Howling Dark by Christopher Ruocchio

Howling Dark Cover

Publisher: Gollancz and Recorded Books (16 July 2019)

Series: Sun Eater – Book 2

Length: 679 pages or 28 hours and 3 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Howling Dark Cover 2

Star Wars: Master & Apprentice by Claudia Gray – Audiobook Review

Master & Apprentice Cover

Publisher: Random House Audio (16 April 2019)

Series: Star Wars

Length: 11 hours and 42 minutes

My Rating: 4.75 out of 5 stars

2019 is shaping up to be an amazing year for fans of the new Star Wars extended universe, a group of which I consider myself to be a proud member, with so many awesome Star Wars books and comics being released.  After reviewing the first Star Wars book for 2019, Queen’s Shadow, a few weeks ago, I have been really looking forward to getting to grips with the franchises second 2019 novel, Master & Apprentice by Claudia Gray.

Master & Apprentice is a canon Star Wars novel set around eight years before the events of Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace.  It focuses on two of the main characters from this prequel movie, Jedi Knight Qui-Gon Jinn and his Padawan, Obi-Wan Kenobi.

Qui-Gon Jinn is an experienced and powerful Jedi Knight, having been trained in the Force by the legendary Count Dooku, who himself was trained by Master Yoda, and is ready to face any threat or danger that lies in front of him.  However, his greatest challenge may prove to be his own Padawan, Obi-Wan Kenobi.  The two Jedi are polar opposites to each other: while Obi-Wan is by-the-book and rigid in his respect of rules and protocol, Qui-Gon routinely shows very little regard for the rules and laws that bind the Jedi and constantly finds himself at odds with the Jedi Council.  Despite years of working together, the two Jedi struggle to understand each other.  Qui-Gon sees every mistake of Obi-Wan’s as his own, while Obi-Wan is unable to understand the reasoning behind Qui-Gon’s actions, nor his obsession with the ancient Jedi prophecies that many see as dangerous and unreliable.  Their tenuous and strained relationship is further tested when Qui-Gon is unexpectantly offered a place on the Jedi Council, a move that would likely end their partnership.  With feelings of betrayal and failure hanging over both of them, they are suddenly assigned a critical mission that is likely to be their last as master and apprentice.

Fellow Jedi Rael Averross, another former apprentice of Dooku, has requested Qui-Gon’s help with a difficult political dispute on the planet of Pijal.  Averross has been serving as regent for the planet’s young queen, who is days away from ascending to the throne and signing an important treaty.  A series of attacks which has rocked the planet is apparently the work of The Opposition, a band of political performance artists turned terrorists.  Once the two Jedi arrive on the planet, they quickly find that the situation is far more complicated than initially believed.  With corruption and secrets around every corner, Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan attempt to get to the bottom of everything, even utilising a pair of jewel smugglers to help with their inquiries.  However, their investigations are hampered by their opposing points of view, which only worsen when Qui-Gon places great stock in a dark vision of the future he has foreseen.  Can they overcome their differences to unravel the plot, or will they fail their mission?

Claudia Gray, also known as Amy Vincent, is a prolific and experienced author, best known for her first body of work, the Evernight series, which started in 2008.  Since then she has written a number of other series, including the Spellcaster, Firebird and Constellation series, as well as the standalone novel Fateful.  Gray also has a huge amount of experience writing Star Wars fiction, having previously written three Star Wars tie-in novels in the new extended universe, including Lost Stars, Bloodline and Leia, Princess of Alderaan.  As a result, the story of Qui-Gon Jinn and Obi-Wan Kenobi is in safe hands as Gray produces an outstanding, compelling and character-driven novel that delves deep into the Star Wars lore to create an amazing story.

Master & Apprentice presents a clever and exciting story that sees the protagonist attempt to uncover the mysterious events unfolding on Pijal, while also dealing with their many personal and emotional issues.  The story is told from the perspective of a range of characters in the book, and each of them adds their own thoughts and experiences to the story.  The overall story arc on Pijal becomes quite complex, with many different and intriguing sides to the conflict, and the people behind the events are not who you think.  I had an amazing time enjoying this book.

