edge the entire time, but it is quite compelling to see these two very different characters interact.

Usagi Yojimbo - #25 Alternate Cover

The use of this amazing sinister force proved to be a very excellent inclusion from Sakai, and Jei adds so damn much to any story he is involved in.  The rest of the story unfolds in an amazing way, especially as Usagi and Yukichi’s eventual battle with the true antagonists of the story is the best drawn fight in the entire volume.  The teamwork and care shown between the two protagonists is extremely moving, and it was great to see them work together while exhausted to take down a well-written and dangerous group of criminals.  Sakai ends this entire masterful story perfectly, as not only does Jei get another fantastic appearance, doing his trademark laugh, but you also have Yukichi recount his encounter to a horrified Usagi.  Watching the dawning realisation of who Yukichi is talking about appear on Usagi’s face is breathtaking, especially as you can imagine all the dark terror in his heart that his most dangerous opponent is still alive and stalking his loved ones.  That final scene with Usagi naming the dark spearman to an oblivious Yukichi is so damn impressive, and if nothing else, it will ensure that you definitely come back for the next volume, as you will want to see the follow-up to that revelation.  This ended up being such a strong and captivating entry in this volume, and I am so glad that Sakai chose to bring back his very best villain.

Usagi Yojimbo - #26 Cover

As with all of Stan Sakai’s comics, I was once again deeply impressed with the cool artwork contained within Crossroads.  The art in these comics is just absolutely gorgeous and it always works to support the amazing narratives, bringing the fantastic actions of the characters to life in stunning detail.  Not only does he do a wonderful job showcasing the various animal characters throughout the comics, but the various action sequences are so much fun to see, especially as Sakai always manages to capture the movement of the characters, allowing the reader to see how the sword fights would pan out.  However, it’s not just the characters and the action that are great about the artwork; there is also the elaborate backgrounds and surrounding settings that bring all the scenes together.  Nearly every panel has some degree of the unique Japanese setting in it, whether it’s the historical towns filled with people wearing period-appropriate clothing, the beautiful forests and mountains of Japan, or even a busy highway filled with people going about their business.  All this artistic detail brings the reader into the story, and you can really envision this version of Japan filled with these unique characters.  I am also still really loving seeing all the art in colour, which is a relatively new feature of these comics.  While I will always have a soft spot for the monochrome style of the original Usagi Yojimbo comics, the extra colour in the IDW volumes gives these new comics a little more impact, and I enjoy the clearer pictures being produced.  I particularly liked how the colour made Jei look even more sinister in his scenes, and the artwork around this creepy and malevolent character was extremely cool in Crossroads, and I love how much it enhanced his menace.  Sakai continues to produce some epic artwork in this comic, and I loved every single panel in this latest Usagi Yojimbo volume.

Usagi Yojimbo - #26 Alternate Cover

Stan Sakai does it again as his latest volume of the exceptional Usagi Yojimbo series was another instant classic that proved to be an amazing read.  Featuring two great stories, loaded with excellent characters, impressive action, cool artwork and even a few surprises, Crossroads was just epic and I had a fun time getting through it.  This was another easy five-star rating from me, and I am still so ecstatic that I got two volumes in 2022.  Even better, I won’t have much longer to wait for my next Usagi Yojimbo fix, as Sakai has another volume, The Green Dragon, coming out in February.

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Desert Star by Michael Connelly

Desert Star Cover

Publisher: Allen & Unwin Australia (Trade Paperback – 8 November 2022)

Series: Ballard and Bosch – Book Four

Length: 393 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

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Legendary crime fiction author, Michael Connelly, returns with another impressive and deeply enjoyable read that once again brings together two of his best protagonists for a compelling investigation, with Desert Star.

Connelly is an author who needs very little introduction, having spent the last 30 years dominating the crime fiction world.  His various outstanding works often cover several diverse subgenres of crime fiction, and his unique and captivating protagonists all exist in one shared universe, primarily set around Los Angeles.  Ever since I started properly reading crime fiction a few years ago, Connelly has been an author I have particularly enjoyed each year, and I have had a wonderful time reading several of his most recent books.  This includes the fantastic Mickey Haller legal thriller, The Law of Innocence, and the intense Jack McEvoy journalistic investigative read, Fair Warning (one of my favourite novels of 2020).  However, some of my favourite Connelly books have been the more classic police investigation novels, all of which have been part of the Ballard and Bosch subseries.

The Ballard and Bosch books are an intriguing set of recent novels that bring together Connelly’s two main police protagonists into one investigative team.  These two protagonists are female detective Renée Ballard and Connelly’s original protagonist, Harry Bosch, who has long retired from the LAPD but is still in the detective game.  These two form a fantastic team, and it is always fun to see their interesting mentor/mentee relationship as they investigate a series of cases.  There have so far been three Ballard and Bosch books, and I have had a wonderful time with each of them, including Dark Sacred Night, The Night Fire (one of my favourite books and audiobooks of 2019) and The Dark Hours (one of my favourite books of 2021).  Due to how awesome these last three books have been, I was quite excited to see that Connelly had a new one coming out in 2022, and that book, Desert Star, was one of my most anticipated reads for the second half of 2022.

Desert Star is set a year after the events of The Dark Hours, which saw Renée Ballard quit the LAPD after encountering sexism, corruption, and obstacles to solving her cases.  Lured back after being offered a dream job, Ballard now finds herself leading an elite cold cases unit which hopes to find justice for the many unsolved murders throughout Los Angeles.  While Ballard has already pulled together an effective team, there is still one person she needs to complete it: Harry Bosch.

While angry at Ballard following their last encounter, Bosch is lured back as a volunteer investigator after Ballard offers him help on the one cold case that has haunted him for years, the slaying of the Gallagher family.  Years ago, the entire family of four was found brutally killed, their bodies buried in the desert, and Bosch has never forgotten them or the fact that he was unable to find the man he knows killed them.  In return for access to the resources of Ballard’s unit, Bosch agrees to help Ballard solve her own cold case.

To keep their unit alive and well funded, Ballard needs to solve the rape and murder of a councilman’s sister years ago.  There are few avenues for a further investigation, and Ballard hopes that Bosch’s unique views may be the key to solving it.  However, after a chance clue connects their case to another brutal murder, Ballard and Bosch find themselves taking their investigation in some very dangerous directions.  At the same time, Bosch’s obsession with finding the Gallagher family’s killer grows even more, as he finds himself determined to catch him before it’s too late.  Can Ballard and Bosch solve their crimes, or will tragedy strike right at the heart of their partnership?

This was another outstanding crime fiction read from Connelly that combines a cool series of murder mystery cases with some intense character work to create and excellent story.  Desert Star gets off to a quick start, bringing back the two main protagonists and showing what changes have gone through their lives in the last year, as well as introducing the new cold case unit.  The reader is swiftly then brought across the two central murder cases that the protagonists are investigating.  The initial focus is on the murder of councilman’s sister, which has political connotations for the cold case unit, but Bosch also spends a large amount of time examining his personal case.  After some interesting breaks in the main case, Ballard and Bosch find themselves stuck looking far closer to home than they imagined, when clues point to a serial killer with connections to the very politician who created their unit.  There are some great twists and turns towards the centre of the book as they come close to their revelations, and the identity of this killer is pretty clever, with several interesting clues in the lead-up to the big confrontation.  At the same time, Bosch starts closing in on the main suspect in his case after revisiting witnesses from his initial investigation.  This leads him down a long, dark road as he contemplates what he’s willing to risk to get justice.  Everything leads up to a heart-pounding finale, which will leave readers on the edge of their seat as you honestly have no idea how far Connelly is going to take everything.  Desert Star ends on a particularly satisfying note, and it will be interesting to see where Connelly’s narratives go next, as he has left several intriguing storylines open.

This was a pretty addictive and fast-paced read, and it really doesn’t take long to get drawn into the two intriguing cases.  I loved the focus on cold case investigation in this book, which is a classic Connelly story element, and the author presents some excellent mystery elements.  I had a lot of fun with both cases, one because it was a seemingly unsolvable case with huge political issues behind it, the other because of one protagonist’s intense obsession with cracking it.  Connelly does a good job splitting focus between the two cases, which is made easier with the use of two perspective characters, Ballard and Bosch.  Both have very different views of the investigations, and the split in perspectives helps to ratchet up the tension in several scenes extremely well.  Connelly goes for a pretty fast pace in Desert Star, and you really find yourself powering through the narrative, especially once you get caught up in the excellent investigation arcs.  I loved how both cases turned out, and Connelly puts in some great build-up for both of their powerful conclusions.  Like most of the books in this shared crime universe, Desert Star can be easily read as a standalone novel, and no prior knowledge of either character is really required to enjoy it.  However, this latest Ballard and Bosch book is coming off a lot of emotional build-up and character development from the previous entries, so you’ll appreciate Desert Star more if you’ve checked them out first.  Connelly also throws in a ton of references to some previous novels, mainly some of Bosch’s older adventures, which established fans will really appreciate.  I loved Desert Star’s amazing story and how it was presented, as will all die-hard Connelly readers.

As always with a Connelly read, there is a noticeable and impressive focus on the central characters, with the author diving deep into his two point-of-view protagonists, Renée Ballard and Harry Bosch.  Both characters have a ton of history behind them at this point in Connelly’s joint universe, both as a team and as established, independent protagonists of their own novels.  As such, Connelly takes a little less time introducing them in Desert Star than he would previously, and instead starts highlighting their current issues and concerns, as well as re-establishing the teamwork between them.  While there is a little friction at the start of the book, mainly due to the fallout of The Dark Hours, Ballard and Bosch mostly get their investigative teamwork groove back and become an effective unit.  While Bosch does take on the mentor role in this book, it isn’t as prevalent as it has been previously, mainly because Ballard is now in control of her own unit and is the boss.  This forces her to supervise and try to control Bosch, with limited success, and this impacts their previous established dynamic.  At the same time, Ballard also relies on Bosch’s unpredictability and dislike of the rules to solve their more difficult, politically associated case, so that creates some odd friction and reliance that I rather enjoyed.

