Rage by Jonathan Maberry

Rage Cover

Publisher: Macmillan Audio (Audiobook – 5 November 2019)

Series: Rogue Team International – Book One/Joe Ledger – Book 11

Length: 17 hours and 28 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Well damn, now this was an impressive book.   Prepare for all manner of action, excitement and chaos as bestselling author Jonathan Maberry presents an incredible and outstanding start to a new series that features his long-time protagonist, Joe Ledger, with Rage.

The Joe Ledger books were a series of 10 military thriller and science fiction hybrid novels that ran between 2009 and 2018, which focused on a group of military action heroes as they faced off against a number of advanced, mad science threats. Maberry actually concluded the Joe Ledger series last year, but the stories and adventures of the titular character have been continued in the new Rogue Team International series, of which Rage is the very first book (although it could be considered the 11th Joe Ledger book). This sequel series focuses on some new circumstances for the protagonists while still maintaining the heart and soul of the original books.

People who are familiar with my blog will know that I am a massive fan of the Joe Ledger books. Ever since I picked up the 10th and final novel, Deep Silence, last year, I have been really getting into this incredible thriller series and have already gone back and read the first six Joe Ledger books. Each of these books that I have reviewed so far has received a full five out of five stars from me, and it is easily one of my favourite series at the moment. As a result, I have been very keen to get a copy of the first instalment of this sequel series for a while now, and it has been very high on my list of books to read before the end of 2019. However, nothing was able to prepare me for how awesome this book was and for how much I was going to love it.

For years, Joe Ledger was the top field agent for the Department of Military Sciences (DMS), a top-secret United States military organisation tasked with protecting America from the most advanced and devastating weapons that mad science can produce. However, the political situation in America has become untenable, with the DMS no longer able to effectively do their job under the current administration. Seeing no future working for the US government, the head of the DMS, Mr Church, has disbanded the department, and has instead formed a new organisation, Rogue Team International. Independently funded and controlled by no government, Rogue Team International is able to deploy anywhere in the world against the worst sort of threats imaginable.

However, their first major mission has some very high stakes. A mysterious group of terrorists have unleashed a new bioweapon on a small, isolated island off the coast of North Korea. This weapon drives those infected by it into a murderous rage, causing them to attack and kill anyone they see in a brutal fashion. Worse, whoever is behind the attack has gone out of their way to frame the United States and South Korea for the crime, creating a dangerous situation which could see these countries dragged into a devastating war with North Korea and China.

Deployed to the island, Ledger and his team attempt to identify who is behind the attacks and what sort of weapon they have unleashed. It soon becomes clear that they are up against a deadly and powerful organisation, that is determined to cause as much chaos as possible. As a second attack is unleashed in South Korea, Ledger must find a way to stop his opponents before it is too late and the world is engulfed in war. However, their new foes are clever and ruthless and bear a powerful grudge against Ledger and Mr Church. Can Rogue Team International save the day, or will the cost be too high to pay?

Rage is an absolutely incredible and outstanding new novel from Maberry, who has done an incredible job introducing the first book in his Rogue Team International series. Rage contains an amazing story that had me firmly addicted right from the very start. The reader is once again presented with a massive and elaborate villainous plot, as two familiar antagonists and their cohorts unleash a devastating and scientifically unique attack for their own nefarious reasons. We then get to follow our protagonists as they investigate and attempt to counter the attacks and plots that they uncover. The entirety of the book is written in Maberry’s signature style, with the story told from a huge range of different points of view and time periods, resulting in a much richer and complex story that allows the reader to see the thoughts of the protagonists, antagonists and innocent bystanders as the various events of the book take place. There are a huge number of twists and turns as the story progresses, and even though we get some insight into the antagonist’s actions and motivations, the entirety of their elaborate plan is left a mystery for most of the book, allowing for some enthralling suspense to build up. All of this ends in an explosive conclusion which not only features a major fake-out but also a massively significant tragedy that is going to be a huge part of the series going forward. This was a truly epic story, and I cannot wait to see where the author takes his new series next.

Despite Rage being part of the new Rogue Team International series, Maberry continues to utilise a number of his distinctive writing elements that made his Joe Ledger novels such a delight to read. This includes the cool multiple viewpoints I mentioned above, as well as the fantastic use of great action sequences, enjoyable characters and the fascinating antagonists. However, there are some exciting changes in this book that I think existing Joe Ledger readers are going to enjoy. For example, the protagonist is part of a whole new organisation, they have a new base (a very over-the-top secret lair in Greece), a new team name and new call signs for all the protagonists (for example, Ledger has gone from Cowboy to Outlaw), all of which is an interesting change of pace for those familiar with the original series. There is also a lot more of a focus on international politics, with only a small amount of the story taking place in the United States. While I quite liked some of the new directions that Maberry was taking with this new series, many of the story elements in Rage have made it clear that the Rogue Team International books are going to be very strongly associated with the original Joe Ledger series. There are a huge number of call-backs to the previous books, including a lot of discussion about preceding cases and the utilisation of many characters, including some of the major antagonists, who have previously appeared. While you would assume that the employment of all these elements might make Rage hard to get into for readers unfamiliar with the other Joe Ledger novels, this is really not the case. Maberry continues his practice of filling his story with some detailed summaries of the various characters and books, so that readers can understand the significance of all the reference to the previous cases. This means that new readers can easily jump into Rage without any prior knowledge of the other Joe Ledger books, although I can guarantee that most people will be keen to go back and get the full account of what has happened before.

One of the most interesting aspects of the new international focused formula of this book was that it allowed Maberry to examine the current political situation around the Korean Peninsula. There is quite an interesting analysis of both countries throughout the course of the story, and the various issues surrounding them and their differences are actually covered in a series of short chapters, made to resemble a political chat show, with experts voicing their thoughts on both Koreas, and the influence of countries such as China and the United States. Rage’s story features a fascinating look at what the author thinks would happen if a flashpoint event occurred in the region, and who could potentially benefit. I was very intrigued by Maberry’s analysis of the situation, and I liked how he featured several characters from both North and South Korea in his story. The author’s portrayal of the North Korean characters was particularly captivating, as he showed them as mostly good people who were trapped by political circumstances, and who aren’t seeking a war against the rest of the world. All of this examination of the current political situation in Korea made for a fascinating part of the book’s plot, and I am curious to see what area of the world he will explore in the next Rogue Team International book.

One of Maberry’s main strengths as a writer is his ability to create some truly enjoyable and memorable characters to populate his stories with. Perhaps one of the best examples of this is the main protagonist of Rage and its prequel series, Joe Ledger. Ledger is an extremely complex and multilayered action protagonist, who serves as the book’s main character. Thanks to the fact that Ledger narrates all of the chapters told from his point of view (about two thirds of the book; the rest of the chapters are told in the third person), we get a real sense of his character. While he likes to project a cocky, confident and humorous persona to most people he meets, cracking all sorts of jokes to both other characters and the reader, deeper down his is a psychological mess. Due to some past trauma, Ledger has some major issues, and his career as a shooter for the DMS and Rogue Team International has not helped the situation. Ledger’s anger, despair and hopelessness are constantly bubbling towards the surface, adding a fascinating dimension to the character. I have always really liked how Maberry has gone out of his way to show an action protagonist who is actually impacted by the work they do and the lives they have taken, and it makes for a refreshing change of pace. Rage in particular contains some very dark moments for Ledger, and if the conclusion of the book is anything to go by, his character is going to undergo some massive emotional changes in the next few books.

I was also really glad that Maberry continued to utilise so many of the great side characters that have been previously introduced in the Joe Ledger series. Pretty much all of the key DMS characters have moved across into the new book, and I was really glad we could continue to enjoy the fun dynamic that they have established over the course of the previous series. The enigmatic Mr Church continues to remain one of the best spy-master characters I have ever read and is probably one of my favourite people in the Joe Ledger books. While there are no major revelations about his past in this novel (my theory is that he is either an alien or some form of angel), there are some hints to his seemingly superhuman toughness and some of the previous missions he has engaged in. Mr Church also shows off some amazing diplomatic chops in this novel, utilising a network of level-headed members of various countries’ governments to work around blustering and incompetent world leaders. Most of the rest of the supporting characters remain the same, although several of them get some fun moments in this book, such as Bug unexpectedly receiving some fan-girl attention and Doc Holiday’s eccentric personality overwhelming people unfamiliar with her. There are also some great new characters in this book, many of whom appear set to become long-term recurring characters. If I had to make one complaint, it would be that there wasn’t enough of Ghost, Ledger’s attack dog, but I am sure we will see more of him in the future.

In addition to the fantastic protagonists, Maberry has also come up with a couple of conniving and evil antagonists to act as a foil to Joe Ledger and Rogue Team International. The main villains of the book are actually prior antagonists from two of the books in the Joe Ledger series, who have been reutilised to great effect in this new novel. While an exciting original major villain might have worked out well for the first novel in a new series, I think that using some existing antagonists was an excellent choice that really helped create a captivating story. Not only does this help reinforce the connection between the new Rogue Team International series and the Joe Ledger books, but it also allowed for some interesting character and story development. Both of these main two antagonists have been defeated in the past by Joe Ledger and Mr Church, so they each have very deep, personal grudges against them. Their new plan for domination, which is actually very interesting and quite complex, is also filled with elements of revenge, which helps ratchet up the intrigue and adds a whole new element. I loved the various interludes which show how these two bad guys escaped from prison and started their new team-up, and it was really cool to see what happened to them after their respective defeats in the previous books. It was also very interesting to see two antagonists, who previously had nothing to do with each other, had appeared in different novels and had very different motivations for their actions, come together as a cohesive unit with the new goals in mind. This was definitely a great use of two antagonists, and the damage that they caused was very impressive and memorable.

