The Hunger of the Gods by John Gwynne

The Hunger of the Gods Cover

Publisher: Orbit (Audiobook – 14 April 2022)

Series: The Bloodsworn Saga – Book Two

Length: 22 hours and 57 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Extremely talented dark fantasy John Gwynne returns with one of my most anticipated fantasy novels of 2022, The Hunger of the Gods, the epic second entry in The Bloodsworn Saga.

Last year, the fantasy world was aflame with discussion about a certain novel from acclaimed author John Gwynne, best known for his The Faithful and the Fallen series and its sequel Of Blood and Bone trilogy.  While I wasn’t initially intending to check this book out, the sheer amount of positive feedback and reviews convinced me that I was clearly missing out, so I grabbed a copy and ended up being deeply impressed by the elaborate fantasy saga it contained.  That novel was The Shadow of the Gods, a Norse inspired dark fantasy tale that saw three intriguing protagonists explore a deadly new fantasy world wrecked by the last battle of the dead gods, and filled with monsters, warbands and powered humans tainted by the divine ancestors.  I had an exceptional time with this great book, which really met all my expectations and ended up being one of my favourite books and audiobooks of 2021 (it also topped my favourite new-to-me authors list and best covers of 2021 list, it was just that damn awesome).  I deeply enjoyed the fantastic and elaborate tale this novel contained, and I could not wait to see how it would be continued.  As such, when I received a copy of the sequel, The Hunger of the Gods, which featured another awesome fantasy cover and plot synopsis, I immediately started reading it and was once again thrust into world of gods and heroes.

The dread dragon god, Lik-Rifa the soul-stealer, has been released from her ancient tomb and now all of Vigrid lies in peril.  Determined to unleash a new era of blood, death and conquest upon the lands, Lik-Rifa immediately begins to gather around her horde of Tainted warriors, including her own descendants, the dragon-born, terrible monsters and a cult of followers, all slaved to her will.  Hope looks bleak, especially as the warring human kingdoms remain unaware that Lik-Rifa is free and about to unleash fresh horrors upon them.

Amongst this chaos, the deadly Orka continues her hunt for her stolen son, taken by Lik-Rifa’s followers.  Now revealed as the legendary and infamous warrior, the Skullsplitter, Orka will not rest until she has her son and her vengeance, no matter the obstacles.  While Orka continues her quest, her former warband of secretly Tainted warriors, the Bloodsworn, head south, determined to rescue one of their members, while their newest initiate, Varg, continues his attempts to find vengeance for his sister.  Meanwhile, Elvar is forced to fulfil the blood oath she took to rescue another child from the dragonborn, and needs to convince her now leaderless warband, the Battle-Grim, to follow her.

As these brave warriors each take their own steps to destiny, they will all face dangerous challenges and horrendous odds.  Orka will need to come to grips with the wolf lying deep in her heart as she attempts the impossible: defying a god.  Varg and the Bloodsworn will travel to a distant land to achieve their goals, only to meet tragedy and loss.  Elvar finally attempts to claim the responsibility of leadership that she has always desired.  However, despite all their bravery and skill in arms, none of these heroes are going to be capable of fighting Lik-Rifa directly.  Instead, Elvar and her company will attempt a desperate plan, using forbidden magic to bring a dead god to life and bind it to their will.

Wow oh wow, what an incredible and awesome read.  Gwynne continues to showcase why he is one of the best current authors of fantasy fiction with The Hunger of the Gods, which perfectly continues the impressive Bloodsworn Saga in a big way.  Featuring tons of bloody action, impressive new fantasy elements, complex characters, and a powerful and elaborate narrative that is the very definition of epic, The Hunger of the Gods was another five-star read from Gwynne that is easily one of the better books I have read so far this year.

The Hunger of the Gods has an outstanding and impressive story that instantly grabs the reader’s attention and ensures that they are unable to put the book down until the very last page.  This sequel kicks off right after the epic conclusion of The Shadow of the Gods and quickly follows up on all the big revelations and events that occurred there, especially the release of the giant dragon god, Lik-Rifa, who serves as a suitably sinister and epic main antagonist for the series.  Just like the first book, The Hunger of the Gods’ narrative is told from a series of split storylines, each one focused on a specific point-of-view character.  All three character-specific storylines from The Shadow of the Gods are continued here, following Orka, Varg and Elva.  These existing storylines go in some exciting and interesting directions in The Hunger of the Gods, and I loved how the author expanded on the character’s growth and individual journeys from the first novel, while also keeping some of the existing dynamics and elements.  Gwynne also adds in two new point-of-view characters, as antagonists Gudvarr and Biorr, who were good secondary characters from The Shadow of the Gods, get their own intriguing storylines here.  These new character arcs are impressively entertaining, providing great alternate perspectives to deepen the story, while also working into the existing storylines extremely well.  All five storylines go in some great directions throughout the course of the novel, and there are some absolutely brilliant moments, twists and revelations that occur throughout, especially as many of these storylines started to come together more.  I had an excellent time seeing where everything went, and Gwynne really did a great job taking all these character stories in some appropriate directions.  Every single storyline end on an amazing note and the conclusions are guaranteed to drag readers back for the third Bloodsworn novel.

This second book in The Bloodsworn Saga is written pretty damn perfectly as Gwynne continues his magic to produce an addictive and distinctive read.  The Hunger of the Gods retains the excellent tone introduced in the first novel, ensuring that everything comes across as a Norse adventure story set within a unique, dark fantasy realm.  Everything about this book is handled extremely well, from the exceptional pacing, which ensures that you fly through this massive novel, to the intense and brutal action that is installed in every section of the book, guaranteeing that readers get that much needed adrenalin rush.  Gwynne utilises an interesting writing style here that really emphasises repetition and unique dialogue to help to make the story feel more and more like an epic Norse saga.  Just like the preceding novel in The Bloodsworn Saga, I think that The Hunger of the Gods had just the right blend of action, humour, character growth, world building and darker elements to create an excellent and enticing read.  I also have to say that I was quite impressed with how Gwynne was able to avoid middle book syndrome here, as in many ways The Hunger of the Gods was even better than The Shadow of the Gods.  While the story does slow down in places to help build up certain settings or plot elements, there is always something interesting or compelling going on, and I can honestly say that I was not bored at any point in the book.  You could almost read The Hunger of the Gods by itself with no knowledge of the preceding book and still have a brilliant time with it, especially with the detailed synopsis of the prior novel at the start.

The best thing about how this story is written is the exceptional use of multiple character perspectives.  The story perfectly flits between the five separate characters arcs throughout the novel, with a different character being focused on with each new chapter.  Thanks to the inclusions of two new characters, readers of this sequel get to enjoy a much deeper story here, especially as the new characters are associated with some of the series’ antagonists, providing some fantastic new elements.  I think the additional characters worked really well, as while the existing three protagonists are great, their storylines needed to be spaced out more in this sequel.  All five separate character storylines play off each other perfectly as the novel continues, telling an immense narrative that, while connected, still contains a fair bit of individuality as you follow their specific adventure.

I liked finally being able to see some interactions between the various protagonists and I loved seeing these outstanding and well-written characters finally come together in some intense scenes, allowing the reader to see these distinctive characters viewed through the eyes of the other protagonists.  The author had a great sense of which perspectives needed to featured at certain times, and there were some amazing contrasts as certain exciting storylines were played off each other, especially when you were able to see two sides to certain major battles or events.  In addition, this is one of those rare multi-narrative fantasy novels where it is near impossible to choose a favourite storyline or character to follow.  Each of the five storylines offers the reader something different, from a bloody revenge story, to an intriguing look at the book’s main antagonists, and all of them work extremely well in the context of the wider story.  I will say that Orka’s brilliant quest for her son has some amazing action scenes and powerful character moments, while the camaraderie and excellent larger-scale battles of Varg’s storyline ensured that I was excited to hear from this character.  In addition, Gudvarr provides some great political intrigue from the perspective of a true weasel, which was so very fun to watch.  However, I honestly had a great time with every single character, and there was not a moment that their individual stories did not enhance the overall quality of The Hunger of the Gods.

I really must highlight the incredible dark fantasy setting of The Bloodsworn Saga that is expertly used again in The Hunger of the Gods after Gwynne took the time to set it up in the first novel.  The harsh land of Vigrid, with its warring Jarls, terrifying monsters, long-dead gods, glory-seeking warbands and the feared and exploited Tainted, works so well as a background to this epic story and it really helps to expand the bloody adventures featured within.  I loved how Gwynne uses classic Norse elements like shield walls, longboats, weaponry and mindsets, and I still really love seeing this in a fantasy context, especially when combined or used against the monsters and Tainted characters.  This is further enhanced with the continued use of Norse inspired terms and dialogue throughout the novel, and it helps to give this entire series such a distinctive feel (although I kind of wish that he would stop trying to continually make “thought cage” an alternative to a person’s skull).  While the author spends a bit of time continuing these elements from the first book, The Shadow of the Gods also features some brilliant world building as Gwynne provides intriguing enhancements to the existing gods, land and people, which were already extremely intriguing.  There are also some examinations of the neighbouring nation of Iskidan, which was mentioned a few times in the first book.  Iskidan, which has elements of historical China, the Middle East and the Byzantine Empire in its construction, serves as an intriguing counterpoint to Vigrid, and it was fascinating to learn more about it.  I also loved a couple of cool, if freaky new monsters, that were featured in this book, although the flesh burrowing insect monster and the nightmare inducing tongue eaters, are a bit on the gruesome side (readers who don’t like body modifying monsters are warned to stay away).  All these awesome elements are fitted in the book perfectly, and I loved this continued dive into the dark and gruesome world Gwynne has lovingly created.

While the awesome narrative, clever storytelling and dark fantasy setting are amazing parts of the book, I would be extremely remiss if I didn’t highlight the incredible character work that Gwynne did within The Hunger of the Gods.  Just like the first book in The Bloodsworn Saga, The Hunger of the Gods features an impressive and captivating cast of characters, each of whom are expertly featured and who add some fantastic elements to the overall story.  This is particularly true for the wonderful and memorable characters from whose perspective this epic tale unfolds.  Gwynne did an incredible job introducing these excellent characters in the first book, and it was great to see two previous supporting characters promoted up to the central cast.  All five main characters are exceptional and their unique personalities and goals ensure that every chapter is different from the last which helps to produce an awesome and expansive read.

The first of these characters is Orka, an incredibly dangerous warrior who is hunting for her lost son and vengeance for her murdered husband.  Orka is a brilliant and complex figure who is easily one of the most exciting and enjoyable characters in the entire series.  Due to her single-minded determination and bloodlust, pretty much all Orka’s chapters read like a bloody revenge trip that is essentially a dark fantasy version of Taken.  Gwynne continues this excellent trend with Orka in this second novel and it was great to see this implacable warrior travel across this land, killing everyone who gets in her way as she takes big risks.  However, Gwynne adds in some extra elements to Orka’s tale in The Hunger of the Gods, especially following the revelations made at the end of The Shadow of the Gods that Orka is both Tainted and the former leader of the Bloodsworn, the legendary killer known as the Skullsplitter.  Orka actually comes across as a lot more bestial in this second book, especially after the big massacre she created at the end of The Shadow of the Gods that unleashed her inner monster.  As such, there are more scenes of Orka trying to contain her rage and anger, and there were some fantastic and clever portrayals of her inner beast throughout the book.  We also see some of Orka’s guilt and regret as the novel explores how she left the Bloodsworn and the relationships she sacrificed for the sake of her unborn son.  I also quite enjoyed seeing her as a reluctant leader in this novel as she finds herself in charge of a small team of warriors and monsters.  This enhances her sense of guilt and remembrances of her previous time with the Bloodsworn, and it adds some fun drama and even a mentoring arc as continues her work with her young student, Lif.  Orka’s storyline goes in some great directions throughout The Hunger of the Gods, and you will be enthralled with her tale right up until the last line of this book.

I also had a lot of fun with Varg in this book.  Varg, or as his warband knows him, Varg No-Sense, was probably my favourite character in The Shadow of the Gods and he continues to be an excellent part of this sequel.  While he doesn’t develop as much as some of the other characters in The Hunger of the Gods, Varg still remains an enjoyable figure.  Most of the appeal revolves around his friendship and growing sense of acceptance with his fellow Bloodsworn, and I liked seeing him continue to develop as a warrior and a free person, especially as starts to create some meaningful relationships.  Like Orka, a lot of Varg’s personal storyline deals with his desire for vengeance, as well as his issues controlling his Tainted rage, and I liked seeing how this complemented and contrasted with Orka’s experiences.  This is particularly noticeable when it comes to how he deals with loss, something he is not good at, especially when some good friends fall throughout the story.  As a result, there are some great moments for Varg in this novel, and his chapters are filled with some of the funniest supporting characters and best battle sequences.  I did find it interesting that Varg didn’t have the biggest impact on the overall storyline in this novel, even during his own chapters, but Gwynne is clearly planning some big things for him in the future, which I am really looking forward to.

Elvar, also has a great storyline in The Hunger of the Gods, and I honestly think that out of all the characters, she has the most development in this book.  Due to where her story from The Shadow of the Gods ended up (dragon gods rising and all), I was extremely excited to see more from Elvar in this novel, and it really did not disappoint as she immediately gets into action, resurrecting gods and bending them to her will.  Quite a lot of major plot elements occur through Elvar’s eyes, and she proves to be an excellent focus for all these key storylines.  I liked how Elvar grew up quite a lot in this sequel, especially after the traumatic betrayals of the previous book, and she ends up with a very different mindset throughout this sequel, especially when it comes to leadership and her need for fame.  Watching her grow and take control of the Battle-Grim is a compelling part of this novel, and it was awesome to see her come to terms with her new responsibilities.  It was also great to see how a lot of Elvar’s story comes full circle in this novel, especially when it comes to her personal history and family, and her final chapters in this novel are some of the best in the book.  I am once again extremely keen to see how Elvar’s story continues in the rest of the series, and Gwynne has left her in an incredible spot for the future.

Like I mentioned above, I was really impressed with Gwynne’s decision to start utilising two additional point-of-view characters in The Hunger of the Gods, and it really helped to turn this sequel into a much more detailed and compelling read.  Part of the reason this works so well is that these two additional characters are both complex and excellent characters, and their chapters act as a great continuation of some of the minor storylines from the first book.  The first of these characters is Biorr, former member of the Battle-Grim who was revealed to be a spy planted by Lik-Rifa’s followers and who ended up betraying and killing the Battle-Grim’s leader.  While it would be easy to hate Biorr for his actions, he becomes quite a sympathetic character.  Not only does he spend most of the book feeling intense guilt for his actions, but he also paints a pretty grim picture of his previous life as a slave, showcasing the hardships he and his fellow Tainted have suffered.  As such, you can understand many of his reasons for why he is helping Lik-Rifa, especially as she is promising a new world order for people like him.  Despite this he is still quite conflicted, and he acts as a more moderate antagonist.  This changes towards the end of the book, especially after he meets a certain divine being, and he starts to become a bit colder and more determined to support Lik-Rifa.  Despite being one of the least action-packed storylines in the novel, Biorr’s chapters were an excellent and entertaining part of the novel.  I particularly enjoyed the intriguing alternate views they gave of the main group of antagonists, making them seem more reasonable and complex, and the inclusion of Biorr greatly enhanced the entire narrative for the best.