Most of the best character work in Desert Star revolved around old favourite protagonist Harry Bosch.  Bosch, who Connelly has aged up naturally over the last 30 years, is retired from the police, but he comes back to help Ballard with her case, and I loved seeing his maverick attitude reassert itself here.  However, he is primarily concerned with his own cold case, and swiftly reignites his obsession with finding the man responsible for the murder of a family.  This obsession soon starts to overwhelm him, and while he helps Ballard, he risks a lot to find his target while there is still time.  Connelly paints a powerful picture of Bosch in this book, and there are some big reveals about him that have been a long time coming.  While I won’t go into too much detail here, this is one of the more powerful and compelling Bosch narratives in a while, and Connelly does an outstanding job building up some tension around his storylines here.  Ballard also gets some interesting development in this book, and it was great to see her as a leader in this book, especially after spending so many years as the LAPD’s unwanted pariah for her attempts to report a superior for sexual harassment.  However, Ballard also encounters the darker side of leadership as she is forced to play politics and encounters various attempts to cover up the whole truth for expediency and self-gain.  This forces her to make some tough choices, and she becomes a bit more like her mentor, Bosch, with every case.  All this excellent character work really adds some impressive impact to Desert Star’s narrative, and this was one of the more significant novels for both of this amazing and iconic Connelly protagonists.

Michael Connelly continues to dominate the crime fiction scene with another epic and captivating read, Desert Star.  Bringing back two outstanding protagonists for a joint investigation, Desert Star contains a compelling and clever investigation into two fascinating murders.  Featuring a great story, some exciting pacing, and the amazing use of two complex protagonists, Desert Star was another exceptional read from Connelly that I had an awesome time reading. I can’t wait to see what Connelly writes next, and no doubt it will tie into the powerful moments raised in this incredible book.

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In the Shadow of Lightning by Brian McClellan

In the Shadow of Lightning Cover

Publisher: Macmillan Audio (Audiobook – 21 June 2022)

Series: The Glass Immortals – Book One

Length: 24 hours and 53 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

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One of the most inventive and compelling authors of fantasy fiction, Brian McClellan, kicks off an awesome new series with In the Shadow of Lightning, the first book in The Glass Immortals series.

Few authors over the last 10 years have had more of an explosive impact on the world of fantasy fiction then Brian McClellan.  Debuting in 2013, McClellan quickly set the world ablaze with The Powder Mage trilogy, which saw chaos and destruction unravel in a new fantasy world where gunpowder-powered mages face off against an enraged god.  I had a brilliant time with the first book in the series, Promise of Blood, and McClellan followed this initial trilogy off with the sequel, Gods of Blood and Powder trilogy, set in the same universe.  While I still need to finish the Powder Mage novels off, I was very excited to hear that McClellan was starting a new series with In the Shadow of Lightning, the first book in the author’s The Glass Immortals series.  This is an impressive and outstanding read that introduces readers to a distinctive new fantasy world, this time with a fascinating focus on glass magic.

Demir Grappo was once one of the most respected politicians, tacticians and glassdancers in the Ossan Empire.  A rising star in the assembly, a proven governor, and the only son of a prominent family, Demir’s promising career is suddenly shattered in the immediate aftermath of his greatest military victory when his army sacked and destroyed the entire city of Holikan, apparently on his orders.  Mentally broken by the massacre done in his name, Demir abandons his army and vanishes into the provinces, giving up his life of privilege for one of anonymity.

Now, nine years after the sacking of Holikan, Demir is a very different man, having spent the intervening time as a grifter with no true home.  However, everything changes when news reaches him that his mother was murdered, brutally beaten to death in public in an apparent political attack.  Determined to find her killers, Demir returns to the city of Ossa to reclaim his seat as the head of his family.  But not everyone is happy that he has returned, and Demir soon finds himself in the midst of several deadly conspiracies, while Ossa goes to war against its neighbour, all in the name of avenging his murdered mother.

To get to the centre of these conspiracies, Demir must find allies, including old friends and new acquaintances if he is to gain the power and influence he needs find answers, especially those hidden by the powerful guild families who rule Ossa.  However, as he searches, and soon finds a much more troubling secret: godglass, the source of magic within the world, is running out, and when it goes, chaos will reign.  The key to securing the future may lie in a device that could re-power inert pieces of godglass, and only one girl appears to have the skill to create such a device.  But as Demir fights to secure this new vital ally, he finds himself fighting against a mysterious new enemy, one that seems determined to destroy anyone who gets in their way.

McClellan impresses again with another incredible fantasy novel that had me instantly enthralled.  Presenting the reader with a multifaceted narrative that combines great characters with intriguing fantasy elements, In the Shadow of Lightning proved to be an outstanding start to McClellan’s new series and I had an exceptional time reading it.  Epic in scope, ambition and potential, In the Shadow of Lightning gets a full five-star rating from me and I am still reeling from just how good this was.

In the Shadow of Lightning is a particularly addictive novel, especially as McClellan presents the reader with an outstanding and complex narrative that pulls them in on so many levels.  Starting off with a compelling prelude that perfectly introduces central protagonist Demir Grappo and shows his dramatic and bloody fall from grace and sanity, the novel then undergoes a time skip which takes the reader into the current storyline, right as events are kicking off.  The initial focus is on Demir, who, after finding out his mother has been murdered, returns to Ossa to take over the family business and discover her murderers.  However, he soon finds that his mother was involved in complex dealings that might have led to her death, and that her assassination has been blamed on a neighbouring city Ossa is going to war with.  The story then splits as McClellan introduces three additional point-of-view characters, each other whom has their own distinctive story arc, closely related to Demir and the politics of Ossa.

These new characters include Thessa Foleer, a siliceer (godglass worker) from Ossa’s neighbour Grent, the breacher Idrian Sepulki and Kizzie Vorcien, an enforcer for a powerful guild-family who Demir hires to investigate his mother’s death.  Each of these new characters have their own individual storylines that tie into the plot points introduced in Demir’s initial chapters.  While these character arcs go in their own direction, their storylines are loosely connected together and form a great overarching narrative as they are dragged into war, imprisonment, political battles, conspiracies and criminal investigations.  I loved the cool blend of character-driven storylines, and everything comes together extremely well to show that something very rotten is going on within Ossa.  This is a very fast-paced story, and McClellan keeps multiple compelling plotlines running simultaneously to keep the reader’s attention, with some great reveals and amazing fight scenes scattered throughout the book.  Most of these reveals are set up and foreshadowed extremely well, with a couple of exceptions, and I didn’t see some of the twists coming, which was pretty fun.  Everything comes to a head towards the end of the novel, as all four characters find themselves in their own extremely dangerous and concerning situation.  Not only is there a massive battle for the future of Ossa but there are some shocking revelations about who is involved in the conspiracy and why.  The author leaves everything on an amazing note that not only leaves readers satisfied with the conclusion of some of the storylines but which also leaves a lot of questions unanswered and the reader wanting more.  An excellent and impressive story that dragged me in extremely quickly.

I was very impressed with how In the Shadow of Lightning’s story came together, as McClellan presented an epic and addictive offering that I snapped up extremely quickly.  I especially loved the use of four separate narrators to tell this story, and McClellan did an outstanding job of separating out their narratives.  Each narrator has their own unique story to tell, and what is really good is that they also explore a different aspect of the author’s new fantasy world, which often breaks across the associated genres.  For example, Thessa’s story focuses on the magical science behind godglass, and examines the political and social elements associated with this branch of magic.  Idrian’s tale comes across as a war tale as he is forced to participated in the deadly conflict between Ossa and Grent, where his particularly magical expertise makes him a living weapon.  Kizzie’s chapters come across as an investigation arc, as she attempts to uncover who killed Demir’s mother, and is forced to dive into the intrigues and shifting allegiances amongst the Ossan families, uncovering a deep conspiracy.  Demir serves as a bit of a joining figure; while he also has his own unique adventures, especially around Ossan politics, a lot of his arc involves interactions with the other three point of view characters.  Not only does this ensure that we get another viewpoint on the other character’s actions, as he gets involved in the godglass, espionage and the war elements that they are solely focussed on, but he helps to bring the other protagonist’s disparate storylines together into one solid and compelling narrative.

All four character-driven storylines are pretty exceptional in their own right, and this was one of those rare multi-perspective novels where you honestly can’t choose which character arc is the most intriguing or enjoyable.  I was particularly impressed with how McClellan brought these storylines together into one outstanding novel, and it makes for quite the epic read, especially as the author ensures you get the right blend of intrigue, action, magic and mystery throughout.  Despite its longer length, In the Shadow of Lightning has a pretty fast pace to it, and the readers are constantly treated to fantastic scenes that really keep your interest, either by being directly exciting, or featuring excellent examples of character development or world building.  I also really have to highlight the outstanding and amazing action sequences featured throughout this book.  McClellan has an impressive way of making these fight scenes really come to life in your mind, and it so easy to see all the epic events unfold.  These action scenes are particularly impactful when combined with the new magical features that the author has come up with, and I had so much fun seeing them unfold.  This really was an exceptional and highly entertaining read, and I loved how this entire amazing story was presented to the reader.

One of the things that most impressed me about In the Shadow of Lightning was the way in which McClellan envisioned and introduced the reader to an entirely new fantasy realm, equipped with its own distinctive magical system, all of which was substantially different from the elements featured in his previous Powder Mage novels.  While there are some similarities, namely that the Glass Immortals series also features magic, firearms, and a similar level of technology, there are quite a few differences which really make this new series stand out.  Most of the book is set in the Ossan Empire and its capital city of Ossa, which proves to be an excellent background location for the complex story.  Ossa, as well as some of the other nations mentioned reminded me of an Italian city-state, and I felt that it was an interesting change of pace to the French/English influences of Powder Mage universe.  The city is ruled by rival merchant guild families who are constantly battling for dominance, while the influence of the cities extends out to various provinces in the extended empire.  There is an intricate society set up around Ossa, and I loved the compelling interplay of industries, politics and intrigue that resulted.  McClellan examines various aspects of Ossan society, including sports, leisure, the military, and the various social levels, all of which were pretty intriguing to discover, and which painted Ossa and its people in a compelling light.  I particularly enjoyed their innate love for intrigue, contracts and business above everything else, and the fact that their national sport involves two magically enhanced people beating each other with cudgels tells you a lot about them.  Throw in some compelling snapshots of other relevant nations, as well as some sneaky hints at other mysterious beings, and the reader is given a really impressive and detailed introduction to this new world in this first book in the series, which McClellan did an outstanding job setting up.