It is impossible to talk about one of the Joe Ledger novels without discussing all the intense action you can expect within. Maberry is a master of writing an electrifying action sequence, and the first book in the Rogue Team International series is absolutely chock full of action, fights and brutal violence. There are so many varied and thrilling battle scenes throughout the book, as the protagonist finds himself fighting in all manner of different situations. Whether the protagonist is engaging in a mass shootout against heavily armed opponents with his team backing him up, fighting by himself against a group of assassins or engaging in knock-out, throwdown fist fight against one of the antagonists, Maberry crafts some excellent and detailed sequences, allowing the reader to appreciate everything that is going on. The standout elements of this book are the victims of the new rage-inducing bioweapon that is this book’s unique science fiction element. Victims under the control of Rage attack anything they see in a frenzy, resulting in some crazy and vicious scenes. This also allows for some unique sequences where the protagonists must find a way to neutralise the victims without killing them, in the hope that they can be cured, all the while trying to avoid getting killed by either the Rage victims or some of the soldiers behind the attacks. All of the action scenes in this book are really impressive to experience, and it is impossible not to get excited as you read through them. However, readers should be warned in advance that the action can get quite brutal in places, and there are numerous examples of gruesome mutilation or torture, which might not be appealing to some people.

One of the main things that I love about the Joe Ledger series are the incredible audiobook versions of the previous novels, all of which feature the outstanding narration of Ray Porter. As I have stated in several of my previous reviews, Porter has some unbelievable vocal talents, and the life he breathes into all the characters in the Joe Ledger audiobooks is just fantastic. In particular, he portrays the voice and personality of the series titular character and protagonist, Joe Ledger, extremely well and he does a remarkable job of conveying all of the characters emotions, charm and humour to the reader. I was so happy when I saw that Porter was going to narrate Rage, and I knew I would have to grab the audiobook format of this book when it came out. I was in no way disappointed with this audiobook, as Porter has once again done a fantastic job of bringing all the characters to life and telling Rage’s amazing story. Porter still has such a fantastic handle on the book’s main character, and his portrayal of the Joe Ledger’s emotions is just superb, especially during some major scenes in the book. With a running time of 17½ hours, Rage is a somewhat substantial read, and dedicated listeners should be able to get through it in a few days. I would strongly recommend the audiobook format of Rage to anyone who wants to read this book, and it still remains my favourite and preferred way to get my Joe Ledger fix.

In Rage, Jonathan Maberry has once again outdone himself producing a wildly entertaining and deeply compelling novel that I absolutely loved. In this first instalment of his new Rogue Team International series, Maberry has brought his fantastic characters from the Joe Ledger books into a whole new era, as the story goes in some great new directions, while maintaining the best parts of the original series. Featuring one hell of a story and a pretty memorable conclusion, Rage is Maberry at his best, and I have no choice but to award it a full five stars. Highly recommended for anyone wanting a high-octane read, Rage is an outstanding book guaranteed to pull you in and leave you an emotional wreck.

Throwback Thursday – Star Wars (2015) Volume 1: Skywalker Strikes by Jason Aaron and John Cassaday

Star Wars (2015) Volume 1 Cover.jpg

Publisher: Marvel Comics

Publication Date: 6 October 2015

Length: 160 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

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

I think it is fair to say that I have been in a real Star Wars mood lately. Maybe it is because of the imminent release of the final movie in the Skywalker Saga, Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, or perhaps it is because The Mandalorian is such an awesome TV show. Whatever the reason, I have been reading and reviewing quite a few Star Wars books and comics lately. For example, I am currently listening to Star Wars: Force Collector, I reviewed Tarkin last week and I recently read and reviewed Resistance Reborn and Vader: Dark Vision. As a result, I thought that this week would be a good time to do a Throwback Thursday on the first volume of the 2015 Star Wars comic book series, Skywalker Strikes, which did an outstanding job of introducing an extremely exciting ongoing comic series.

The Star Wars comic book series was started in 2015 and follows the adventures of the protagonists of the original Star Wars trilogy. Set shortly after the events of A New Hope, this series attempts to fill in the three years between the first film and The Empire Strikes Back. The Star Wars comics originally ran concurrently with the Darth Vader (2015) comic series until that series ended, and then proceeded to run alongside the Doctor Aphra comics. The Star Wars series ran for 75 issues and has only recently concluded. A sequel series with the same name is set to begin in early 2020, which will follow the events between The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi.

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Volume One of Star Wars begins shortly after the destruction of the Death Star. With the Empire in turmoil following the destruction of such a major weapon, Rebel Alliance members Luke Skywalker, Leia Organa, Han Solo, Chewbacca, C-3PO and R2-D2 use the chaos to infiltrate a key Imperial weapons factory. While they are able to destabilise the factory’s reactor core and free its slave labour force, the Rebels are unprepared for the unexpected arrival of Darth Vader.

Attempting to complete their mission while also trying to kill Vader, the Rebels find themselves hopelessly outmatched by the Dark Lord of the Sith, who is determined to capture the Rebel who blew up the Death Star. Not even Luke, with his newly discovered Jedi abilities, is able to stand up to Vader, and the Rebels barely manage to escape with their lives.

Frustrated by his failures against Vader, Luke decides to take a leave of absence from the Rebel Alliance and returns to Tatooine to contemplate his future. Travelling to the house where Obi-Wan Kenobi lived in exile for years, Luke hopes to find something that will guide him. Instead he finds himself walking into a trap, as the bounty hunter Boba Fett is lying in wait. At the same time, Leia talks Han into a scouting mission for the Rebels, but their simple mission soon attracts the wrong sort of attention. Who is the mysterious woman hunting Han, and why is claiming to be his wife?

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Skywalker Strikes, which is made up of Issues #1-6 of the Star Wars series, contains an outstanding story, fantastic artwork and some of the most insane Star Wars action sequences that you will ever see. The team of Jason Aaron and John Cassaday, have done an amazing job on this comic, and this first volume does a wonderful job starting off this long-running series. While all the issues in this volume are connected together pretty well, I would say that there is a distinctive break between Issues #1-3 and Issues #4-6. Issues #1-3 focuses solely on the protagonist’s attack on the weapon facility, while the last three issues feature some more independent adventures from some of the series’ various characters, as each of them is searching for something.

The sequence contained within Issues #1-3 is just incredible, and it is easily my favourite part of the entire series. What starts as a fun infiltration of an Imperial facility quickly devolves into utter chaos as Darth Vader enters the mix. What then follows is nearly three whole issues of action, explosions, fantastic first meetings and all manner of destruction as the Rebels desperately attempt to escape the factory. While all the characters involved in this part of the comic are really good, I have to say that Vader steals the show as the indestructible villain. This was actually one of the first pieces of fiction in the new Disney Star Wars canon that shows off how amazing Vader could truly be, and it is pretty darn awesome. Pretty much from the first instance he appears, he shows off the full extent of his powers by throwing stormtroopers in front of a sneak attack from Chewbacca, and then by starting to crush an AT-AT with the force. He then subsequently survives a full-on blast from the AT-AT’s cannons and hacks it to pieces with his lightsaber. He also cuts through a bunch of escaping slaves and shows his intense displeasure to his subordinates in a number of destructive ways, including twisting a stormtrooper’s head 180 degrees with the force (to be fair, he did catch sight of Vader without his helmet) and choking a Star Destroyer captain from an insane distance. I can also not be the only person who cracked up at Vader very quickly destroying an Imperial Officer moments after he said “Lord Vader will have my….” (spoilers, he was going to say head, and Vader really did). All of this destruction and action was essentially pure awesome, and I loved every second of it.

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In addition to all the action in this part of the book, there are also some major moments in Star Wars history that fans of the franchise are really going to enjoy. For the one thing, it actually has the first face-to-face confrontation between Luke and Darth Vader. This scene is handled extremely well. Luke, still believing that Vader is the one responsible for the death of his father, jumps at the chance to get revenge. However, as Luke runs towards Vader’s location full of confidence, he hears the disembodied voice of Obi-Wan Kenobi telling him to run. This is advice that Luke really should have taken; Vader, after berating Luke for his obvious lack of skill with the lightsaber, rather easily disarms him. While getting ready to kill Luke, Vader notices that the lightsaber he has taken off him is the very one he used to wield as Anakin Skywalker, which obviously raises some issues within him. As events at the factory spiral out of control, Luke is able to evade Vader, who starts to grow slightly more impressed by his skills. As Luke makes his escape, Vader realises that he is not only the pilot that destroyed the Death Star but also Kenobi’s last great hope. Still not fully realising the identity of the boy he just encountered, Vader rather vindictively promises to corrupt him to his purposes. All of these events are pretty incredible moments in Star Wars history, and I think that the creative team did an outstanding job introducing them in this new canon. The initial face-to-face showdown between the main protagonist and villain of the original Star Wars trilogy is a pretty significant moment, and I really loved how it was shown. The hints at the hidden history between the two are great, and the initial realisations from Vader that there is more to Luke than he realises are fantastic. I also liked how the creative team showed Luke as having no real skill with the lightsaber or the force. Considering that he only had about an hour of training with Kenobi, it really isn’t that surprising that he has no lightsaber abilities, so this is a pretty clever and realistic inclusion, especially as a good part of the following Star Wars comic series deals with some of the earliest days of his training. While these events are probably not the most significant to occur in this volume (more on that later), they are incredibly intriguing and any fan of the Star Wars franchise is going to love it.