In this fantastic piece of fiction Gray goes into some intriguing parts of the Star Wars universe and lore.  This is actually the furthest back the new extended universe books go, so it offers the reader a great opportunity to see some of aspects of the pre-movie Star Wars universe.  While there are some hints at the events to come, as well as references to some major characters in the upcoming movies, the book contains a significant amount of new content and antagonists.  It is actually quite refreshing to read a Star Wars book that is not tied into the Skywalker family or featuring the Empire or the First Order as an antagonist.  I quite enjoyed the look at the pre-The Phantom Menace universe, including the new planet of Pijal, and the inclusion of the immoral Czerka Corporation, who previously appeared in the pre-Disney Star Wars universe.  While those fans of the Star Wars franchise who like to consume more than the movies will absolutely love this book, Master & Apprentice should prove to be fairly easy to read for those people who have at least seen The Phantom Menace, as it is a pretty intriguing science fiction adventure.

Those readers who are interested in a deeper dive into the Jedi of the Republic era are in for a real treat in this book, as Gray delves into aspects of their history and lifestyle.  Throughout Master & Apprentice there are a number of scenes set in the Jedi Temple, as well as a number of discussions about how and why the Jedi do what they do.  Perhaps one of the key things highlighted in this book is how the traditional Jedi master and apprentice program worked.  Several different apprenticeships are shown, and the reader gets a good idea of what is entailed in this relationship, what training the Padawans go through and how the process turns them into the eventual guardians of peace in the galaxy.

One of the most unique and fascinating aspects of Star Wars and Jedi lore that Gray examines are the fabled Jedi prophecies.  The prophecies were created long ago by an ancient group of Jedi sages, and are reputed to reveal events from the future.  The prophecies become a key part of the story, as not only do they drive a wedge between Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan but they are also shown to have a major influence over Dooku when Qui-Gon was his Padawan.  The prophecies have been mentioned in the movies before, with the most famous prophecy about the coming of a chosen one who will bring balance to the Force, referring to Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader.  While the chosen one prophecy is referenced in Master & Apprentice, several other prophecies are mentioned, including one that comes true in this book.  I was really quite intrigued by the author’s examination of the prophecies; while they have been mentioned in the movies, I did not know too much about them.  Dedicated fans will no doubt have fun trying to tie some of these prophecies into the movies and other associated pieces of Star Wars media.  For example, there is one that clearly refers to Princess Leia that is repeated a couple of times.  I personally was very curious about one prophecy that was mentioned towards the end of the book, which was referenced as being obsessed over by Count Dooku.  It was a particularly portentous-sounding prophecy, and I wonder if it will have anything to do with recent revelations in the trailer for the next Star Wars movie, The Rise of Skywalker.

The story contained within Master & Apprentice is a strong, character-driven affair which features a compelling central cast, each of whom gets an in-depth analysis from Gray.  Not only is there some compelling examinations of the main two characters, Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan, but Gray also introduces several intriguing and entertaining new characters who really add a lot to the story.

There is a great examination of the younger Qui-Gon Jinn and Obi-Wan Kenobi in this book, as Gray examines not only the relationship between the two characters but also aspects of their past and their personalities.  When the two characters are introduced in the first prequel film, The Phantom Menace, very little is known about them, save that Obi-Wan is nearing the end of his apprenticeship and the two of them disagree on certain matters, such as the future of Anakin Skywalker.  Master & Apprentice offers a whole new, deeper examination of these characters and explores how these two Jedi came together and appeared so close, despite some differences in their personalities and styles.  I thought that this deep dive into the relationship between these key movie characters was utterly fascinating, and it made me reconsider aspects from the movie.  The strained relationship between the two characters becomes a major factor of the book, and Gray creates an emotional storyline around it as Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan work to overcome their issues while facing external threats.  This was an excellent part of the book which readers will quite enjoy.