However, the most distinctive part of this new universe is the cool magical system that forms the basis for much of the plot.  Just like with the Powder Mage novels, there are actually several different variations of magic and magic users in this series, which are connected to various forms of glass.  The first of these is the magical godglass, empowered glass items that give its users various abilities, such as strength, intelligence and enhanced senses, or which can be used to control a person.  Godglass is the most common form of magic in this series, which anyone can use, and indeed the entirety of human society in this world is based around the use of these items.  Pretty much every action a character does in this book is helped out in some way with godglass, resulting in some excellent sequences, especially during fights, and McClellan spends a lot of time exploring how it fits into his new world.  This includes multiple scenes set inside glassworks, where the godglass is forged, and you get an idea of how it is made and the significance it holds to the people of this world, including the fact that many of the characters have piercings that allow them to attach godglass to them.  Godglass actually becomes a key part of the book’s plot, once it is revealed that the supplies of magical cindersand that is used to create it is running low, resulting in an undercover war to control the remnants or finding a means of regenerating it.

The other magical elements of this new series involve the inbuilt talents of several characters, who have various degrees of sorcery in them.  The most prominent of these are the glassdancers, sorcerers who can control glass (except godglass) to an astonishing degree, and use it as a weapon.  There are multiple glassdancer characters featured throughout In the Shadow of Lightning (including the central protagonist), and you get to see multiple fights involving them, which are pretty badass.  You would never consider just how dangerous someone controlling glass could be until reading this book, and the brutal and quick ways in which they kill their opponents are pretty damn impressive.  The other major form of magical user are glazalier, who have more of a passive ability that allows them to resist the negative impacts of godglass (too much magic starts to eat away at someone) while still being able to use them.  These glazaliers are deployed as breachers, heavily armoured soldiers equipped with a ton of godglass that make them unstoppable tanks in battle, capable of killing units of men by themselves.  Acting as both a hammer and shield to their comrades, they are a lot more brutal than the subtly lethal glassdancers, and I loved the compelling contrast between the two major magical soldiers featured in this book.  McClellan does an outstanding job introducing, explaining and showcasing all these different magical elements in this first book, and I deeply enjoyed seeing the many cool ways these magical abilities and the godglass could be used, especially in the book’s many awesome action sequences.  I look forward to seeing how McClellan expands on them in the future, and I am still so impressed by how much magic the author could work into glass.

Another area where McClellan really excels as a writer is with the complex and multi-layered characters he is able to create.  This was really evident in his new novel, where several great point of view protagonists and fascinating supporting characters are perfectly introduced to the reader and become exciting focal points for the brilliant plot.

The most prominent of these is central protagonist, Demir Grappo, a brilliant strategist and politician, whose entire life is shattered in the opening prologue.  Forced back into public life after the death of his mother, Demir takes control of his family and attempts to rebuild his legacy while also finding answers.  Utilising the swindling, bluff and manipulation skills he built in the decade he was away, Demir proves to be a tough political adversary and quite an interesting figure to follow.  I loved his impressive and unique storyline, and watching him regain his political skills and self-confidence was really enjoyable, especially as he acts as a deadly glass sorcerer, businessman, politician, leader and even a general.  There are great sequences that highlight his skills, and I loved how he was able to manipulate everyone in many different ways, from being an agreeable political ally, to acting like a smarmy lord who is able to bluff his way around by sheer force of personality.  While he does come across as arrogant at times, which is partially due to the fear and respect everyone gives him due to his sorcerous abilities, McClellan ensures that the protagonist is aware of it, and works to fix his character flaws as he goes.  However, the biggest character aspect of Demir involves the trauma he carries after his actions apparently led to the massacre of an entire city.  Still haunted by the scenes from that night, Demir is forced to revisit them throughout the course of the book, especially when he meets a survivor while trying to find out who was actually responsible.  His roiling emotions around these events are his one weak spot, and the author slips in some powerful and understandable scenes where he loses control.  McClellan did a great job setting up Demir in this first book, and I have no doubt his story is going to get even more complex and painful.

McClellan ensures that all his intriguing characters have their own distinctive and compelling motivations, as well as a dark history that is explored throughout the course of In the Shadow of Lightning.  This includes Thessa Foleer, whose heartbreaking narrative and past worked perfectly in concert with Demir’s, which was appropriate as their storylines were the most closely linked.  Thessa’s story is one of constant loss, especially as everyone who seems to get close to her dies or suffers in some way, and the character goes through some major grief and trauma as a result.  The author does a good job balancing the focus on her past and her feelings of loss, with the scenes depicting her work as a siliceer, and I liked how you get some of the best insights about this book’s primary fantasy elements throughout her chapters.  McClellan sets up Thessa as quite a major character in this novel, and it will interesting to see how her story progresses in the future.

The other two point-of-view characters are Idrian Sepulki and Kizzie Vorcien, who add a lot more excitement and fun to the story.  Idrian’s scenes are some of the most action-packed, and it is very cool to see him in battle, especially as he tends to plough through entire units of men like a human tank.  However, Idrian is one of the most caring and likeable figures in the entire novel.  Primarily concerned for the lives of his comrades, Idrian goes into the battle to protect them, and the close friendships he builds with his men help define him.  However, Idrian is also battling some inner demons, and it is clear that McClellan has some tragedy planned for him in the future.  This is a little heartbreaking, as you really cannot help but enjoy Idrian’s straightforward nature and natural integrity, and anything bad that happens to him is going to strike the reader twice as hard as a result.  Kizzie, on the other hand, is a scrappy enforcer, forced to survive the intense politics of the city’s guild families.  The bastard daughter of the Vorcien family head, Kizzie desperately seeks legitimisation and acceptance from her father, if only to protect her from vicious brother.  Dragged into Demir’s hunt for his mother’s killers, Kizzie dives into the world of political intrigue and family espionage, only to find herself conflicted by the answers she seeks.  Forced to choose between friends and family, as well as between her desires and what his right, Kizzie has some great moments in this book, and her inner conflicts add a great amount of drama to the plot.

These central protagonists are well rounded out by an impressive and enjoyable series of supporting characters, each of whom add to the plot in their own unique way.  McClellan does a great job introducing all the key supporting characters featured in the plot, and there are some amazing and distinctive characters featured here, from long-time friends of the characters, to bitter enemies with their own agendas.  My favourite supporting character would probably be Baby Montego, Demir’s adopted brother who returns to help Demir with his exploits and find out who killed their mother.  A massive brute of a man and a former cudgeling world champion, Baby is considered to be the deadliest man on the planet, even though he doesn’t have any magical abilities and can’t use godglass.  He more than lives up to this reputation throughout the book, and he has some of the most exciting and action-packed sequences in the entire novel as he casually deals out violence.  At the same time, he is also a cunning thinker, and his dry humour and complete self-confidence really make him standout.  It was fantastic to see amazing characters like Baby interact with the point-of-view characters, and you get some impressive moments as a result.  Honestly, every character featured in this book was amazing in their own way, and I cannot emphasise enough how well McClellan wrote them.

As I tend to do with most massive fantasy novels, I chose to check out In the Shadow of Lightning in its audiobook format, which proved to be pretty damn awesome.  Coming in with a runtime of just under 25 hours, this is a lengthy audiobook to listen to (it comes in at number 15 on my latest longest audiobooks I have listened to list), and it took me a decent amount of time to get through it.  However, I felt that was time well spent, as I was relentlessly entertained every single second I spent listening to In the Shadow of Lightning, and there were times I wished it was even longer.  This epic novel really came to life in the audiobook format, and I loved how impressive and cool some of the big action sequences and confrontations felt when being listened to.  While I did initially struggle to keep track of the side characters in this format (having the ability to easily go back and figure out who people were would have been helpful), I was soon able to figure out who everyone was, while also absorbing a heck of a lot more detail about the new universe and its unique elements.

I was also deeply impressed with the outstanding narration In the Shadow of Lightning featured, thanks to the work of Damian Lynch.  Lynch is a veteran audiobook narrator with several epic fantasy series under his belt and he swiftly made me a big fan with his great voice work here.  He really dove into the various characters featured in the book, and you got a great sense of their personalities, emotions and actions as he narrated them.  I had fun with several of the voices he provided in this book, and I thought that protagonists like Demir, Idrian and Baby Montego, were really good, especially as you get notes of weariness in the old veteran Idrian, and the barely contained violence that resonates off Baby every time he talks.  I particularly liked the cool European accents that Lynch gave to the various characters, which helped to reinforce the Italian city-state nature of the main location, and people from other nations or cities had subtly different accents, which I thought was a very nice touch.  All this, and more, makes for an outstanding audiobook and this is easily the best way to enjoy In the Shadow of Lightning.  I had a wonderful time with this exceptional audiobook and I will definitely be grabbing the next book in this format when it comes out.

As you can no doubt see from this lengthy review, I deeply enjoyed In the Shadow of Lightning, which was such an epic book.  Brian McClellan did a remarkable job with this new novel, and he really proved his ability to set up another distinctive and exceptional fantasy series.  Loaded with so many amazing story elements, a cool new fantasy world with unique magical elements, and some impressive and complex characters, In the Shadow of Lightning was so very addictive, and I really could not stop listening to it.  A highly recommended read, especially in its audiobook format, In the Shadow of Lightning was one of the best books of 2022 and is a must read for all fantasy fans, especially those who have enjoyed McClellan’s work in the past, and I am exceedingly excited to see how The Glass Immortals series progresses from here.

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Quick review – Warhammer 40,000: Dredge Runners by Alec Worley

Dredge Runners

Publisher: Black Library (Audiobook – 8 August 2020)

Series: Warhammer Crime

Length: 1 hour and 1 minute

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Amazon

Prepare to dive into the dark and fun world of the Warhammer Crime subseries with the short but incredible hilarious audio drama, Dredge Runners by Alec Worley.

Fans of this blog will be well aware of my current obsession with all things Warhammer fiction, as I have been making an effort to try out a range of their recently released books, all of which have been highly entertaining reads.  One of the main things that I love about the tie-in fiction that surrounds the Warhammer tabletop games is the sheer range of different stories that can be told, especially as the various authors associated with this franchise often go out of their way to blend it with other genres and story types.  As a result, there are several great Warhammer sub-series out there at the moment, including the Warhammer Crime books, which dive into the criminal underbelly of the Warhammer 40,000 universe and presents the readers with some intriguing and unique adventures.

