Throwback Thursday – Star Wars: Maul: Lockdown by Joe Schreiber

Star Wars - Maul - Lockdown Cover

Publisher: Random House Audio (Audiobook – 28 January 2014)

Series: Star Wars

Length: 12 hours and 20 minutes

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

This is 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. 

2021 has so far been a fantastic year for Star Wars novels with excellent releases such as the two Star Wars: The High Republic novels, Light of the Jedi and Into the Dark, and the final entry in the Alphabet Squadron trilogy, Victory’s Price.  I have been really enjoying these new Star Wars novels but I recently got a hankering for something a little different and decided to go back and check out some of the older Star Wars tie-in novels.  While there were several intriguing options (I was strongly eyeing off A New Dawn by John Jackson Miller, Darth Plagueis by James Luceno and Razor’s Edge by Martha Wells), I eventually settled for the one of the last entries in the Star Wars: Legends range of books, Maul: Lockdown by Joe Schreiber, an intensely exciting and dark novel with an amazing story to it.

Welcome to the space station Cog Hive Seven, the most dangerous prison in the entire galaxy.  Here inmates are forced to fight to the death in matches broadcast to millions of gamblers across the Republic determined to make a profit off the blood of the galaxy’s worst killers and criminals.  No one escapes from Cog Hive Seven, and every one of its deadly and evil inhabitants know that they will eventually die there.  However, not even these deranged inmates are prepared for the new evil that has been thrown into their midst, the lethal dark-side assassin, Darth Maul.  

Sent by Darth Sidious to contact a secretive weapons merchant, Iram Radique, Maul has disguised himself as a notorious mercenary and killer.  Determined to complete the mission his master has given him, Maul begins to upend the prison to find the elusive Radique, quickly establishing himself as a destructive force of chaos.  However, his notoriety also sees him forced into progressively more dangerous matches against some of the deadliest creatures in the galaxy. 

Bereft of his lightsaber, forbidden from using the force and with bombs injected into both his hearts, Maul must rely on his brutal combat abilities and own inner strength to succeed.  But the closer he gets to finding Radique, the more he realises that not everything is as it seems aboard Cog Hive Seven and that his target will do everything is his power to avoid meeting with Maul.  Worse, dangerous factions have taken notice of the prison and its deranged warden and soon Maul must contend with a death cult, the followers of Jabba the Hutt and a horrifying monster living within the walls of the prison.  Can even Darth Maul overcome the odds in front of him, or will the creatures of Cog Hive Seven swallow him whole?

I think readers of this blog will not be too surprised to hear that the moment I found out that there was a book that followed Darth Maul participating in death matches aboard a space prison, I knew I would have to read it, and boy am I glad I did.  Maul: Lockdown is an impressive and fantastic novel that I found to be instantly captivating and which I powered through in a short amount of time.  Author Joe Schreiber, whose previous novel, Death Troopers, featured an outstanding story about key Star Wars characters encountering a zombie horde (it is as awesome as it sounds) came up with a pretty epic narrative for this Star Wars novel, and I really enjoyed this cool, Darth Maul-centric book.

I have to say that I was really surprised about how complex and impressive Maul: Lockdown’s narrative turned out to be.  Based on the plot description, I would have expected a simple, action-orientated story, but instead Schreiber crafted together a dark and powerful Star Wars tale with some compelling mystery elements.  This book reads a lot like a prison thriller, with Maul thrust into the middle of a dangerous jail which he must navigate to find his target.  While there is a natural focus on the fights between Maul and the other dangerous inmates, which results in some exceptional action sequences, the author also works in some great mystery and crime fiction elements that combine perfectly with the Star Wars backdrop.  The author utilises a bunch of multiple perspectives to show the chaotic nature of the prison, and there are several great storylines based around supporting characters which twist their way around Maul’s central story of surviving and attempting to find the secretive arms dealer. 