The last three issues of Skywalker Strikes are also very entertaining, though less action-packed, since the creative team has opted instead for storytelling and showing off the state of the Empire and Rebel Alliance. While a despairing Luke sets off to find answers, Han and Leia set off to find potential locations for a new Rebel base, while Vader has a meeting with Jabba the Hut. There are some really interesting aspects to this part of the story, from the growing hopelessness in Luke as he begins to realise how far he is from becoming a Jedi, to Vader’s sudden obsession with capturing Luke, to the growing hints of romance between Han and Leia, disguised at this point as antagonism. However, I would say that it’s the newcomers to the comic series, Boba Fett and Sana Solo, that are some of the best parts of the last three issues of the volume. Fett, who has long been a fan favourite despite his complete underutilisation in the movies, shines as the badass bounty hunter as he scours Tatooine for Luke, eventually finding out all about him through some very violent means. This leads to a pretty fun showdown between Boba and Luke, as Boba ambushes him at Kenobi’s house and easily incapacitates him and R2-D2 with his cool array of weapons and tactics. It is only thanks to Luke’s first close-combat use of the force that he is able to escape, as he successfully blocks a blaster bolt while blinded (a nice homage to the training sequence from A New Hope) and moves an item with his mind. All of this was a pretty entertaining showdown, and I loved seeing Fett in action for once. We also have the mysterious Sana Solo, who has a pretty fantastic takedown of some Rodian thugs with a great piece of technology and a ruthless demeanour. She is later able to track down Han and Leia, absolutely terrifying Han before dropping one of the biggest bombshells of the book: that she is Han’s wife. While this is not explored in any great detail in this volume, it is an excellent introduction for this great character, who goes on to become a fairly major figure in the current Star Wars canon. As a result of all of this, the second half of the volume holds up pretty well to the action-packed first half, and there are plenty of major scenes, including the very big ending.

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While I did really like the second part of this volume, the best way to appreciate it fully is if you understand its connection to the Darth Vader (2015) series of comics. The Darth Vader series was launched right on the heels of the Star Wars comics and it is actually set in the aftermath of the first three issues of this volume. In the first issue of this concurrent comic, it is shown that Vader has actually started going rogue on the Emperor and is making his own deals with Jabba the Hutt, before the formal discussion he has with Jabba in Issue #4 of the Star Wars series. This actually clears up the somewhat cryptic discussion he has with Jabba later in the issue, where they talk about the bounty hunters he has hired, and also shows the point where he actually tasked Boba Fett with finding Luke. While none of this is absolutely vital when it comes to fully understanding the plot of Skywalker Strikes, it is interesting to see that some of the referenced events occurred in another series. However, the main reason why readers should try to understand the connection between this comic and the Darth Vader series is in the epic conclusion both of them share, where Vader learns the last name of the boy he has been hunting. Both Issue #6 of Star Wars and Darth Vader were actually released on the same day, so readers of both series were able to see this scene at the same time. The two scenes are shown in a slightly different light in each series. It is expanded a bit more in the Darth Vader series, as it plays into the feelings of resentment towards the Emperor that have been building in Vader through the series. However, I quite liked the simpler version in Issue #6 of Star Wars, as the slow-boiling rage and anger within Vader is pretty obvious, as he takes a whole page to fully react, cracking the glass on a Star Destroyer and simply whispering, “Skywalker”. As a result of this connection, the Star Wars and Darth Vader series complement each other extremely well, and I would strongly recommend reading both pretty close together. However, no matter which series you read, the sequence showing the moment where Vader realises that his son is still alive and a Jedi is pretty darn epic and really memorable.

It could be argued that splitting this volume into two separate storylines was an interesting choice from the book’s creative team. I imagine that six issues focused on the attack on the Imperial weapons factory would have been pretty epic (just imagine how much more destruction Vader could have wrought). However, I personally think they did the right thing by splitting the story and showcasing the aftermath of this action. This way you not only get the intense action of the first few stories but you also get to see the consequences of the mission, and all the implications this has for the wider Star Wars universe. In addition, there is also quite an intriguing set up for several key moments in the upcoming series as a whole, a whole new fight between Luke and another iconic Star Wars character in Boba Fett, and some amazing connections with a sister series. I really liked how the story of the entire volume came together, and I think it was an outstanding way to start this excellent series.

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I have to say that I was also really impressed with the awesome artwork that was featured in this first volume. The artwork was drawn by John Cassaday, and featured Laura Martin as the colourist. It is pretty amazing the way that Cassaday was able to capture the faces of the core original trilogy cast members with his artwork. Luke, Leia and Han all look really good to my eye in this volume, and the artist has also done some great renditions of other existing characters, such as Vader, Boba Fett and Jabba the Hutt. In addition, I really enjoyed all of the marvellous and exhilarating action sequences that they artistic team portrayed throughout the volume. These action scenes, especially the ones featuring Vader at the start of the book are just incredible, and I really loved seeing all the fantastic and creative violence. In addition to all the action, there are a number of scenes where the artwork helps to enhance the emotions and hidden meaning of a scene, and I will always love the way that they portrayed the closing moments of this volume. This was some first-rate Star Wars comic book art that is really worth checking out.

As you can see from the above review, I really loved this first volume of the Star Wars (2015) comic book series. The amazing creative team behind this first volume did a fantastic job with the first six issues that make up Skywalker Strikes, producing an extraordinary story which is complimented by a connection to another series and some exceptional artwork. This volume is a fantastic introduction to the flagship comic book series of the Star Wars franchise, and it comes highly recommended. No great knowledge of the expanded Star Wars canon is required to enjoy it, and indeed this may prove to be an effective gateway to the greater Star Wars universe. This gets a full five stars from me, and I am so very glad I decided to check out the Star Wars comic book series this year.

The Ember Blade by Chris Wooding

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Publisher: Orion (Audiobook – 20 September 2018)

Series: The Darkwater Legacy – Book 1

Length: 30 hours and 40 minutes

My rating: 5 out of 5 stars

If you are looking for an elaborate and exciting fantasy epic to really sink your teeth into look no further than The Ember Blade, the impressive first book in Chris Wooding’s The Darkwater Legacy.

The Ember Blade is a massive fantasy book that was released in late 2018 by veteran author Chris Wooding. I somehow completely failed to realise that this book was coming out until I saw it on the shelves of my local bookshop, and while I thought that it had a lot of potential due to the cool sounding plot, I was unfortunately unable to fit it into my reading schedule last year. However, as it was one of the books I most regret not reading in 2018, I decided to listen to the audiobook format of The Ember Blade, narrated by Simon Bubb, a little while ago. I have to say that I was not disappointed; Wooding, who has previously written such books as the Braided Path, Malice and Tales of the Ketty Jay series, has created a bold and inventive new fantasy tale in this book. Featuring a great story, an amazing group of characters and set in a massive and creative fantasy world, this was an exceptional book that I am really glad I listened to it.

A generation ago, the once proud nation of Ossia was invaded by the brutal Krodan Empire, and not even Ossia’s legendary defenders, the Dawnwardens, could stop them. Now the Krodans rule Ossia with an iron fist, installing their own religion and way of life, and treating the Ossians like second-class citizens in their own land. Any acts of dissent are quickly crushed, and those few that fight for Ossian freedom are quickly being rounded up. The only Ossians who flourish are those who accept Krodan rule and attempt to assimilate into their way of life, like Aren, the son of a wealthy Ossian collaborator. Aren has spent his whole life being told that the Krodans saved his country and that their laws, religion and rule are fair and beneficial for everyone. However, he is about to learn the dark side of Krodan rule.

When his farther is suddenly arrested and executed as a traitor, Aren and his best friend Cade are taken to a forsaken Krodan labour camp where they are expected to work until they die. With his hopes and dreams for the future crushed, Aren decides that it is finally time to rebel and engineers an escape from the camp with Cade and another prisoner. Despite all their planning, their escape seems doomed to fail until a mysterious band of fighters intervene at the last minute. However, their salvation is a double-edged sword, as the leader of this group, Garric, is a vengeful figure from Aren’s father’s past, who bears a terrible grudge against his entire family.