I have been meaning to check out some Warhammer Crime novels for a while, especially as there are some quite fascinating sounding books already part of it.  I love the idea of the grim and gothic Warhammer universe blending with a more traditional crime fiction read, and I know I am going to have a lot of fun with all of them.  As such, when I saw that a new Warhammer Crime book, The Wraithbone Phoenix by Alec Worley, was coming out, I thought that it would be a good entry point to the wider Warhammer Crime sub-series.  However, I noticed that The Wraithbone Phoenix was actually a follow-up to a previous short story by Worley, Dredge Runners, which was released in 2020 as a full-cast audio drama.  Well, I am a reviewer who likes the get the complete picture and considering that Dredge Runners was just over an hour long I figured I would listen to it quickly to get some context before diving into The Wraithbone Phoenix.  As such, I listened to the whole of Dredge Runners in one go this morning, and it proved to be quite an amazing and amusing listen.

Goodreads Synopsis:

A Warhammer Crime Audio Drama

Baggit the ratling and Clodde the ogryn fight to survive on the mean streets of Varangantua as powerful enemies close in from all sides.

LISTEN TO IT BECAUSE
Experience the sounds of a crime-ridden city and enjoy the twists and turns of a tale starring some of the more unusual inhabitants of the Imperium of Man.

THE STORY
Baggit is a fast-talking ratling sniper with a greedy eye and loose morals. Clodde is an ogryn, a brute with a core of decency and a desire for a better life. Two abhuman deserters turned thieves, at large in the monolithic city of Varangantua, where only the tough or the ruthless survive. Having landed in debt to a savage crime lord, Baggit and Clodde end up in the crosshairs of the meanest, most puritanical sanctioner in the city. Caught between two powerful enemies, and with innocent lives at stake, the unlikely companions must think fast and hustle hard before death points a las-pistol in their direction… 

Unsurprisingly, Dredge Runners turned out to be just as amusing and fantastic as the plot synopsis suggested.  I loved the idea of two abhumans, in this case a ratling (a futuristic halfling sniper) and an ogryn (ogre), getting involved in a series of disastrous criminal enterprises after getting caught between the city’s biggest crime lord and a puritanical sanctioner (law enforcement official).  Despite its short runtime, Worley achieves a lot with Dredge Runners, perfectly introducing his excellent protagonists and taking them on a wild science fiction thriller adventure that includes hilarious exchanges, failed undercover operations and explosive heists.

Told completely through dialogue (with some sound effects giving off extra context), Dredge Runners’ story draws you in within the first few minutes as the author blends the more outrageous elements of the Warhammer 40,000 universe with a dark but amusing crime fiction narrative.  Due to the length, you do not often get the full story of the events taking place, but the subsequent reaction by the characters allows you to imagine the full destructive scope of their actions, and it often proves funnier this way.  There is a real focus on humour in this short production, and I was constantly left in stiches at some of the fantastic antics that the main characters get up to as a chaotic team.  However, the story also has some real heart to it, especially towards the end when the protagonists are forced to make some tough decisions about their future, and they find their greed crashing up against their moral responsibility to other abhumans.  Throw in some memorable and deeply cynical propaganda messages from the city authorities that shows just how corrupt and repressive the entirety of Imperial culture is in the Warhammer 40,000 universe (the one that concluded the story had me laughing hard), and this proves to be an outstanding Warhammer production that I had an absolute blast getting through.

One of the main things that Worley achieved with Dredge Runners is the successful introduction of protagonists Baggit and Clodde, who serve as a fantastic central duo.  On the surface, Baggit is a thieving rattling who serves as the team’s leader and plan maker, while Clodde is the muscle, going along with Baggit’s plans and often messing them up by not understanding them.  However, there is a lot more to both of them.  Baggit is desperate to escape the dark life they currently have in Varagantua and feels a responsibility to Clodde due to their connected past.  Clodde, on the other hand, is a rather unique and amusing ogryn character, who has an unusual intellectual side after getting shot in the head (by Baggit).  As such, Clodde comes off as surprisingly deep and philosophical, and he is way smarter than he appears, especially when it comes to Baggit’s antics.  These two play off each other perfectly, especially with Clodde acting as the group’s conscious, and their eventual attempts to get justice and do the right thing, paints them in a much different light that makes them even more likeable.

I really need to highlight the outstanding way that this audio drama was presented, as the fantastic production melded well with Worley’s great script.  Acted out by a full cast of talented voice actors and narrators who tell the entire story through dialogue, this was a really fun Warhammer presentation to listen to, especially as the dialogue was also enhanced by some great sound effects and small bits of music.  I was particularly impressed by the voice actors, as each of them gave it their all when it came to their specific character/characters, moulding their voices to fit their distinctive traits and personalities.  The cast was led by Jon Rand (Baggit) and Paul Putner (Clodde), who I previously deeply enjoyed in Ghazghkull Thraka: Prophet of the Waaagh!.  These two actors did an outstanding job with their abhuman characters in Dredge Runners, and they play these two humorous figures perfectly, showcasing their different natures while also slowly revealing their outstanding hidden hearts.  These two are expertly matched by Emma Noakes and Kelly Hotten, who play the antagonistic crime lord and sanctioner respectively.  Noakes and Hotten both bring some outstanding menace to their roles, and I loved hearing these more serious characters attempt to deal with the chaotic main characters.  The voice cast is rounded out by veteran narrators, David Seddon and Andrew James Spooner, who narrate some of the fun supporting characters, and I loved some of the unique and compelling voices they brought to the table.  This entire audio drama comes together extremely smoothly, and listeners are constantly aware of all the actions going on in the story, especially with the fantastic cacophony of explosions, gunshots and screams that often happen around Baggit and Clodde.  I had a wonderful time listening to Dredge Runners in one go, and you will not be disappointed with this excellent audio production.

Overall, Dredge Runners was an awesome and highly impressive Warhammer 40,000 short, that is well worth checking out.  Not only did Alec Worley come up with a captivating and deeply hilarious narrative and script for this production but it features an outstanding and talented voice cast who perfectly perform it.  As such, Dredge Runners was a particularly epic introduction to the Warhammer Crime sub-series, and I had an outstanding time seeing just how amazing and unique crime fiction in the Warhammer 40,000 universe can be.  I am really glad that I chose to check out Dredge Runners first, and I honestly was surprised at just how perfectly entertaining this short audio drama turned out to be.  As such, I am giving it a five-star review and I am now extremely excited to see how the next adventure of Baggit and Clodde turns out in The Wraithbone Phoenix.

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The Martyr by Anthony Ryan

The Martyr Cover

Publisher: Orbit/Hachette Audio (Audiobook – 28 June 2022)

Series: The Covenant of Steel – Book Two

Length: 19 hours and 42 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

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The always impressive Anthony Ryan continues his outstanding Covenant of Steel series with The Martyr, which was hands down one of the best fantasy novels of 2022.

Anthony Ryan is an extremely talented author who has been one of the leading authors of fantasy fiction for the last decade, producing several intriguing and major series.  Best known for his Raven’s Shadow trilogy (which was followed on by the Raven’s Blade duology), Slab City Blues, The Draconis Memoria and Seven Swords series, Ryan has a substantial catalogue of fantasy works to his name, most of which sound pretty damn epic.  However, I have so far only read the books from his latest series, The Covenant of Steel series, which has proven to be exceptional.  The first book in The Covenant of Steel was last year’s deeply compelling release, The Pariah, an excellent novel that set up a deeply intriguing and highly addictive character-driven tale of adventure, conspiracy and war.

The Pariah told the adventure of Alwyn Scribe, a young outlaw who was raised by brutal bandit chief.  However, his time as a member of a notorious band of villains came to a bloody end when his entire gang is brutally killed by the crown and his mentor is executed.  Imprisoned in a mine, Alwyn finds a new mentor in an imprisoned religious figure, who teaches him to be a talented scribe, and he is eventually able to escape.  Chance and self-preservation lead him to join the Covenant Company of Lady Evadine Courlain, a pious woman whose religious visions, sermons and sheer faith allow her to bring together a band of dedicated soldiers.  Swiftly growing loyal to her, Alwyn becomes one of her key followers, and saves her from certain death several times as they fight across the Kingdom of Albermaine.  I deeply enjoyed the elaborate and extremely addictive narrative contained within The Pariah, and this ended up being one of my absolute favourite books and audiobooks of 2021 (as well as being one of my favourite new-to-me authors of the year as well).  As such, I was extremely happy to receive a copy of The Martyr a little while ago, although I held out reading it until I could get a copy of the audiobook version as well.

The Martyr takes places shortly after the bloody conclusion to The Pariah and sees Alwyn Scribe now firmly in the service of Lady Evadine Courlain, whose apparent resurrection has led to her being proclaimed a living martyr of the Covenant church.  However, this and the fanatical devotion of the faithful of Albermaine have placed her in the crosshairs of both the Crown and the Covenant, both of whom see her as a dangerous pretender to their power.  Unable to kill her without starting a religious rebellion, the king decides to use Evadine for his own purposes.

Sent south to the Duchy of Alundia to put down a rebellion and stop a series of religious attacks upon the Covenant faithful, Alwyn, Evadine and the Covenant Company take up residence in a small, dilapidated castle, which soon draws the attention of the Alundian nobility.  Besieged by a massive army, Alwyn and his companions must survive the onslaught if they are to pass on Evadine’s message for the future.  However, not everything is as it seems.  Dark forces are in play and Alwyn soon finds himself in the middle of treacheries, both new and old, as he desperately stands beside his mistress.  Forced to dive into the secret past of the land, Alwyn soon discovers that many of the things that Evadine preaches are true, including the legend of the Scourge that destroyed the world and threatens to re-emerge.  But is Alwyn fully prepared for all the heartache, betrayal and bloodshed his quest is about to unleash?

Anthony Ryan is on fire once again with his second book in The Covenant of Steel series.  The Martyr is an epic and deeply addictive read that perfectly follows on from Ryan’s previous book and in some ways surpasses it with its impressive storytelling and amazing characters.  Thanks to its incredible story and cool expansion of Ryan’s fantasy universe, I had an outstanding time getting through The Martyr, and it receives an easy five-star rating from me.

I had such an outstanding time with the epic story that Ryan pulled together for The Martyr, especially as it cleverly expands on the narrative from the first book, while also taking the characters in some awesome new directions.  The book has a very strong start to it, which follows on from a useful, and slightly humorous, summary of the events of The Pariah.  From there, we quickly see the fallout from the last book, with the protagonist Alwyn and his comrades forced to engage in the politics of the realm to ensure that living martyr Evadine is allowed to continue her work.  The narrative is still told from Alwyn’s perspective as he recounts the events in chronicle form, so I was quickly hooked, and I liked the immediate dive into fantastic political intrigue and compelling universe building.  However, the story only gets even more awesome from there, as the protagonist and his company are deployed to a war setting, which turns out to be particularly epic as they are soon caught up in some outstanding siege scenarios.