As the story progresses, more and more dangerous elements and antagonists are thrown into the narrative, including monsters, deranged cultists and even Jabba the Hutt, intensifying the obstacles facing Maul and raising the thrilling stakes of the narrative.  I really enjoyed the main storyline of the hunt for Radique, and there were plenty of false leads and twists around who he was and where he was hiding.  I did think the eventual reveal of the character (spoiler ahead!!!) was a tad weak, mainly as it ended up being a character we hadn’t seen before (spoiler end), but it was still an interesting and exciting centre to the narrative.  Schreiber also weaves some excellent horror elements into the story, especially surrounding one unique creature in the prison.  The author makes this creature particularly horrifying to behold, both because of its appearance and its unsettling abilities, and there are some real terrifying sequences surrounding it.  All these great elements come together perfectly into one fantastic and captivating tale that proves to be extremely addictive and very clever.

This is an exciting Star Wars novel that fans of the franchise are really going to enjoy.  Maul: Lockdown was one of the later entries in the previous Star Wars extended universe which is now known as the Star Wars: Legends range.  Despite no longer being considered canon, the Star Wars: Legends books still have some great stories, such as the impressive heist novel Scoundrels, and this was a pretty cool entry.  Set a year before The Phantom Menace, this book is loaded with a ton of references to other pieces of Star Wars media, including several previous Star Wars: Legends novels and comics, Schreiber’s previous book Death Troopers (featuring a clever cameo), and even an old Star Wars video game, Bounty Hunter.  There are lots of interesting pieces of Star Wars lore in here, and the author features a couple of major figures from the prequel films, as well as a few obscure characters from some of the older Star Wars novels, including a corrupted Padawan of Count Dooku I had not heard of before (she is not in the new canon).  I really enjoyed the author’s inclusion of a battle of intrigue between Darth Sidious and his master Darth Plagueis, and the story in Maul: Lockdown has some great connections to certain events in the Darth Plagueis novel.  While Schreiber has included a lot of high-level lore, I felt that this was quite an accessible Star Wars novel and anyone who saw Darth Maul emerge in The Phantom Menace will definitely enjoy this darker and captivating piece of Star Wars fiction.

One of the most intriguing things about this novel is the way in which the author attempts to dive into the mindset of fan-favourite character Darth Maul.  Ever since he whipped out his dual-bladed lightsaber in The Phantom Menace, Maul has been a much beloved figure in the Star Wars franchise, but you do not often get to see much of his inner thoughts.  While I would probably be happy reading a simple hack-and-slash adventure featuring Maul, I really appreciated the way in which Schreiber takes the time to examine Maul’s inner psyche, and you get an intriguing glimpse into his thoughts about his mission, his purpose in life and his loyalty to his master.  I found it quite fascinating to see the way in which Schreiber portrays Maul’s complex feelings about Sidious, as he is both simultaneous absolutely loyal to him while also being deeply suspicious about his intentions.  Maul spends most of the book believing that everything he is experiencing is a test or deception levelled at him by his Master and he also hints at his suspicions that he will eventually be betrayed.  While this examination of Maul’s more complex thoughts and feelings is quite interesting, it is also perfectly counterbalanced by a huge number of scenes that examine just how much of a badass Maul is.  Schreiber has loaded this book up with awesome and brutal fight sequences pitting Maul up against a range of deadly opponents, which are made even more awesome by the fact that Maul is unable to use either his lightsaber or force abilities.  Instead, Maul shows off his impressive unarmed fighting skills and his natural cunning, as he overwhelms his opponents in some brutal and clever ways.  The author also fits in some compelling hints and depictions of Maul’s training and early life, which I found to be very interesting, particularly as some of these events slightly differ from the current canon.  All of this makes for an exceptionally cool Darth Maul novel, and I loved seeing this great character in all his deadly glory.