Forced to travel with this band, Aren and Cade discover that they are amongst some of the last Ossian rebels in the entire country. As they flee, pursued by a tenacious member of Krodan’s secret police and his three terrifying minions, they are told of Garric’s ambitious plan to break into an impenetrable fortress and steal the Ember Blade, an ancient artefact of Ossian rule that could be used to rally the country to their cause. However, in order to even have a chance to steal the blade, they must overcome treachery, the indifference of a conquered people, and their own personal demons unless they wish to be overwhelmed by the evil forces arrayed against them.

Wooding has come up with a pretty spectacular plot for this book, and I really enjoyed the places that this compelling story went. While the beginning of the book is a little slow, mainly to establish the setting and the friendship between Aren and Cade, it does not take long for the plot to get really exciting, when the two main characters introduced at that point are thrown into a prison camp. The story continues at an excellent and captivating pace from then on in, as the characters get wrapped up with Garric and his band as they attempt to free Ossia from the Krodans. This whole story is pretty fantastic, as it blends together a bunch of different fantasy adventure storylines into one satisfying narrative. For example, throughout the course of the book, you have an exploration of life within a Krodan prison camp, a complex prison break, a pursuit throughout all of Ossia by the Krodans, an exploration of a long-abandoned and magically haunted palace, treachery and plotting throughout the towns and cities of Ossia, all finished off with an elaborate heist and prison break scenario within an impenetrable castle and the dramatic consequences that result from their actions. While you would imagine that having all of these plot aspects within one novel would be a bit too much, I think that Wooding did an excellent job balancing all these intricate storylines together into one outstanding overall narrative. Sufficient time is spent on all of the various parts of the book, which not only ensures that various plot points are well-constructed and impactful but also allows the various character dynamics and relationships to come into effect while also slotting in some world building. All of this leads to an incredible and truly addictive story which I absolutely loved and which also sets up a number of intriguing plot points for future books in this series.

While The Ember Blade’s story is pretty amazing, the real strength of this book is the fantastic group of characters. The author has come up with several outstanding and complex protagonists, each of whom has an elaborate backstory which the reader learns all about through the course of the story, as many of them are utilised as a point-of-view character for a several chapters. There were some truly fantastic and memorable characters throughout this story, and I really enjoyed their various motivations and the way that they interacted with each other. The further you get into the book, the more you find yourself getting wrapped up in each character’s unique personality and finding out what makes them tick, until you actually start to care for them. However, fair warning in advance, some of these characters that you grow to like will not survive until the end of the book, and Wooding goes on a little bit of a killing spree with some of his creations (although I think there is a good chance one or two might come back in a future book).

The Ember Blade features a number of great characters that I could talk about, but for the sake of brevity I might just focus on the most important characters, Aren and Cade. These two Ossian youths are great central protagonists for this story, and they form a pretty fun and emotional duo for most of the book. Aren and Cade are dragged into the events of this book because of their friendship, and the two of them try to stick together, as they end up being the only person each of them has. However, throughout the course of this book, their friendship is tested by a lack of hope, conflict over ideals, love and feelings of betrayal, which makes for some very emotional reading. Both characters are really interesting, and both bring a lot to the story. While Aren is the central protagonist of the series, Cade is the story’s heart and soul, telling all manner of bad jokes and regaling his companions with the old stories of the land. Aside from the periods of time when he is infected with hopelessness or bitterness, Cade mostly remains the same character throughout the course of the book and does not develop too much. Aren, on the other hand, goes through a great deal of character development throughout the book, as he starts to become more disillusioned with the Krodan regime. Due to his upbringing, Aren is slow to realise the evils of the Krodans, even when his father is murdered and he is thrown into a deathcamp. However, several confrontations with Cade, discussions with Garric and actually seeing all the evil that the Krodans perpetrate help convince him of the benefit of rebelling against them and being a hero. This is not a straight progression; instead, the author creates a much more deviated course to greatness for our hero, as he is forced to betray someone he respects, is betrayed in turn by his own countrymen, must overcome his own prejudices and learn to deal with his sense of entitlement and his resentments, all before he become a better person. All of this makes for some great reading, and these two make a fantastic pairing.

Quite a lot of time is also spent on the character of Garric, who probably shares top billing with Aren as the book’s main protagonist. Garric is a freedom fighter whose own country is no longer willing to fight. Obsessed with victory, no matter the cost, Garric has become a very angry and bitter man over the years, especially due to a past interaction with Aren’s father. Despite this past hurt, his code of honour requires him to rescue Aren, and subsequent events force him to spend time with the son of the man he hated the most in the world. We learn a great deal about Garric throughout the course of the book, and despite his outer veneer of hatred and anger, most of which is directed at Aren, he is shown to be a good man and a hero. However, his need for vengeance against the Krodans slowly consumes him throughout the course of the book, and he begins to risk everything, even the lives of the people who trust him, to achieve his goal. I really liked the character of Garric, mainly because he has such an outstanding and well-written character arc in this book, the course of which goes into some dark and destructive directions and was deeply compelling to witness.

There is no way I can review this book without mentioning my favourite character, Grub, since, according to himself, “Grub is the greatest”. Grub is a Skarl, a warrior whose people journey out from an icy wasteland to do mighty deeds in order to have them tattooed on their body. Joining in on Aren and Cade’s escape plan, Grub spends the majority of the book boasting about the deeds that earned him his tattoos and making himself sound like the greatest warrior of all time. Grub is mostly used as a comic relief, and his jokes, outlandish boasts, coarse behaviour, amusing nicknames for the other characters and habit of constantly talking about himself in the third person make him the funniest protagonists in the book. However, like most of Wooding’s characters, Grub’s life is a lot more complicated than you would expect. Grub is not what he appears to be and bears a secret shame that makes him an outcast from his own people. In order to return, Grub must redeem himself by performing the most heroic or cunning of deeds and remains with the protagonists because he believes that participating in their adventures are exactly what he needs, that and he plans to rob them of the Ember Blade. However, as the book progresses, Grub, who has never known friendship or acceptance, begins to bond with several of the protagonists, especially Aren, which could alter his eventual plans.

As you can see from the examples above, Wooding has done an excellent job inserting complex and appealing characters into his story. Favourites I haven’t yet mentioned include a powerful druid and her dog, who provide much of the book’s magical elements; a fearless female hunter with poor social skills, who is a love interest for both Aren and Cade; an intelligent Ossian woman whose ambitions are thwarted by the inherent sexism of the Krodans, and who gets some of the best revenge against a mansplaining ass by beating him in a strategy game; and more. The author even shows a couple of chapters from the point of view of The Ember Blade’s main antagonist, the Krodan secret police commander Klyssen, which humanises him a little and shows why he is so determined to hunt down our protagonists. All of these characters add a large amount to the story, and it was a real pleasure to follow their adventures and learn all about their lives.

In addition to the fantastic roster of characters that the excellent story followed, I have to say that I was also impressed with the bold new fantasy world that Wooding created. Not only is the primary setting of the nation of Ossia a complex and dangerous location that helps create a thrilling and enjoyable read, but the author spends a lot of time expanding out the entire world, furnishing the reader with some fascinating depictions of some of the other cultures and races that live in the world. Thanks to the fact that one of the point-of-view characters is a bit of a storyteller, we get a really good idea of the history of the world, much of which has some sort of bearing on the current story, or could potentially become an interesting part of a future book. In addition, due to the examination of several of the protagonists, we also get a good basis for some of the other nations that are mentioned throughout the story, all of which sound really fascinating. I particularly liked the sound of the Skarl, Grub’s race, and I would definitely love to read a story set in their frozen necropolises. Wooding also introduces some supernatural elements in this book, including some ancient god-like monsters who are likely to be the major opponents of any future books in the series, as well as a cursed, magical castle which our protagonists find themselves trapped in for a substantial part of the book. I also quite enjoyed the potion-based magical system of the druids that was utilised by one of the primary characters, and I will be intrigued to see more of what sort of magic the Krodans have.

While the rest of the world introduced in The Ember Blade has a lot of potential in future books, I did really like the main location of this book, the conquered nation of Ossia. Ossia has been under Krodan rule for around a generation at the point of this story, and the people are becoming more accustomed to their conquered status. This situation bears some very strong similarities to Nazi-occupied France, with the Krodans infecting the country with their rules and ideals over a conquered nation, and utilising collaborators and violent retaliations to rule with an iron fist. Not only are the Krodans depicted in quite a Teutonic way, but it is clear that they are participating in some form of ethnic cleansing, as the entire population of a gypsy facsimile race in their empire has been rounded up and taken to an unknown location. All of this really helps to up the stakes for the protagonists, as they must not only overcome all the Krodans they come across but also contend with being sold out by members of their own nation. This chance of betrayal from fellow Ossians is quite disheartening to many of the characters, and it makes them wonder at times why they are fighting to free these people, when it is quite obvious that many amongst them do not want to be free. In addition to all of this, I have to mention the dreadknights, the strange, dangerous and seemingly indestructible elite soldiers of the Krodan Empire, who have been unleashed to hunt down and kill the protagonists. These dreadknights are terrifying beings whose unrelenting pursuit of your favourite characters (and indeed they bear responsibility for the deaths of some of these characters) really adds a lot of tension to the story. There was something of the Ringwraiths from The Lord of the Rings in their manner and bearing, and there is a lot of mystery surrounding their origins. I am very curious to see if we learn more of these creatures in the rest of the series, and I have a vague feeling that Wooding is going to make them even more horrifying in the future.