Now, I frankly had no idea how Ryan was going to improve on the outstanding story from The Pariah, but having a siege storyline was a pretty good way to go about it.  I love sieges, and Ryan featured an incredible example here, as a large amount part of the book revolves around two amazing battles between attackers and castle defenders.  The first of these sees the protagonists trapped inside a dilapidated fortress facing off against a larger army, which proved to be a lot of fun.  The author really captures the chaos and drama of an impromptu siege with this earlier one, and the carnage comes quick and fast as the characters are forced to bring the attackers to battle before repelling them, using their wits and limited resources.  The action here is pretty intense and shown in excellent detail, as Ryan does not hold back on the brutality and the complexities of a siege.  I had such a great time with this first siege, and words cannot describe how ecstatic I was that he followed it up with a second siege, with the protagonists now acting as besiegers, in a more traditional siege, with artillery, sapping and even a deadly storm of the breach with the point-of-view character in the front.  These two sieges were pretty damn exceptional and have some of the best and most bloody action scenes in the entire book.  I particularly liked how well the author contrasted the differing experiences that the protagonist experienced as both a defender and an attacker, and it was fascinating and very fun to see him on both sides of the wall, especially as he learns from his experiences to become a better invader.  However, it is not all about the action, as you have some compelling political considerations going on here, as well as some great character development and the protagonist gets closer to some of the other characters during the heat of combat.

Following the sieges, the story goes in some interesting and unique directions, as Ryan continues the epic of Alwyn Scribe by expanding the universe around him.  This includes a visit to a dangerous foreign land, where he learns some harsh and surprising truths about the universe he lives in and his place within it.  This results in some trippy but deeply fascinating scenes, especially as there are some interesting reveals and some great hints for the future.  Ryan also once again dives into the political intrigue, as the protagonists are involved in some great fights for the future of the realm.  Watching the protagonists fight both on and off the battlefield is pretty cool, and the sheer threats growing around them in the last quarter of the book bode well for the future of the series.  There are some interesting reveals towards the end of The Martyr, and Ryan also works to tie up a few loose ends from the previous book, which I was very happy to have closure on.  Everything ends on a very intriguing note, as Ryan leaves behind a great little cliff-hanger reveal that will be very thought-provoking in the lead-up to the next book.  I had such a great time with this story, and it really drew me in with its fantastic moments and complex, overarching storylines.

I am a pretty big fan of how The Martyr’s story came together, and Ryan has a great writing style that really enhanced the whole experience.  I absolutely loved the chronicle style that he uses to detail the plot.  Told completely from the protagonist’s perspective as he writes down all he experiences, you get a unique view of the events occurring, especially as the protagonist writes in funny or insightful comments that show his opinions of the events in hindsight.  At the same time, they allow the protagonist to air his many regrets, and you get a certain sense of foreboding for some of the events that are to come, either in this book or in the rest of the series.  I was pretty consistently entertained by this style of writing, and I think that it also added in some extra humour to a somewhat darker fantasy story, especially as the protagonist is quite a funny and unconventional figure.  The Martyr’s story has an amazing blend of different elements, and while I lavished my love above on the great action, especially during the siege sequences, most of the book is about the development of the protagonist and his attempts to keep Evadine alive.  This results in a brilliant combination of politics, intrigue, great interactions between figures, and some awesome character development, which works to produce quite an addictive read.  Watching Alwyn trying to come to grips with the many dangers threating his friends, while also unpicking the multitude of mysteries and secrets surrounding him is just great, and Ryan keeps adding in new secrets and supporting storylines to keep the reader interested.  While there is a lot going on within The Martyr, the pace is pretty fast and consistently exciting, and at no point was I not immensely entertained, either by the powerful action or fascinating world building.  Due to the amount of lore and history featured in the first book, I would strongly suggest that interested readers get through The Pariah before trying out The Martyr, and fans of the first book will really enjoy where this second book goes and how Ryan effectively tells the story.

I was very impressed with all the cool ways that Ryan expanded the series’ setting in The Martyr, as he adds in some great additional history, expands on some of the mysterious religious and mystical aspects of the first, while also showing off some fascinating new lands.  This additional context around parts of the nation of Albermaine proves to be pretty damn intriguing, and you learn a lot more about it, while also seeing a lot more about its internal politics and rule, especially as the characters are forced to deal with the royalty and the church.  The inclusion of the Duchy of Alundia, where much of the plot takes place, was also pretty excellent, especially as Ryan portrays it as a more rugged and dangerous locale, whose unique take on the Covenant religion leads to a veritable holy war when Evadine and her company arrive.  However, the most captivating new part of the book has to involve the protagonist’s journey to the Caerith Wastes.  Alwyn has been haunted by members of the mysterious Caerith race since the start of The Pariah, and their strange ways and powerful magics have been both a boon and a curse to him.  As such, a journey to their homeland was always inevitable, and Ryan ensures that there are many surprises, mysteries and some interesting reveals for the protagonist when he finally arrives.  Ryan did a really good job introducing this new race of people in the story, and there are some great scenes where Alwyn attempts to learn more of them, while using his own personal history to stay alive with them.  The subsequent reveals about some of their powers and how it has been impacting Alwyn are pretty amazing.  One reveal, which illuminates the origins of Alwyn’s historical chronicle that the entire series is based on, was particularly compelling, and it sheds a whole new light on everything you have been reading.  Overall, Ryan did a fantastic job expanding his fantasy realm in The Martyr, and I look forward to seeing what cool inclusions he features in the next book.

Easily one of the best things about The Martyr was the outstanding and complex characters that were such a key part of the book.  Ryan expands on many of the great characters from the first book and takes their unique narratives in some amazing new directions.  The compelling and dramatic interactions that occur between these figures results in some powerful moments and I deeply enjoyed seeing the outstanding ways their tales and lives evolved in this second book.

The character who naturally gets the most focus is central protagonist and sole point-of-view character, Alwyn Scribe.  A former bandit who, thanks to a series of influential leaders and friends, became first a talented scribe and then a soldier, Alwyn is a man with a past and a fast mind who now finds himself in the centre of his nation’s crisis.  Dedicated to the Lady Evadine, Alwyn spends much of this book advancing her cause, while also evolving further as a character.  While he still primarily considers himself to be a scribe, Alwyn ends up taking on more and more different roles as he finds himself thrust into Evadine’s adventures, including being a knight, a military commander, a politician and a spymaster.  As such, you see him go through some major leaps and developments as he tries to reconcile what he is with what he needs to be to keep those around him alive.  This proves to be quite fascinating, and I loved the various unique situations he finds himself in, especially as he begins to realise some of the mystical mysteries the world contains and his place in them.  Alwyn continues to be an excellent main character for this series, and I loved his depictions of how the events of the book unfold, especially as his later insights from when he chronicles his adventures add both weight and humour to the current story.  His unique background as a criminal and a scribe continues to serve him well in The Martyr, and he has some very inventive ways of solving problems that often rely on his criminal or academic past.  I also deeply enjoyed seeing him take on a role as a teacher and mentor to several younger characters in this book, and it was a nice to see Alwyn come full circle after all the mentorship he received in the first book.  I had a great time seeing how he grew into the new roles in this book, and it will be fascinating to see what different positions he takes on in the future, especially as he becomes more and more devoted to Evadine, not matter how crazy their adventures become.

That leads nicely to the other major character I wanted to highlight, Lady Evadine Courlain.  Evadine is a fascinating figure in this series, a pious and devote noblewoman who has been receiving prophetic visions all her life.  Believing these visions to be from the Seraphile (the divine focus of the Covenant religion), Evadine created her own military company in the hopes of averting the Second Scourge (an apocalyptic calamity).  After miraculously recovering from a fatal wound, Evadine has now been declared a Risen Martyr, and believes herself to have been raised up by the Seraphile, despite it actually being caused by a magical bargain struck by Alwyn.  Now a major religious figure, Evadine has become a threat to both the church and the crown and must deal with their attempts to destroy her while she attempts to achieve her mysterious goals.  I deeply enjoy Evadine as a character, particularly as there is such an inherent mystery behind her, as you have no idea whether she is actually divinely blessed or just crazy.  Ryan portrays her as both at times, and while it is easy to assume the latter, she keeps coming up with knowledge and insights that should be impossible to achieve.  Watching her continue to evolve as a religious figure in The Martyr is both fascinating, and a little concerning, as you really have no idea where her story is going to go, or what insanity or divine revelation may come from her next.  Evadine serves as a quite a good foil to the more cynical character of Alwyn, and they become quite an intriguing team in The Martyr, with Alwyn providing the means to many of her successes, while strongly disbelieving her divine status.  There is also a certain growing instability in Evadine that underlies much of the book and adds to the general tension between her an Alwyn.  This, as well as a few intriguing reveals, makes Evadine one of the most compelling and unique figures in the series and it is clear that Ryan has some very, very interesting plans for her future.

Aside from Alwyn and Evadine, The Martyr is loaded with a ton of great supporting characters who add a substantial amount to the overall narrative.  Many of these characters carry over from the first book, and there are some intriguing and dramatic developments that occur in The Martyr that prove to be quite shocking and fun in places.  Great examples of this include the disgraced knight Wilhum Dornmahl, who is a major figure in the Covenant Company’s ranks, Ayin a murderous young girl Alwyn takes under his wing and teaches, and the mysterious Sack Witch, who haunts the character, despite barely appearing in the book.  In addition, Ryan introduces many new great characters in the second book, or else finally introduces and expands on characters mentioned in The Pariah.  Two minor characters from the first book who really stood out to me in the sequel were Princess Leannor, the king’s sister, who serves as a canny and complex political adversary to Alwyn; and Ehkbert Bauldry, a legendary knight who Alwyn bears a grudge against, but who also proves to be an interesting ally.  Both have some intriguing interactions with Alwyn, especially as they know he has some substantial dirt on them that makes him quite a threat.  I also must highlight outstanding new characters like Juhlina, better known as a The Widow, a deadly Covenant Company soldier with a tragic backstory and unstoppable rage, and Lilat, another new mentee for Alywn.  These characters were all extremely fun and compelling, and I loved how Ryan fit them into the story and made them shine.