I ended up checking out Maul: Lockdown on audiobook, which is easily the best way to enjoy a Star Wars book.  The Maul: Lockdown audiobook has a reasonable run time of 12 hours and 20 minutes, which dedicated listeners can get through in a couple of sittings.  I absolutely powered through this audiobook myself, especially once I got caught up in the cool story, and I had a great time experiencing all the features of this format.  Like most Star Wars audiobooks, Maul: Lockdown makes excellent use of the iconic sound effects and musical scores from the Star Wars films and television series to enhance its story.  The sound effects are particularly impactful in Maul: Lockdown, and I liked the way they made the many fight sequences pop with the sounds of violence and weapons blasting.  They also made one horrifying creature even more terrible to listen to thanks to the slithering and sucking sounds that played when it appeared.  This audiobook also made great use of John Williams’ amazing scores.  I always love hearing the inspirational and moving Star Wars music during these audiobooks, and while it was more restrained in this audiobook than some others I have enjoyed, it still helped to make several emotional or exciting scenes just a little more epic.

In addition to the cool sound effects and awesome music, Maul: Lockdown’s audiobook also made great use of exceptional narrator Jonathan Davies.  Davies is a veteran narrator who has lent his voice to several Star Wars novels in the past, such as Doctor Aphra, Dooku: Jedi Lost, Master and Apprentice and Lords of the Sith.  He does a fantastic job bringing the various characters in Maul: Lockdown to life, and I really enjoyed the unique tones that each character received.  I really liked the voices that he used for established Star Wars characters, which were close, if not spot on, to how they appeared in the films or television series.  This includes the menacing tones he came up with for Maul, which contained all the character’s barely supressed anger and hatred, and he did a rather good Darth Sidious which was reminiscent of Tim Curry’s take on him in The Clone Wars animated series.  Davis also did a perfect Jabba the Hutt (not exactly sure that is a compliment, but please take it as such), and I loved hearing him do Jabba’s iconic laugh.  Overall, his narration was pretty damn awesome and, when combined with the fantastic sound effects and great musical inclusions, helped to really enhance Maul: Lockdown’s narrative and continued the trend of outstanding Star Wars audiobooks.

Star Wars: Maul: Lockdown by Joe Schreiber is an outstanding and awesome novel that sees one of the best characters in the Star Wars canon fighting for his life in a dangerous setting.  Featuring a powerful and addictive narrative, loaded with intrigue, betrayal, and a whole lot of violence, this is a rich, clever, and dark Star Wars novel that comes highly recommended.  I had an incredible time reading this cool and captivating book and I really need to check out some of the other amazing sounding novels in the Star Wars: Legends range.

Commodus by Simon Turney

Commodus Cover

Publisher: Orion (Trade Paperback – 11 June 2019)

Series: The Damned Emperors – Book 2

Length: 482 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Quick Review – Kill the Queen by Jennifer Estep – Audiobook Review

Kill the Queen Cover.jpg

Publisher: HarperAudio (2 October 2018)

Series: A Crown of Shards series – Book 1

Length: 13 hours and 4 minutes

My Rating: 3.75 out of 5 stars

Kill the Queen is a fun young adult fantasy book that came out late last year. Written by veteran author Jennifer Estep, known for her work on fantasy books such as the Elemental Assassin and Mythos Academy series, Kill the Queen is the first book in her new Crown of Shards series. I listened to the audiobook version of it, narrated by Lauren Fortgang, earlier this year and I have been meaning to review it for some time. With the sequel, Protect the Prince, coming out in a couple of weeks, I figured that it was about time I finally wrote this one up.

Goodreads Synopsis:

Gladiator meets Game of Thrones: a royal woman becomes a skilled warrior to destroy her murderous cousin, avenge her family, and save her kingdom in this first entry in a dazzling fantasy epic from the New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of the Elemental Assassin series—an enthralling tale that combines magic, murder, intrigue, adventure, and a hint of romance.

In a realm where one’s magical power determines one’s worth, Lady Everleigh’s lack of obvious ability relegates her to the shadows of the royal court of Bellona, a kingdom steeped in gladiator tradition. Seventeenth in line for the throne, Evie is nothing more than a ceremonial fixture, overlooked and mostly forgotten.

But dark forces are at work inside the palace. When her cousin Vasilia, the crown princess, assassinates her mother the queen and takes the throne by force, Evie is also attacked, along with the rest of the royal family. Luckily for Evie, her secret immunity to magic helps her escape the massacre.