As I mentioned above, I ended up listening to the audiobook version of The Ember Blade, which was narrated by Simon Bubb. Considering the physical copy of this book is around 800+ pages, it should come as no surprise that the audiobook format is going to be fairly substantial. It runs for 30 hours and 40 minutes, which actually makes it the eighth-longest audiobook I have ever listened to. As a result, it did take me a pretty long time to get through this book, but once I started getting really into the story, I went out of my way to try and finish it off as quickly as possible. I am actually really glad that I listened to the audiobook version of this book, as I felt that it really helped me absorb the enjoyable story and detailed setting. Bubb had a great, steady narration voice for this book, and his take on the story and the characters really helped to keep my attention glued to the book. As a result, I would strongly recommend the audiobook format of The Ember Blade to those people interested in checking this book out, as you will have a lot of fun listening to it.

The Ember Blade is a modern-day fantasy masterpiece from Chris Wooding, and I am extremely glad that I managed to get a chance to read it this year. Wooding has come up with a detailed and captivating plot which combines exceedingly well with the book’s excellent group of characters and intriguing new fantasy world to create a first-rate story. This was an outstanding read which does a fantastic job introducing The Darkwater Legacy, which, if Wooding continues to write this well, has potential to become a truly great fantasy series. A highly recommended read that gets a full five out of five stars from me, this is essential reading for all fans of the fantasy genre.

Starsight by Brandon Sanderson

Starsight Cover 2.jpg

Publisher: Gollancz (Trade Paperback – 26 November 2019)

Series: Skyward – Book 2

Length: 461 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

From one of the best authors of fantasy and science fiction in the world today, Brandon Sanderson, comes Starsight, an outstanding and addictive young adult science fiction read which continues the wildly entertaining adventures of a young starfighter years in the future.

Starsight is the second book in the Skyward series and follows on from the 2018 release of the same name. Skyward was a fantastic young adult science fiction book that told a compelling tale of bravery, determination and camaraderie in humanity’s distant future. Skyward was an amazing read, and it was easily one of my favourite books of 2018. As a result, I have been looking forward to Starsight for a while now, and it was one of my most anticipated releases for the second part of this year.

The Skyward series is set on the planet of Detritus, a desolate world that houses a population of humans in the caverns beneath the surface. The humans on Detritus are the remnants of a once great intergalactic human civilisation that has been destroyed in a war with a superior alien civilisation. Forced into hiding within the planet for hundreds of years, humanity eventually returned to the surface utilising scavenged starfighters to escape and build a military outpost to fight back against the alien ships who continue to harass the planet.

In Skyward, the reader is introduced to Spensa Nightshade, a young woman determined to become a pilot in the Defiant Defence Force (DDF), the military organisation that fights the alien invaders. While talented, Spensa faced opposition to being accepted into the military due to an apparent act of cowardice by her father years before. Despite the odds, Spensa was accepted in the DDF and was trained to become a skilled pilot, fighting in a number of actions against the enemy, while also trying to find out what actually happened to her father. Along the way, Spensa discovered an ancient but advanced human ship that had crash-landed on Detritus. Upon repairing the ship, Spensa discovered it had an AI installed in its computers, which she called M-Bot. After stopping an extremely destructive alien attack with the help of M-Bot, Spensa was compelled to fly through Detritus’s atmosphere, where she made several startling discoveries, the first of which was that Spensa and her family are powerful cytonics, beings with mental powers who are capable of traversing vast distances through space with their ability. The second discovery she made was that the aliens attacking Detritus were not simply mindless aggressors determined to wipe out humanity; instead they are members of an interstellar conglomeration called the Superiority, who are attempting to contain humanity within the planet. The Superiority hold a great fear of humans, who they see as an extremely dangerous and violent species, and Detritus is actually a prison planet/wildlife preserve where humans can live without disrupting the rest of the galaxy. Unfortunately, the actions of the DDF in reclaiming the surface and utilising spaceships have forced the Superiority to reconsider their approach, and they are now working to kill all the humans.

Usually this is the part of the review where I would give a brief plot synopsis of the new book and then go into an analysis of what I liked about it. However, this is going to prove a little hard to do without revealing some spoilers. While I don’t typically avoid talking about plot points that occur around 50-100 pages into book (I don’t particularly consider something happening that early to be a spoiler), I am a little more wary with Starsight. This is mainly because the plot of the book features some immediate substantial changes from the story that appeared in Skyward, none of which are really hinted at in any of the official online plot synopsis or book blurbs. As I am publishing this review a week before Starsight’s official release date, I think it is best that I put up a spoiler alert below, before I start going into the book in any real detail.

For those readers who do not want to risk any spoilers, I will say now that Starsight is an incredible book that I really, really enjoyed. Sanderson tells a wildly entertaining and highly addictive story that features some memorable characters, high-stakes events, some of the best science fiction action I have ever read and a ton of inventive world building. I honestly think that this is one of the best releases of 2019, and it easily gets a full five-star rating from me (if only I could go higher). I would highly recommend this book to anyone interested in an epic science fiction read, and if you loved Skyward, you are going to love this book.

Anyway, if you are not interested in learning any more details about this book’s plot or characters (which I do explore to a substantial degree), I would suggest you stop reading now, as everything below this paragraph has a spoiler alert in effect.

 

SPOILER ALERT:

 

Starsight is set a few months after the events of Skyward, and humanity has been busy. Thanks to Spensa and Skyward Flight, as well as the advanced technology contained with M-Bot, the DDF has managed to capture several of the planet’s ancient orbiting defensive platforms, which have allowed them to push the Superiority forces out of Detritus’s obit. However, despite these successes, humanity is still trapped on Detritus, and the eventual Superiority mass retaliation will likely wipe out everyone on the planet. Their only chance at survival is to flee from Detritus and find a new planet to make their home, somewhere the Superiority cannot find them. However, the only way to do this is with some form of hyperdrive, which humanity lacks access to, and Spensa’s cytonic teleportation abilities are too restrictive for mass use.

The crash-landing of an unknown alien spacecraft on Detritus may provide the solution that will ensure humanity’s survival. The pilot of this craft is a member of a non-Superiority species who has been invited for diplomatic reasons to enlist in a new Superiority fighter squadron, and she is able to pass on the cytonic coordinates to the squadron’s base to Spensa. Disguised with M-Bot’s holographic technology, Spensa travels to the Superiority space city, Starsight, in order to infiltrate the Superiority military and find and steal a working hyperdrive.

Joining the new Superiority squadron, Spensa discovers that she and her fellow recruits are being trained to fight the delvers, titanic inter-dimensional beings that dwell in the nowhere, who are capable of devastating planets if they are drawn into our dimension by an over-use of cytonic ability. But as Spensa attempts to complete her mission, she finds herself caught amidst the politics of the various Superiority races, many of whom wish for the complete and utter destruction of her people. Can Spensa navigate the strange new world she finds herself in, or will her actions result in the destruction of all she knows?

As you can see from the above synopsis, Starsight goes in some very interesting and unpredictable directions. I personally loved all of these new story elements, and the idea of Spensa having to infiltrate a mostly unknown alien society was a really clever and intriguing central plot idea that I think worked extremely well. The subsequent narrative is a fantastic blend of different story elements, which includes some great new characters, settings and plot directions, as well as some of the best parts of Skyward. For example, not only do you get to see a whole new take on the excellent space fighter training plot point that made the first book so amazing, but you also get a science fiction spy thriller story filled with all manner of political intrigue. This was a fantastic book to get into, and Sanderson has made sure that the plot is accessible to readers who did not get a chance to check out Skyward last year. However, I would strongly recommend reading Skyward first, not only because it will give you a better idea of the characters and certain plot elements, but because it is such an awesome book in its own right.

One of my favourite things about the first book in the Skyward series was the excellent group of characters that Sanderson focused on, including Spensa, M-Bot and the members of Skyward Flight. Throughout Skyward the reader got to know and care for these characters, and it was actually a little bit distressing when bad things happened to them. Skyward continues to look at several of the characters from the first book, although readers who grew attached to Skyward Flight might be a tad disappointed as Sanderson shifts the focus away from them and introduces the reader to a whole new group of alien characters.

Spensa is still the main point-of-view character for this second book and serves as a fantastic central protagonist. In many ways, Spensa is still the same impatient and reckless pilot that was such to see in the first book. However, it soon becomes obvious that the experiences, relationships and life lessons that she has faced since joining the DDF have tempered her in many ways, especially as she has to deal with the intense responsibility of being her people’s greatest hope for survival. I really enjoyed watching Spensa as she was forced to assimilate into the alien cultures on Starsight, and it was interesting to see how she reacted when she realised not everyone there is as evil as she believed. The opinions and support she gives to her alien friends result in some emotional moments, and it was really heart-warming to see how far she has progressed since the last book.