The other new point-of-view character is Gudvarr, the conceited lordling who hunted Orka in the last book and was a particularly annoying antagonist.  I must admit that I was initially surprised that out of all the great supporting characters, Gudvarr was the one who was upgraded to main cast.  However, it soon became apparent why he was used, as Gwynne had some real fun turning him into one of the entertainingly despicable characters in the entire novel.  Gudvarr is the absolute epitome of arrogance, petty cruelty and cowardice throughout this book, and it is near impossible to have any respect for him, as he lies, brownnoses and attempt anything to gain power and reputation, often with disastrous results.  Gwynne goes out of his way to make him seem as conceited and cowardly as possible throughout the novel, mainly through his inner monologue, where he constantly hides all his insults and most cowardly thoughts to avoid getting into trouble with actual warrior.  He is such a little arseling in this novel, and you can’t help but hate him, especially as he has the devil’s luck and frustratingly manages to wiggle out of every single disaster he finds himself in.  Despite this, or perhaps because of it, I grew to really enjoy Gudvarr’s chapters as everything he did was hilarious in a sneaky and spiteful way, and it is just so damn entertaining to see him get pushed around then overcome more powerful and confident characters.  The Gudvarr chapters also provide some fantastic insight into another group of antagonists, loaded with political intrigue and deceit from one of the main courts of Vigrid.  I had an absolute blast following Gudvarr throughout the novel, and the way that his storyline in this novel comes to an end is just so perfect and really showcases what an absolute cowardly snake he is.  I cannot wait to see him get his eventual just deserts (or maybe he’ll be the only survivor), and he ended up being on of my surprisingly favourites in The Hunger of the Gods.

Aside from these main five characters, The Hunger of the Gods is filled with a massive raft of supporting characters, with a distinctive cast associated with each of the point-of-view storylines.  Gwynne handles these supporting characters beautifully; despite the cast list going on for six pages, you get to know all of them and fully appreciate everything they bring to the story.  Most of these characters support their respective storylines incredibly well and many of the characters either stand on their own as distinctive figures or have some brilliant interactions with the main characters.  Many of my favourites were members of the Bloodsworn band, with the hilarious and witty Svik being the best example of this with his tall tales, love of cheese, and calming attitude towards Varg, while an additional storyline about his connection to Orka adding some intriguing depth to his character.  You really get to enjoy many of the key Bloodsworn members, although this does mean you become way too emotionally strained when they get hurt or killed.  I also really grew to enjoy returning character Lif in this book as he continues to grow as a warrior through Orka’s tutelage.  Watching him develop is a great part of the Orka chapters, and he proves to be an excellent foil to the brutal main character.  I loved the deeper look at many of the series’ main antagonists throughout The Hunger of Gods, especially with the two new character perspectives, and it was great to see a different side to their plans and motivations.  The multiple resurrected or freed god characters proved to be an excellent addition to this second novel, with the main characters brought into their renewed war one way or another.  These gods really changed the entire story, and it was fascinating to see their interactions with the main characters, as well impact they have on everyone’s psyches.  These great characters, and many more, all added a ton to the story, and I loved how their various arcs and storylines came together.  It will be fascinating to see if anybody else becomes a point-of-view protagonists in the future (my money is on Lif), and I can’t wait to see what happens to these brilliant characters in the future.

While I was lucky enough to receive a physical copy of The Hunger of the Gods, I ended up listening to the audiobook version of it instead, which was an extremely awesome experience.  With a runtime of just under 23 hours, this is a pretty lengthy audiobook (the 19th longest audiobook I’ve ever listened to) and requires a substantial investment of time.  However, this is more than worth it as hearing this epic tale read out to you is a brilliant experience.  Not only does it ensure that you become deeply trapped in the elaborate story and are able to absorb all the great detail, but it also fits with the book’s inherit theme of an oral saga.  One of the best features of this audiobook is impressive narrator Colin Mace, a man with a ton experience narrating elaborate fantasy and science fiction audiobooks (such as The Black Hawks by David Wragg).  Mace has a commanding and powerful voice that really fits the theme of this universe and perfectly conveys all the violence, grim settings and powerful elements of the dark fantasy world.  He does a particularly good job with the character voices as well, as every character has a distinctive tone that fits their personality and actions extremely well.  I loved some of the great voices that he comes up with, including deep-voiced warriors, snivelling cowards, strange creatures, ethereal gods and more, and it helped to turn The Hunger of the Gods audiobook into quite an experience.  As such, I would strongly recommend this audiobook format as the way to enjoy The Hunger of the Gods, and I fully intend to check out the rest of this series on audiobook when it comes out.

John Gwynne continues to dominate the fantasy genre with his incredible Bloodsworn Saga.  The amazing second entry, The Hunger of the Gods, is another exceptional read that takes you on a wild and deadly adventure through Gwynne’s impressively put together dark fantasy world.  Containing an epic and powerful story, chock full of action, Norse fantasy elements and impressive characters, The Hunger of the Gods was one of the best reads of 2022 so far and I had an outstanding time reading it.  In some ways The Hunger of the Gods ended up being a better novel than the first entry in the series and is an absolute must read for all fantasy fans.

Death of the Black Widow by James Patterson & J. D. Barker

Death of the Black Widow Cover

Publisher: Century (Trade Paperback – 12 April 2022)

Series: Standalone

Length: 520 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Prepare for one of the trippiest and darkest thrillers of 2022 with Death of the Black Widow, the latest brilliant standalone novel from the all-star team of James Patterson and J. D. Barker.

Few thriller writers out there at the moment are as well-known or prolific as superstar author James Patterson.  Patterson has been absolutely dominating the thriller and crime fiction genre for nearly 30 years and has an incredible catalogue of works to his name, including his best-selling Alex Cross books.  In recent years, Patterson has released a torrent of works, including some solo books and several novels done in collaboration with other talented writers and even a few celebrities.  I personally have loved several of his previous collaborated books, including Lost (co-written with James O. Born) and 2 Sisters Detective Agency (co-written with Candice Fox).  However, one of the more intriguing authors he has teamed up with is acclaimed thriller and horror author J. D. Barker.  Barker, whose work I previously enjoyed on Dracul (co-written with Dacre Stoker), has already produced two intriguing novels with Patterson, The Coast-to-Coast Murders and The Noise.  I have been keen to check out this awesome writing team for a while (The Noise is currently sitting on my shelf waiting for my attention), and when I received a copy of their latest book, Death of the Black Widow, I made sure to read it as soon as possible.

It is a typical night in Detroit until former police officer Walter O’Brien and his comrades call in a bomb threat on a busy night club and use concentrated sniper fire to keep its patrons trapped inside.  When the police arrive on scene, Walter surrenders to them and offers them a simple choice: allow them to kill a single woman hidden within the club, or watch as the entire building is destroyed.  But who is this mysterious woman and what has driven Walter and his friends to such extremes?

The origins of these desperate actions date back decades to when a young Walter O’Brien is called to a murder scene on his very first night for the Detroit PD.  What he uncovers is a terrible and bloody crime scene: a scared and surprisingly alluring young woman has apparently escaped from captivity and skillfully bludgeoned her ruthless captor to death with a lamp.  Attempting to take her to hospital, Walter is shocked when she escapes from his custody, leaving an impression on him that will last a lifetime.

Years later, as a new homicide detective, Walter has a chance encounter with someone he believes to be same women from that fateful night.  Still obsessed with his previous encounter, Walter attempts to track her down, only to find a disturbing pattern between this mysterious and woman and several disturbing and unexplainable murders he is investigating.  But when his case takes an even more unusual twist, Walter finds himself thrust into something far bigger than himself.  A secret government agency is attempting to find this mysterious woman, and soon they and Walter begin to uncover a disturbing trend of murders going back years.  As Walter begins to lose himself more and more to obsession, he becomes determined to be the one to stop any more killings.  But what is he willing to do to stop the deaths once and for all?

Wow, now that was a fun and intense book.  Patterson and Barker have produced something very special with Death of the Black Widow, which was an utterly insane and awesome read.  I was actually a little surprised with how much I enjoyed this clever book, and I think I have very little choice but to give it a full five-star rating.

Now, I must admit that when I started reading Death of the Black Widow, I honestly did not know too much about the book, apart from what was in the synopsis.  From that and the name, I assumed that this was going to be a psychological thriller or a spy thriller.  However, while Death of the Black Widow does have thriller and murder mystery elements to it, and indeed it appears to be a purely crime fiction novel for the first few chapters, it actually turned out to be something entirely more complex.  Within the first 100 pages or so, you begin to realise that the authors are subtly including elements from other genres, and Death of the Black Widow soon starts to take on a distinctive horror vibe, with some incredible brutal killings done under extremely unusual circumstances.  While I was surprised by this, I cannot say that I was disappointed.  Instead, I felt that it was a brilliant move from the authors and one that played particularly well to Barker’s strengths.  This new genre combines well with the books existing thriller/crime fiction framework to create an intense and exhilarating read that is extremely easy to get into and very, very hard to put down.  I personally found myself powering through the last 350+ pages in less than a day, especially once I begun to fully understand just how clever and weird things were about to get.

I was really impressed with how Death of the Black Widow unfolded as a story, especially as Patterson and Barker went out of their way to make this standalone read as enticing and epic as possible.  The book starts in the present day and shows the older protagonist and his compatriots entering the end game of their confrontation with a mysterious woman.  This serves as a great setup to the rest of the story, which jumps back multiple decades to 1986, when Walter and the mysterious woman, known here as Amy Archer, first meet, and the strange and deadly circumstances behind their encounter.  The story then jumps forward several years to 1992, where Walter is investigating several strange murders when he has a chance encounter with someone he believes is Amy.  This results in an intriguing series of chapters where Walter deals with both the investigation and his growing obsession with this girl, before everything blows up terribly and the mystery becomes more convoluted and unusual with each new revelation.  This pattern continues throughout the book, with the story jumping ahead years at a time to show the multiple encounters between Walter and his obsession.  Each time period reveals some intriguing new angles and elements, and you find out new revelations about the woman the protagonist is hunting, resulting in the full truth about her finally being revealed.  The novel also keeps slipping back to the siege occurring in the present, with some new characters trying to uncover what Walter and his team are up to as the protagonists provide them with hints about who they are and what they are after.

I deeply enjoyed that the authors chose to utilise a split timeline for Death of the Black Widow, especially as it works extremely well to tell this outstanding narrative.  The switch between time periods and chronological length of the story really enhances just how mysterious the events of the book are and the powerful, life-altering impact they have on the protagonist.  There are many clever elements to the switches between the periods, and I loved the subtle inclusions in the present timeline that hint at the events in the past that the protagonist was yet to experience, and the full impacts of them.  There are also some fun summaries loaded at the front of each change between the past and the present that represent the protagonist’s notes on the case.  Not only can these be useful to remind the reader where they are, but it helps to highlight just how massive the case gets, especially towards the end of the book, as well as tracking Walter’s growing obsession (especially the last one).  This entire story is loaded up with brilliant reveals and shocking twists, and I was honestly surprised and very thrilled in some of the excellent directions that the authors took the story.  You will honestly have a hard time putting this novel down once you get past the halfway point, especially once the 1992 storyline comes to its shocking end, and the intense revelations and horrific scenes of the next few time periods ensures you will become unerringly trapped as you attempt to find out more about the antagonist and their past.  This entire story of obsession, murder and mystery concludes perfectly in the present, with some truly big moments, as everything comes full circle and twists that have been hidden in plain sight since the start come into the light.  This was such a great story, and I frankly loved every single second I spent reading it.

I cannot finish talking about this book without mentioning the excellent characters it contained.  Death of the Black Widow features an intriguing and unique cast, each of whom brings something fun and compelling to the story.  The most prominent of these is Walter O’Brien, who serves as the central point-of-view character for most of the story.  Thanks to how the book progresses, you get to see the entirety of Walter’s life unfold, from his young days as a rookie cop, all the way up to his present, when an older, dying Walter attempts to bring his great obsession to an end by finally catching the woman who has haunted him for decades.  This ensures you get a brilliant look at this character and it proves absolutely fascinating to see the various stages of his life and the continued impacts of his interactions with the woman he knows as Amy Archer.  One of the best parts of this is that you get to see the growing obsession that Walter builds towards this woman, as meeting her proves to be a defining experience for him.  Despite the fact that his interaction with her are relatively short, each time he meets Amy she changes his life in a different way and he soon becomes quite obsessed with her.  This obsession continues to bloom, even after certain revelations about her and her actions become known, and he is forced to fight his own feelings and observations throughout the entire book, especially once it becomes clear that this obsession is mutual and that Amy is drawn to Walter as well in a twisted romance that is so damn dark.  Watching this usually confident and capable person being haunted by this obsession proves to be powerful and captivating centre to this story, and you really feel for this protagonist as he struggles.  Walter ends up serving a great role as the central protagonist of this story, and I found his entire character arc to be extremely well written and cleverly exposed.

On the other side of the coin is the mysterious woman who serves as the titular Black Widow of the story.  Known to Walter as Amy, this woman serves as a shadowy and enigmatic figure in the book, especially as you have no idea who she truly is for most of it.  To avoid spoilers, I will not go into too much detail about her here, but I will say she was an exquisite and amazing character, and the authors did a remarkable job bringing her to life and fitting her into this remarkable story.  She is easily one of the most distinctive and memorable literary villains I have read for a while, and if they ever make a movie of this book (which they really should), I think a great actor could turn her into something very special.  These two characters, as well as some other great supporting characters (the members of Walter’s team in the present day, as well as some distinctive cops from the past timelines for example), prove to be the beating heart of this incredible story, and it was absolutely fascinating to see how their intriguing lives worked in to the plot of this book.

No doubt it, I was really, really impressed with Death of the Black Widow, which ended up being one of the most exciting and compelling reads of 2022 so far.  The outstanding team of James Patterson and J. D. Barker were absolutely amazing here, producing a clever and intricate thriller, loaded with unique characters, a deep obsession laden storyline and some excellent horror elements.  This was easily one of the most unique and memorable novels I have read in a while, and I loved every single second I was going through it.  A highly recommended read that will appeal to anyone interested in a dark and deadly read, you will not be disappointed with Death of the Black Widow.

Death of the Black Widow Cover 2

Outcast by Louise Carey

Outcast Cover

Publisher: Gollancz (Trade Paperback – 25 January 2022)

Series: Inscape – Book Two

Length: 394

My Rating: 4.75 out of 5

Impressive rising science fiction author Louise Carey continues her awesome first series with Outcast, a brilliant and powerful cyberpunk thriller read that is incredibly fun and very clever.