In addition to looking at their relationship and how the two characters become close, Gray also looks at other aspects of their past.  This is particularly true for Qui-Gon, as Gray spends time highlighting Qui-Gon’s apprenticeship to Dooku and his friendship with Rael through a series of flashbacks.  These flashback scenes are quite interesting as they show several key events that were responsible for turning Qui-Gon into the character he was in the movie and go a long way to explain why he was such a hesitant master for most of Master & Apprentice.  There was also an intriguing and extended look at how and why Qui-Gon became so obsessed with the Jedi prophecies.  Qui-Gon’s research and fascination with the prophecies becomes a major part of the book, which really appealed to me, and which also explains a lot about the Qui-Gon’s actions in The Phantom Menace.  For example, it explains why Qui-Gon was so sure that he had found the Chosen One in Anakin Skywalker, and why he was determined to train him, even if it meant defying the will of the council.  These storylines also explain certain aspects of Obi-Wan’s personality that occur within the movies.  For example, the bond and respect that are formed between Obi-Wan and his master explain why he was so willing to take on Anakin as an apprentice after Qui-Gon’s death in The Phantom Menace.  It also adds another layer to Anakin’s betrayal in Revenge of the Sith, as Anakin has not only betrayed Obi-Wan and the Jedi but also Qui-Gon’s memory and his belief in Anakin as the chosen one.  This might explain why Obi-Wan, upon defeating Anakin, so passionately shouted “YOU WERE THE CHOSEN ONE.”  There were also some cute aspects to Obi-Wan’s life that are explained, such as why he had such an aversion to flying and how he was able to ride the lizard mount in Revenge of the Sith.  I quite liked how both characters developed over the course of the book, and I felt that Gray did an amazing job bringing these characters to life and providing an excellent story about their past.

While Gray’s portrayal of the main two characters is really good, I also have to say how much I loved some of the side characters that the author introduced in this book.  My favourite has to be Rael Averross, the unconventional Jedi who has a connection to Qui-Gon’s past.  Rael Averross is pretty much the opposite of all the Jedi readers would mostly be familiar with.  He’s a hard drinking, womanising (which he claims is technically not against the rules of being a Jedi), death stick using scoundrel, who hates nearly every aspect of being a Jedi Knight.  He was an extremely entertaining character whose actions and scruffy appearance are part of a persona the character has created to disguise the guilt, fear and resentment from his past.  I also liked how he was the only character able to identify and point out what the actual result of someone fulfilling the prophecy and finding the chosen one, something that every other Jedi apparently missed.  Rael was such an interesting counterpoint to the other Jedi characters in Master & Apprentice, and his influence on a young Qui-Gon was quite intriguing.  It will be interesting to see if Rael shows up again (I believed he is used in a recent Star Wars audiobook, Dooku: Jedi Lost) as he has the potential to be a key character in the new Disney expanded universe.

Other characters utilised within this book are the two jewel smugglers co-opted by the Jedi to be their guides on Pijal, Pax and Rahara.  While both these characters are a lot of fun, the standout one has to be Pax.  Pax is a gaudy and socially inept character whose inability to interact with other people is due to the fact he was raised by a ship full of protocol droids.  Pax is full of sass, sarcasm and insults, and is easily the most entertaining character in this entire book.  Rahara is also a great character.  A former slave of the Czerka Corporation, Rahara is the more normal of the two characters.  However, her former enslavement still haunts her and drives much of her more noble actions in this book.  Individually, both these characters are pretty cool, but together they form a great team who play off each other well.  Their emotional attachment to each other is another great part of the book and seeing the lengths that the usually pragmatic Pax will go to for Rahara is very heart-warming.

There were also a few flashback scenes featuring Qui-Gon’s mentor and future Star Wars antagonist Count Dooku.  All of these scenes were shown from the point of view of Qui-Gon as Dooku’s apprentice, and they paint a picture of a rigid and severe Jedi who was already showing signs of being tempted to the Dark Side of the Force.  This was a very intriguing portrayal, although I believe that the audiobook Dooku: Jedi Lost, which was released around the same time as Master & Apprentice, contains a lot more of Dooku’s backstory and motivations, and I am definitely going to check this other audiobook out at some point.