While Spensa is a great central protagonist, to my mind the best character in the entire book is still her sentient ship, M-Bot. M-Bot is the snarky and hilarious artificial intelligence that Spensa discovered crashed on Detritus, and together they form an efficient and enjoyable team. M-Bot honestly has all the best lines in the book, and nearly every interaction with Spensa results in some excellent jokes or banter. Despite the humour, M-Bot is a pretty complicated character, especially as in this book he is attempting to work out the full limits of his consciousness and code. He is continuously attempting to prove that he is actually alive, and these attempts result in safeguards in his system attempting to shut him down. I really enjoyed the way that Sanderson continues to utilise M-Bot. Even though he is a ship, he is still a fantastic and highly enjoyable character to focus on and we even get a reason for his mushroom obsession in this book.

Spensa’s new flight of Superiority comrades features an eclectic bunch of aliens, each with their own quirks and unique personalities. These include a figment called Vapour, who is essentially a sentient smell that can take control of ships and pilot them. Vapour is the ultimate spy and requires Spensa to be constantly on her toes. There is also the dione draft, Morriumur. Dione are a race of non-violent aliens high up in the Superiority hierarchy, who have a unique breeding system that combines the parents into one new being. This is a process that can take several goes, as the family of the newly bred dione may choose to reform a young dione so that they have an ideal personality. Morriumur is a draft, spending the first few months of their life testing out their personality to see if they are an ideal member of the species. Morriumur, who has slightly more violent tendencies than most of their species, is trying to prove that they belong as a starfighter, but the combined expectations of their family and the inner thoughts that they are not worthy, are a constant hindrance to them as a pilot.

While both of the above characters are pretty cool, and Sanderson spends a good amount of time exploring them, two members of Spensa’s new flight really stood out. The first of these is Brade, a human from another prison world who has been recruited as a cytonic enforcer by one of the book’s central antagonists. Brade, after being taken from her parents as a child, has essentially been brainwashed all her life to consider humans as evil and inferior, and this has a major damaging effect on her psyche. The interactions between her and Spensa throughout the book are quite fascinating, and she proved to be one of the most complex characters in this book. My favourite new character, however, had to be Hesho, who is totally not king of the kitsen. The kitsen are a race of tiny gerbil-like aliens who have recently converted from a monarchy to a democracy in an attempt to become a Superiority race. Hesho leads a group of around 50 kitsen who pilot one heavily armed fighter in Spensa’s squadron like it’s a capital ship. Hesho and the kitsen are really hilarious characters, mainly because Hesho is attempting to convince the Superiority that he is no longer ruling his people as a king, and instead the kitsen have embraced democracy. Unfortunately, despite Hesho insisting he is no longer a monarch in every interaction he has, his people continue to worship him, which kind of undercuts this message. I also found the similarities in the personalities between the kitsen and the Spensa we first encountered in Skyward to be very amusing, as the kitsen attempt to compensate for their size with extreme confidence and boasting like Spensa used to (for example, the first ship we see the kitsen flying is called Big Enough to Kill You).

All of the above characters are great, and I really loved the way that I was once again drawn into their various personalities and histories. It was a bit of a shame not to see too much of the characters I liked so much from the first book (although we do get an idea of what various members of Skyward Flight are up to), but I think the new characters that Sanderson introduced more than made up for it.

In addition to the fantastic character work, one of the other best features of Starsight is the epic and fast-paced action sequences that punctuate much of the book. Just like in Skyward, Sanderson presents a huge number of different scenes where Spensa is fighting or training in a fighter. The sheer amount of detail that goes into these various action sequences is pretty amazing, and I was able to picture all the flying and manoeuvres perfectly. The author comes up with a number of clever new scenarios in this book, including the fancy flying and combat required to fight a delver, or having Spensa fly in the type of craft she has been fighting against for her entire military career. All of the action in this book is first-rate, and I can guarantee that you will get lost in some of the incredible action sequences.

I have always been impressed by the elaborate worlds that Sanderson can create for his stories. Whether it is the vast fantasy world that he came up with for The Stormlight Archive, the supervillain dominated alternate version of Earth that appeared in The Reckoners trilogy, or the fantastic science fiction planet of Detritus that was the main setting for Skyward, Sanderson always delivers complex and intricate settings for his story, complete with huge amounts of backstory. In Starsight, Sanderson once again produces a huge and detailed new setting for his outstanding story. The alien civilisation that is living on Starsight is very impressive, and I love all the different alien races that he has come up with for this story. Many of the aliens have some very complex and fascinating history, a great deal of which featured in the story. I really look forward to seeing how Sanderson expands this universe even further in the final book in the trilogy, and I cannot wait to see what new aliens or civilisations he comes up with.

As you can see from this rather lengthy review, there is a lot to love about this book. Sanderson does an impressive job of combining the intriguing new story direction, the amazing characters, intense action and fascinating new setting into one concise narrative, and the end result is a perfect book. While Starsight is being marketed as a young adult book, and indeed it would prove appropriate for most young readers, it is really a novel that can be enjoyed by any reader of any age. I cannot recommend this book enough, and I am eagerly awaiting the next book in this series (which seems to be 2021 at this point, so far away!).

The Night Fire by Michael Connelly

The Night Fire Cover

Publisher: Hachette Audio (Audiobook – 22 October 2019)

Series: Ballard and Bosch – Book 2

Length: 10 hours and 4 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

One of the masters of modern crime fiction, Michael Connelly, returns with another book in his bestselling interconnected crime universe. In The Night Fire, Connelly once again brings together the outstanding team of Ballard and Bosch for another exceptional murder mystery.

Back when he was a rookie detective, Harry Bosch was mentored by one of the LAPD’s best homicide detectives, John Jack Thompson, who helped stoke his internal fires of justice to ensure that no case ever goes unsolved. Now, years later, Thompson is dead, and at his funeral, the now retired Bosch is given a gift from his widow: a murder book for an unsolved crime. The case revolved around the murder of a young man in a gang-controlled alley nearly 30 years before, and it appeared that Thompson secretly took the book when he retired from the force. What was Thompson’s connection to the case, why was this one murder so important to him and why did he keep the murder book a secret for so long?

Determined to get answers, but already committed to helping his lawyer half-brother Mickey Haller defend his client in a tricky murder case, Bosch takes the book to Detective Renée Ballard for help. Ballard, Hollywood Division’s resident detective on the night shift (known as the Late Show), and Bosch have recently formed an unofficial partnership in order to work on some of Bosch’s old, unsolved cases. Identifying several inconsistencies in the cold case, Ballard decides to start digging deeper, while also investigating a suspicious death by fire that occurred on her beat.

Together Bosch and Ballard are an effective investigative team, and it does not take them long to identify a potential killer. However, the more they dig, the more they begin to realise that Thompson might not have taken the murder book to solve the murder, but to ensure that nobody ever tried to investigate it. Can these two detectives get to the truth, and what happens when their various investigations put them in the line of fire of some very dangerous people?

The Night Fire is the latest book in Connelly’s shared crime universe, which features the various adventures and investigations of several of his iconic protagonists. This new novel is a fantastic piece of crime fiction that once again combines together two of Michael Connelly’s most intriguing characters, Bosch and Ballard, after their outstanding first team-up in 2018’s Dark Sacred Night. This is the 22nd book featuring Bosch, Connelly’s original and most utilised protagonist, while Ballard has so far appeared in two prior novels. This book also briefly sees the return of Mickey Haller, another one of Connelly’s protagonists, who has appeared in several legal thrillers within the universe such as The Lincoln Lawyer (which was adapted into a film of the same name).

Just like in Dark Sacred Night, the plot of the book is shown from both Bosch’s and Ballard’s perspectives, as each of them gets a number of separate point-of-view chapters (about half each) to tell their respective stories. While there is a lot of crossover between the two characters, especially when they are working together on their joint cold case, both of them do their own independent investigations and have several chapters where they deal with their various personal issues without the other character being present. However, they also both appear in a number of chapters together, allowing the reader to not only get an interior view of the character but to see each of them through the other’s eyes.

One of the main things that I love about the Michael Connelly books I have read are the multiple cases that the protagonists investigate simultaneously, many of which may or may not be connected in some way. In The Night Fire for example, the story features one cold case that brings Ballard and Bosch together at the start of the book and which they work together on, while both characters have separate cases to work on. Bosch becomes involved in the legal defence of one of Mickey Haller’s clients who is on trial for murder, and this then evolves into the hunt for the murderer of a judge. Ballard on the other hand does most of the investigative work on the cold case, mainly because she is the one with access to the LAPD’s resources. At the same time, she is also investigating several other crimes that come across her desk during her night shifts at Hollywood Division. These include a homeless man who was burnt alive in their tent, the apparent suicide of a young girl and the discovery of a truckload of illegal immigrants. While some of these cases do not go anywhere or are investigated by a different part of the LAPD, Ballard does find herself fully investigating several different cases and getting some rather interesting results. I really enjoyed this cool combination of varied cases and examples of police work, especially as it combines together a decades-old murder with several recent crimes. There are some really complex and compelling mysteries involved with these cases, and I found myself getting drawn into each of them, as they all featured some clever police work and an intriguing bunch of potential suspects. The cold case in particular was great, as the reader not only needed to figure out who the killer was but also why Bosch’s mentor was so concerned with the murder. While it was a little disappointing not to get some follow-through on a couple of Ballard’s cases, I thought that all of these mysteries come together into an excellent overall narrative that does an outstanding job keeping the reader’s attention. I also loved how two of the cases eventually come together in an unexpected way, resulting in an explosive conclusion, while the results of another murder investigation had a very emotional impact on one of the protagonists.