Outcast is a sequel to Carey’s debut novel from last year, Inscape, which told a unique and intriguing story about espionage, betrayal and corporate politics in a cyberpunk world.  Set in the distant future after a major calamity, the fractured world is now ruled over by all-powerful and advanced corporations who battle for dominance while they attempt to create the latest in weaponry and bio-tech upgrades.  The protagonist of the series, Tantra, works as an intelligence operative for one of the largest companies, InTech, and investigates a mysterious theft that could have dire consequences for her company.  Filled with dystopian cyberpunk elements, such the built-in communication and information technology known as scapes, this ended up being an excellent and captivating science fiction thriller that was one of my favourite debuts of 2021.  Carey has continued her amazing series in a big way here with Outcast, which serves as an outstanding and impressive sequel to her first solo book.

Following the success of her first mission, Tantra’s life has been turned upside down.  Despite saving her company and uncovering a traitor, Tantra has been sidelined by a jealous supervisor and now works as a lowly security guard.  Worse, Tantra now knows the terrible truth: that the company who gave her everything has long controlled her mind with the invasive Harlow Programming, which she has since been freed from.  With her loyalties tested, Tantra is thrust back into the thick of the action when she discovers a bomb sent to InTech’s headquarters.

InTech soon finds itself thrust into a brutal corporate war with its main competitor, Throughfront.  The bombing of their headquarters is the latest in a series of attacks on InTech assets, and the board are desperate to get them under control.  Determining that she is their best operative to stop the culprits behind the attack, Tantra is assigned to the case.  Teaming up once again with her former partner, Cole, the brilliant scientist with severe gaps in his memory, Tantra attempts to find the culprit before they cripple InTech for good.

But, facing opposition from both deadly internal InTech politics and lethal external forces, their chance of succeeding seems slim, especially when they are banished to a remote InTech facility in the Unaffiliated Zone for the remainder of their investigation.  Barely escaping a deadly assassination attempt, this unconventional team find themselves caught in the middle of a dangerous conspiracy that is determined to bring InTech down for good.  However, when they discover that InTech is planning their own sinister machinations, will Tantra and Cole still be as eager to save their company?

Wow, Carey follows up her excellent solo debut in a big way here with Outcast.  This second book was even better than Inscape, taking the reader on a wild and action-packed adventure through the author’s unique cyberpunk world.  Bringing together some amazing characters with a powerful and thought-provoking narrative about control and the potential evils of technology, this was an exceptional read I powered through in a few short days.

Outcast has an excellent story that perfectly continues the fantastic narrative started in Inscape.  Taking place shortly after the events of the first book, Outcast sees a struggling Tantra and Cole once again placed in the middle of a big investigation with major implications, this time involving the destruction of company drones outside the city, which is impacting the company’s food supply.  At the same time, Tantra finds herself forced to deal with deadly company internal politics, while Cole finds himself involved with a mysterious rebel group who are attempting to stop InTech’s more troublesome activities, including their latest upgrade.  This forces them to venture outside of the city where they encounter unaffiliated mercenaries, enemy agents, dangerous rebels and deep secrets about InTech’s past.  The middle of this novel is filled with an excellent series of great emotional sequences, action scenes, world building, character development and shocking twists, as the protagonists get closer to finding out who is behind the attacks, as well as the true plans of their parent company.  This leads up to a brilliant final sequence where the protagonists are forced to make some very hard decisions in a great no-winners situation.  This leads up to the amazing and powerful conclusion where the protagonists, despite their best efforts, are left devastated by the events that unfolded, and which ensures that all the readers will be back for the third entry in this awesome series.

There are so many cool elements to Outcast which really help to turn it into a first-class read.  I deeply enjoyed the way the impressive story unfolded, and Carey makes great use of a couple of alternate character perspectives to tell a unique and multifaceted tale, such as the entertaining scenes told from the perspective of a smarmy and desperate secondary antagonist.  The author does a great job of combining a thriller storyline with the unique science fiction elements, and it results in a fast-paced and action-packed story that takes the time to explore certain technological implications.  There are some brilliant twists loaded throughout the book which are well paced out and ensure that the reader is constantly on their toes.  I liked how, despite the sheer amount of world building featured in the first book, Outcast still came across as an accessible novel, and new readers can probably jump into the series here.  That being said, I think you would be missing out if you didn’t try Inscape first as this sequel does an amazing job building on and expanding some excellent storylines from Carey’s debut.  However, nothing will compete with the awesome ending that this novel has, and the reader is chucked through the emotional wringer as the book’s characters are put into an impossible situation, which produces some very dark results for them.

The excellent cyberpunk science fiction elements of this series once again shine in Outcast as Carey continues to explore the advanced biotech that was such a great feature of the first novel.  Not only is a lot of this technology very cool, especially as it results in some brilliant moments in some of the action sequences, but this mind-connected technology continues to be a key part of the plot.  Multiple storylines examine the ethics behind this technology, especially as the protagonists are now fully aware of the full extent of their parent company’s attempts to program their employees’/residents’ minds using their scapes.  This leads to some intriguing and deep discussions, especially as you get to see corporate greed and a desire for control weighed up against the rights of a person and their desire for independent thought and identity.  This exciting look at the series’ unique technology becomes even more intense and important as Outcast continues, especially when certain new advancements are revealed which could have devastating impacts on all the characters.  I loved how deep and captivating some of the scenes involving this technology get, and it results in some of the best bits of the entire book.  I cannot wait to see what happens with these cool technological aspects later in the series and I imagine it is going to be very fun.

I was also very impressed with the incredible character work featured throughout this book as Carey did a wonderful job expanding on her complex and damaged protagonists.  Like Inscape, Outcast is primarily focused on the characters of Tantra, a young intelligence officer, and Cole a formerly unethical scientist whose memory was completely erased, giving him a very different personality while retaining his brilliant mind.  These two formed a unique and fun pairing in Inscape, where they both experienced a lot of development and trauma, and it was great to see them back together again here.

Both characters had some brilliant moments throughout the novel, especially Tantra, who realised in the first book that her mind and her actions have been subtly controlled by a program her entire life.  Now rid of the Harlow Programming, Tantra is in full control of her mind, but must keep this hidden from InTech, who would kill her or reprogram her if they found out.  Forced to act like the obedient drone they think she is, Tantra chafes against the restrictions and contradictions of her superiors and the company, as she can see many of the injustices or manipulations now that her mind is solely hers.  This also results in are also some excellent ethical and loyalty implications for her as she can finally see how nefarious InTech, the company who raised her, really are, and she must decide whether she is still loyal to them.  It was especially powerful to see how her relationship with Reet, her lifelong romantic partner, has been changed.  Reet is still infected by the Harlow Programming, and Tantra can only watch as she toes the company line and fails to understand Tantra’s many concerns, criticisms or newly awakened point of view.  This puts some real strain on their relationship, and it was heartbreaking to see Tantra suffer even though she is now free.  This was easily the best character work in the entire book, and if the tragedies and hard decisions that occurred towards the end of Outcast are any indication, Tantra is going to be in for a rough ride in the third book.

Cole also had some outstanding moments in Outcast as he continues to struggle with his sense of self and identity following his memory loss and the eventual revelation that his past self was responsible for many of InTech’s evils, including the Harlow Programming.  Now mistreated and mistrusted by InTech, Cole works with a mysterious group outside of InTech to try and bring them down, while also attempting to learn more about his past actions and what led him to do what he did.  He does get some of the answers he wants as the story progresses, especially when he is reunited with an old colleague, but it only leads to tragedy and despair.  Cole’s story gets pretty dark in places, especially when he realises how InTech have repurposed and enhanced his original work, and it was fascinating to learn more about his past mistakes.

Aside from these two, there are several awesome supporting characters who also add a lot to the novel, especially as several of them are utilised as point of view characters.  This includes Douglas Kenway, a senior director at InTech and Tantra’s boss, who is determined to keep his position and power no matter what.  Convinced that Tantra is gunning for his job, he spends most of the novel trying to undermine her, while also inching closer to discovering the truth about her lack of Harlow Programming.  Kenway serves as an excellent secondary antagonist, and his dive into company politics and sabotage of the protagonist adds a fantastic and entertaining edge to the novel that I really enjoyed.  Despite his self-centred nature, Kenway does provide an intriguing alternate perspective on the events of the book, and he gives some corporate context for much of what is going on.  I also really liked how his fears were mostly realised towards the end of the book, although not in the way he expected.  I should also mention new character, Fliss, the leader of a rogue gang out in the Unaffiliated Zone who gets dragged into the conspiracy attacking InTech.  Fliss provides another great alternate perspective, especially as she and her friends have no technological upgrades to their bodies and are naturally human.  I liked the story that surrounded Fliss, especially as she struggles to control her gang when forced to work for a corporation, and she ended up being an excellent addition to the plot.  These characters, and more, help to turn Outcast into a first-rate book, and I deeply enjoyed seeing all these amazing personal stories unfold.

Louise Carey continues to shine as one of the most impressive new authors of cyberpunk fiction out there with her second novel, Outcast.  This outstanding sequel does a brilliant job of continuing the powerful storylines from Inscape, while also introducing new dangers, betrayals, and some great characters.  Filled with action, intense character moments and captivating cyberpunk science fiction elements, Outcast is a fantastic novel that proves to be exceedingly addictive and fun.  I am really starting to get hooked on this outstanding series, and all cyberpunk and science fiction fans need to do themselves a favour and check out Carey’s impressive Inscape series.

Sierra Six by Mark Greaney

Sierra Six Cover

Publisher: Sphere/Audible Audio (Audiobook – 15 February 2022)

Series: Gray Man – Book 11

Length: 15 hours and 58 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Epic thriller author Mark Greaney returns with the latest entry in his incredible Gray Man series with Sierra Six, an intense and captivating spy thriller that will grab your attention and refuse to let go until the final explosion.

Over the last few years, I have been absolutely hooked on the incredible thrillers of Mark Greaney, who is easily one of the best authors of spy fiction in the world today.  Not only did he cowrite a very cool military thriller, Red Metal (one of my favourite books and audiobooks of 2019), but he has continued his exceptional Gray Man series.  The Gray Man books follow Court Gentry, the titular Gray Man, an elite assassin and undercover operator who has worked both for and against the CIA.  This series has been so very cool, from the first novel The Gray Man (set to become a Netflix movie later this year), to the last three awesome entries, Mission Critical, One Minute Out (one of my favourite books and audiobooks of 2020) and Relentless (one of my favourite books and audiobooks of 2021).  Due to how impressive this series has been, I have been really excited to read the next book, Sierra Six, and it was one of my most anticipated releases of 2022, especially as it had a very cool plot to it.

Court Gentry, the Gray Man, is once again the world’s most wanted spy, hunted by his former employers, the CIA, and every other intelligence agency on the planet.  Looking for work, Gentry accepts an easy infiltration mission in Algeria to spy on a delegation from Pakistan.  However, the mission goes sideways when Gentry recognises one of the Pakistanis and his rookie technical officer is captured.  Chasing after the kidnappers, Gentry follows their trail to India and must relive one of the darkest moments from his past.

12 years ago, long before he became the Gray Man, Court Gentry was a talented young agent for the CIA.  Specialising in solo operations, Gentry is suddenly reassigned to Ground Branch and must work as the junior member of veteran CIA action team, Golf Sierra.  Given a new designation, Sierra Six, Gentry is forced to adapt to a new way of fighting as he and his team attempt to hunt down a dangerous terrorist leader in Pakistan.  However, their mission resulted in a high body count and a great personal loss that has haunted Gentry ever since.

Now, as Gentry works his way through Mumbai, he must face the realisation that the target of his original Sierra Six mission is still alive and active after all these years.  Determined to finish the job once and for all, Gentry works with a small team of rogue operators to find his target.  However, his old foe has initiated a bold new plan that could have devastating consequences for all of India.  Can Gentry get his revenge before it is too late, or will the ghosts of his past finally finish him off?

Greaney is in fine form with Sierra Six as he has written another excellent and intense spy thriller that I deeply enjoyed.  Containing an action-packed and multilayered narrative loaded with major set pieces, exciting spy elements and some complex characters, this was another awesome Gray Man novel from Greaney.

Sierra Six was an absolutely thrilling read and I had an outstanding time getting through the impressive and addictive narrative.  Greaney does something a little different for this book and features an excellent and intricate split timeline narrative, with the book divided between the events of the past when Gentry was part of Golf Sierra, and the current events in Mumbai which see Gentry again contending with the target of this original mission.  The narrative switches between the two timelines every chapter or two and you get a great sense of what is happening in both well-established storylines.  These two plot lines advance at a great pace throughout the entire novel and feature their own range of distinctive and fun supporting characters, some of whom appear in both the contemporary and past storylines.  I had a lot of fun with the two separate periods, and I loved how they both made excellent use of interesting characters, fantastic developments and a ton of high-octane action sequences.

The timelines support each other extremely well, with certain hints about the events of the past contained in the contemporary storyline increasing anticipation for the historical storyline, while revealed details about the villain and the young Court Gentry from 12 years ago enhance the protagonist’s current adventure.  In both cases, Gentry and his allies embark on a methodical hunt for their quarry, with a high body count accumulating as they follow various leads and respond to their opponent’s counter plays.  While primarily told from Gentry’s perspective, both timelines utilise distinctive side characters to great effect, and you see intriguing supporting perspectives, including from the antagonist, that help to widen the picture and enhance the richness of the story.  Both timelines eventually lead up to an awesome final sequence, comprised of two near-suicidal missions that the protagonist is engaged in.  This final section of the novel is extremely fast paced, especially as Greaney shortens the chapters and introduces more frequent jumps between the timelines to make everything seem even more frenetic.  Both timelines end with some incredible and awesome major set pieces, and I loved how Greaney used the end of the past storyline to set up the antagonist’s eventual return.  The novel ends on a great note, with the two separate storylines coming together perfectly, and the reader is left very satisfied, if a little moved, at the tragic ending of the events from 12 years ago.  I was extremely impressed with how this fantastic story came together, and this ended up being an addictive read with so many awesome moments in it.

Sierra Six was a particularly good entry in this already awesome series, and I loved how Greaney was able to create a book that both stands on its own as a thriller, while also serving as an amazing entry in the wider series.  This novel is structured to be very accessible to new readers, and anyone can easily pick up this book and start reading it without any knowledge of the prior entries in the series, especially as certain key elements are carefully explained when necessary.  There is also a lot for established Gray Man fans to enjoy here, as Greaney provides a bit of an origin story for his long-running protagonist.  Not only do we get to see Court Gentry do some of his earliest work for the CIA, but you also get to see his first interactions with key supporting characters, including Matthew Hanley and Zack Hightower.  I also loved a couple of fun little cameo appearances and throwaway lines that reference some of the earlier books, including the quick but enjoyable inclusion of the antagonist from the original novel.  While there is are no major continuations of some of the established storylines this is still a key and intriguing Gray Man novel, and it is one that people familiar with this series will deeply enjoy.

I was very impressed with some of the unique elements of this book, particularly those involving tradecraft, espionage work and covert combat teams.  There is a real focus on tradecraft throughout Sierra Six, and the author ensures that everything feels exceedingly realistic and gritty as the characters play their spy games.  Not only do you get to see some of the usual undercover work that Gentry excels in but you also get a great look at paramilitary combat, as the protagonist learns from scratch the rules of fighting as part of a combat team.  All this tradecraft really adds to the authenticity of the story, although it did make parts of the book a little clunky in places, especially when the narrator or the characters explain certain espionage or military elements multiple times in overly descriptive ways.