As usual, I was deeply, deeply impressed with the audiobook version of this Star Wars book.  The company behind these audiobooks really go the extra mile to make them special, and these tie-in novels are quickly becoming my favourite series to listen to rather than read.  The Master & Apprentice audiobook runs for 11 hours and 42 minutes, and I found that I was able to get through this book quite quickly.  I always find I absorb a lot more of the story with the audiobook format, and with this book I was really able to enjoy the character strife, as well as the new world building that Gray included.  Props need to be given to the amazing sound effects that seem to permeate nearly every single scene in this book.  Firstly, I absolutely love how the incredible and iconic music from the Star Wars movies is used during some of the book’s major scenes.  The music, especially some of the big orchestral moments that defined key parts of the original Star Wars movies, is quite incredible and it does an amazing job of forcefully dragging the reader into the story.  The additional sound effects used throughout the book easily replicate the actions going on around the characters, often using established and recognisable sound from the movies.  I also loved how some of the sound effects could be so effective at creating an appropriate background for the scene by adding in engine noises or the susurration of a loud crowd.

The audiobook format of Master & Apprentice is narrated by Jonathan Davis, who has previously provided his voice to several other Star Wars audiobooks.  I was deeply impressed with Davis’ incredible voice acting range in this book, as the voices he comes up with for the characters are outstanding.  For example, he produces incredible voices for the book’s two main characters, Qui-Gon and Ob-Wan as he damn near succeeds in replicating the two actors voices from The Phantom Menace.  On top of that, his Yoda voice is spot-on, and sounded just like Frank Oz in the movies.  I also liked the voices that the narrator came up with for some of his new characters.  His voice for Rael, for example, does an amazing job capturing the character’s personality, including his more carefree attitude, and the simmering anger that exists for most of his interactions with Qui-Gon.  I also quite like the voice and tone he uses for Pax, and the character’s inbuilt arrogance and emotional shallowness really shine through.

Master & Apprentice is so far my favourite Star Wars book of 2019, and I absolutely fell in love with its excellent story and powerful character work.  Gray takes her readers deep into the Star Wars lore, allowing fans of the franchise to further examine two of the best characters from The Phantom Menace movie.  The combination of Jonathan Davis’ exceptional narration and the production company’s perfect use of classic Star Wars music and sound effects resulted in an absolutely fantastic audiobook that comes highly recommended.  This is one hell of a book, and I cannot wait to see how the rest of the year’s Star Wars books turn out.

The Moscow Offensive by Dale Brown

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Publisher: Corsair

Australian Publication Date – 11 December 2018

World Publication Date – 5 June 2018

 

An intense and exhilarating military thriller filled with advanced military robots duking it out across America, now that sounds like my sort of novel!  Prepare for an explosive technological thriller as Dale Brown, the bestselling author of the Patrick McLanahan series, returns with his latest novel, The Moscow Offensive.

For years, Russia’s ambition to conquer the entire world and defeat the United States has been growing, with its leaders unleashing a series of advanced weapons against the West.  Russia’s dominance was only held in check thanks to the actions of United States pilot Patrick McLanahan, who utilised America’s most innovative technology to counter the Russian attacks.  However, with McLanahan now believed dead, the brilliant and manipulative Russian president, Gennadiy Gryzlov, sets forth a new attack.  Secretly buying a large airfreight company, Gryzlov uses this proxy business to ferry weapons and military personnel into the United States undetected.  Identifying a string of high-value targets, Gryzlov attempts to cripple the United States from within, and strike its citizens with terror.

