State of Fear by Tim Ayliffe

State of Fear Cover

Publisher: Simon & Schuster Australia (Trade Paperback – 22 July 2019)

Series: John Bailey – Book Two

Length: 390 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

One of the fastest-rising Australian thriller writers, Tim Ayliffe, follows up his impressive debut with an excellent second entry in his John Bailey series, State of Fear.

Tim Ayliffe is a talented author who debuted in 2018 with The Greater Good, the first John Bailey book.  This novel explored political corruption and international interference in Australia and made excellent use of the author’s experiences as a journalist.  I really enjoyed this first book and was rather interested when I received the second novel from Ayliffe, State of Fear, in 2019.  Unfortunately, I did not get a chance to read State of Fear when it first came out, and it has been in my to-read pile for a while, until I received a copy of the third John Bailey novel, The Enemy Within, a few weeks ago.  I rather liked the sound of the third book’s plot, and I really wanted to read and review it.  However, before checking out The Enemy Within I thought it would make more sense to read State of Fear first, and boy am I glad that I did.

Throughout his long career as a journalist and war correspondent, John Bailey has faced many dangers and been in several terrible situations.  However, his worst encounter was with the notorious terrorist mastermind, Mustafa al-Baghdadi, who kidnapped Bailey while he was reporting on the invasion in Afghanistan and relentlessly tortured him mentally and psychically.  Following his release from the terrorist group and a retirement from working in active war zones, Bailey thought that his days of dealing with terrorists was over, but he was wrong.

Speaking at a conference on Islamic terrorism in London, Bailey is horrified when a radicalised terrorist murders a woman in front of the convention centre.  Rattled, Bailey returns home to Sydney, only to find his troubles have followed him there.  The son of his former driver in Bagdad has gone missing, and Bailey has been implored to help.  Investigating, Bailey finds that the son has been in contact with some dangerous men with connections to Islamic terrorist cells.  Worse, it appears that they are planning to launch a massive attack in Sydney.

Desperate to save his friend’s son from making a terrible mistake, Bailey attempts to make sense of the terrible events unfolding in Sydney.  However, the deeper he goes, the clearer it becomes that Mustafa al-Baghdadi is back, and he is targeting Bailey personally.  As Bailey and everyone he loves comes under attack, Bailey is forced to turn to his old friend, CIA agent Ronnie Johnson, to find Mustafa and take him down.  But will they be able to stop Mustafa before it is too late, or will the world’s most dangerous terrorist destroy everything that Bailey holds dear?

State of Fear was an excellent and powerful novel that takes its great protagonist on a rough and dangerous journey through hell and back.  Ayliffe has definitely grown as an author since his first novel, and this second book is a compelling and intense novel with a well-crafted narrative.  Starting off with an intense beginning, the protagonist is swiftly shoved into his latest harrowing adventure, as the terrorist he thought he escaped violently bursts back into his life.  This is a very captivating novel, and despite its longer length I found myself powering through it in a very short amount of time.  The protagonist goes through a real wringer as he is forced to visit the ghosts of his past while trying to stop his foe’s latest plot.  Featuring a sprawling and deadly investigation through the suburbs of Sydney, the story eventually journeys back to London, where the protagonist and his friends engage in a deadly and dramatic fight to stop a deadly attack.  There is so much going on in this story, and the reader will experience outstanding action, powerful drama, and some major tragedy, especially in the novel’s dramatic conclusion.  This is a fantastic book which stands on its own and can easily be read by people unfamiliar with the other John Bailey novels.  I had an exceptional time reading State of Fear and it is really worth checking out.

Ayliffe works a lot of fun elements into this novel that make it quite a unique read.  Perhaps one of the most prominent of these is his experience and knowledge as a journalist which helps to produce a very Australian centric view of the events that are being depicted.  For example, Ayliffe includes a very detailed and compelling look at radical Islamic terrorism and how it is occurring both in Australia and in the wider world, particularly England.  Using several real-life Australian cases as basis, Ayliffe manages to expose and explore the heart of the issue, and he paints a fair and captivating picture of how individuals are lured into radical Islam as well as the consequences of their actions.  There are some very intriguing and powerful discussions included within this novel, especially around how the Islamic and migrant community in Australia feels isolated and prejudiced against, and I really appreciated the compelling inclusion in the novel.