I also rather enjoyed the exciting settings of the various timelines, as Greaney takes the reader to wartime Afghanistan, Pakistan and modern-day India.  This is an interesting change of pace from most of the Gray Man novels I have read, which have been primarily set in Europe, and I liked seeing the various descriptive landscapes and unique people.  Mumbai proved to be a great setting for most of the contemporary storyline, and it was very fun to see Gentry manoeuvre his way through the crowded districts and locals.  I also really enjoyed the focus on Pakistani intelligence and the Indian underworld, which proved to be very fascinating.  For example, the fiction criminal group B-Company are clearly based on the infamous real-life D-Company, and it was quite intriguing to see them worked into the story, while also examining their origin and goals of their leadership.  All these cool tradecraft elements and intriguing settings deeply enhanced the overall story, and it made for quite a fascinating and distinctive read.

There was some rather interesting character work going on in Sierra Six as Greaney takes his fantastic protagonist to some very dark places at various points in his timeline.  I really appreciated the dive back into the period before Court Gentry became the Gray Man, and Greaney paints a compelling figure of a habitual loner with no personal attachments only at the beginning of his espionage career.  Watching Gentry join a team and try to play nice with others was a captivating part of the book, and it was fascinating to see the rookie Gentry get rattled by stuff he’ll become much more used to in the future.  Greaney also enhances Gentry’s development by including a curious, but touching, relationship in the earlier timeline, which helped to humanise Gentry a lot.  However, certain tragic elements from this help mould him into the killer we all know and love, and Greaney subtly introduced the ripples from this into the contemporary storyline.  The reader leaves Sierra Six with a much better understanding of this cool character, and I had a great time seeing more of the Gray Man’s past.

Both timelines are filled with an excellent and comprehensive cast of side characters, each of whom add a great deal to the narrative and Gentry’s development in their own way.  While there are a few recurring characters from the previous Gray Man novels, most of the focus are on newer figures, who Greaney provides with compelling and interesting backstories.  I liked how the past and modern-day storylines both featured great female side characters who helped move the story along in their own distinctive ways.  This includes the socially awkward intelligence officer Julie Marquez, from the original Golf Sierra mission, and Indian tech guru Priyanka Bandari, who Gentry is forced to work with after saving her from kidnappers.  Both female characters add to the plot a great deal, and it is fascinating to see events unfold from their eyes, especially as they have diverse life experiences and are also seeing very different versions of the protagonist.  The storylines around both women are written extremely well, and I really appreciated where both went, especially as they both included tragedy, regret and definitive action.  I also must really highlight the use of long-running supporting character Zack Hightower, who was an excellent inclusion in the historical storyline.  Zack is always a great foil to Gentry, and I really enjoyed seeing him interact with the younger, cockier version here, especially as it shows some of the earlier dynamics between them.  Watching Gentry meet his mentor and friend for the first time was great, and I really enjoyed the cool storyline that developed between them and the other members of the Golf Sierra kill team.  All these characters were extremely impressive and I had a brilliant time getting to know them throughout the course of Sierra Six.

While I did receive a paperback version of Sierra Six, I went out of my way to also get this novel on audiobook as I have had some awesome experiences with the Gray Man books in this format before.  This proved to be an excellent decision as the Sierra Six audiobook was amazing, perfectly telling the cool story while enhancing the intriguing tradecraft and action elements.  The Sierra Six audiobook has a run time just short of 16 hours and so requires a bit of a time investment to get through it, although I think this was more than worth it and dedicated listeners should be able to get through rather quickly.  I was also very happy to see that this audiobook once again featured the vocal talents of Jay Snyder, who is one of my favourite audiobook narrators at the moment.  Snyder has a gruff and distinctive voice that fits the harder spy thriller feel of this novel perfectly and drags the listener into the intense tale.  Snyder does a brilliant voice with all the characters featured within, and you get a good sense of their various emotions and feelings, especially during some of the more action-packed sequences.  I had an outstanding time listening to this audiobook and it is an excellent format for anyone interested in trying out this latest Gray Man novel.

The always impressive Mark Greaney has done it again, producing an incredible and exciting new Gray Man novel.  Sierra Six, features a bold and captivating story that cleverly utilises two distinctive timelines to tell its intense and moving tale.  Loaded with fun character, brutal action sequences, and some intriguing espionage moments, this was another outstanding book I had a brilliant time reading.  Sierra Six comes highly recommended from me and I cannot wait to get my hands on the next Greaney book.

Sierra Six Cover 2

Her Perfect Twin by Sarah Bonner

Her Perfect Twin Cover

Publisher: Hodder Studio (Trade Paperback – 25 January 2022)

Series: Standalone

Length: 329 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Prepare yourself for shocks, twists and so many sweet surprises as impressive new author Sarah Bonner presents her epic debut thriller, Her Perfect Twin.

Megan Hardcastle has always lived in the shadow of her estranged twin, Leah, who always took everything Megan had, while exploiting their dramatic family past to obtain fame, fortune and the freedom to do anything she wanted.  Despite that, deep down Megan still loves her sister, until she finds explicit photos of her on her husband’s phone.  Rushing to her sister’s house, she is unable to contain her rage, and their argument ends tragically when she kills Leah.

Determined not to get caught, Megan comes up with the desperate plan to become Leah, fooling the world into thinking she is still alive.  Diving deep into Leah’s perfect life, Megan starts to become her sister and soon finds her carefree life intoxicating and irresistible, especially when she falls in love with the new man in Leah’s life.  As life at home with her controlling husband gets even more difficult, Megan decides to give up her entire existence and start living as Leah.  However, just before she can enact her escape, the pandemic lockdown hits.

As the country adjusts to a new normal, Megan struggles to maintain two separate lives under lockdown.  Her problems are only just beginning when it becomes clear that someone else knows her secret and they are willing to use it to take everything from her.  Soon, Megan finds herself engaged in a deadly game of cat and mouse against a sadistic foe with her life, freedom and identity on the line.  However, not everything is as it seems, and all the dark secrets from these twin’s life are about to come out.

OMG, well that turned out to be exceedingly epic and amazing.  Sarah Bonner has come out of the gates swinging here, and her first book was such an outstanding and epic read.  Her Perfect Twin is easily one of the best psychological thrillers of the year, and I loved the exceptionally clever and wildly entertaining story it contained.  Loaded with complex and deeply flawed characters as well as some impressive examinations of self and identity, Her Perfect Twin is an incredibly addictive novel that gets a five-star rating from me.

Let me just start off here saying that you are going to really fall in love with the intense and captivating narrative contained within Her Perfect Twin.  Bonner has gone out of her way here to create an exceptional read that quickly drags you in and then hits you with clever twist after clever twist, until the only thing you can think about is getting to the end of the story.  Her Perfect Twin starts off strong, introducing the protagonist Megan and showing the events through her eyes as she uncovers her husband’s affair with her twin sister, Leah, who she then kills after they get into an argument.  The reader slowly gets to see Megan enjoying the new freedoms and fun associated with living her sister’s life, while she also plans to escape from her normal life and terrible marriage.  This first part of the book is very good and I enjoyed seeing the protagonist dive into her new identity, especially as she grows as a person under it.  While I liked this part of the story, I thought I could see where the story was going, including the introduction of lockdown part way through.  However, it turns out that I was so very, very wrong, as Bonner had some amazing tricks up her sleeve.

The first real indication you get about how much Her Perfect Twin is going to change happened about halfway through when, after a major and surprising reveal, the narrative suddenly starts getting told from the perspective of an entirely different character.  This honestly altered everything, as not only did it throw you right into the mind of a psychopath but it starts showing some of the previous events of the book in an entirely new context, revealing just how much set up and foreshadowing Bonner included in the first half of the novel.  From there you are forced to watch an incredibly evil villain make their move, manipulating the situation to their advantage while appearing to have total control, which is both infuriating and extremely compelling at the same time.  And then, just when you think you have a handle on the situation, Bonner throws another big twist at you, along with another new point-of-view character, and you honestly have no idea what the hell is going to happen next.  At this point, I was honestly reeling with all the revelations as I began to fully understand just how talented Bonner is as an author, but the story isn’t done yet.  There are even more great reveals and twists from there as the third character tells their story, which changes everything that you thought you knew already.  A final major shift occurs for the last part of the book, which seeks to wrap up everything and showcases the full cleverness and feelings off all the previous characters.  While this final part of the book is a tad slower and seems a little disconnected from the main plot, it concludes everything up beautifully and leads to an impressive and well-thought-out ending that will leave you incredibly satisfied.

This was a pretty incredible story, and it is one that I had so much fun getting through.  I honestly read the last 250 pages in a single sitting, and it was physically impossible for me to put down the book after the first big reveal.  I cannot emphasize enough just how clever and brilliant all the twists in Her Perfect Twin were, and Bonner sets all of them up perfectly.  I loved how multiple small details and seemingly throwaway lines came back in a big way as the novel progressed, and there was some brilliant planning here.  Bonner writes a pretty dark psychological tale here, and Her Perfect Twin does an impressive dive into the inner psyches of its various characters, with a particular focus on identity, freedom and the terrible secrets that bind us together.  While a few scenes get a bit disturbing and might be upsetting for some readers, it all works for the greater good of the story, and every brutal scene is incredibly well written and impressively moving.  I did appreciate the way in which Bonner was able to work England’s COVID-19 lockdowns into the story.  While some recent novels tend to shoe-horn lockdowns into their story, Bonner’s examination and use of the lockdowns was particularly clever, expertly tying into the story and becoming one of the better inclusions of it that I have seen in recent years.  An overall incredible and powerful narrative, you will fall in love with Her Perfect Twin’s perfect story.

I must also highlight the incredible characters that Bonner featured throughout Her Perfect Twin, although I might avoid specifics to keep some of the twists hidden.  All the characters in this book are extremely well developed, and Bonner produces some intricate and powerful backstories for them that drive them to do the bad things in this novel.  Megan was extremely well written, and her constant battles with her identity, her devious twin, and the constant fear of obtaining the same memory issues that plague her mother, become important parts of her story.  Watching her develop and attempt to find happiness is pretty satisfying, although she goes through a lot in this novel, especially as the story gets darker and darker.  The rest of the main characters were also really good, and you get some intriguing perspectives as the novel progresses, which help to produce such a rich and striking story.  A particular shoutout must go to the main antagonist of the book, who is quite frankly one of the best/worst villains I have seen in fiction.  This antagonist is a malicious, deceitful and sadistic figure who puts all the other characters through the emotional wringer as they attempt to get their ultimate goal.  I hated this character so much in Her Perfect Twin, especially after finding out the full extent of their plans, and once the book jumps to their arrogant perspective, you will grow to hate them too.  Watching them put their devious designs into motion is pretty horrific, and you will hang in there just to wait and see if they fail.  You will really come to love or hate these characters by the end of Her Perfect Twin, which just goes to show how awesome an author Bonner really is.

I think it is clear from my excitable ramblings up above that I really loved this incredible novel.  Her Perfect Twin was an exceptional debut from Sarah Bonner and I still cannot get over how much I loved its cool and clever story.  Loaded with insane twists and powerful characters, this novel is just so damn good, and you honestly will not be prepared for how crazy the story gets.  A must-read for all fans of the thriller genre; I cannot recommend Her Perfect Twin enough.

Throwback Thursday: Usagi Yojimbo: Volume 12: Grasscutter by Stan Sakai

Usagi Yojimbo - Grasscutter Cover

Publisher: Dark Horse Books (Paperback – 1999)

Series: Usagi Yojimbo – Book 12

Length: 255 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Welcome back to my Throwback Thursday series, where I republish old reviews, review books I have read before or review older books I have only just had a chance to read.  For my latest Throwback Thursday I return to my very favourite comic book as I look at the 12th volume in the epic Usagi Yojimbo series by Stan Sakai, Grasscutter.

Usagi #13

It has been a little while since I covered one of these Usagi Yojimbo volumes in a Throwback Thursday article.  I had a bit of trouble getting this specific volume, which kind of put everything on pause.  Despite my belief that I had a whole collection of the Usagi Yojimbo comics, it turns out I was missing the 12th volume and I honestly have no idea how I could have misplaced my copy (or did I ever really own it? Who knows?).  To fix this oversight, I recently ordered a second-hand copy from Amazon and managed to get it shipped down here from America.  Now that I finally have a full collection, I can get back to reviewing this entire epic series, which is proving to be so much fun.

A quick refresh about this series before we start: the Usagi Yojimbo comics are the incredible work of legendary comic author and artist Stan Sakai, who has been working on this series for nearly 40 years.  Made up of a ton of amazing volumes, the comic is set in an alternate version of feudal Japan populated by anthropomorphic animals.  The series follows the rabbit ronin Miyamoto Usagi, a wandering bodyguard and adventurer who gets involved in all manner of troubles as he faces off against criminals, bandits, ninja, monsters, psychopaths and ambitious lords.  Combining brilliant stories with complex characters, cool action, elaborate scenarios and outstanding artwork, this series is an absolute masterpiece and it is one that I have adored for years.

Usagi #14

The 12th volume of this series is Grasscutter, which serves as a particularly major entry in the entire Usagi Yojimbo line.  Containing issues #13-22 of the Dark Horse Comics run, this volume unusually contains a single story, rather than the multiple shorter, episodic tales typical of this series.  Bringing together several intriguing story threads from previous comics and reuniting several of the more distinctive supporting characters, Sakai tells his most ambitious tale, and the results is absolute magic.

Following a destructive war centuries ago between two rival houses, the nation of Japan is now firmly controlled by the shogun and his court, while the emperor rules only as a symbolic figure, detached from the politics of the realm.  While many are content to live within the shogun’s peace, there are some who seek power and prestige through the return of the imperial family to true power.  But with the full might of the military and the samurai behind him, only one thing could possibly inspire the people to revolt against the shogun: the legendary heaven-forged sword, Kusanagi the Grasscutter.

Usagi #15

However, this divine sword was lost generations ago in the battle that saw the Imperial family overthrown, and it now rests at the bottom of a watery strait, impossible to recover.  Undeterred by the odds against them, a small contingent of rebellious lords have initiated a conspiracy to overthrow the shogun by any means necessary.  Calling upon the powers of a mysterious witch, the conspirators hope to obtain the sword through sorcerous means.  While they succeed in freeing Grasscutter from its watery tomb, fate ensures that the sword ends up in the mostly unlikely of hands, that of the wandering samurai Miyamoto Usagi.

Unsure what to do with the legendary sword, Usagi soon finds himself pursued by the forces of the conspirators and must fight with everything he has to keep it out of their hands.  But the events of this conflict spread far beyond Usagi, and soon everyone he knows is in danger as the conspirators attempt to kill his friends Tomoe and Lord Noriyuki to stop them bringing Grasscutter to the shogun.  At the same time, the bounty hunter Gen and the rogue swordswoman Inazuma as drawn from their own scuffles into the greater battle for Grasscutter, especially when they encounter the feared demon-spearman Jei.  Can Usagi and his friends survive the overwhelming forces arrayed against them, or will the nation be thrown into war once again with the resurgence of the Grasscutter?