Forced into hiding to survive, she falls in with a gladiator troupe. Though they use their talents to entertain and amuse the masses, the gladiators are actually highly trained warriors skilled in the art of war, especially Lucas Sullivan, a powerful magier with secrets of his own. Uncertain of her future—or if she even has one—Evie begins training with the troupe until she can decide her next move.

But as the bloodthirsty Vasilia exerts her power, pushing Bellona to the brink of war, Evie’s fate becomes clear: she must become a fearsome gladiator herself . . . and kill the queen.

Initially I was not too sure about this book, especially as the opening scenes were a tad slow and less action-packed than I was expecting. However, since the blurb and several early parts of the book indicated that there was an upcoming massacre in the palace, I decided to stick around and keep listening to it. This proved to be quite a good decision; not only did the story quickly pick up pace but I ended up really liking this book.

The lead-up to the massacre at the start of the book was done exceedingly well, especially as the reader can see it coming and you find yourself becoming quite involved with the story at that point. The rest of the story is also fairly exciting. The massacre at the palace is surprisingly brutal for a young adult book, and I really enjoyed the next half of the story, which featured the character joining the gladiator troupe. This part of the book was a good combination of training montage, character development and romance, while also showing a small amount of the antagonist’s moves to solidify her hold on the country. The eventual assault on the palace by the protagonists and the final fight between Evie and Vasilia were good, although I was expecting something a tad more epic, such as a massive battle between all the gladiators and the guards. Still it sets up the future books in the series well, as there are still antagonists on the loose, secrets to be discovered and wars on the horizon.

While the story is very good, this it does feature a number of young adult and fantasy tropes that are a tad overused at this point. The ostracised girl finding her confidence is very familiar, as is Evie’s romance with Lucas, the bad boy she initially cannot stand. I was also a bit disappointed with the shared history with the antagonist that was hinted at throughout the book. It is made to sound like Vasilia did something horrible to Evie in the past, but the evil deed was revealed to be engineered social ostracism because Vasilia had no more use of Evie. This is just a tad disappointing, especially as Evie mentions several times how terrible the event was and several flashbacks are utilised to build up the reveal. Do not get me wrong, the social ostracism that Vasilia organises is cruel, but, honestly, it’s insignificant compared to some of the other traumatic events Evie experiences, and better suited to a high school drama than a fantasy book like this. In addition, I did find that Evie’s whole character arc was also a little bit predictable. It is clear very early on that Evie was going to a classic ‘chosen one’ character whose secret magical ability and mysterious status as Winter Queen will save the country in the future. While a tad predictable, it was still a very interesting story to listen to, and even led to the author including a fun, self-aware declaration from Evie about how she totally is not a chosen one. I hope that Estep cuts down on the young adult and fantasy tropes in the next book, but this was still an amazing piece of fiction that is well worth checking out.

Overall, I would give this book 3.75 out of 5 stars and would definitely recommend it to any reader who is looking for a good new young adult fantasy series. I had a great time listening to it and I managed to power through it in a short amount of time. The audiobook version of Kill the Queen is really well done, and Fortgang is an excellent narrator who contributes some superb voicework to this book. I am probably going to get the second book in the Crown of Shards series when it comes out and I am eager to see where the story goes, especially as the author did leave some interesting plot points open.

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

Deep Blue by Jane O’Reilly

Deep Blue Cover.jpg

Publisher: Piatkus

Publication date – 31 July 2018

 

Following on from her 2017 release, Blue Shift, Jane O’Reilly returns to her electrifying science fiction universe for another exciting and action-packed adventure among the stars.

In the distant future of 2207, Earth is dying and humanity’s only hope for survival is a brand new planet on the other side of the galaxy.  Travel to this new sanctuary requires passage through the territory of several alien species who are unwilling to let a ragged human fleet anywhere near their areas of space.  In order to convince these aliens to allow humans access to a new planet, the government has initiated the Second Species programme to create the only resource the aliens want: human slaves genetically altered with alien DNA.