Other intriguing elements contained within State of Fear include Ayliffe’s experiences with modern media and how journalist stories are produced and distributed.  There are some fascinating and fun journalistic scenes contained within this novel, and you have to assume that the protagonist’s extremely negative views about the swing to online social media based journalism has to reflect some of the author’s personal feelings.  Another great feature of this novel was the way in which Ayliffe once again used his novel to highlight the city of Sydney.  While a good portion of this novel is set in London (which Ayliffe also does a great job portraying), the scenes set within Sydney are a particular highlight.  The author really dives into showcasing this city, with the protagonist visiting several real-life suburbs and locations throughout the course of the book, distributing local knowledge as he goes.  As a result, this book is filled with some fun references that locals and Sydneysiders will really appreciate, and I enjoyed how Ayliffe spent the time to write a love letter to his city.

In addition to a fantastic story and excellent setting, Ayliffe also ensures that State of Fear is loaded with some complex and memorable characters.  The most prominent of these is series main protagonist and primary point of view character John Bailey.  Bailey is an outstanding veteran reporting character, and Ayliffe portrays him as a broken older news hound who is trying to balance his addictive career with holding onto his family.  This protagonist is the very definition of a damaged character, as he has experienced great trauma, both psychical and emotional, over the years thanks to his work as a war correspondent.  Despite this trauma, Bailey has experienced some major growth since the first book in the series, mainly thanks to the actions of major people in his life, and he is now a much more functional human being, allowing the reader to really connect with his struggles and damage.  Unfortunately, the events of this novel really hit him hard, as he experiences fresh pain while also revisiting his traumatic past through a series of dark flashbacks.  Despite this, Bailey keeps moving forward trying to solve the case, and it was great to see his determination and resolve, even under the worse of circumstances.  The ending of the novel is pretty bad for Bailey, and he goes through some tragic moments that will no doubt rock him for the rest of the series.  All of this makes for an incredible central protagonist, and readers will fall in love with this damaged and compelling character.

Aside from Bailey, State of Fear also contains several great supporting characters, most of whom are holdovers from The Greater Good, and who find themselves in all sorts of trouble in this book.  The most prominent of these is Bailey’s romantic partner, Detective Chief Inspector Sharon Dexter, who serves as a secondary point-of-view protagonist for parts of the book.  Dexter is a tough, no-nonsense cop whose past with Bailey led to a romantic relationship in the first book.  Despite having a very complex and unusual relationship with Bailey, Dexter proves to be an excellent supporting character, acting as the sensible and official support to Bailey who tries to keep him out of trouble.  While she has a bit of a cold exterior, especially when Bailey stuffs up or lies to her, Dexter is another character the reader can easily get attached to, and her involvement in the story is quite essentially the overall powerful narrative.

I also quite liked the inclusion of Bailey’s editor, Gerald Summers, another aging newsman who serves as Bailey’s emotional rock and best friend and who has an amazing run in this book.  Gerald is an outstanding and loveable character, which of course means he is going to suffer a little bit, so prepare yourself for that.  You also have to like Ronnie Johnson, the maverick CIA agent who spends most of his time living on Bailey’s couch, but who proves to be an effective and very dangerous operative when he needs to.  Ronnie has been a favourite character of mine ever since the first book (I mean, he kills an Australian Prime Minister Harold Holt style), and he does some cool things in this second novel.  Finally, I felt that Mustafa al-Baghdadi was a pretty good overarching antagonist for State of Fear.  Ayliffe did a good job portraying a manipulative religious zealot with grand plans for vengeance and the advancement of his cause.  Despite being hidden for most of the book, this character contains a great deal of menace, and I really enjoyed the sinister flashback sequences that featured him and Bailey.  I did think that some of his reasons for vengeance on Bailey were a bit weak (I mean, he had to know that the first thing Bailey was going to do when freed was to share what he knew with the Americans), but he was an overall great villain with major impacts on the narrative.  Each of these characters were well written and established, and I felt that their combined narratives really improved this fantastic novel.

State of Fear by Tim Ayliffe was an outstanding and captivating read that presents a powerful and moving adventure of journalist John Bailey.  Containing an intense narrative about terrorism, some unique elements and amazing characters, State of Fear is an excellent read which swiftly grabs the reader’s attention and refuses to let them go.  I had an incredible time reading this novel and I am still kicking myself for taking so long to check it out.  I have already read the third entry in the John Bailey series, The Enemy Within, and I am hoping to get a review out for it soon.