Usagi #16

Wow, just wow!  This is such an impressive comic that is so very epic in scope, storytelling and major character moments.  Sakai has done a brilliant job with this cool volume, and I loved the brilliant narrative he cooked up for Grasscutter, especially as it ties into so many major moments from the previous volumes.  Filled with intense action, brilliant set pieces and some beautiful art, Grasscutter is an incredible volume that, unsurprisingly, gets a full five-star rating from me.

I loved the incredible story that Sakai has featured in Grasscutter, especially as, in a departure from the series’ usual style of short stories, this volume features one massive and complex story.  This change in story length works extremely well and ensures that this volume stands out as a major entity in this epic series.  Sakai sets his narrative up carefully, with the initial issues of the comic dedicated to explaining the importance of the sword Grasscutter and how it was lost during a deadly civil war.  After establishing the significance of this weapon, the main narrative quickly gets into full swing, continuing one of the storylines from the previous volume, Seasons, and showing the members of the Conspiracy of Eight working to summon the sword from the bottom of the strait using possessed crabs (it makes sense in context).  As this is occurring, several other intriguing storylines are set up and you are soon following Usagi as he does his usual wandering routine, as well as other great side characters like Gen, Inazuma, Tomeo and Lord Noriyuki, as well as the deadly villain Jei.  Having all these characters caught up in these events makes for quite an interesting and elaborate tale, with each of them getting their own distinctive storyline that slowly merges with the others.  For example, Usagi finds himself in a desperate battle against the forces of the conspirators, Gen attempts to hunt down Inazuma for the big bounty on her head, only to run afoul of bandits and police, Tomoe attempts to save Lord Noriyuki from a treacherous ambush only to run into a far more dangerous foe, while Jei finds himself drawn towards the power of the divine sword.

Usagi #17

All these storylines come together extremely well as the story proceeds, often in some explosive and action-packed ways.  Usagi, in his pursuit of the sword, finds himself once again teaming up with Gen, only to run right into Jei when he is at his most dangerous.  Meanwhile the intense storyline surrounding Tomeo and Noriyuki has some large set pieces as the two attempt to escape the army chasing after them.  While mostly separate, these two storylines complement each other nicely, especially as the ambush on Tomeo and Noriyuki is due to the conspirators searching for Grasscutter, and it serves as a dramatic side adventure to the main story.  There are some amazing moments here, and I was particularly impressed with the storyline that saw Noriyuki come face to face with his father’s worse enemy in a complicated manner.  The big finale involves the final fight between Usagi and his mortal enemy, Jei, which sees some absolute carnage.  The subsequent damage and the impossible consequences will leave you reeling, and this entire story concludes perfectly, not only bringing the impressive narrative around Grasscutter to a satisfactory end, but also setting up some additional interesting storylines and character arcs.  This entire volume is just so damn epic, and I really appreciate the way in which Sakai journeys back to many of his previous storylines and utilises elements from them here, although it does mean that Grasscutter isn’t a great entry for first-time readers to check out.  The great combination of action, character development and intriguing world-building elements is just exceptional, and this entire comic is brilliant from start to finish.

Usagi #18

One of the main things that I always love about the Usagi Yojimbo comics is Sakai’s use of intriguing elements from Japanese culture and history to compliment his excellent original storytelling.  This is particularly true in Grasscutter as Sakai utilises some of the most iconic parts of Japanese mythology and history as the basis for much of the plot, particularly around the legendary sword Kusanagi-no-Tsurugi (Grasscutter or Grass-Cutting Sword).  Sakai, who has clearly done a ton of research here, produces an amazing interpretation of the origins of the sword, going all the way back to the Japanese creation myth and showcasing the origins of the Kami and their many descendants.  He then goes into the history of the sword, showing its discovery of the sword, the events that resulted in the name change to Grasscutter, before going all the way to the Japanese Civil War (the Genpei War), that saw the rise of the shogunate and the decline of imperial authority.  This ends with a brilliant showcase of the massive and destructive naval battle between the two factions which led to the death of the young emperor and the loss of the sword.  The loss of the sword, as recounted in The Tale of the Heike, becomes a key part of this narrative, and it is so fascinating to see its sudden return be used as a major story element.  Readers unfamiliar with Japanese history or mythology get a brilliant understanding of these cultural elements at the start of the book, and this allows the rest of the story to flow perfectly.  I deeply enjoyed how Sakai brought all these cool moments to life (even if he does simplify it in places for narrative reasons), and it ended up being an exquisite and clever start to the book.  Throw in a very detailed and fascinating notes section at the back from Sakai, explaining his research and how it influenced his story, and you have some exceedingly cool historical elements that are expertly utilised to create an epic Japanese tale.

While I had a lot of fun with the story, action and Japanese cultural elements, one of the main highlights of Grasscutter is the substantial character work that occurs within.  Due to its length and scope, Grasscutter serves as a major part of the Usagi Yojimbo series and as such, it features many of the best supporting characters from the previous volumes.  All these characters get some substantial storylines in this book, either as protagonists or villains, and it was extremely fascinating to see what happened to some of them.  Sakai melds the unique character storylines together into one cohesive and powerful narrative which does an excellent job exploring each of the characters and giving them key moments in their storylines.

Usagi #19

Unsurprisingly, much of the story focuses on the character of Usagi, who serves as the main protagonist of the story.  Thanks to his usual luck, Usagi winds up finding the blade immediately after it emerges from the water and is soon thrust into the midst of the conflict surrounding it.  This immediately puts him in a major dilemma as he is uncertain what to do with the sword, as all the sides who would claim it (the shogun, the emperor, even some of his own friends) would all use it for their own benefit and the nation would likely suffer as a result.  As such he fights incredibly hard to hold onto the blade for everyone’s good, and this forces him into some increasingly desperate battles.  Usagi gets pretty beat up and exhausted throughout this entire ordeal, and his final match with Jei pushes him to the limit and strikes him at his very core.  While he doesn’t get a major amount of development in this story, he still served as a great centre for the plot and it is always fun to follow along on one of his adventures.

You can’t have a major Usagi story without his friend, Murakami Gennosuke (Gen) showing up and trying to get paid.  The rhino bounty hunter has an excellent story which starts when he unsuccessfully tries to claim a bounty on some dead criminals he discovers in the woods.  This almost immediately backfires on him and forces him to deal with all manner of corrupt cops and murderous bandits as he attempts to make a little money.  His misadventures lead him to face off against Inazuma, the deadly swordswomen who Usagi encountered in the 10th volume, The Brink of Life and Death.  Inazuma, a former innocent girl turned sinister killer, is still being pursued by assassins and bounty hunters who want the massive price on her head.  Naturally Gen decides to chase after her, and this results in a pretty brutal fight between the two, which really showcases just how dangerous Inazuma can be.  The subsequent storylines are also fascinating as Gen gets dragged into the fight for Grasscutter by Usagi and Inazuma goes deep into her own soul when she encounters Jei.  This results in some extremely dark moments for both characters, and it was captivating to see what happened to them throughout the volume.  The final reveals about Inazuma and her future are very grim, and it sets up some excellent storylines in the future.

Usagi #20

There are also some brilliant storylines going on around the characters of Tomeo and Lord Noriyuki.  While primarily separate from Usagi and his adventures, Tomeo and Noriyuki find themselves under attack and are pursued throughout the land by murderous assassins and samurai (much like in their first appearance in Volume 1: The Ronin).  Their dangerous journey becomes even more perilous when they run into a familiar face, General Ikeda, the character so perfectly featured in the short story The Patience of the Spider from the previous volume.  Ikeda is a great character in that he is a former general who, after failing to kill Noriyuki’s father in a revolt, has spent the last several years living as a peasant, a simple life he became content with.  However, when he suddenly finds the son of his mortal enemy in his house, he must choose whether to take up the old grudge or forge a new path for himself.  Watching the internal struggle that occurs within Kieda is pretty awesome, and his interactions with the suspicious Tomeo and Noriyuki are just wonderful.  I deeply enjoyed how this story unfolded, and it was some of the best character work in the entire volume, not to mention the most action-packed.

The final major character I really to talk about is the infamous Blade of the Gods, Jei.  First appearing in the third volume, The Wanderer’s Road, the crazed killer Jei has been one of the best villains in this series, constantly following Usagi and trying to kill him (another good story was in the sixth volume, Circles).  Jei and Usagi finally come face to face again in Grasscutter when Jei recovers the sword and attempts to use it for his own dark purposes.  Sakai really goes out of his way to make Jei appear as a deadly badass in this comic, with his first appearance shows him killing an entire detachment of samurai by himself.  His subsequent wanderings see him interact with several other side characters for the first time in the series, and their reactions to his weird aura and power are brilliant.  I loved how the dark Jei is perfectly offset by his companion, the young, innocent girl Keiko, who is the only person Jei cares about and will not hurt.  They have some great moments in this comic, and it is fascinating and troubling to see the interactions between them.  However, Jei’s big moment in Grasscutter is his rematch with Usagi, which has been brewing for ages.  Watching these bitter enemies face each other again is pretty fantastic, and you get some amazing moments during their duel.  The conclusion of their fight is very clever and really alters your opinion about both Jei and Usagi, while also seeming to confirm Jei’s supernatural background.  Watching the pure fear and shock on the usually unflappable Usagi when he encounters the many mysteries of Jei is so awesome, and Jei continues to shine as a brilliant antagonist in this volume.  His intriguing final fate will leave you shocked and surprised as a new version of the character emerges.  All this character work and more really helps to turn this outstanding comic into a true masterpiece, and I have so much love for Sakai’s ability to create such amazing and iconic figures.

Usagi #21

The final thing that I want to highlight is the impressive artwork contained within Grasscutter.  As with all the Usagi Yojimbo volumes, all the art of this comic has been drawn exclusively by Sakai, which is exceedingly impressive.  His drawing skills are amazing on multiple levels as he portrays such complex adventures with a simple yet beautiful style which I have so much love for.  As with most Usagi Yojimbo comics, Grasscutter is filled with stunning drawings, from amazing landscape shots that show off the beauty of the Japanese wilderness, to close-up shots of the deadly battle sequences.  There are some amazing scenes throughout this book, although I personally really enjoyed the fantastic and powerful renderings of key moments of Japanese history and mythology that were featured in the volume’s first two issues.  Everything from the formation of the lands to the events that gave Grasscutter its name is very cool, and Sakai expertly imparts his own style into these intriguing spiritual stories.  The massive battle that ended the civil war is shown in some exquisite detail here, and I loved how he showcased this elaborate and deadly naval fight.  Of course, you cannot forget the brilliant final duel between Usagi and Jei, which was such a highlight of the story.  Sakai goes out of his way to make this fight as epic and as brutal as possible, and you get a real sense of both participants skill and determination to win.  The mystical aftermath of their fight looks extremely awesome as well, and I loved all the intriguing and unique detail Sakai featured here, including the spooky alterations that happened to one of the characters.  Another brilliant artistic outing from Sakai that perfectly supported his incredible storytelling and character work and is some must see drawing.

Usagi #22

As you can no doubt tell from the glowing descriptions above, I deeply enjoyed this 12th volume of the Usagi Yojimbo series.  Stan Sakai was in excellent form when he created the powerful and exciting Grasscutter, which features one of the author’s most impressive and extensive stories.  Featuring all his best characters, his great love of Japanese culture, as well as some impressive artwork, Grasscutter shines as an outstanding entry in this brilliant series, and it is one that cannot recommend enough.

Throwback Thursday – X-Factor: Volume 1: The Longest Night

X-Factor - Volume 1 - The Longest Night

Publisher: Marvel Comics (Paperback – 7 March 2007)

Series: X-Factor (Vol. 3) – Volume One

Writer: Peter David

Pencils: Ryan Sook & Dennis Calero

Inks: Wade Von Grawbadger & Dennis Calero

Colour Art: Jose Villarrubia

Letters: Cory Petit

Length: 144 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Welcome back to my Throwback Thursday series, where I republish old reviews, review books I have read before or review older books I have only just had a chance to read.  For this Throwback Thursday I look at the start of one of the best comic series I have ever had the pleasure of reading, with The Longest Night, the first volume in Peter David’s impressive and incredible X-Factor series.

X-Factor - Vol3 - 2 Cover

There are many awesome comic series that I have a great appreciation for, but to my mind one of the most entertaining, clever and captivating series I have ever had the pleasure of reading has to be the third major version of the X-Factor title that ran between 2005 and 2013.  This series span off the limited series, Madrox: Multiple Choice, with its entire run written by Peter David, with a rotating team of talented artists.  Also known as X-Factor (Vol.3) or X-Factor Investigations, this long-running series focused on a team of mutants who formed a detective agency after the events of House of M.  Calling themselves X-Factor Investigations and led by Jamie Madrox, the Multiple Man, this series followed the team as they investigated mutant related crimes, protected the area of New York formerly known as Mutant Town, and did general superheroics, often for a fee.  Despite its odd-sounding plot, this was an incredibly good series, and it is one of my all-time favourite comic series.  I have recently done a bit of a re-read of this series and thought that it would be a good time to talk about it on my blog, starting with this first volume, The Longest Night.

X-Factor is back, and this time they are in business for themselves as X-Factor Investigations, the weirdest and only mutant run private investigative agency in New York.  Led by Jamie Madrox (the Multiple Man), made up of the ragtag group of heroes including, Strong Guy, Wolfsbane, Siryn, Rictor and Monet, X-Factor investigates the cases no-one else will, especially if it helps current and former mutants.  However, X-Factor are about to find themselves investigating the most sinister case of their brief tenure, when a new client walks in the door, accompanied by the mysterious Layla Miller.  Following the breadcrumbs given to them by Layla, X-Factor begins looking into the rival organisation, Singularity Investigations, who have dire plans for the future of all mutant kind.  At the same time, X-Factor finds itself in the middle of the deteriorating conditions in Mutant Town, as they start their own investigation into what really depowered most of the mutant species.

As their investigations continue, X-Factor find themselves encountering crazy events and dire obstacles from all sides.  Forced to protect their client from being arrested for murder, as well as the deadly attentions of Singularity Investigations, X-Factor struggles to solve the case before it is too late.  However, their actions have awoken a dangerous enemy whose knowledge of time could prove disastrous.  Can X-Factor succeed and become the team the world needs, and what role will Layla Miller play in their future, especially as she actively attempts to hide the events of House of M and Decimation from her new friends?

X-Factor - Vol3 - 3 Cover

The Longest Night is a brilliant and intense comic volume that serves as the perfect introduction to this outstanding X-Factor series.  Containing issues #1-6 of X-Factor (Vol. 3), The Longest Night contains an incredible and epic story by Peter David that expertly introduces the new team and sets up many of their future adventures, perfectly accompanied by the excellent art of Ryan Sook and Dennis Calero.  This incredible comic will really start your fall towards X-Factor obsession.