As I mentioned above, I did receive a psychical copy of The Martyr a little while ago, however, I held off reading it until the audiobook version came out.  While I did regret not diving into the story as soon as I got it, I think it was more than worth it as the audiobook format of The Martyr was pretty damn exceptional.  Coming in with a run time of just under 20 hours, The Martyr has a decent length to it, although I found myself getting through it in just a week, mainly because I was just so addicted to Ryan’s outstanding story.  The audiobook format really helped with my enjoyment of this book, and I really found myself getting drawn into the elaborate narrative through the narration.  I definitely absorb more narrative detail when I listen to a book, and this was particularly noticeable with The Martyr audiobook, as I found all the cool story elements, details about the setting, intriguing characters and epic action popped more into my head through this format.  I also really need to highlight the exceptional voice work of actor Steven Brand (who I best know as the villain from The Scorpion King) who has lent his voice to the audiobook versions of all of Ryan’s works.  Brand is an extremely talented audiobook narrator who deftly captures the many characters contained with The Martyr and gives them distinctive and compelling voices that really fit the character and showcase their emotions.  I particularly liked the way in which he portrays protagonist and narrator Alwyn Scribe, and you really get a sense of the character’s emotional state, as well as the sense of weariness the chronicle format conveys through Brand’s voice.  This ended up being a pretty awesome audiobook and it was definitely my preferred way to enjoy The Martyr.  As such, this format is highly recommended, and when I get around to reading the rest of Ryan’s books, I will be grabbing their audiobook versions.

After all the gushing above, I think it is fair to say that I deeply enjoyed Anthony Ryan’s latest book.  The Martyr was an exceptional and deeply addictive read that I felt perfectly continued the amazing groundwork he established in The Pariah.  This second entry in The Covenant of Steel series was something special, and I had such an epic time seeing what unique and captivating adventures and battles the great protagonists found themselves in.  The Martyr was such an outstanding fantasy read, and I can’t wait to see how Ryan continues this awesome series in the future.  A truly incredible read!

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Guest Review – The Lord of the Rings Trilogy by J. R. R. Tolkien (Audiobook)

For this Throwback Thursday we have a rare treat with a guest review from my awesome editor/wife, Alex.  Long-time readers of this blog may remember that Alex previously provided some guest reviews of books like The Power and The Testaments, although she hasn’t provided us with anything for a long while (don’t worry, I’ve judged her very harshly because of this, so much judgement!!!).  Alex recently endeavoured to read all three The Lord of the Rings books, and I of course convinced her into writing a review for them.  I think her review below is pretty awesome (I may be slightly biased), and it has made me interested in listening to the latest audiobook version of The Lord of the Rings novels.

Publisher: HarperCollins and Recorded Books – Audiobook

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

The Fellowship of the Rings

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First of all, this is not really a review of The Lord of the Rings. You don’t need me to tell you that these books are good, and Tolkien scholars have already built up mountains of literary analysis over the decades. This is instead a review of one particular way to enjoy the story: the audiobook edition recently published by HarperCollins and Recorded Books and narrated by Andy Serkis.

But I should say that this review is written from the perspective of someone who adores the Lord of the Rings movies but had never before read the books. I loved reading The Hobbit as a kid, and the cinematic masterpiece of The Fellowship of the Ring blew my 10-year-old mind. At that age, however, I found myself too impatient to enjoy the slower pace of the novel (not to mention the preliminary chapters on hobbit anthropology) but also too prideful to simply skip to ‘the good stuff’, so Fellowship was sent back to the library in frustration before Frodo had even reached the Prancing Pony. But recently watching The Rings of Power reminded me that I have been missing out on the full, glorious Tolkien canon experience.

The Lord of the Rings - The Two Towers Cover

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Regular readers of The Unseen Library will know that the Chief Librarian is constantly praising audiobooks as the very best way to absorb a story, so when I heard that there was a new edition narrated by Andy Serkis, I had to have it. And of course I loved it, as I always knew I would. The world Tolkien created is beautiful, and the themes, histories, cultures, languages, characters and journeys within defined an entire genre. The story is epic in the truest meaning of the word, but you already know that. Here instead let me answer two things you will want to know about this particular edition of the story:

  • Yes, it is unabridged.
  • Yes, he does the voices.

The first thing I checked before starting this audiobook was that it was an unabridged edition; if I were to finally read The Lord of the Rings, I would do it properly! This audiobook is actually an extension of a charity project in which Andy Serkis livestreamed himself reading The Hobbit to raise money for the NHS in the early days of the pandemic. This was followed up by an official reading of The Hobbit published later in 2020, and then The Lord of the Rings in 2021.

The Lord of the Rings - The Return of the King

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I can think of few more appropriate actors for this project than Andy Serkis. An audiobook demands a distinctive voice for each character, especially for a book with such an enormous cast of characters, and Serkis definitely delivers, seizing the opportunity to show off his acting talents. What’s more, he has made an effort to echo the voices of his fellow Lord of the Rings film alumni. For example, he affects a Scottish accent for Pippin, a West Country accent for Samwise and Merry, and a gruff Yorkshire brogue for Boromir. He gives Aragorn the same strong but quiet dignity Viggo Mortensen did, and he gives Frodo a higher, younger-sounding voice that echoes a 20-year-old Elijah Wood more than the 50-year-old Frodo of the books. And, of course, he reproduces the definitive portrayal of Gollum for which he has been so celebrated. As a fan of the films, I greatly appreciated these choices as it meant I didn’t have to recalibrate my imagining of the characters too greatly. It would have been rather distracting if, say, Merry sounded Scottish and Pippin didn’t, and I had to concentrate all the more simply to work out who was speaking. Instead I was able to relax and focus on simply enjoying the story.

Andy Serkis Picture 1

But while the voices are clearly based, for the most part, on those of the film actors, the performances are wholly informed by the text, and Serkis has made it his own. For example, whereas Ian McKellen almost whispered Gandalf’s final command, ‘Fly, you fools!’, Serkis performs the line as if shouted while falling from the great height of the Bridge of Khazad-dum. He brings the poetic prose and dialogue to life with amazing energy and passion. He uses a narrative voice that perfectly fits the text and adjusts the pacing of the telling according to each scene, keeping the story flowing and keeping the listener totally captivated. Each of the three books is a little over 20 hours long, but with the combined storytelling skills of Tolkien and Serkis mesmerising me I was never eager to hit the pause button and get back to real life, so it took only a few days for me to get through each book.

Andy Serkis Picture 2

Howard Shore’s brilliant film score sadly isn’t featured; instead, the audiobook relies wholly on the talents of Andy Serkis. The films were very sparing in their use of the songs Tolkien wrote, which made Pippin’s haunting ballad in The Return of the King all the more impactful. I was delighted that the songs are here performed in full and in the voices of their singers—no mean feat! I’m sure Serkis exhausted himself playing the boisterous Tom Bombadil in particular, whom I had always found quite tiresome, but Serkis gives him a mysterious charm. The songs are a core element of the books, giving us glimpses into Middle Earth’s cultures and histories that aren’t otherwise shared in the prose, and I’m so glad they’ve been given such a treatment.

Andy Serkis Picture 3

There are a few small drawbacks to an audio edition of these books. A few times I would have wanted to flip back a few pages to double-check my understanding of certain details (‘Hang on, was that the name of a person or a river?’), but that wasn’t all that easy to do without losing my place, at least not with the media software I was using. The other thing missing, because it could not possibly be reproduced in audio despite Andy Serkis’s considerable talent, is the maps of Middle Earth which usually feature in any Tolkien book. As a kid reading The Hobbit I would be constantly checking the map to trace the hero’s journey through the world. I can highly recommend the interactive map at lotrproject.com as a companion piece to this audiobook for those who wish to do the same.

The Lord of the Rings, as read by Andy Serkis, is the ultimate audiobook for fans of the films. I can highly recommend it to those who have never read the books before, and I’m sure it would be a similarly excellent experience for those who have and who would like to revisit the canon after watching The Rings of Power. I can only hope that Serkis completes the series with a reading of The Silmarillion and other supplementary works by Tolkien, because I am so in love with this telling of the story of Middle Earth that the 75-odd hours’ worth already recorded simply isn’t enough. I am so glad to finally say that I have read The Lord of the Rings; I only wish I had done it sooner.

The Unbelieved by Vikki Petraitis

The Unbelieved Cover

Publisher: Allen & Unwin Australia (Trade Paperback – 2 August 2022)

Series: Standalone/Book One

Length: 373 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

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Debuting author Vikki Petraitis delivers an impressive and deeply moving Australian thriller skilfully set around the powerful subject of sexual violence with The Unbelieved.  This is Petraitis’s first novel, which has been receiving a large amount of buzz, including some awards.  As such, I was very interested in checking it out, especially as it had a very interesting plot, and this ended up being one of the most compelling and memorable Australian debuts of 2022.

Senior Detective Antigone Pollard has spent many years investigating terrible and destructive crimes in Melbourne.  After one case goes horribly wrong, Antigone decides to seek the quieter life and moves to her grandmother’s house in the Victorian coastal town of Deception Bay, where she was raised.  However, her attempts at finding peaceful policing quickly go up in smoke when a series of drug assisted sexual attacks occur throughout Deception Bay and the neighbouring towns.

After a sting operation at the local pub reveals a suspect who attempts to drug her, Antigone believes that they have perpetrator dead to rights.  However, they are soon forced to let him go when the male witnesses to the event refuse to cooperate and her superior attempts to brush the case under the rug.  Reaching out to the community, she finds a wall of silence and shame surrounding sexual crimes in Deception Bay, which has failed to lead to any convictions in the town.

Determined to stop the attacks no matter what, Antigone continues her investigation against her superior’s wishes, and uncovers a series of attacks across town.  Attempting to break through the fears of the women of Deception Bay, Antigone and her partner begin closing on the information they need.  However, Antigone also finds herself under threat from all corners and must work swiftly before she is shut down for good.  But can she succeed before another girl is attacked, and what happens when the darkness from her past rears its ugly head again?

Wow, I was not prepared for just how good and moving The Unbelieved was going to be.  Vikki Petraitis has really shown off her skill and talented as a writer with her first book, presenting a powerful read on an extremely relevant subject that strikes the reader hard.  Featuring an exciting and very clever mystery storyline that also intensely examines violence against women in Australia, The Unbelieved is an outstanding novel that gets a full five-star rating from me.