Small Acts of Defiance by Michelle Wright

Small Acts of Defiance Cover

Publisher: Allen & Unwin (Trade Paperback – 1 June 2021)

Series: Standalone

Length: 344 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Impressive debuting Australian author Michelle Wright transports the reader back to the horrors and struggles of occupied Paris with the moving historical drama, Small Acts of Defiance.

May 1940.  Following the tragic death of her father, Australian teenager Lucie and her French mother Yvonne are left without any means of supporting themselves in Australia.  Reaching out to the only family they have left, Yvonne’s estranged brother Gerard, Lucie and her mother are convinced to journey back to Yvonne’s home city of Paris to live with Gerard in his apartment.

Despite having reservations about leaving for a Europe rocked by the early stages of war, Lucie is quickly enchanted by the beauty and culture of the city.  However, shortly after their arrival, disaster strikes and the French army suffers a catastrophic defeat, allowing the Nazis to invade France and occupy Paris.  Forced to adapt to the new regime, Lucie and her family attempt to survive as well as they can.

While wishing to remain safe and unnoticed by the Nazis, Lucie is drawn into the conflict when she befriends several people around Paris who resent the German occupation.  Encouraged by their strength and determination, Lucie experiments with using her artistic talents to engage in small acts of defiance against the Nazis and the puppet Vichy French government.  However, when she witnesses the Nazis’ increased attacks against Paris’s Jewish population and the attitudes of her authoritarian uncle, Lucie is drawn even deeper into the fight.  How far will Lucie go to save her new home, and what difference can even a few small acts of defiance truly have?

Small Acts of Defiance was a fantastic and moving novel from a promising new author that did an excellent job highlighting the horrors and troubles of occupied France.  Author Michelle Wright, an Australian who has spent considerable time in Paris, has written an outstanding novel with a story that is both beautiful and devastating, as she tells the intriguing and intense tale of Lucie and her experiences during the war.

Wright has produced a fast-paced and deeply moving narrative for Small Acts of Defiance.  The author swiftly sets the scene for the main characters of Lucie and her mother, who move to Paris right before the invasion while still dealing with the traumatic aftermath of Lucie’s father’s death.  It really does not take long for the historical horror to occur, as Paris is swiftly conquered by the Nazis, although Wright ensures that there is just enough time for Lucie, and the reader, to become enchanted with the city before its occupation.  Following the invasion, you are introduced to several great supporting characters who help Lucie to fully see how evil the Nazis and their French collaborators are, especially as some of her new friends are Jewish.  This centre part of the novel is great, and it was fantastic to see Lucie find her feet while also starting her initial acts of defiance.  However, while all appears mostly right, you know that tragedy is on the horizon, especially as the Jewish characters you become close to slowly have more and more restrictions placed upon them, which can only lead to disaster and despair.  Once the inevitable happens, the story really intensifies, as the protagonist witnesses true horrors and atrocities which slowly costs her some people she is really close to.  Readers will not be prepared for how dark and tragic the book becomes, although you cannot help but keep reading, especially as there is a little bit of hope for some characters.  The conclusion of Small Acts of Defiance is pretty intense and satisfying, especially as the protagonist achieves several great things while there is some good news for the other supporting characters.  This entire narrative very well written, and I loved the dramatic and powerful tale that Wright created here.  There is so much amazing and moving character development, especially around Lucie, which really grounds the novel and helps keeps the readers glued to the pages.  Wright has a real talent for writing hard and dark scenes, and I was utterly enthralled by this powerful story.

I was deeply impressed by the sheer amount of historical detail that Wright put into her debut novel, which is no doubt a side effect of all the time she spent in Paris.  The author covers the entirety of the Nazi occupation, from the French defeat, to the chaos of the invasion and the subsequent control of the city by the Germans.  There are so many interesting details and facets of history contained within the story, and I found myself getting really engrossed in the spectacular portrayal of this key historical location.  Wright spends time focusing on the various attitudes and reactions of the citizens of Paris, which ranged from outrage to acceptance or even outright support of the new regime.  The depictions of the puppet Vichy government and its actions was particularly intriguing, especially as the author examines the reason it had some support from the French.  This is particularly shown by Lucie’s uncle, an authoritarian former solider who respected the military general put in charge of the country, and who felt disenfranchised by the previous free French government.  There was also a lot of focus on the gradual crackdown and eventual deportation of the city’s Jewish population.  Due to the protagonist befriending several Jewish characters, you get to see the various restrictive laws come into effect, and the way that the Jewish population was dehumanised and destroyed one step at a time.  All of these proved to be deeply fascinating, and I loved how Wright was able to work it all into her intense and excellent story.