To start this amazing series off, David has come up with an impressive narrative that not only introduces the team but also contains several clever mysteries and dangerous threats.  The Longest Night starts off in a very interesting way, with Madrox attempting to save the life of a suicidal Rictor, while other members of the team find themselves under attack from sinister forces.  The story quickly develops, with new player Layla Miller directing X-Factor Investigations towards the mysterious Singularity Investigations, while also implementing her own mysterious agenda.  This sets the X-Factor team down a dark path as they contend with the corrupt and deadly Singularity employees as well as other malicious threats that pop up.  I deeply enjoyed the main storyline, especially as the protagonists are forced to intervene in a murder case to prove that their client is innocent, despite dangerous interference from their competitors.  This leads to some dark consequences, as one of the team is attacked and then kidnapped in scenes that strongly remind you of a dark thriller.  The new villains of this early part of the series, Singularity Investigations and their management team the Tryps, prove to be pretty sinister, and I liked some of the unique storylines that are started up around them.  There are also some impressive and clever sequences that explore the aftermath of the Decimation, as well as the current mental states of the various team members, which is extremely powerful and deeply moving.

I loved the cool style that this comic had, especially as the creative team were trying to give it a classic noir detective vibe at times.  While some of the best themes from the X-Men comics are featured within this volume, such as prejudice, dual self-hatred and love of mutant abilities, and the fallout from the House of M limited series, this comic really stands on its own, and I loved the combination of mutant issues and crime fiction.  There is a certain dark edge to many of the storylines, with the character dealing with brutal murders and attempted killings.  While much of the focus is on the darker and more mature vibes, this comic also has a wicked sense of humour behind it which I deeply enjoyed.  All the characters are pretty fun, and there are some dark and clever jokes sprinkled throughout the story, especially when it comes to group clown Madrox and resident mystery girl Layla Miller.  This combination of superheroics, dark humour and crime fiction makes for quite an impressive read, and I always find myself getting really drawn into it.  Due to how many times I have read this series of the years I also really respect The Longest Night as a first entry in the overall X-Factor (Vol.3) series.  While all the best elements haven’t been introduced yet, this comic is still off to a brilliant start, and I loved all the hints and brief mentions of the events yet to come.  Multiple storylines are perfectly set up here, and there are some great references to upcoming events and some key moments from recent comics.  This proves to be an exciting and impressive first entry in this series, and I love how it spawns so many awesome moments in the future.

X-Factor - Vol3 - 4 Cover

One of the things that has always impressed me about this version of X-Factor is the excellent cast of characters featured.  The team is an intriguing combination of some of the more unique and enjoyable characters from the various X-Men comics.  The initial line-up featured in The Longest Night is a great example of this, as David has featured several previous X-Factor members alongside some interesting new choices.  There is a real mismatched feel to the characters, as not only are they angry and discontent, but there is some thinly veiled antagonism going on between them, despite them all being on the same team.  On top of that, they end up being some of the most damaged and complex figures you can expect to find in Marvel comics, as they are all dealing with unique personal issues.  This results in some major personality clashes and great internal struggles that really enhances the drama of the narrative and results in some brilliant storytelling.

The main character of this series is team leader Jamie Madrox, the Multiple Man.  Jamie is a very interesting figure in this series, due to the many divergent and tragic issues that result from his ability to create duplicates of himself.  Attempting to be a grounded and calm figure for the team, Jamie often finds himself undermined, not only by his time but also by his own dupes, which proves to be both entertaining and occasionally emotionally powerful.  A lot of these great elements are explored in The Longest Night, and you get a great sense of who the character is and his complex feelings, even if you haven’t read the lead-in limited series, Madrox: Multiple Choice.  Jamie cuts a great figure as a noir-inspired private detective leading a team of misfits, but in reality, he is scared and emotionally drained, even before the series starts.  Jamie ends up spending most of this comic battling his own inner demons and indecision, while also having difficulty controlling his team.  While in many ways Jamie is a tragic figure, he also serves as one of the main comic reliefs, and his smart-assed comments and dark jokes add a lot to the narrative, while barely hiding his struggles within.  I really liked how this comic spent significant time exploring Jamie’s power to create duplicates, as well as the many problems associated with it.  What makes this power very unique is the way that each of his dupes has their own personality, most of which are a manifestation of his own fears, internal struggles, inner dark side and more.  While this is often played for comedic effect, especially as his crazier dupes say some very random stuff, certain dupes show off a real mean side, such as one who pretends to be Zen, but is actually Jamie’s unpredictable side, his “X-Factor”.  This was an overall incredibly impressive introduction to Madrox, and it serves as a brilliant base to his various follow-on storylines that are such an impressive feature of the rest of this series.

X-Factor - Vol3 - 5 Cover

Aside from Madrox, the team is made up of former X-Factor members Julio Richter (Rictor), Guido Carosella (Strong Guy) and Rahne Sinclair (Wolfsbane), as well as X-Factor newcomers Theresa Cassidy (Siryn, daughter of Banshee) and Monet St. Croix (M from the Generation X comic).  I really liked this great blend of figures as it produces some awesome and entertaining team dynamics, such as having the arrogant party girl, Monet, getting into various disputes with the other characters.  All five of these characters have some interesting moments in this volume, such as Strong Guy and Wolfsbane’s interference against an anti-mutant riot, or Monet’s brief emotional breakdown after telepathically experiencing the murder of a young woman.  However, I the best moments of this volume probably occurred with Siryn and Rictor.  Siryn, who serves as a bit of a second-in-command, has several key storylines around her, and she ends up being the one most obsessed with the actions of Singularity Investigations.  The subsequent brutal attack and creepy hostage situation she suffers from is pretty horrifying, and the resultant mental and physical damage makes for some harrowing moments.  Rictor also has a great storyline in this series, as he is the only character on the team who lost their powers in the Decimation.  This leads him to some serious depression, especially as the first scene in the comic involves his attempted suicide, which is only just stopped by the rest of the team.  The author’s compelling and thought-provoking dive into Rictor’s feelings of loss and uncertainty is pretty heartbreaking, and I loved this complex look at the terrible impacts of the Decimation.  Despite his lack of powers, Rictor still serves as a great member of the team, and his involvement in saving Siryn from a terrible situation is extremely cool and very intense.

However, my favourite member of this new version of X-Factor had to be the young and mysterious Layla Miller.  Layla was first introduced as a unique character in House of M, as she could remember the real world and bring the memories back to the various heroes.  She reappears in this volume right in the first issue, walking into office, providing information and declaring herself a member of the team.  Despite the confusion of the other people on X-Factor and the fact that she’s a child, Miller manages to stick around on the team, mainly due to her uncanny insights into the future.  This results in some brilliant and hilarious moments, especially as she can manipulate everyone around her and change events to match what she wants.  Her sarcastic manner and funny reactions really help to enhance the humour of this entire comic, and I loved seeing her change future events in the most amusing ways.  The cloak of mystery and uncertainty that David brilliantly builds up around her is very impressive, and you have no idea the real reason why she is there or what she can do, with her only explanation to that being her favourite saying: “I’m Layla Miller, I know stuff.”  Despite this secrecy, the reader ends up getting some interesting reveals about her, such as her past in the orphanage, her secret mission to stop X-Factor finding out about House of M, and her tragic self-description as the Chaos Theory butterfly, which are pretty cool, even if they result in more questions than answers.  I really loved how dark the creative team made her at times, especially in that brilliant scene where she kills a Singularity Investigations assassin by simply taking screws out of a bath.  Her confession about her motivations to the assassin just before he gets killed is pretty heartbreaking as you can sense she’s revealing a deep secret that is eating her up.  The subsequent conversation as the assassin lies dying is just so damn dark that I love it, especially as she follows up the dying man’s question about who she is with another grim “I’m Layla Miller, I know stuff.”  Throw in that final scene where Rictor confronts Layla about her manipulations, only to completely miss her bringing a dead butterfly back to life, and you have such an impressive sequence of character moments.  I have so much love for this brilliant character, and while the rest of the team is good, Layla Miller is the real X-Factor of this series.

X-Factor - Vol3 - 6 Cover

The cool story and awesome characters are very well supported by the incredible artistic work of Ryan Sook, Dennis Calero and their team.  These great artists give The Longest Night a darker feel that fits into the noir-inspired narrative extremely well.  There are brilliant examples of shading and shadow throughout the comic, and you get a real sense of the dingy nature of the story and the depressed location of Mutant Town.  I deeply enjoyed the cool character designs featured throughout The Longest Night, especially as there is an interesting combination of new styles and classic looks from other X-Men comics.  You get a real sense of the dark emotions hiding within many of the different characters, especially around the various duplicates of Madrox, who run the gauntlet from depressed, to scared, to utterly insane.  However, I felt that the best artwork was utilised around Layla Miller, and perfectly helped to capture her true nature.  I particularly loved that brilliant scene where she killed the assassin in X-Factor headquarters, especially the final few panels.  Due to her machinations the power is out, resulting in her lighting the scene of the dying man with a torch.  The first appearance with her face completely black is just so fitting, especially given her death proclamation to the killer in the panel: ‘Your heart’ll give out in about five seconds.  Your mother will mourn you … but your wife won’t”.  The following two panels with her face in the light highlights her dark expression, followed by a perfectly set up final black panel that could either represent her turning the torch off or the death of the assassin.  I also loved all the panels focused on Layla in issue #6, especially it shows her at her most emotionally compromised as she tries to describe her various issues.  Throw in the reoccurring butterfly that is both dead and alive, and you have an excellent bit of art that emphasises just how complex this figure is.  The villains of this comic are also perfectly shown in this cool artwork, and I was especially impressed with how sinister and disturbed they made the crazy kidnapper in fifth issue.  I deeply enjoyed this and so many other aspects of the art in the volume, and I think it perfectly emphasised the darker nature of this incredibly cool comic.

Overall, The Longest Night was an incredible comic that I would strongly recommend.  The awesome team of Peter David, Ryan Sock, Dennis Calero and the other artists did a fantastic job combining exquisite storytelling with outstanding characters, darker themes and wonderful artwork.  Not only does it stand on its own as an excellent read, but it also works to introduce this superb run of X-Factor and its crime-fiction related storylines.  I have so much love for this series, and I will always appreciate the way in which The Longest Night sets everything up, especially its brilliant characters.  This first volume (and indeed every volume in this series) gets a full five-star rating from me and it comes very highly recommend to anyone wanting to find a unique and powerful comic series to get into.

Star Wars: The High Republic: The Fallen Star by Claudia Gray

Star Wars - The Fallen Star

Publisher: Del Rey/Penguin Random House Audio (Audiobook – 4 January 2022)

Series: Star Wars – The High Republic

Length: 13 hours and 31 minutes

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

The awesome new focus of Star Wars fiction, the intriguing High Republic range, continues to shine brightly with the latest epic adult novel, The Fallen Star, a dark and impressive entry by the extremely talented Claudia Gray.

Ever since its start at the beginning of 2020, the High Republic multimedia project has presented some unique Star Wars stories that I have deeply enjoyed.  Set in the golden age of the Republic and the Jedi, hundreds of years before the films, The High Republic focuses on a different generation of Jedi facing off against the murderous raiders known as the Nihil.  This series has so far produced some excellent gems across various forms of media, including novels, comics, audio dramas and other cool entries written by some of the best authors of Star Wars fiction.

While there is an interesting spread of fiction in The High Republic, the key storylines are generally contained in the main adult novels such as The Fallen Star, and the previous novels, Light of the Jedi by Charles Soule, which introduced the High Republic era and the Nihil, and The Rising Storm by Cavan Scott, which saw the Nihil launch a bold attack at the very heart of the Republic.  Other cool entries, such as the young adult novels Into the Dark and Out of the Shadows, and the audio drama Tempest Runner, added to this tapestry, and it has resulted in a fantastic and compelling overarching narrative and setting.  As such, I have been very excited to see where this franchise goes next, especially as The Fallen Star acts as one of the finales to the current phase of High Republic fiction.  Written by Claudia Gray, who previously authored the incredible Master & Apprentice (one of my favourite Star Wars novels), this was an epic book with a fantastic adventure story.

Following the brutal Nihil attack on the Republic Fair, the entire galaxy is hunting for the Nihil, determined to destroy them and their mysterious leader, the Eye, once and for all.  However, the Republic and the Jedi are unaware that the true Eye of the Nihil is the fearsome Marchion Ro, who plans to devastate the Jedi and the Republic headquarters, Starlight Beacon.  A massive space station out in the Outer Rim, Starlight Beacon was intended to bring light and cooperation to the most remote areas of the galaxy.  Staffed by some of the most powerful Jedi, Starlight Beacon stands a symbol of hope and determination, but that is about to change.  Determined to make the Jedi and the Republic pay, Ro sends his cohorts on a deadly mission to destroy Starlight Beacon from the inside, causing a massive explosive that rips through the station, causing chaos and destruction, as Starlight Beacon loses all power.

Determined to save the station and its inhabitants no matter what, the Jedi try to restart the station before it is too late.  However, something else is aboard Starlight Beacon, something ancient, unseen and bearing an insatiable hunger that drives it to hunt and feast on Jedi.  With their abilities to connect with the Force disrupted by the foul beasts stalking them, the Jedi will need the help of everyone on the station, including weird pilots, annoying droids and rogue Nihil, to save the people around them.  But even their combined abilities might not be enough to save Starlight Beacon from its imminent destruction, nor from monsters capable of turning even the most skilled Jedi into dust.

The Fallen Star was an incredible book from Claudia Gray that does an excellent job of continuing the impressive High Republic storylines.  Gray has come up with a very unique Star Wars tale that sees some of this era’s best characters trapped in an impossible and dangerous situation.  Loaded with a ton of action, some major plot moments, interesting storyline continuation and a ton of character development, this was an excellent novel that proves very easy to get drawn into.

Honestly the best way to describe The Fallen Star’s story is as a nautical disaster story, like Titanic or The Poseidon Adventure, in space.  This novel begins with the initial stages of the disaster as a small team of Nihil saboteurs infiltrate Starlight Beacon and systematically take out the station.  These early parts of the novel have a great sense of tension, as the reader is forced to watch the Nihil continue to succeed while the Jedi remain oblivious.  The story starts to pick up as the Nihil plan goes into effect, not only because of the explosion that knocks Starlight Beacon out of orbit, but because several unseen creatures immediately start to attack the Jedi in brutal mind-bending ways while also disrupting their connection to the Force.  The true disaster narrative takes over from here as the characters attempt to survive the destruction while also trying to save the station.  Gray really dives into character psychology here, as the Jedi are forced to overcome their guilt and the building fear of the creatures attacking, while the other characters try to determine whether to focus on self-preservation or helping those around them.  The last two-thirds of the book is purely devoted to the attempts to survive the station’s slow destruction, and Gray really does not let up the plot intensity.  Every time the protagonists seem to make some progress or success they are immediately hit with obstacles or tragedy that seek to overwhelm them.  This leads to some impressive and confronting moments throughout the book, and you honestly will be surprised and shocked by some of the deaths or twists that occur.  While there are one or two fake-outs designed to ramp up the feels, you will come away from this book being extremely moved and a little emotionally drained.