At its centre The Unbelieved has an exceptional multifaceted narrative that follows detective Antigone Pollard as she finds herself investigating terrible events occurring around Deception Bay.  Detective Pollard initially attempts to stop a series of sexual attacks, but she soon becomes involved in several other cases while trying to fit in to the community, despite opposition from some of its male residents.  As her case develops and more victims come forward, Pollard also finds herself investigating a suspicious death, a historical murder-suicide, a series of domestic violence cases, and more.  These investigations are often hampered by her superior and problematic members of the community, and Pollard also finds herself being threatened or attacked as she attempts to do her duties.  At the same time, elements from her past in Melbourne are revealed through a series of well-crafted flashbacks that expand on her motivations and begin to bleed into her current cases, especially once a prior suspect is brought back into the light.

Petraitis takes the story in some interesting directions throughout the course of The Unbelieved, and I loved the fantastic combination of the compelling yet heartbreaking cases that are explored throughout.  This investigation angle is well balanced with the character development of the protagonist, as well as the emotional exploration of several interesting supporting characters, and you really get involved in the narrative and the character’s fates as The Unbelieved continues.  The story becomes more complex as the book unfolds, and the protagonist finds herself caught up in a devious local conspiracy that seeks to take her down at the same time.  There are some brilliant twists and reveals throughout the plot, and I loved how several of the storylines developed.  The entire book was very well paced out, and I found myself getting really absorbed in so many key elements of the plot, especially as the author blends compelling investigations with dark, emotional examinations of the victims.  This all leads to up to a moving, thought-provoking and extremely satisfying conclusion that will leave every reader caught up in the plot happy.  I particularly enjoyed the final twist that Petraitis left the story on, and the way it was hinted at through the rest of the novel was extremely clever.  I honestly had such a remarkable time reading this great narrative, and there are so many excellent story elements to enjoy within it.

Easily the most distinctive part of The Unbelieved is the author’s detailed and powerful examination of the current situation of sexual and domestic violence in Australia.  Most of the book’s plot revolves around the investigation and attempted conviction of multiple sexual predators, and the author does not hold back in showcasing just how dark and damaging these sorts of cases can be.  Multiple viewpoints of the impacts of these crimes are examined throughout The Unbelieved, and readers are in for some emotionally devastating moments as you see so many of the different aspects of them.  There is a particularly good and dramatic look at how police investigating sexual crimes are impacted, especially when they are unable to get justice for the victims.  More importantly, Petraitis spends a lot of time exploring how Australian society perceives sexual crimes, and the book is loaded up with characters who don’t see them as a big deal or attempt to blame the victim.  There are multiple interludes within The Unbelieved that show short transcripts of interviews with people involved with these crimes, either as a witness or the accused, and the unguarded and unsupportive comments they make are both enlightening and a little infuriating.  Throw in some comments and interviews by the author’s accurate depiction of a typical Australian radio shock jock, which really boil the blood, and you have an excellent depiction of some of the main issues and attitudes towards sexual crimes, such as victim blaming.  These issues become a key part of the book’s plot, especially when the system fails so many victims, and it leads to some extremely emotional and painful moments.  I felt that Petraitis did a spectacular job working this confronting subject into the plot of her novel, and it certainly gave The Unbelieved a powerful edge that is hard to ignore.

I also really appreciated Petraitis’s examination of regional towns in Australia, which proves to be a great setting for this compelling book.  Rural and remote settings are always an excellent feature of Australian fiction, and I think that Petraitis used it extremely well in The Unbelieved.  The transfer of a big-city cop to the small town she grew up in results in a great change of pace for the protagonist, and the change in priorities and issues helps to add to the narrative complexity of The Unbelieved.  The use of this small-town setting comes into play throughout The Unbelieved in multiple intriguing ways, from the constant spread of rumours, the lack of secrets, and the fact everyone knows each other, and I liked how this affected several aspects of the police investigation plot line.  However, the most important part of this setting is the wall of silence that springs up during the book.  Many people know about the sexual and domestic violence going in in Deception Bay, but are unwilling to talk for various reasons, often keeping secrets from the police.  This becomes a key complication in the investigation, and it was fascinating and moving to see the protagonist attempt to overcome it.  As such, I felt that this small-town setting worked extremely well for The Unbelieved’s plot, especially with its specific criminal focus, and it definitely enhanced the story for me.

The final thing that I need to highlight is the excellent protagonist that Petraitis works the story around in Detective Antigone Pollard.  Pollard is an emotionally charged badass who has returned to her hometown after a devastating case in Melbourne, and now finds herself amid all manner of dark criminal activity.  While she is raw from the impacts of her last case and there are some dramatic moments surrounding here, the author portrays her as a practical and very capable cop, who takes charge and starts to clean up Deception Bay.  I really do think that Petraitis hit the right balance of vulnerable and determined in Pollard, and you grow quite attached to her as the book continues, especially once you learn the full extent of her last case.  Combine Pollard with several other fantastic characters in The Unbelieved, such as her partner, Detective Senior Constable Warren “Wozza” Harvey, and her loyal dog, Waffles, as well as some slimy villains, and you have a great cast for The Unbelieved that really add to the overall quality of this remarkable book.

With her impressive debut novel, The Unbelieved, Vikki Petraitis has set herself up as an exceptional talent in the Australian crime fiction game and she is a major new author to watch out for.  The Unbelieved has an outstanding crime fiction narrative to it that does an amazing job balancing a compelling mystery storyline with powerful dive into a sensitive and highly relevant subject.  Thanks to its well-written plot, clever mystery, distinctive setting and great characters, The Unbelieved comes together perfectly, and it proves to be extremely hard to put down.  While this book might be best avoided by those readers triggered by depictions of sexual violence, I cannot recommend this powerful novel enough, and it stands as one of the better Australian crime fiction books and debuts of 2022 so far.

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Upgrade by Blake Crouch

Upgrade Cover

Publisher: Macmillan (Trade Paperback – 7 July 2022)

Series: Standalone

Length: 341 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

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The master of the high-concept science fiction thriller, Blake Crouch, returns with another exceptional and deeply addictive standalone read, Upgrade, which takes the reader on a deep journey into the world of genetic engineering.

In the near future, Earth is facing multiple threats and catastrophes that are slowly destroying the human race.  However, the greatest threat to humanity may come from within, as advances in genetic engineering and manipulation have allowed scientists to change DNA itself.  Following a massive genetic disaster that led to the destruction of an entire food supply and the deaths of hundreds of millions of people, all genetic research has been made illegal and is strictly policed by world governments.

Logan Ramsay is an agent in the newly created Gene Protection Agency that enforces the research ban in the United States and which comes down hard on anyone illegally modifying genes.  The son of the scientist responsible for the last crisis, Logan works to atone for his role in her work and no longer believes in the benefits of genetic research of that kind.  However, when a raid goes wrong and Logan is targeted by a bomb designed to inject an unknown gene hack into him, Logan’s entire life and grasp on humanity is changed forever.

With enhanced physical and mental capacities, Logan has been upgraded into something superhuman.  Forced to leave his family behind and flee from his own agency, Logan soon finds himself caught up in a war for control of humanity’s future, with dangerous forces seeking to change everything about the species.  To survive and prevent another genetic catastrophe, Logan must dive deep into his past and his family’s legacy.  But the more upgraded he becomes, the harder it is for him to care about everyone’s fate.

Wow, Crouch does it again with Upgrade, combining an intense and compelling thriller storyline with an outstanding and highly detailed scientific principle, to create an exceptional and extremely addictive story.  I knew that I was going to enjoy Upgrade when I got it, especially after having such a brilliant time with Crouch’s previous novel, Recursion, and the author really did not disappoint.  Upgrade is a gripping and powerful read, and I ended up powering through it in very quick order once I got addicted to its excellent plot.

I absolutely loved the exciting and clever science fiction thriller narrative that Crouch featured in Upgrade, which swiftly drags you in with its unique story and compelling concepts.  Crouch really kicks everything off in high gear right from the start, providing a quick but efficient introduction to the protagonist, Logan Ramsay, and the dystopian future of the novel, before kicking off the key plot events.  The protagonist is almost immediately placed into danger from a booby trap that alters his genetics, and he is forced to deal with the side effects as he is upgraded to superhero levels.  Forced to escape from his own employers, Logan must come to terms with the changes being done to him, while also diving into some deep family drama as he realises his connection to the person behind it.  After a journey of discovery, Logan ends up in a war to decide the future of humanity’s genetics, as he goes up against a group determined to alter humans against their will.  This led to some big and intense sequences as genetically enhanced beings face off in some powerful and cleverly crafted moments.  Everything is wrapped up in a compelling and emotionally heavy way, and readers will come away very happy after getting caught up in Upgrade’s elaborate and highly entertaining story.

I felt that Crouch did a brilliant job setting out Upgrade’s narrative, and it is perfectly designed to keep the reader absorbed in the plot.  I loved the faster pace of the book, which ensured that you power through the novel very quickly, although it isn’t so fast that you lose sight of its many featured scientific elements.  There are several time skips throughout the course of the plot, which help to move the story along and set up some interesting changes in the character’s situation.  The story is set in a near-futuristic dystopian setting which has been rocked by a series of environmental and genetic disasters.  Seeing some of the author’s suggested futures for certain famous cities (a semi-abandoned Las Vegas and a partially flooded New York), was very interesting, and it worked well with some of the other cool science fiction elements featured throughout.  I also appreciated Crouch’s interesting philosophical take on what it means to be human and the depths of human nature.  There are multiple discussions between the key characters in Upgrade, as they debate the changes being undertaken, as well as humanity’s overwhelming self-destructive tendencies.  This becomes a rather interesting overall theme for the book, and a captivating motivation for some of the characters.  I also must highlight the awesome action sequences spread out through the book, which add some exciting punch to the narrative.  Not only are these very entertaining, but I loved how they were showcased through the protagonist’s eyes, especially once his upgrades take over, and the clinical detail he attributes to various actions give them a fun twist.  This fantastic narrative really comes together well throughout Upgrade, and I felt that this was an exceptional read.

I deeply enjoyed the compelling and intense scientific framework that went into Upgrade.  Crouch does an impressive and expansive dive into the world of genetics for this book, and the reader is soon inundated with information about DNA, genes, and genetic research.  It is very clear that the author has really done their research when it comes to this subject, and this combined with his immense imagination results in some intriguing story elements.  Crouch postulates multiple potential genetic upgrades to humans and other species throughout this book and how such manipulations could be brought about.  As such, you see a lot of very cool stuff throughout Upgrade, particularly enhanced human beings who move and think at superhuman rates.  The author paints a very interesting and compelling picture about what such enhanced humans would be capable of, and it was fascinating to experience them throughout the course of the plot especially as you see them happening through the eyes of someone going through these changes.  There are various evolutions of these genetic upgrades throughout the novel and watching the characters become more and more powerful while simultaneously losing their humanity is a fantastic and captivating element.  Crouch also presents some compelling and thought-provoking discussions about whether genetic engineering should be allowed and would humanity benefit from it.  The different points of view and the resultant debates are an outstanding part of book, and I am sure that many people will come away from Upgrade with a different opinion on the subject.