In addition to the great mysteries and fictional examples of police work, one of The Night Fire’s biggest strengths is its two protagonists, Ballard and Bosch. Both of these protagonists are excellent characters with strong backstories, and I really enjoyed how the two of them played off each other. In this novel, both Ballard and Bosch are outsiders to the LAPD. Ballard has been banished to the night shift for reporting a sexual assault by a superior officer, and now has serious trust issues when it comes to many of her male counterparts. Bosch on the other hand, after a long career with the police, is now retired, and thanks to some of his actions that forced him out the LAPD, many of the police no longer see him as one of them, a point reinforced when Bosch helps Mickey Haller free a murder suspect. This outsider viewpoint makes the team-up between both of them a lot more interesting, as both characters are still learning to trust the other, even after the success of their first case. I really liked how the relationship between the two of them grew throughout this book, and their different viewpoints and experiences turn them into an effective duo. Both characters go through some big moments in this book, including some medical issues with Bosch, Ballard standing up to her attacker and the various emotional impacts of the case, and it was great to see how they helped each other out. This is definitely a team-up I want to see again in the future, and I really hope that Connelly continues more of these adventures with Ballard and Bosch.

Just as I did with Michael Connelly’s previous book, Dark Sacred Night, I ended up listening to the audiobook version of The Night Fire. This audiobook runs for just over 10 hours, and features the vocal talents of Titus Welliver and Christine Lakin. I quite enjoyed the audiobook version of The Night Fire, as not only did it allow me to power through this book is short order (I think it only took me three days to finish it off) but its use of two separate narrators was done really well. Throughout the course of the book, Welliver is the voice of Bosch (which is a good fit as Welliver actually plays this character in the Bosch television show), while Lakin is the voice of Ballard, and they each narrate the chapters for their respective characters, including most of the dialogue. Welliver and Lakin are exceptional vocal talents, who did an outstanding job of bringing Bosch and Ballard to life. Both of these narrators really get to grips with the characters and are able to capture a lot of their various nuances in their performances.

Another great thing about this audiobook was the amazing way they utilised the two separate narrators. I really liked how the book was split between them, and it ensured that both sets of chapters had a great distinctive feel throughout the book, and the reader was never left in doubt who was narrating the chapter. The only exception to this is any dialogue the other point-of-view character has in that chapter, as that character’s narrator will then speak instead. This means for example, while Welliver is the primary narrator during Bosch’s chapters, whenever Ballard speaks during these chapters you get Lakin’s voice. While it was a tad disconcerting at times to suddenly hear the other narrator’s voice in the middle of a lot of dialogue in the primary vocal talent’s chapter, it did save the reader from getting confused by having to listen to two different versions of the protagonist’s voices. Overall, I would strongly recommend the audiobook version of The Night Fire to anyone interested in checking out this book, and I know that I will be utilising this format again in the future for Connelly’s next book.

In his latest crime fiction masterpiece, Michael Connelly once again knocks it out of the park with this fantastic new addition to his connected crime universe. The Night Fire is an exceptional murder mystery that makes excellent use of its two main protagonists to tell a rich and exciting narrative, filled with a number of intriguing investigations and cases. This is probably my favourite Michael Connelly book that I have read so far, and it gets a full five stars from me. A fantastic new entry from the king of crime fiction, this is a must read for all fans of the genre.

Tiamat’s Wrath by James S. A. Corey

Tiamat's Wrath Cover

Publisher: Recorded Books (Audiobook – 26 May 2019)

Series: The Expanse – Book Eight

Length: 19 hours and 8 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

With 2019 coming to an end, it is about time I got around to writing a review for one of the best science fiction books of the year, Tiamat’s Wrath by James S. A. Corey, the eighth book in the extremely popular The Expanse series. James S. A. Corey is the collaborative name of co-authors Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck, but for the purposes of this review it is simpler to treat Corey as an individual.

Tiamat’s Wrath is an outstanding piece of science fiction that I had an amazing time listening to earlier in the year. Despite being extremely keen for this book, I did not get around to reading it until a month or two after it came out, but when I did get a chance to listen to Tiamat’s Wrath, I absolutely loved it and it was one of my favourite books from earlier in the year. However, I completely failed to write a review immediately after finishing it, and it kind of got lost in the pile of books I needed to review as I read more and more stuff.

The Expanse books, which started in 2011 with Leviathan Wakes, are an extremely complex and outstandingly well-written science fiction series, which have also been turned into a very popular television show of the same name. It is important to note that while all the books in The Expanse are connected by the same universe, overarching plot and central characters, the story can be broken up into three separate trilogies of novels. After the success of the first eight books, the authors are starting to wrap up the series, with the upcoming ninth book (hopefully coming out sometime in 2020), being the last in the series. Not only is Tiamat’s Wrath the penultimate book in the series; it is also the second book in the last trilogy of the series, which started with 2017’s Persepolis Rising.

Tiamat’s Wrath is set a short time after the events of Persepolis Rising, when the Laconian Empire, under the command of High Consul Winston Duarte, successfully utilised advanced alien technology to take control of the entire gate network and destroy the navies of Earth and Mars. The Laconians now rule the entire galaxy, and the crew of the Rocinante (the central protagonists of The Expanse series), are wanted criminals as they fight a guerrilla war. This was another incredible addition to The Expanse series that not only contains a vast and captivating story in its own right but which sets up a fascinating scenario for the final book in the franchise.

Goodread’s Synopsis:

Thirteen hundred gates have opened to solar systems around the galaxy. But as humanity builds its interstellar empire in the alien ruins, the mysteries and threats grow deeper.

In the dead systems where gates lead to stranger things than alien planets, Elvi Okoye begins a desperate search to discover the nature of a genocide that happened before the first human beings existed, and to find weapons to fight a war against forces at the edge of the imaginable. But the price of that knowledge may be higher than she can pay.

At the heart of the empire, Teresa Duarte prepares to take on the burden of her father’s godlike ambition. The sociopathic scientist Paolo Cortázar and the Mephistophelian prisoner James Holden are only two of the dangers in a palace thick with intrigue, but Teresa has a mind of her own and secrets even her father the emperor doesn’t guess.

And throughout the wide human empire, the scattered crew of the Rocinante fights a brave rear-guard action against Duarte’s authoritarian regime. Memory of the old order falls away, and a future under Laconia’s eternal rule — and with it, a battle that humanity can only lose – seems more and more certain. Because against the terrors that lie between worlds, courage and ambition will not be enough…

For the plot of Tiamat’s Wrath, Corey tells the story from the perspective of several separate point-of-view characters, each of whom has a number of chapters throughout the book. This was a very interesting combination of character perspectives that helped explore various aspects of the galaxy following the rise to power of the Laconians. Three of the main point-of-view characters are former Rocinante crew members Naomi Nagata, Bobbie Draper and Alex Kamal, each of whom is involved in the war against the powerful Laconian Empire. Another point-of-view character is returning character Elvi Okoye, who, despite her loyalties to her friends upon the Rocinante, finds herself employed by High Consul Duarte as one of his primary scientists exploring the alien technology, and later finds herself drawn into the Laconian inner circle. The fifth main character is new protagonist Teresa Duarte, daughter of the High Consul, who provides insight into growing up in the Laconian Empire and the political intrigue of the capital. In addition to the five characters mentioned above, the book’s prologue, epilogue and interludes are narrated by former Rocinante captain James Holden, who is being held prisoner on Laconia and who is attempting to manipulate the system from within.

I really enjoyed the author’s use of these multiple viewpoints, especially as it allowed them to tell a complex and widespread story set across several different solar systems. Each of these various viewpoints provides the reader with different information and insight into the both the Laconian Empire and the unknown alien threat that has sprung up. While Elvi and Teresa’s story arcs are pretty fascinating and I quite enjoyed the combination of politics and alien science that filled their chapters, my favourite parts of the book are the chapters told from the perspectives of Naomi, Bobbie and Alex. This is mainly because these chapters focused on their fight against the Laconian Empire, and I really enjoyed the detailed and captivating accounts of a large-scale guerrilla conflict in a massive space location. Each of these three characters shows off a different aspect of this fight, including Naomi acting as the resistance’s master strategist while living in a supply crate, Bobbie’s work as a marine and drill sergeant on the frontline and Alex’s job piloting various combat craft into battle. Thanks to these three characters, you get an amazing idea of how this war is being fought, and the various issues involved with facing a seemingly invincible opponent. I also liked how all the various character arcs came together extremely well as the book progressed, creating a first-rate narrative that proved to be extremely addictive.

I am a man who loves his science fiction action, and I have to say that I had an absolute blast with the action sequences in this book. Corey has absolutely packed this book full of various battle sequences in space, as the protagonists go up against the various Laconian forces in both smaller skirmishes and one massive full-system assault. Not only are the battles pretty spectacular in their own right, but I love how realistic the author has tried to make them, with things like gravity, the lack of sound in space and communication delays across vast distances all taken into account. All this consideration really makes the combat in Tiamat’s Wrath stand out, and it added a lot to my overall enjoyment on this novel.