This was a very well put together novel; it has an amazing flow to it, and once the various disasters start up, the pace and stakes of the novel just keep jumping higher and higher.  The use of multiple character perspectives helps to tell a massive and impressive story, and you really get the full sense of how deadly and disastrous the events of the book are.  I loved how well Gray layered tension and grief into the non-stop action of the plot, and you are honestly left reeling or yelling at the book, wishing to help the characters you have become extremely attached to.  Gray also is also very skilled at detailing some fun and compelling action and disaster sequences, which works extremely well to showcase all the chaos and destruction occurring around.  I did find that there were a few plot gaps here and there throughout the novel, most likely because the full extent of this event will be featured in other High Republic media, such as the main comic series, although this didn’t impact the story too dramatically.  Overall, thanks to its powerful moments, character growth and great action, and you have an outstanding narrative that hits all the right notes at the right time.

In addition to its excellent narrative, The Fallen Star is also a great new entry in the High Republic sub-series.  Gray does an impressive job of continuing the events from the previous pieces of High Republic fiction, and aspects from most of the preceding novels are strongly featured here.  I deeply enjoyed seeing the return of several great characters and the continuation of some interesting story arcs, and Gray brings them together to create an outstanding Star Wars story.  Like most of the High Republic series, The Fallen Star is probably best read by fans of the expanded literary universe, especially as much of the build-up for this period was in the prior novels.  While I would recommend at least reading The Light of the Jedi and The Rising Storm first, people with a basic knowledge of Star Wars should be able to follow what is happening here, as Gray does a good job of recapping key events.  While there are a few good reveals here, there is still an aura of mystery around other parts of the book, particularly the character of Marchion Ro and the real motivations of the Nihil.  An epic conclusion to this phase of the High Republic novels, I will be interested to see if any other reveals or revelations occur in the connected comics.

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To support her fantastic narrative, Gray makes use of an excellent collection of great characters, and I loved the mixture of protagonists and antagonists that she chose.  Not only are the protagonists of the previous adult High Republic books heavily featured, but Gray also makes strong use of characters from young adult novels like Into the Dark and Out of the Shadows.  This amazing blend of character perspectives really helped to craft a unique and interesting book, and it was great to see the different protagonists react to the situation.  Readers should be aware that Gray has gone on a bit of a killing spree here, and several fan favourite characters may not survive.  These deaths really help to ratchet up the tension and emotional weight of this novel, and you will really be left reeling.  While I might question the wisdom of killing off as many characters as they did, especially as the High Republic has a greater need of recognisable characters than other Star Wars novels, I think they all worked in the context of the plot and served the overall narrative extremely well.

The most prominent characters of The Fallen Star are the Jedi protagonists of Light of the Jedi and The Rising Storm.  These Jedi go through some big moments in The Fallen Star, especially as they face disaster and failure on a scale they have rarely seen before.  Gray works in some very interesting changes in the various Jedi’s characterisation because of the unseen monsters let loose on the station who disrupt the Jedi’s connection to the Force, which messes with their heads.  As a result, for most of the book the Jedi are scared, uncertain and irritable, which is a fun and clever change of pace that I felt added to the high-stakes disaster narrative extremely well.  The most prominent of these characters include Stellan Gios, Bell Zettifar, Elzar Mann, who have had some excellent character arcs in the previous novels, and it was great to see them again.

The first of these is Elzar Mann, who has been a standout figure due to his battles with his emotions, his romantic feelings towards fellow Jedi Avar Kriss, and his inadvertent connection to the Dark Side of the Force.  Following this dark moment, Mann has gone into a deep meditation retreat with a unique spiritual guide, who is teaching him to have a different perspective on life.  As a result, when Mann returns to Starlight Beacon just before the first attack, he has mostly cut himself off from the Force.  While this impacts his ability and mentality as a Jedi, his lack of a Force connection ensures that he is one of the only Jedi not incapacitated by the monsters roaming the station, which forces him take on more responsibility during the crisis.  I liked seeing this side of Mann, and it was great to watch him attempt to step up and protect his more responsible friends.  Unfortunately, Mann also experiences some big losses and failures in this novel which really strike him hard.  The final few chapters of The Fallen Star have some major moments for this character, and there was some brilliant development occurring here.  Gray did an incredible job expanding on one of the best and most complex High Republic protagonists here, and I loved Mann’s story in this book.

I also deeply enjoyed the story arc that surrounded apprentice Bell Zettifar.  Bell has gone through a lot in the last two books, especially as his master was killed before him in The Rising Storm.  This has led to some excellent and dark moments for Bell, and Gray does a wonderful job continuing them here as Bell struggles for most of this book, dealing with intense doubt and a sense of failure that gets enhanced by the influence of the strange creatures stalking the station.  I enjoyed seeing Bell slowly regain his confidence as he finds himself in the middle of another crisis and it led to some great and heartfelt moments, even as Bell suffered even more personal tragedies.

I must also highlight the continued story of Stellan Gios, the Jedi Master and rising star of the Order who was such a fantastic figure in The Rising Storm.  Stellan starts this book off as the new Marshal of Starlight Beacon, but he is still impacted by the doubts and trauma of the last Nihil attack at the Republic Fair.  Thanks to this and the influence of the Nihil’s monsters, Stellan shows a very different side to his character in The Fallen Star, being more petty, angry, and dispirited.  This is such a substantial change to what we have previously seen out of Stellan that it really hammers home just how dangerous the Nihil monsters are.  Watching Stellan battle with his emotions is pretty intense, and it proved to be exceptional to see him slowly overcome everything that is happening to him.  Gray writes an amazing couple of moments for Stellan in this book, and you end up with an impressive appreciation of this character by the end of this awesome book.

Aside from these main three figures, The Fallen Star also features an interesting array of supporting Jedi characters.  This includes the friendliest and fluffiest Jedi of all-time, the Wookie Burryaga, who everyone loves due to his kind nature and innate connection to the Force.  Burryaga forms a moving friendship with Bell, and he is easily one of the best supporting characters in the entire novel.  I also liked the reappearance of the Jedi Wayseeker, Orla Jareni, a semi-rogue Jedi who offers her own insights into the Force.  I will say I was surprised that there was barely any Ava Kriss in this novel.  Kriss, who is frequently touted as the main protagonist of the High Republic, has barely appeared in any of the novels since The Light of the Jedi, being more of a feature in the comics.  I feel that she leaves a noticeable absence in the novel, especially as the other character seem to reference how awesome she is in every second sentence.  Still, I think it worked without her, although I hope they use her more in the future.

Aside from the Jedi characters, Gray also makes exceptional use of an interesting collection of other characters trapped aboard the station who offer a great alternate viewpoint to the various Jedi.  What is interesting is that most of these characters are creations of Gray’s who first appeared in her last High Republic book, Into the Dark.  This includes the crew of the Vessel, a unique and unusual ship that transports Mann and Orla Jareni to Starlight Beacon and then gets trapped there.  The Vessel is crewed by a very entertaining trio of characters who balance each other out nicely.  This includes owner Affie Hollow, who plays straight woman to her unusual crew, and is a great central adventurer and emotional base for much of the book.  However, Affie is very much overshadowed by the rest of the crew, including captain Leox Gyasi, who is essentially a space hippy.  Leox is a wildly entertaining figure, with his Zen mindset, pacifistic tendencies, unique way of talking, and outrageous sense of humour, and you will quickly fall in love with him as the book progresses, especially in the few scenes where he gets serious.

The most solid member of the Vessel’s crew is Geode, a Vintian who ends up being the heart and soul of not only the Vessel but all of Gray’s High Republic novels.  Geode is essentially a sentient rock who never talks, rarely moves, and for most of his first appearance in Into the Dark, you were half convinced was some sort of elaborate prank and was really just a rock.  However, Geode ends up being a remarkable figure, capable of great feats of ingenuity and courage, while also being a social genius and a massive flirt.  I cannot emphasise how hilarious it is to see all the outrageous things that the other characters attribute to this silent, giant rock, especially as he just sits there for the entire book.  However, the other characters can apparently all see the “facial” expressions he gives off, and he is apparently quite an emotional and thoughtful character, who ends up being the solution to several problems.  Honestly, having a motionless rock as a major supporting character should not work, but it really does in The Fallen Star, and I loved every second that was spent on him.  I enjoyed seeing all these characters return, and I hope that Gray brings them back in the future, although I do worry the Geode joke might eventually becomes too overused.

Former Nihil members Nan and Chancey Yarrow perfectly rounded out the main cast aboard Starlight Beacon.  Both have had some interesting appearances in the young adult books, and it was great to see them here.  Nan is another character created by Gray and is a young and zealous Nihil member, while Chancey is a brilliant scientist working for the Nihil while also promoting her own agenda.  After leaving the Nihil and starting their own partnership, Nan and Chancey get captured by the Jedi and are being questioned about Starlight Beacon when events kick off.  Freed by the Nihil infiltrators, they spend most of the book on the fence about where their loyalties lie as they try to find their own way to escape.  This results in a fantastic and compelling alternate viewpoint to the book, and I loved seeing these two morally grey characters interact with the more selfless protagonists.  Gray comes up with a great dynamic between Nan and Chancey, which is semi mother-daughter in nature, and there are some interesting moments as Nan struggles to overcome her loyalty to the Nihil.  Their storyline comes to a very interesting and powerful end, and I will be deeply intrigued to see what happens to them next.

I want to make a final mention about the antagonists of The Fallen Star, especially as there is a rather unusual dynamic with this book.  This because, in many ways, the main villain of the story isn’t the Nihil, but is instead time, despair, impossible choices, panic, and human nature.  To a degree, these basic, uncontrollable elements end up causing more damage, and the impossible battle against them results in much of the book’s most dramatic and powerful moments.  There are a few proper villains in this book, such as series antagonist Marchion Ro.  Despite only being in it for a short while, Marchion cuts a distinctive and menacing figure in The Fallen Star, especially as he instigates the next stage of his master plan.  There are some interesting developments around Marchion here, and although they are probably saving any major revelations for his upcoming comic limited series, I felt that he continues to shine as the main villain of The High Republic.  The rest of the Nihil aren’t shown as much in this book, although I did enjoy the examination of the fear and hatred associated with them, especially after all the pain and suffering they caused.  I was very intrigued by the mysterious Nihil controlled monsters that infest Starlight Beacon and mess with the Jedi.  Despite the fact you never see them, they are incredibly intimidating, effortlessly defeating the Jedi and sending them on some dangerous head-trips.  I cannot wait to find out more about them in the future, especially as they are bound to explore their history more, and it should lead to interesting discoveries.  Overall, The Fallen Star had an exceptional group of characters and their intense, compelling and entertaining story arcs really elevated this around exciting novel.

I will come as very little surprise to anyone familiar with this blog that I chose to check out The Fallen Star audiobook.  I have so much love for Star Wars audiobooks, and this ended up being a very good example of how fantastic this format could be as it combines impressive narration with clever sound effect and epic music.  With a run time of 13 and a half hours, this is a somewhat shorter Star Wars audiobook.  I had a wonderful time getting through the story in this format, and I found that the compelling narrative became even more intense when read to me.  This is particularly true in such a trauma and action laden book like The Fallen Star, with the awesome medium of the audiobook helping to enhance the danger and despair of the situation.  The use of sound effects and music was once again superb, and I loved how hearing the distinctive sound of blasters, lightsabers and other pieces of Star Wars technology, helped to bring me into the story and enhance the events being described.  I also cannot overemphasise how awesome it is to hear the incredible and iconic Star Wars music during this plot as well.  Whenever the music is played, especially during some of the more dramatic or action-packed sequences, it really enhances the impact of the moment, drawing the listener in and ensuring that they are perfectly entrapped by the events occurring.

You can’t talk about this audiobook without mentioning the epic voice work of the narrator Marc Thompson.  At this point in his career, Thompson is essentially Star Wars royalty, as he has narrated so many amazing Star Wars audiobooks over the years.  He is easily one of my favourite audiobook narrators and I loved his work on previous audiobooks like Thrawn, Chaos Rising, Greater Good, Lesser Evil, Scoundrels, Dark Disciple and more.  He once again does a great job on The Fallen Star, bringing all the characters to life and moving the story along at a swift pace.  I loved the consistency in voices from all the previous High Republic books he narrated, and he also did a great job voicing characters from other books he hasn’t worked on.  All the characters have very distinctive and fitting voices, which included some very distinctive accents, which helped to highlight the characters and what they did.  I also loved the sheer emotional range that Thompson was able to fit into these great characters, ensuring that all the intense emotions were on full display.  It was pretty intense hearing all the character’s despair, anger and grief as everything they knew and loved was burned around them, and it makes for some incredible sequences.  This was easily the best way to enjoy this cool Star Wars novel, and I would strongly recommend The Fallen Star audiobook to anyone interested in checking this book out.

Overall, Star Wars: The Fallen Star by Claudia Gray is an excellent read that I would strongly recommend.  Featuring a clever, action packed, and emotionally rich, character driven story, The Fallen Star brilliantly continues the outstanding High Republic series, and you will love the dark places this story goes. I deeply enjoyed this cool book and I cannot wait to see what happens in this brilliant sub-series next.  Long live the High Republic!

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The Burning Road by Harry Sidebottom

The Burning Road Cover

Publisher: Zaffre (Trade Paperback – 5 January 2022)

Series: Standalone/Warrior of Rome

Length: 344 pages

My Rating: 4.75 out of 5 stars

One of my favourite historical fiction authors, Harry Sidebottom, returns with another epic and intense historical adventure, The Burning Road, a fun-filled, action-packed thriller.

There are some amazing historical fiction authors out there now who focus on Roman history to create some excellent and compelling novels.  However, one of the best is the extremely talented Harry Sidebottom, a historian turned author who has been producing some awesome and unique reads.  I have been a major fan of Sidebottom ever since reading his debut novel, Fire in the East (an exceptional siege novel) back in 2008.  I really enjoyed his Warrior of Rome (which followed a Germanic Roman soldier, Ballista) and Throne of the Caesars series, both of which contained some exceptional historical elements.  Sidebottom has also had a lot of success recently with some standalone novels, especially his last three books, which cleverly combined his historical knowledge with elements from thriller subgenres.  This included his 2018 release, The Last Hour, which brought back Ballista and set him on a 24-esque romp through ancient Rome; The Lost Ten, which was reminiscent of special forces thrillers; and The Return, a dark and complex murder mystery that had interesting Scandi noir overtones.  I deeply enjoyed all these previous novels, and I was very excited when I received a copy of Sidebottom’s latest book, The Burning Road, a couple of weeks ago.

Sicily, 265 AD.  Throughout the strategic volcanic island, a call of freedom has been heard as a charismatic slave starts to rally his fellow enslaved workers.  The various estates and towns are in a state of uproar as vicious slaves and captured barbarian warriors rise up to kill their masters.  As the revolution gains strength and results in greater bloodshed, the fate of the island may rest in the hands of a legendary warrior, Marcus Clodius Ballista.

After years of fighting for corrupt emperors and battling deadly Roman politics, Ballista is finally free from his responsibilities, determined to enter retirement.  Whilst travelling with his eldest son, Marcus, to his estates on Sicily, their ship hits a terrible storm, forcing it aground on the west coast of the island.  Barely surviving the rough surf and destructive storm, Ballista and Marcus are soon thrust into even greater danger when a band of armed slaves mercilessly kills the other shipwrecked survivors.