While Crouch does dive deep into the science for Upgrade, I found that I was able to follow along with the various premises without too many issues.  The author really tries to explain the genetic science to the reader in an interesting way, which I really appreciated.  There were no points in the book where I couldn’t follow what was happening, and I ended up getting really interested in all the potential genetic manipulations that might be possible in the future.  I also felt that these scientific elements were worked into the plot of Upgrade extremely well, and the awesome thriller narrative really wrapped around it.  Overuse of genetic manipulation is a real potential threat in the future, so having government agencies, underground labs and world-affecting schemes in place isn’t too far-fetched, and these science elements serve as a rich ground for the cool storylines.  I loved seeing upgraded humans facing off against agents and SWAT teams, and it resulted in some brilliant scenes.  The underlying message about the responsibility of those involved in genetic research played well with the action-packed narrative, and I was once again really impressed with how the author can seamlessly combine science with fiction.

Another outstanding element of Upgrade was its fantastic protagonist and point-of-view character, Logan Ramsay.  Logan is quite a fascinating and complex character, especially as Crouch establishes him as the son of the brilliant genetic scientist who caused the ban and was partially responsible for the resulting mass deaths.  For most of the novel he is trying to redeem himself for these actions, mainly through his work as a government agent.  However, his entire life changes when he becomes genetically enhanced, and there are some deep emotional scenes and narrative threads that are explored because of this.  While he is initially horrified by the changes, Logan soon realises they are exactly what he always wanted, and he must reconcile that with his perceptions of humanity and the damage he has already caused.  At the same time, he is also finding himself changing, and the continued and detailed examinations of all his upgrades and altered perceptions are showcased in an excellent way by the author.  The increased physical and mental capacities are worked into his character well, and it was fascinating to see the first-person perspective of everything that happens to him.  I particularly appreciated the slow loss of his emotional self and as the book proceeds, he becomes less and less human in many ways, unable to connect with the people around him.  This is sad in a lot of ways, especially as he must give up his family, but you get an impressive understanding of everything the protagonist is going through and grow closer to him as a result.  There is some excellent character work around this protagonist in Upgrade, and I really appreciated the emotional depth that it brought to this already captivating story.

With Upgrade, Blake Crouch continues to shine as one of the most creative and brilliant authors of science fiction in the world today.  The compelling, science-based ideas he comes up with combine perfectly with his exciting and emotionally powerful storylines to create an excellent narrative with amazing characters.  I had such a great time with Upgrade, and it is one of the better science fiction novels I have read so far in 2022.  I also think it was also really good in comparison to the other Crouch book I have read, Recursion, which I hold in really high regard.  While I think that Recursion had the better overall narrative, I appreciated the scientific elements of Upgrade a little more and I felt it fit into the plot a little better.  As such, I think that Upgrade is another five-star read, and it comes very highly recommended by me.  A must-read for all science fiction fans in 2022!

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Recursion by Blake Crouch Review

Recursion Cover

Publisher: Random House Audio (Audiobook – 11 June 2019)

Series: Standalone

Length: 10 hours and 47 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

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Get ready for one of the most impressive and compelling science fiction books of the last few years with Blake Crouch’s outstanding 2019 release, Recursion.

Crouch is one of the more intriguing and highly regarded science fiction and thriller authors out there now, having produced a fantastic catalogue of intense and addictive novels over his career.  Best known for his Wayward Pines trilogy (adapted into a television series of the same name), Crouch’s books for the last few years have been a collection of fantastic standalone science fiction thrillers, such as the bestselling Dark Matter.  These novels often combine intense thriller storylines with high-concept science fiction elements to produce some epic and captivating reads.  So far, I have only read one of Crouch’s books, his 2019 release, Recursion, which was an exceptional and amazing read.  Unfortunately, I didn’t review it back then, even though it was one of my top books and audiobooks of 2019.  As I have just started reading Crouch’s latest book, Upgrade, I thought this would be a good opportunity to quickly give Recursion the love it deserves, as this honestly was one of the better books of 2019.

Synopsis:

Memory makes reality.

That’s what New York City cop Barry Sutton is learning as he investigates the devastating phenomenon the media has dubbed False Memory Syndrome—a mysterious affliction that drives its victims mad with memories of a life they never lived.

That’s what neuroscientist Helena Smith believes. It’s why she’s dedicated her life to creating a technology that will let us preserve our most precious memories. If she succeeds, anyone will be able to re-experience a first kiss, the birth of a child, the final moment with a dying parent.

As Barry searches for the truth, he comes face-to-face with an opponent more terrifying than any disease—a force that attacks not just our minds but the very fabric of the past. And as its effects begin to unmake the world as we know it, only he and Helena, working together, will stand a chance at defeating it.

But how can they make a stand when reality itself is shifting and crumbling all around them?


Recursion
was a powerful and deeply complex novel that perfectly brought together an impressive and thrilling narrative about choices, survival, and fixing mistakes, with some outstanding and clever science fiction concepts.  Based around the concept of memory, Recursion eventually devolves into a deeply compelling time travel narrative as its amazing two protagonists are dragged into a terrifying struggle to save the world.

The narrative of Recursion is split between grizzled cop Barry Sutton and brilliant scientist Helena Smith, both of whom have tragic pasts and memories that they would kill to get a do-over for.  Their storylines are initially kept separate, as Barry attempts to investigate a mysterious illness that is causing people to suddenly awaken with a second set of memories about a life that didn’t happen, driving them insane.  At the same time, Helena works with a mysterious corporate benefactor to develop a machine that will allow people to relive their most important memories, but her boss soon takes control of the project and morphs it into something very different with impossible knowledge.

It is soon revealed that Helena’s boss is using her memory machine to travel back to the time that the important memories were created in order to alter the timeline for his and his friend’s advantage.  The false memory syndrome is a side effect of this process, as people eventually start to remember all the changes that have been made due to the time travelling villains.  Both Barry and Helena are dragged into this conspiracy, as Barry is bribed to stop investigating by reliving and altering the memory of his daughter’s death, while Helena fights to stop it before it’s too late.  Eventually teaming up once the world starts going crazy with multiple memories, Barry and Helena are too late, with the various nations launching nukes against America to stop them ruling the world through time travel.  Helena is barely able to escape by diving back in time to a point in her personal years before the events of the book.

From there the novel turns into an intense time travel thriller as Helena works through her past and attempts to perfect her machine and stop time travel from ever existing.  Continuously recruiting a younger Barry, Helena is unable to find a solution before the world regains its lost memories and is forced to travel back again and again to avoid the inevitable arrests and nuclear strikes and ends up living multiple lifetimes.  This leads to a desperate series of attempts to save the world, which results in a fantastic and clever conclusion that fits the unique science fiction elements and characters of this book extremely well.

Recursion’s entire narrative comes together extremely well and serves as a powerful standalone read.  I loved how the story developed throughout the course of the book, and I found the second half of the novel, with the multiple examples of time travel to be some of the best parts of Recursion, especially as the stakes are raised higher than ever before.  This is a very well-written and fast-paced thriller, and Crouch brings in some fascinating concepts that work extremely well in the context of the clever narrative he pulled together.  The blend of intense action, compelling characters and complex science fiction elements is pretty damn perfect, and readers really get drawn into this narrative as a result.  I was personally addicted to Recursion very early in the game, and I had an outstanding time seeing how everything came together.

Crouch explores a lot of unique and compelling scientific elements which become an excellent part of the overall book.  The author presents a very complex and intriguing series of concepts around human memory, time travel, and everything in between, and makes some very interesting and well-researched points about them.  While most of these concepts are high-level science, Crouch takes the time to explain them carefully, and I found myself following along with the ideas fairly well.  While I did think the leap from memory experiments to time travel were a little over-the-top, it did become an incredible part of the narrative, and I really loved how well time travel was used in the story.  I love a good time travel story, and Recursion was one of the better ones that I have read, especially as it covers it in a unique way, while also highlighting the many dangers of unchecked changes to the time stream.  I loved how well the author was able to weave a compelling and powerful story around these concepts, and you will come away from this book really thinking about all the implications of this potential technology, as well as the importance of memory to the human psyche.

I also deeply enjoyed the outstanding pair of protagonists, Barry Sutton and Helena Smith, whom the story is set around.  Not only does Crouch do a wonderful job splitting the narrative between them, often in some very clever ways, but he also builds both characters up extremely well, showcasing their deep inner pain.  Both have experienced a lot of tragedy in their lives, and thanks to the technology being explored here, they are given the chance to relive it and change it.  Watching them go through these deep emotional moments, as well as witnessing the various mistakes they make as they try to fix the world, is pretty damn heartbreaking, and you really grow to appreciate their struggles, especially if you can relate to their tragic memories.  As such, you grow attached to them rather quickly, and I liked how Crouch made sure to build in a compelling, if unique, relationship between them.  While both grow close during their first meeting, their romantic relationship takes on a whole new edge once time travel is brought into it and it turns into powerful romantic bond that literally last lifetimes.  I really grew close to both Barry and Helena while reading Recursion, and they are an outstanding pair of protagonists to follow.

I must admit that I was a little wary about listening to the Recursion audiobook, as a colleague of mine who read the novel before me indicated that it might prove a little challenging to keep track of the various time periods without a physical copy to flip through.  However, I really did not have any trouble keeping track of what was going on in the story while listening to the audiobook, and indeed I found that the format helped me understand the concepts more.  I also enjoyed the combined narration of Jon Lindstrom and Abby Craden, with Lindstrom reading the chapters told from Barry’s perspective and Craden doing the same for Helena’s chapters.  This split in narration worked really well, and I liked how it changed each time the character perspective did.  With a run time of just under 11 hours, this was a fairly easy audiobook to get through, and I powered through it very quickly.  An overall excellent way to enjoy this fantastic book.

Recursion by Blake Crouch is an epic and exceptional read that really showcases the author’s impressive writing skill and ability to come up with some truly unique concepts.  This science fiction masterpiece is so damn awesome, and there is a very good reason that it was one of my favourite books of 2019.  A five-star read and highly recommended in every way possible, I loved Recursion, and I can’t wait to finish off and review Upgrade next.

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