Former bounty hunter Jinnifer Blue, after failing to reveal the terrible truth about the Second Species programme, has been captured by its creator, her mother, Ferona Blue.  Now genetically altered with alien strength and pissed beyond all belief, Jinnifer escapes from the lab where she was held.  Having given up on warning humanity about the government’s sinister plans, Jinnifer’s only desire is to be reunited with her lover, the pirate Caspian Dax.

But Dax was also captured by Ferona and is now serving a brutal alien race as a mindless gladiator on the planet of Sittan.  Jinnifer has no choice but to travel to Sittan and attempt to rescue Dax, while at the same time organising the rescue of another friend, Eve, who has been captured by another dangerous alien species.  Gathering together allies and an old enemy into a ragtag team, Jinnifer initiates two desperate rescue missions to save her friends.  Can Jinnifer succeed, or has Dax fallen too far under the sway of the dangerous Sittan empress?

Deep Blue is the second book in the Second Species trilogy and a brilliant sequel to O’Reilly’s first science fiction book, Blue Shift.  This is a fun and fast-paced action series that makes use of an inventive and dangerous universe filled with unique aliens and desperate humans.  Deep Blue has a very busy plot told from a variety of viewpoints that are combined together in a clever fashion to create one thrilling narrative.  Each of the various exciting storylines also contain some flawed and damaged characters, most of whom are seeking some form of redemption.

Just like in Blue Shift, I found that the parts of the book that I enjoyed the most were the chapters that followed the machinations of the book’s central antagonist Ferona Blue.  Her despicable political manipulation on Earth was a highlight of the first book, and this continues to be the case in Deep Blue.  The added focus on Ferona’s negotiations with alien politicians, including the book’s other main antagonist, the Sittan empress, is a brief but fun addition to this equation.  Deep Blue’s other storylines are also very fascinating and contain some great sequences, including having four storylines featuring rescue missions and alien captivity running simultaneously within the book.

Readers who enjoyed the first book of the Second Species trilogy will also enjoy the significant development that the central character, Jinnifer, has undergone since the start of Blue Shift.  The character has evolved from an uncaring loner to the leader of her own small crew who harbours deep concerns for her friend’s wellbeing.  There is also a shift in the character dynamics between Jinnifer and Dax that is quite noticeable.  In the first book, Jinnifer was constantly being rescued by Dax, who ended up sacrificing everything to save her.  This is reversed in Deep Blue, as Dax is the one who is trapped and Jinnifer is the one attempting to save him by undertaking a dangerous rescue mission.  It is a fun change to the established character dynamic and readers of Blue Shift will appreciate the interesting change of pace O’Reilly takes in this second book.

O’Reilly has also created an excellent original universe to serve as the setting for her series.  There are a ton of intriguing science fiction elements, including an interesting prediction for the future of Earth and humanity and a number of unique alien species.  In Deep Blue, O’Reilly goes into greater detail of two of her alien races, the Sittan and the Shi Fai.  There is some exploration of both races’ history, culture, technology and way of life, as well as a visit to both home planets.  While there is a larger focus on the Sittan and their militaristic, female-dominated society, including using the Sittan empress as one of the book’s main antagonists, the scenes on the Shi Fai home planet are certainly memorable and more disturbing.  Other science fiction elements that readers are bound to find entertaining within Deep Blue include O’Reilly’s look at intergalactic politics, Earth’s political manipulation with advanced technology and the inclusion of human-alien hybrids.

This is a fairly action-packed book with some great combat sequences infused into the story to excite the readers.  The main character spends significant parts of the book utilising the swords she has implanted within her arms to great effect, and O’Reilly ensures that her two main characters spend significant time in gladiator-style death fights.  The author also is not too attached to some of her characters, so prepare for a few shocks and surprises.

O’Reilly once again sends the reader on an imaginative science fiction adventure through a dark and dangerous universe.  Deep Blue is a deeply fun and action-orientated story that will appeal to a wide audience and have readers hanging out for the final book in this exciting trilogy.

My Rating:

Four stars

Empire of Silence by Christopher Ruocchio

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Publisher: Gollancz

Publication Date – 3 July 2018

 

First time author Christopher Ruocchio boldly introduces himself with his five-star debut, Empire of Silence, an extraordinary and spellbinding science fiction epic.