The only force that might be able to stand up to Gryzlov’s machinations is the legendary Iron Wolf Squadron and their parent private military company, Scion Aviation International.  Formed by McLanahan and former United States President Kevin Martindale, the Iron Wolf Squadron utilises their advanced Cybernetic Infantry Devices (CIDs), twelve-foot-tall piloted combat robots, whose technology and weapons are capable of overpowering conventional military forces.  Currently employed by Poland and its Alliance of Free Nations, the Iron Wolf Squadron is responsible for knocking back several of Russia’s attempted invasions and more ambitious bids for power.  However, their success in Poland has alienated America’s selfish and paranoid president, Stacy Anne Barbeau, who is determined to bring Martindale and Scion down.

Taking advantage of President Barbeau’s incompetence, Gryzlov is able to launch a series of attacks, placing the blame on the Iron Wolf Squadron.  Now targeted by both the Americans and the Russians, a small detachment of Iron Wolf Squadron CIDs, led by Patrick McLanahan’s son Brad, deploy to the United States to counter the Russians and reveal their involvement.  However, the Russians have succeed in reverse-engineering combat robots of their own, and are now fully capable of going toe-to-toe with the Iron Wolf Squadron.

Dale Brown is one of the world’s leading authors of the technological and military thriller genre, having written a huge number of high-octane, electrifying reads since the 1980s.  The Patrick McLanahan series is his main body of work and started in 1987 with his debut novel, Flight of the Old Dog.  This series has mostly focused on the adventures of its titular character, Patrick McLanahan, across a variety of different military situations, inside and outside of the United States armed forces.  These novels have generally been set around the same time as their publication date, meaning that the characters have aged and matured with the series.  As a result, in later years, Patrick McLanahan has taken a back seat from the action, with the role of main series protagonist taken up by his son, Brad McLanahan.  The Moscow Offensive is the 22nd book in the series, and continues with some of the storylines from the previous books in the series.  A 23rd book is already in the works, and The Kremlin Strike is set to come out in early May 2019.

I had not previously read any books in the Patrick McLanahan series before, and while I thought the synopsis sounded pretty awesome, I was not too sure what to expect from it.  After reading it I found The Moscow Offensive to be an incredible novel with some fantastic thriller elements and outstanding action sequences.  The overall story of this book is extremely compelling, and I had a very hard time putting this book down as I really loved this wide-ranging thriller storyline.  I was a little worried about coming into a series 22 books in, but I found that the author did a fantastic job in The Moscow Offensive of introducing the reader to his thriller universe.  Throughout this book, Brown provides the reader with ample descriptions and discussions about the book’s characters, technology specs and the relevant history of the various military organisations, countries and fictional military actions.  As a result, it is really easy for readers unfamiliar with Dale Brown’s work to come into the Patrick McLanahan series with The Moscow Offensive, and at no point while reading it was I lost or confused about any of the book’s plot elements.

The international thriller elements of this book and the utilisation of current world politics were some of my favourite inclusions in The Moscow Offensive.  I liked how the author inserted bits and pieces of real world political and social issues into his writing to create an intriguing and familiar background for the story.  On top of this, he also includes the more outrageous elements from his previous novels, including the Iron Wolf Squadron, whose pilots command high tech robots to stop Russia from invading Poland and other Eastern European countries.  This is a fun mesh of realistic and out-there settings which I found to be an incredible basis for this novel.

The intelligence battle between the United States and Russia has been a firm and dependable element for innumerable thrillers over the years, and Brown constructs a fantastic story around this battle.  The battle is more one sided in The Moscow Offensive, as Brown makes great use of an incompetent United States President character, the use of which has become a much more common element in fiction in recent years (hard to imagine why).  It is utterly fascinating to see the various ways that Brown comes up with to attack America and damage the country’s military infrastructure.  These attacks have a range of different purposes, from outright attacking the US military, to setting the President against the Iron Wolf Squadron.  All of these international and militarist thriller elements are an awesome part of this book, as not only do they help create a great story, but the reader is able to consider the realism of a such a story.