While this is an excellent piece of science fiction and an amazing read, due to its position as the eighth book in the series, and the middle book in the final trilogy, Tiamat’s Wrath is probably not the best book to start exploring The Expanse with. While Corey does a pretty good job of making this book accessible to new readers, I would strongly suggest that readers at least check out the previous book in the series, Persepolis Rising, first, as it will help readers understand more of the complex science fiction and story elements. There is no doubt in my mind that existing fans of The Expanse will love this fantastic book, especially as it takes the story in some interesting directions and sets up the series for a pretty epic conclusion. That being said, some of the developments that occur during the book are going to make dedicated The Expanse readers very sad, especially if they have grown attached to certain characters.

I ended up listening to the audiobook format of Tiamat’s Wrath, narrated by Jefferson Mays. This is a pretty substantial audiobook, running for just over 19 hours (indeed it would have just made the top 20 on my Longest Audiobook list), but I ended up getting through it rather quickly as I had a hard time turning it off. I found the audiobook to be a fantastic way to enjoy this book, and I think I absorbed a lot more of the detailed science fiction plot by listening to it. Mays has a great voice for narration, and I really enjoyed his take on the various characters in the book. All in all, listening to the audiobook version of Tiamat’s Wrath was a great experience, and I will probably end up doing the same for the final The Expanse book when it come out.

Tiamat’s Wrath is an exceptionally powerful novel that is easily one of the best books I have read so far this year. The Expanse’s authors have absolutely outdone themselves with this eighth book, which tells a complex and intriguing science fiction story. Featuring a first-rate story, a great group of core characters, some impressive action and the author’s typical attention to scientific detail, Tiamat’s Wrath comes highly recommended, and I am still kicking myself for taking so long to review this.

Throwback Thursday – Code Zero by Jonathan Maberry

Code Zero Cover.jpg

Publisher: Macmillan Audio (Audiobook – 25 March 2014)

Series: Joe Ledger series – Book Six

Length: 16 hours and 6 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

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

The ghosts of the past come back to haunt Joe Ledger and the DMS big time in this sixth book in Jonathan Maberry’s high-octane science fiction/military thriller Joe Ledger series.

For years, the Department of Military Sciences (DMS) has saved the world from some of the most deadly and insane weapons that science can create: race-specific bioweapons, genetically enhanced super soldiers, powerful plagues capable of killing people in the most horrendous way and even a pathogen that is capable of bringing its victims back to life as zombies. Each of these has been stopped by DMS agents and the legendary Joe Ledger, but these horrors are about to resurface in the most devastating of ways.

The mysterious hacker and terrorist Mother Night has been causing the DMS trouble for months, but when she broadcasts a call for anarchy, no-one is prepared for what happens next. Across America, Mother Night’s followers unleash hundreds of random acts of violence, causing horrendous amounts of terror and destruction. As Joe Ledger and the DMS attempt to counter them, a subway car full of people in New York is infected with something disturbingly familiar, the Seif-al-Din zombie pathogen that bought Ledger to the DMS in the first place.

As Ledger and Echo Team are once again forced to contend with the zombie victims of the pathogen, they find themselves targeted from several devastating angles. As the threats become more and more personal, it soon becomes apparent that they are facing someone who knows the DMS intimately and who is willing to use the most lethal tools at their disposal to win. Can Ledger and the DMS survive, or will the world burn at the hands of Mother Night?

Jonathan Maberry’s Joe Ledger books are one of my favourite series at the moment, and I love each book’s excellent blend of compelling storytelling, complex characters, over-the-top villains, electrifying action and insane plot points, which come together into fantastic, first-rate narratives. Ever since I read and got hooked on the tenth book in this series, Deep Silence, about this time last year, I have been periodically reading and reviewing the earlier novels in sequence. So far, I have read the first six novels, Patient Zero, The Dragon Factory, The King of Plagues, Assassin’s Code, The Extinction Machine and this novel, Code Zero. I am actually reviewing this book a little out of order, as I recently powered through both The Extinction Machine and Code Zero while I was away on holidays. As Code Zero is fresher in my mind, I decided to review it first, and I will hopefully get a review for The Extinction Machine up soon as well (the plan is to get it done before the next Joe Ledger book, Rage, comes out in November, but we’ll see how we go).

Considering how much I absolutely loved the rest of the books in the series, it is going to come as no surprise to anyone that I also really enjoyed Code Zero. This sixth book was pretty spectacular, and it is easily one of my favourite books in the entire series, only just being beaten out by The Dragon Factory. In Code Zero, Maberry has made sure to utilise several of the excellent features from the previous Joe Ledger books that l really love and have commented on previously, such as a first-rate story filled with intense action, a smartassed and damaged protagonist, a great group of side characters (including one of the best dogs in all of fiction) and a clever utilisation of flashbacks and multiple perspectives. This book also features some other great story and character elements that really make it stand out from the rest of the series, and which help make it such an outstanding and epic read.

I have mentioned before that one of the best things about the Joe Ledger books is the awesome antagonists that Maberry creates for each of the novels. These have so far included genetically modified Nazis, world-event manipulating masterminds and even a group of vampires. However, the villain of Code Zero, Mother Night, is perhaps one of the most interesting and complex antagonists that Maberry has come up with. Mother Night is an outstanding character who not only has a close connection with the DMS, but whose elaborate master plan does a great deal of damage. I really liked how Maberry used a series of flashback filled interludes to explore the background of this character. These flashbacks show how Mother Night is connected to all the DMS characters and examine how her exposure to various characters and threats from the previous books slowly corrupted her, and why she was compelled to become a terrorist. Despite this being the first book that Mother Night has appeared in, Maberry did a sensational job tying the character into many of the key events from the first three novels, and showing how she was actually involved with some of the previous threats. All of these cool connections really help up the personal stakes for all of the protagonists, and it allows Mother Night to actually hit Joe Ledger and his team harder than anyone else has before, resulting in an extra dramatic and compelling story.

Maberry also uses Mother Night’s plot to examine some rather interesting elements of the modern world. For example, the anarchist movement is explored in some detail, as Mother Night uses anarchist elements in her call to arms, gathering up members of America’s disenfranchised youth to form an army. There is also a rather intriguing look at the role video games can play in violence or espionage. This is not done in an attempt to demonise video games; instead Maberry, through several of the videogame savvy characters, explores how important problem-solving is for gamers, and how the skills obtained there can have real-world applications in both the espionage and defence worlds. The subsequent study of game theory and the desire to win that some gamers feel is particularly fascinating, and it adds very some interesting layers to the story and Mother Night’s overall character.

In addition to this incredible antagonist, the other thing that I absolutely loved about Code Zero is the fact that Maberry decided to bring back some of the iconic threats and story elements from the previous books in the series. Not only did the author do an outstanding job of working these pre-existing story elements into Code Zero’s plot, but their reappearance was also an excellent homage to the earlier books and a real treat for fans of the series. I really enjoyed seeing Ledger have to go up against threats like the walkers and the berserkers again, especially as each of these threats have pretty strong emotional triggers for him due to devastating previous missions. It was also really interesting to see the new and various ways that the antagonist utilised these existing elements in her own plans, and there were some really fun combinations of the insane scientific elements, such as a couple of berserkers who have been infected with Generation 12 of the Seif-al-Din Pathogen, and it’s as awesome as you’d expect.

As this is a Joe Ledger book, Code Zero is of course filled to the brim with all the action and fire fights that you could ever need. Due to the presence of so many varied threats, including some of the monsters from the previous books, Code Zero probably has some of the most intriguing fight scenes in the entire series. This book is filled with a number of elaborate battle sequences in which the protagonists face off against a variety of different opponents at the same time. These opponents can include walkers, berserkers and gunmen disguised as zombies hiding amidst the walking dead, which is just so many layers of awesome. Maberry has an exceptional talent for writing fight sequences, and all this amazing action really helps to get the adrenaline pumping. I also have to commend all of the first-rate zombie scenes in the book, as the author crafts some truly horrifying scenes that showcase how terrifying and emotional damaging it would be to face off against these undead monsters.

As with all the previous books in the Joe Ledger series, I chose to listen to the audiobook format of Code Zero which was narrated by Ray Porter. Clocking in at just over 16 hours, I managed to get through this audiobook fairly quickly, mainly because I started listening to it while on an international flight. I think it is pretty clear at this point that I really enjoy listening to the audiobook versions of the Joe Ledger books, mainly due to the narration of the outstanding Ray Porter. I have sung Porter’s praises in all of my previous reviews, and I really cannot express what a good job he does bring the series titular protagonist to live with his voice work. Code Zero was no exception, and I would strongly recommend the audiobook format to anyone even vaguely interested in this book.

Code Zero by Jonathan Maberry is another spectacular book in the Joe Ledger series, and one that I absolutely loved. Maberry continues to utilise some of the amazing story elements that made his previous six books so darn enjoyable, and he ups the ante with another exceptional antagonist and the clever reuse of memorable story elements from previous books in the series. All of this results in another science fiction/thriller masterpiece that gets an easy five out five stars from me, and it is possibly one of the most enjoyable books I have read so far this year.