In the far future, humanity has left Earth behind and made its home in the stars by colonising thousands of the planets.  However, expansion was halted when the humans encountered the Cielein, the only other race in the galaxy with the ability to travel through space.  For years, the humans and the Cielein fought a brutal and devastating war against each other, until one man changed everything.

That man is Hadrian Marlowe, who, for the best of reasons, destroys a sun and burns every last Cielein from the stars.  This destruction also results in the deaths of four billion humans, including the Emperor of Sollan Empire.  After this infamous act, Hadrian is considered throughout the galaxy as both humanity’s greatest hero and its most terrible villain, known as The Sun-Eater, Starbreaker, Palekiller and Deathless.  But how did one man who was neither a soldier nor a hero seize such a responsibility and commit such atrocities?  The Sun Eater series is the chronicle of Hadrian’s life, of which Empire of Silence is the first part.

Born the eldest son of a noble house, Hadrian fled his family and his overbearing father to escape his future as a member of the Chantry, The Stella Empire’s state religion.  When the ship he chartered is mysteriously abandoned en route to his destination, Hadrian finds himself stranded on the wrong planet with no means of escape and none of his family’s resources available to him.  Forced to fight his way up from the gutters, Hadrian attempts to survive on this strange new world by any means necessary.  Starting out as a beggar and thief, Hadrian eventually embarks on a career as a gladiator in the hope of making enough money to buy a ship.  But when his true identity is revealed, Hadrian must find a way to survive in a foreign court, where powerful enemies lurk around every corner.

However, all of Hadrian’s problems become immaterial when the Cielein arrive above the planet, searching for something.  Drafted into a war he never wanted to be involved in, Hadrian seeks to understand the Cielein, but finds only mysteries and secrets.  Hadrian’s path to becoming The Sun-Eater is set, and his journey begins here.

Empire of Silence is the first volume in Ruocchio’s incredibly ambitious debut series, The Sun Eater.  Featuring fantastic storytelling and a galaxy-wide setting that is breathtaking in its scope and content, this is an outstanding first book and an excellent start to a series with real potential.

Many readers will be interested to know that Empire of Silence is already receiving quite a few comparisons to Patrick Rothfuss’s highly regarded fantasy epic, The Name of the Wind.  It is an easy comparison to make, as there are a large number of similarities between the two books.  Both books contain utterly compelling content designed to capture the reader’s imagination; however, the major similarity is the use of a chronicle format to tell their massive, character-driven epics.  Like The Name of the Wind, Empire of Silence is told solely from the point of view of the protagonist, Hadrian, and takes the form of a written retrospective explaining the terrible act that makes him infamous throughout the galaxy.  The series will completely explore Hadrian’s life, examining every action that leads up to this event.

The chronicle format is a superb choice for the Empire of Silence’s epic story.  Not only does it allow the author to produce a complex and extremely detailed epic storyline but it also allows him to add to the story’s gravitas by having the narrator comment on and reflect on his actions in hindsight.  This great format also allows the author to show off his protagonist in a range of different circumstances.  Because of various science fiction elements, Hadrian is destined to have an extremely long life span and a great many opportunities for adventure.  Within Empire of Silence alone, Ruocchio portrays Hadrian performing a range of different roles, including the presumed heir to a planet, a scholar, a fugitive, a beggar, a thief, a gladiator, a companion and tutor to noble children, an amateur archaeologist, a translator, a torturer, a negotiator and an irregular member of the military.  Each of the different roles that Hadrian plays influences his mindset and viewpoint, which allows the reader to see him evolve in front of their eyes.  It is also interesting to note that Ruocchio has not pre-emptively indicated how many books will be in his series, a mistake some other authors using a chronicle format have made before.  This will allow him to tell the whole story he envisioned without compromising on pacing, world-building or character development in order to reach a hasty conclusion, and will no doubt result in a much more complete and enjoyable series.