In addition to the cool international thriller elements of this book, I liked the deep look at military technology both real and fictional.  Brown, a former US Air Force aviator, has an excellent understanding of modern military hardware and the people that use them, creating an outstanding militaristic narrative as a result.  The descriptions and analyses of Russian and American weapons, planes and other vehicles are very intriguing and give the book another deep sense of realism.  Of course the most epic inclusions in this book are the CIDs, the large, manned combat robots that the Iron Wolf Squadron have utilised in several of Brown’s previous books to frustrate the Russians in battle.  These machines really amp up this series to new heights, and in The Moscow Offensive, Brown ups the ante by having the Russians develop their own combat robots in response to their defeats against the Iron Wolf Squadron.  This adds a whole new element to the book, as the United States is attacked by these machines and finally has to deal with the devastation they can cause.  Both sides having these machines is incredibly intriguing, as it really allows the author to examine the advantages of these potential machines in a military setting and showcase what sort of damage they could potentially do, even to their creators.  These advanced military elements are a terrific part of The Moscow Offensive, and I was really impressed with how Brown was able to combine it with the book’s other thriller elements to create a captivating read.

The Moscow Offensive contains a faction of Americans fighting a covert war with the Russians, with both sides utilising advanced combat robots.  As a result, this book is packed full of action and there are a number of fantastic high-tech battle sequences.  Without a doubt, the CIDs and their Russian counterparts really are the stars of the book.  These two sets of machines go up against a range of conventional military opponents in some massively destructive and very one-sided scenes.  Brown cleverly saves the combat between the two opposing groups of combat machine until the end of the book, and does a fantastic job at pumping up the hype for their eventual confrontation.  This final climatic battle does not disappoint, as the two sides engage in a brutal and devastating fight that is well worth the wait.

Dale Brown has once again provided the reader with an extremely fun piece of fiction, as he continues his ambitious, clever and entertaining Patrick McLanahan series.  As someone coming into Brown’s fictional universe for the first time, I was blown away by the intense action and outstanding thriller elements contained within this book and it is easily one of my favourite new series.  As a result, I highly recommend The Moscow Offensive to new readers and those existing fans of the series.  This is an excellent choice for anyone looking for some insane action or a truly unique story.

My Rating:

Four and a half stars

Jinxed by Amy McCulloch

Jinxed Cover.jpg

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Publication Date – 9 August 2018

 

Creative young adult fiction author Amy McCulloch returns with a fun and compelling techno-thriller that takes an incredible and entertaining look at the potential future of your favourite devices and combines them with a unique idea of how to make them even more user-friendly.

In the near future, the must-have technological device is the baku, your brand new best friend.  Bakus combine all the features of your smart devices and internet connection with a constant companion in the form of a robotic animal that is customisable to your needs and price range.  Low range bakus take the form of small creations like insects, while the most advanced baku are created to look like birds of prey or large land animals.  Not only are bakus the most popular form of communication device, but in this day and age, even basic bakus are needed to fully experience day-to-day life.

Lacey Chu has big dreams of working for Moncha Corp, the company which designs and creates the baku, as well as working for her idol, Moncha’s founder, Monica Chan.  However, the only way to achieve that dream is to get accepted into the exclusive Profectus Academy, the elite tech school whose graduates become the designers, coders and creators of the next generation of baku.  When Lacey is rejected from the academy and can no longer afford her dream baku, she is crushed.  That is until she finds Jinx, a ruined cat baku that appears to have been abandoned at the bottom of a canyon.  Bringing it home to fix, Lacey’s fortunes appear to immediately turn around when her application for the Profectus Academy is suddenly accepted and Jinx is listed as the advanced baku she is required to have for classes.

Arriving in the academy, she finds it a very different place than she imagined.  The students and faculty are obsessed with Baku Battles, the academy-sponsored fights between bakus that help determine a student’s rank and prestige in the academy.  Finding herself drafted onto a Baku Battle team, Lacey starts to learn all about the inner workings of the baku.  The more she learns, the more she begins to realise that something is very different about Jinx.  Jinx is not the usual mindless machine; Jinx can think for himself, has his own personality and is even starting to communicate with Lacey.  As Jinx begins to mess with parts of Lacey’s life, she begins to fully comprehend the implications of Jinx’s existence.  What shadowy secret lies at the heart of Moncha, and will Lacey and her friends be able to save Jinx from them?