One aspect of this historical detail that I found extremely intriguing was the storyline surrounding the protagonist’s attempts at defying the Nazi and Vichy governments.  Unlike most historical fiction protagonists who fight back with guns, political speeches or brazen heists, the hero of Small Acts of Defiance at first uses art to subtly push back against authority.  This is achieved by drawing pamphlets or subtle symbols of French freedom in the postcards that she sells, small things that could still get her in trouble.  As the war progresses, the protagonist gets involved in other small ways, such as helping to pass information to the Allies or assisting the city’s remaining Jewish population.  I found these small acts of resistance to be a fascinating part of the book’s plot, and it was rather interesting to see the effect that even these minor actions could have on the character’s moral.  It also resulted in some compelling comparison to some of the more radical members of the French Resistance, especially some of Lucie’s friends, who take more drastic actions and face several physical and moral consequences as a result.  While Lucie does become more involved later in the book, I felt that it was really intriguing to see the various small, non-violent ways that French citizens could have helped in the war effort, and I think that it was a fantastic part of this captivating narrative.

Small Acts of Defiance was an incredible debut from Australian author Michelle Wright that does an amazing job capturing the tragedy, division and defiance that occurred during Nazi occupation of Paris.  Featuring a moving and captivating tale that surrounds one girl’s small attempt to help her friends and her new city, Small Acts of Defiance is an outstanding historical drama that comes highly recommended.  I am very intrigued to see what additional novels Wright creates in the future, and I am extremely glad I got the opportunity to read her fantastic first novel.

Throwback Thursday – Daemonslayer by William King

Daemonslayer Cover

Publisher: Black Library (Audiobook – October 2000)

Series: Gotrek and Felix – Book Three

Length: 9 hours and 38 minutes

My rating: 4.75 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 am doing a bit of a double feature by reviewing two of the outstanding entries from the iconic Warhammer Fantasy franchise’s Gotrek and Felix series by the brilliant William King.  I have just published a review for the second book in the series, Skavenslayer, and, after some rapid audiobook listening, I have also pulled together a review for the third book, Daemonslayer.

After the epic conclusion of the battle of Nuln in Skavenslayer, Dwarf Slayer Gotrek Gurnisson receives a mysterious message and immediately sets out on the road, convinced that this missive may be the key to finding his much desired glorious death.  Accompanied as always by his companion, the former poet turned reluctant adventurer Felix Jaeger, Gotrek marches to the northern parts of the Empire to meet his destiny.

Arriving at their destination, Gotrek and Felix learn that a group of dwarfs are planning an expedition to find the lost dwarf stronghold of Karag Dum, and they want Gotrek to accompany them.  Destroyed in ages past, Karag Dum now lies in the middle of the Chaos Wastes, the most dangerous place in the entire world.  Wracked by the shifting winds of magic, marauding war bands, mutating warpstone and the foul essence of Chaos, no one can cross the Chaos Wastes and survive, and only death, madness or mutation awaits those who try.  However, expedition leader Borek Forkbeard has come up with an ambitious plan to fly over the Chaos Wastes in a giant, experimental airship, designed by an unstable engineer turned Slayer.

Determined to make up for previous failed attempt to reach Karag Dum, Gotrek agrees to accompany the expedition, with an inspired Felix accompanying him.  However, even with all the advantages that the airship provides, this will still be a perilous journey.  Many dangerous things lurk in the Chaos Wastes that will not hesitate to destroy the dwarven company for their dark gods.  At the same time, Gotrek and Felix’s old foe, Grey Seer Thanquol, plots from the shadows, determined to claim the airship for the Skaven cause.  But the very worst dangers will be found at Karag Dum.  A terrible foe lies within, waiting for revenge and determined to destroy all before him.  Can even the legendary Gotrek and Felix stand up to the wrath of a deadly Bloodthirster of Khorne, especially one who appears destined to kill Gotrek and destroy all who stand with him?

I am having so much fun getting through this cool series and I really wish I had checked it out many years ago.  Daemonslayer is another incredible read that continues the fantastic Gotrek and Felix adventures that started in Trollslayer and were continued in Skavenslayer.  William King has come up with a pretty intense story for this third entry in the series, and I loved the change in writing style featured within it.  An exciting and character-driven tale, this was easily the best entry in the series so far, and I deeply enjoyed the time I spent getting through it.