The overall plot of Empire of Silence contains various storytelling elements that are masterfully combined throughout the book.  It contains everything from science fiction elements and action sequences to long discussions of the history of the galaxy in which the series is set.  There is also a series of significantly dramatic storylines, such as Hadrian dealing with the difficulties of having a self-interested and manipulative father and an uncaring family.  There are some great coming-of-age moments within the storyline as Hadrian first seeks independence from his family and their history and then tries to find his own way on a new world where he has none of his power and influence.  The reader gets to witness several powerful scenes in which Hadrian’s life changes dramatically and he desperately attempts to claim some sense of normality or sanity in this new world.  Of particular note are some very emotional scenes during Hadrian’s first encounters with the Cielcin.  In these scenes, Hadrian is forced to contend with his own curiosity, conscience and morality while stuck between his own species, represented by the cruel and domineering Empire, and the aliens that somehow appear to bear much more humanity.  This results in some truly spectacular scenes that make this book impossible to put down.

One of the most impressive and enjoyable aspects of Empire of Silence is the vast and imaginative universe in which the story is set.  Ruocchio has an extremely interesting vision of the future that readers will find quite intriguing.  The entirety of the first book is set within the Sollan Empire, which represents the largest faction of humans in the future galaxy.  This civilisation, whilst retaining some advanced technology, such as spaceships, has reverted socially and culturally following a catastrophic event many years before.  There is a rigid class system, with the nobles wielding considerable power and disregard for the ordinary people.  A religious organisation holds sway over much of the empire, using inquisitor-like tactics to control the population and prevent what they consider heresy, which includes an aversion to advanced technology.  An interesting twist to this is the large number of cameras and drones that they and the nobles use to continually survey and intimidate the populace.  The Empire’s culture appears to be strongly inspired by the ancient Roman and Greek civilisations, and their various influences can be seen throughout the book.  This is an excellent setting for such an expansive story, and the reader gets to experience a unique and compelling combination of science fiction advancements and old school ideals.

Aside from the main setting of the Sollan Empire, Ruocchio has also stacked his universe with a range of characters, aliens, mysteries and side storylines that prove to be massively intriguing for the reader.  Several of these of mysteries and side stories are explored to an extent throughout the book; however, many are left open and will carry through to later books in the series.  The protagonist interacts with a massive of number of characters, which plays into the overall concept of him having a busy life.  In order to assist the reader in keeping track of the cast of thousands, who sometimes have limited scenes within the story, Ruocchio has provided extensive indexes.  Not only do these indexes contain details of all the characters the protagonist encounters but they also contain a huge amount of history, definitions and other useful information to help the audience absorb this massive new universe.

In one of the most impressive and elaborate science fiction novels of the year, first-time author Christopher Ruocchio has shown himself to be one of the brightest new stars in the science fiction genres.  Empire of Silence contains an absolutely amazing story that makes full use of its original and immense overarching setting, and is guaranteed to capture the reader’s imagination.  This is epic science fiction at its very best, and I cannot wait for the second book in Ruocchio’s The Sun Eater series.

My Rating:

Five Stars

Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi

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Publisher: Henry Holt and Company

Australian Publication Date – 13 March 2018

World Publication Date – 6 March 2018

 

A brand new magical world is born in Children of Blood and Bone, the enthralling first book from a talented new author.

In the nation of Orisha, magic was once controlled by the maji, powerful practitioners who were respected and feared throughout the land.  However, that all changed eleven years ago, when magic suddenly and mysteriously died, leaving the maji powerless and confused.  Taking advantage of this uncertainty, the magic-fearing King Saran struck out, arresting and killing all the former maji.  Now the people of Orisha consider magic evil and all links to the old order are shunned.  Those children who would have become maji, if not for the death of magic, are known as diviners.  Made distinctive by their white hair, they have become a second-class citizenry within Orisha and are routinely targeted by abusive guards and crippling taxes as King Saran seeks to slowly kill them all off.