Barely escaping the rampaging slaves, Ballista leads his son inland, hoping to discover what chaos has befallen Sicily.  They soon discover that the entire island is in revolution, with any non-slave at risk at being killed or brutalised.  Determined to keep his son alive and rescue his family on the other side of the island, Ballista and Marcus attempt to cross the entirety of Sicily on foot.  Constantly harassed by marauding bands of former slaves, the two Romans must find a way to survive and reach their family before it is too late.  But can the old veteran and rash youth work together to survive and save all of Sicily, or will one of Rome’s greatest warriors finally be finished off by rampaging slaves?

Wow, now this was a fun and intense novel from Sidebottom, who once again highlights his skill as a particularly inventive author of Roman historical fiction.  I deeply enjoyed The Burning Road, especially as Sidebottom once again combines compelling historical elements with an impressive and action-packed thriller storyline.

I had a lot of fun with the incredible and extremely fast-paced narrative that Sidebottom featured in The Burning Road.  While it took me a little while to get into this book (mainly because I couldn’t find any reading time), once I started, I honestly couldn’t stop, and I ended up powering through The Burning Road in less than a day.  The Burning Road has a brilliant story that pits Sidebottom’s best protagonist, Ballista, and his teenage son right in the middle of an intense slave revolt on Sicily.  Sidebottom sets this all up perfectly, with a quick prologue to establish that the slave revolt has occurred, before focusing entirely on Ballista and Marcus, who are shipwrecked off the coast of the island.  At first, the scenario reminded me of another historical fiction novel, The Gladiator by Simon Scarrow, which featured slaves revolting on Crete.  However, Sidebottom takes this in a very different direction, with a dark and non-stop story that sees the protagonist forced to navigate across the island, encountering all manner of odd characters and a ton of enemies.  The first two-thirds of the book see the protagonists on their own, walking a hellish volcanic landscape filled with murderous slaves, which was so damn cool.  Sidebottom was clearly trying to emulate some post-apocalyptic thrillers here, and there is even a scene that is a brilliant homage to The Road.  This makes for some intense and bloody sequences, and you will find yourself glued to the pages as you wait to see what danger they will encounter next.  The final third of the book sees Sidebottom return to his original writing element as Ballista is drafted into leading the defence of a besieged city.  This leads to an amazing and unique set of siege sequences, as Ballista and a small force of civilians attempt to hold back an overwhelming army of enraged slaves, which leads to a bloody and satisfying conclusion.  I loved this brilliant combination of story elements, especially the brutal walk across Sicily, and it makes for one heck of a story.

One of the best things about The Burning Road was the compelling central characters, especially as Sidebottom used it to tell a touching an enjoyable father-son story.  The first of these is Ballista, the protagonist of the Warrior of Rome series, who returns for another gruelling adventure.  As a former Germanic prince turned Roman soldier, siege expert and noble, Ballista is an old hand at danger and once again rises to the challenge even with his advancing age.  However, this time Ballista is forced to undertake his battled filled journey with his young teenage son, Marcus (also called Isangrim).  Setting Ballista and Marcus up as the main point of view characters, Sidebottom tells a fascinating tale that not only follows their desperate journey but which dives into their relationship and personality.  Due to Ballista’s military career, these two aren’t particularly close, with Marcus slightly resenting his barbarian father.  However, over the course of the book the two slowly grow closer as they face constant ordeal.  Sidebottom paces this growth in their relationship perfectly and you soon get really invested in seeing how much they begin to trust and rely on each other.  I enjoyed seeing this paternal side of Ballista, which enhanced his already complex character, and Marcus grows to become an enjoyable companion, especially as he begins to realise everything his father has done for him and how he has tried to prepare him.  This great father-son relationship becomes a major part of the book’s plot, and it put me in mind of some other similar adventures such as The Road, or even the recent God of War game (I may have imagined Ballista speaking in Christopher Judge’s voice).  This was a brilliant and powerful heart to the entire book, and it will be fascinating to see how much Marcus is featured in any of Sidebottom’s future novels.

I was also very impressed with the interesting historical detail that Sidebottom featured throughout The Burning Road.  The author has clearly done a ton of research on the various subjects contained within and there is a comprehensive reference section at the back, including a history book written by Sidebottom himself.  As such there is an amazing sense of authenticity to the setting and figures featured within The Burning Road which really helps to drag the reader into the story.  This period of Roman history has always been a rich ground for Sidebottom’s novels, and it was fascinating to see some more detail about the politics of the time.  I loved all the awesome detail about Sicily, which proves to be an exceptional and fascinating background setting for the story.  Sidebottom, who has visited Sicily many times, does a great job of filling in the historical blanks around the island and he portrays it as it would have appeared during Roman times.  All this impressive attention to environmental detail results in some cool romps through forests, mountains and ancient towns, and I think that the author really captured the historical soul of this island.  One of the big historical elements that Sidebottom invests a lot of time exploring is slavery during the Roman era.  The author includes a fascinating examination of how slaves are treated during this period, as well as some of the philosophical thought surrounding the entire process, both from the masters and the slaves.  The subsequent slave revolt really helps to highlight the Romans’ reliance on a large population of slaves to maintain their society and having the outsider Ballista explore this provided an interesting alternate perspective to the practice.  I also deeply appreciate the desperation and anger that the various slave characters had, which helped to turn them into a sympathetic enemy, even if you want the protagonists to survive more.  All this really added a lot to the overall story, and I look forward to seeing which area or historical period Sidebottom will explore next.

The Burning Road was another exceptional and epic read from Harry Sidebottom, who continues to flourish as one of the most inventive and exciting authors of historical fiction out there.  This latest novel features an intense and unique historical fiction tale chock full of action, character growth and some fascinating bits of period detail.  I had an absolute blast getting through this amazing novel, and The Burning Road comes very highly recommended as a result.

Unforgiven by Sarah Barrie

Unforgiven Cover

Publisher: HQ (Trade Paperback – 1 December 2021)

Series: Standalone/Book One

Length: 480 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Talented Australian author Sarah Barrie presents one of the darkest and best Australian thriller novels of 2021 with Unforgiven, a powerful and captivating read that sets determined protagonists against the very worst of human monsters.

Years ago, the city of Sydney was haunted by a terrible paedophile and murderer known as the Spider, who kidnapped, molested and killed young girls, all on camera.  His reign of terror was ended suddenly one violent night thanks to two women, a determined rookie police officer, Rachael Langley, and one of the Spider’s young victims, Lexi Winter, who disappeared never to be seen again.

Now, after years of living on the street, Lexi has grown up tough and hard, determined to escape the tortures of her childhood through alcohol while trying to reconnect with the sister she was forced to leave behind.  However, Lexi is still obsessed with taking down monsters, and with her impressive hacking skills she spends her days tracking paedophiles, entrapping them, and ensuring they are captured by the police.  However, when her latest target proves to be particularly illusive online, she makes a fateful decision to break into his house, only to witness him being murdered.

At the same time, Rachael Langley is now a successful detective inspector, solving some of the toughest crimes in Sydney.  Still lauded for her role in stopping the Spider, Rachael lives in regret for being unable to save Lexi all those years before.  However, everything changes when a man calls her, claiming to be the real Spider and providing proof by horrifically murdering another child on camera.  Quickly establishing a police taskforce, Rachael and her team must determine if the killer is a copycat or whether Rachael captured the wrong man all those years ago.  To solve this case Rachael is going to need help from the last person who wants to see her, Lexi, but can these women work together after everything they have been through?  And what happens when their killer learns that Lexi is still alive and hunting for him?

This was an intense, grim and deeply compelling Australian crime fiction read from Barrie, who has written an amazing and powerful story that proves very hard to put down.  Unforgiven was the first of Barrie’s books that I have read, although several of her other Australian crime fiction novels are quite intriguing and I might try and read them at some point after being so captivated by this epic and moving read.  This was such an addictive novel that it gets a full five-star rating from me.

Barrie has come up with a very impressive and intense narrative for Unforgiven that sees several damaged characters dragged into the web of a dangerous and clever criminal.  The story has a great start that showcases the lives of the main protagonists, Lexi, Rachael and Rachael’s nephew and fellow police officer Finn, as well as giving some hints at the events of the original Spider case that so deeply impacted the female main characters.  After this quick set-up, the story advances in all its dark and powerful glory, as two fascinating plot lines develop.  Lexi, who has become an online vigilante hunting paedophiles on the dark web, finds herself caught up in a brutal murder when one of her targets is murdered by a mysterious figure while she is sneaking into his house.  Most of her early story involves her continued attempt to hunt paedophiles while also trying to find a way to hide the body of the murdered man, for which she gains some help from an interesting source.  At the same time, Rachael and Finn become involved in a brutal case when the man claiming to be the real Spider calls Rachael and leads them to murdered young girl, forcing them to once again dive into the unsettling world of paedophiles.

Both storylines advance at a quick and compelling pace, with each of the main protagonists facing massive challenges as they attempt to achieve their objectives.  I liked this initial separation of the storyline, and the two plotlines work well together in tandem, with the reader getting pretty caught up in both narrative threads.  At the same time, the author drip-feeds in bits and pieces of Lexi and Rachael’s pasts, especially the events that led up to the arrest of the Spider and the disappearance of Lexi.  This deepens the audiences’ connections to the two protagonists so that when their storylines inevitably connect it really enhances the impact of the scene.  Unforgiven shifts into high gear once these plotlines are joined, with all three protagonists working towards the same goals, although Lexi maintains her secrets.  Barrie starts throwing in some real curveballs here, providing a complex and intriguing case that throws the protagonists through the emotional wringer as they get closer to the big and powerful conclusion of the novel.  There are some great twists in the last half of the book and while I saw a couple of things coming, there were some fantastic surprises that really threw me.  This ends up being an outstanding and complex story, and the readers will be left wanting more, especially as Barrie leaves it open for a sequel, which I really hope she does.

While I deeply enjoyed the captivating and intense story contained within Unforgiven, this was a bit of a hard novel to read at times due to its very, very dark content.  Unforgiven focuses on the hunt for a murderous paedophile and his child exploiting friends, which inevitably leads to some depictions of the terrible acts they commit, not only to children in the current storyline, but to the protagonist Lexi back in her childhood.  Barrie really does not pull any punches here, and the book contains some very dark and grim moments that really stick in the mind.  These powerful and shocking scenes really raised the stakes of the book and ensured that the reader becomes extremely invested in seeing the protagonists achieve justice through their actions.  While I really appreciated that Barrie was trying to raise awareness and showcase just how evil some people can be, I will admit that some of these scenes did get to be a bit much at times, forcing me to stop and put the book down.  Readers are warned that Unforgiven has very strong themes of violence and abuse against children and young people.  However, if you can get past that, it is worth it, as Barrie does an excellent job telling this rough story about true human evil.

Unforgiven’s already brilliant and powerful narrative is enhanced by the impressively written and complex central characters contained within.  Barrie has gone out of her way to introduce several very damaged and compelling protagonists, each of whom add so much to the overall plot thanks to their excellent backstories and substantial development.  The most prominent and interesting of these characters are the two female leads of the book, Lexi Winter and Detective Inspector Rachael Langley, whose lives became irreparably entangled all those years ago.  These two characters serve as two of the three main point-of-view characters, with most of the story told from their perspectives.

Lexi was a great character, and I was deeply impressed with the amount of work that Barrie put into her complex and damaging past, as well as her distinctive current personality.  There were so many interesting aspects to Lexi, who immediately stands out as a protagonist thanks to her damaged personality, strong sense of deduction and observation, her badass ability with a computer and the fact that she is the only character whose chapters are told in the first person.  I loved the intriguing contradictions in her life as Lexi makes a living as an escort while devoting most of her personal life to being an online vigilante/hacker extraordinaire who specialises in taking paedophiles down.  This makes for such a distinctive character, especially once you figure in all the major impacts of her childhood that has left her such an emotional mess.  Barrie does a good job of slowly revealing all the horrors of her early life, and while some of the scenes are pretty brutal, it is amazing to see everything that the character has risen above to still be such a strong figure.  The reader swiftly gets attached to Lexi as a protagonist and it will be fascinating to see what happens to her next if Barrie decides to turn this into a series.

The other central character that I must talk about is Rachael, the veteran detective inspector whose career was built off the success of the Spider case.  Rachael is a great police protagonist, a confident, intelligent and strong figure who is able to keep most of her people in line and pursue a vigorous investigation.  However, Barrie builds in several great aspects to her character that really impact this protagonist throughout the course of Unforgiven.  Firstly, there is the guilt that Rachael still feels over her past with Lexi, especially as Rachael failed her in a way which is slowly revealed over the course of the book, especially once the two reunite and have an awkward relationship.  The other aspect is the doubt that slowly creeps into Rachael as the case proceeds, especially as the possibility that the original person convicted in the Spider case might be innocent.  This doubt, coupled with the guilt over the fact that she could be responsible for the latest deaths by not actually catching the real Spider, starts to impact her throughout the book and proves to be an intriguing motivator for some of her decisions.  These complex aspects really helped enhance the emotional power of Unforgiven and I really appreciated the intense storyline that Barrie wrote about people living in the past and accepting one’s mistakes.  I really enjoyed seeing both Lexi and Rachael in this novel, and they had some great storylines in this book.

Aside from Lexi and Rachael, there are several other great characters in Unforgiven I should mention.  The most prominent of these must be Detective Senior Sergeant Finn Carson, Rachael’s nephew and second-in-command of the investigation, who ends up being the third major point-of-view character.  Finn was an excellent male police character who serves as an interesting counterpoint to the two female protagonists.  While not as damaged as the other two, Finn has his own issues, and his viewpoint really added to the overall quality of the book.  I was also a big fan of Lexi’s neighbour Dawny, an eccentric older woman who assists Lexi in several matters, including disposing of a body (what are good neighbours for?).  Dawny was one of the funniest characters in the book and it was great to see the protagonists be completely baffled by her knowledge and ability to come up with effective solutions to problems while maintaining the batty old lady routine.  I quite liked the eventual reveal of who Dawny really was, as it fit in well with the other characters in the book, and it will be fun to see if Barrie brings her back at some point in the future.  Finally, I definitely need to highlight the villain of the book, the Spider, who is one of the most despicable fictional antagonists I have seen: a sordid child abuser and murderer who films their grisly crimes.  You quickly feel a lot of hate towards this character, even if you don’t know who they are for most of the story.  The eventual reveal and the various twists around them were quite clever and I had an amazing, if disturbing, time finding out who this monster was.  An overall exceptional character driven novel, you will quickly find yourself getting stuck following all these fascinating and compelling figures.

Unforgiven by Sarah Barrie is an outstanding and impressive read that takes the reader of a gritty and vicious ride.  Filled with a disturbing narrative and some brilliantly damaged central characters, Unforgiven is an utterly captivating read that is near impossible to put down or forget about.  Easily one of the best Australian thrillers of 2021, Unforgiven comes highly recommended and I am extremely excited to see what other incredible novels Barrie comes up with in the future.