Amy McCulloch is a well-established young adult fiction author who has written a number of books since her 2013 debut.  McCulloch also writes under the name Amy Alward and mostly focuses on young adult fantasy novels as part of her Potion and The Knots Sequence series.  Jinxed is her first foray into the science fiction genre and represents an exciting techno-thriller that explores an intriguing piece of future technology and the exciting adventure that happens around it.

The overall story of Jinxed is an excellent mixture of science fiction, thriller and teen drama elements, all set within a captivating academy background.  As a result, throughout the book, there is a ton for the reader to enjoy as they are introduced to the technology around the baku and see the narrator investigate a conspiracy centred around the creation of Jinx, all while dealing with the highs and lows of school life.  It is a fun combination of different story elements that works towards a great overall narrative.  I was able to work out what one of the twists was going to be quite early in the book, but it didn’t really impact my enjoyment of the story.  There are some great moments throughout, as well as a surprising ending that makes me very curious to read any sequels that McCulloch brings out.

The baku are an essential part of this story and are a really interesting element that McCulloch has chosen to use.  Many science fiction and technology based authors are currently attempting to predict what the next big piece of technology will be in the world, with many of them focusing on what the next ground-breaking piece of communications technology will be.  While many of these suggestions seem quite plausible and seem to support the current trends in technology, this is the first book I’ve seen that suggests combining a person’s smart device with a robotic pet.  The narrator suggests that the fiction justification for the creation of the baku was to give people a companion that is both helpful and which also limits their dependencies and addictions to mobile phones and smart devices.  It’s a rather fun concept and it is cool to see how McCulloch imagines how these creations would work.

The baku are broken down into various levels of sophistication, from the basic models which look like insects and can only do the most basic of tasks, to the ultra-sophisticated versions which come in the form of some very powerful creatures.  It is also intriguing to see how many of the book’s various characters start to care for their bakus like they are real animals, and the bond that they form as a result, even if their bakus aren’t sentient.  The bond that forms between Lacey and Jinx is fairly unique, however, as Jinx is an early form of artificial intelligence, and it is nice to see it develop through the course of the book as Lacey risks her life to help Jinx.  There are a few great scenes which show Jinx trying to come to grips with his existence, whether he is helping other bakus, questioning how baku are made, or by attempting to exist among a group of real life cats.  A truly intriguing postulation about future technologies, McCulloch has created a unique and fascinating idea that works well within this narrative.

Most of the action of this book is contained within fights between the bakus rather than between any of the human characters.  This is mostly done in the Baku Battles tournament at the school, where several bakus fight each other in a free-for-all brawl.  I love a good fictional tournament, and each of the bakus has various techniques.  As a result, the fights within the book can become quite fun and energetic as eagle, boar, tiger, cat and frog bakus all fight in various ways.  I also enjoyed the scoring concept that McCulloch came up with for this tournament, as the surviving team receives all the points, but their opponents can steal them if they can repair their team’s bakus sufficiently by the next day.  This is an intriguing stipulation for a tournament which allows McCulloch to show off several scenes of the narrator doing advanced repair work.  These tournament battles do a good job of moving the plot along and work into the books various elements very well, whether by giving the narrator access to certain locations to investigate secrets, or by bringing her closer to or further apart from other characters in the books, to allowing a closer examination of the workings and mindsets of the book’s technological elements.

Amy McCulloch’s latest book, Jinxed is a high-octane technological thriller that makes use of amazing science fiction elements to create an enthralling adventure.  Aimed for a young adult audience, the lack of any substantial violence, except between the book’s distinctive robotic animals, makes this a perfect read for a wide range of younger readers.  At the same time, the intriguing concept of future technology and its wide range of applications, including for high-stakes gladiatorial battles, makes it intriguing for an older readers.  This is an absolutely fantastic book from McCulloch.  I really enjoyed it and I’m looking forward to seeing where it goes next.

My Rating:

Four and a half stars