Zelie Adebola is one of these diviners and remembers what it was like before magic died.  Haunted by the death of her maji mother and still defiant after years of oppression, Zelie is determined to survive.  However, when a chance run-in with an ancient scroll awakens her latent magical abilities, Zelie is given an unexpected chance to restore magic to the world.  With the help of her brother, Tzain, and the rogue princess, Amari, Zelie must reclaim three artefacts and travel across Orisha before the solstice.  If they fail, magic will be gone forever.

As the trio encounter the dangers that lurk throughout Orisha they must also contend with a dangerous force that is following them.  Amari’s brother, Prince Inan, has been tasked by the king to hunt the fugitives down and ensure that magic can never return.  However, Inan’s own latent magical powers have surfaced, and he is torn between the burning powers in his head and his father’s instilled hatred of all things magical.  Will his sudden infatuation with Zelie save him, or will it lead to his destruction?

The greatest threat to the quest may come from Zelie herself, whose powers over life and death may turn out to be too dangerous to control.

Children of Blood and Bones is the first book from Nigerian American author Tomi Adeyemi.  It is a bold fantasy adventure targeted towards the young adult demographic, and has already received significant hype from various sources, including discussion about a possible movie adaption.

One of the most obvious things that will appeal to potential readers is the considerable work and imagination that Adeyemi has put into her fantasy creation.  The central focus on a group of oppressed magic users who have lost their power and influence is particularly engrossing, as is the distinctive magical practice and lore that Adeyemi has used.  The detailed landscapes and cities of the nation of Orisha do a wonderful job of catching the imagination, especially as the characters traverse a number of different locations, each with their own unique environments and features.  There are also a number of intricate battle scenes that add significant excitement to the narrative, including a particularly memorable sequence where the main characters participate in a massive ship-to-ship gladiatorial battle in a flooded desert arena.

In addition to the above elements, readers will enjoy the use of multiple character perspectives throughout Children of Blood and Bone.  Three of the main characters, Zelie, Amari and Inan, each narrate their own chapters and provide a detailed overview of the story from their point of view.  There are many quick-fire perspective changes that serve to give multiple different viewpoints of the same event.  This is particularly useful as much of the book is dedicated to Zelie, Amari and Tzain being closely pursued by Inan.  Seeing how close Inan gets to the protagonists through these separate perspectives adds a lot of tension and suspense to the book.  It also works well in enhancing many of the larger battle scenes, especially the above mentioned gladiatorial naval battle.  The different viewpoints also allow the reader a clear picture of the ideological breakdown of Adeyemi’s world, as the readers are given insight from both the oppressed diviners and the paranoid King Saran

Adeyemi’s clever use of multiple narrators also allows for a clearer view of the personal and group development of the main characters, which can be seen not just through their own eyes but through the eyes of the other narrators.  Amari’s change from spoiled princess to hardened warrior is fun and heart-warming.  The changes to Zelie and Inan as a result of their dramatic internal conflicts are much more intriguing and draw the audience in emotionally.

While Adeyemi explores several themes throughout the book, the most intriguing is her examination of power and the responsibility to wield it.  Within Children of Blood and Bone, the maji have had their magical power taken away from them and are oppressed by the king as a result.  The subsequent quest to return magic to the world raises certain ethical questions, like whether an oppressed group should suddenly have destructive powers returned to them?  Within the book there a number of characters who have dissenting views on the subject, but only Zelie and Inan are in the unique position of seeing both parts of this debate.  Inan has always been taught to fear and hate magic, but his perception of magic changes when he gains his own powers, meets Zelie and experiences the oppression brought on by his father.  As a result, his opinion about the future of magic is changed multiple times throughout the book.  Zelie on the other hand, has experienced oppression all her life, and is at first determined to bring back magic.  However, when she uses her own destructive powers and sees the devastation caused by other magic users, she starts to question her previously held beliefs.  This fascinating internal debate is masterfully woven in the story through the books narrators, and it will be interesting to see how this debate continues in any future books.

Children of Blood and Bone is an intricate and ambitious young adult fantasy debut that includes a first-rate, emotionally charged story.  Set in an inventive new universe and featuring slick use of characters and multiple narrators, Children of Blood and Bones lives up to its significant hype.

My Rating:

Four stars