Daemonslayer contains an impressive and intense narrative that proves to be extremely addictive and a lot of fun to read.  Unlike the previous novels in the series, which featured a collection of short stories, Daemonslayer is actually a complete story with one continuous narrative.  This is an interesting change of pace, and one that I think works extremely well, especially as it cut down on some of the repetition that was an issue in Trollslayer and to a lesser extent in Skavenslayer.  King writes a fantastic story that quickly gets into the action and adventure as the protagonists embark on an epic and potentially lethal quest.  While not a collection of short stories, King does break the book up into several distinctive sections, each filled some unique plot points and antagonists.  These sections are pretty linear and flow into each other extremely well, resulting in a very cohesive and entertaining narrative.  Like the rest of the novels in the Gotrek and Felix series, readers do not need a lot of background knowledge about the Warhammer Fantasy world to enjoy this book.  While I would probably suggest reading Skavenslayer first, Daemonslayer can be read as a standalone book, and all readers are generally in for a good time with this novel.

The action and adventure flies pretty fast and thick throughout Daemonslayer, with highlights including a lengthy battle against an army of Skaven towards the start of the novel, exploration in the dark tunnels of Karag Dum and the final epic fight sequence against the hordes of Chaos.  King is particularly skilled at writing exciting and powerful battle sequences, and I loved how he managed to bring the uniqueness of a large-scale Warhammer battle to life.  Part of this is because the author makes great use of multiple character perspectives throughout Daemonslayer, which allows for a richer narrative as you get to see many different angles of the same story.  This works particularly well in the first battle against the Skaven, as you get to see Grey Seer Thanquol controlling his forces, as he desperately tries to kill Gotrek and Felix.  I did think that some of the Thanquol scenes in the second half of the novel were a bit weak, especially as they were more concerned with setting up his appearance in the next novel, Dragonslayer, than influencing the plot of Daemonslayer.  Still, these scenes were great, and you are always guaranteed a laugh when dealing with this ruthless Skaven.  While there is a noticeable focus on action and death, King also works in some fantastic comedy and humour, which makes this book an absolute treat to read.  I also appreciated how dark and emotional several scenes became, especially when the protagonists are faced with the grim realities of certain terrible situation.  All of this is worked into quite an impressive adventure story, which ends up being extremely addictive and enthralling to get through.

I loved the great use of setting throughout Daemonslayer, especially as King features some of the darkest and most dangerous locations in the entire Warhammer Fantasy canon.  The most notable of these is the notorious Chaos Wastes, a dark and dangerous wasteland, completely corrupted by the Chaos gods and filled with all manner of mutants, monsters, beastmen, worshipers of Chaos and Daemons, who gather and fight throughout the wastes.  While the Chaos Wastes are primarily shown from above, King makes sure to produce some gruesome and disturbing depictions of the landscape and its inhabitants, and it proves to be a pretty horrific backdrop for a good part of the story.  I do wish that a little more of the story had been spent on the ground within the Wastes, but it was probably a wise choice to avoid, as the story could easily become bogged down there.  I also really enjoyed the lost dwarf hold of Karag Dum, where the last third of the book takes place.  King was clearly drawing some inspirations from Tolkein’s Mines of Moria when he came up with this location (Moria is also known as Khazad-dûm), with hidden doors, ancient treasures, despoiling opponent, and a giant fiery demon boss.  The scenes set within this hold are pretty claustrophobic, and King makes sure to use the dark location to its full advantage during fight scenes.  You really get a sense of the decay and destruction that has occurred within this setting over the years, and it is pretty easy to feel the despair of the various dwarf characters.  Both these major settings are really impressive, and they prove to be an excellent and fitting backdrop to a very fun and intense story.

A major strength of this book is its characters, as King continues to produce a range of complex and distinctive figures to populate his tales.  This includes protagonists Gotrek and Felix, who find themselves on their most dangerous mission yet.  Felix continues to be used as the novel’s primary point-of-view character, and it is fascinating to see his continued evolution from cowardly fop to dangerous warrior.  Despite his continued caution and reluctance to engage in fights, Felix is now regarded by everyone as a heroic figure, and he accompanies Gotrek on this latest quest with only a minimum of forbearance, despite being given an out by his friend.  King has really hit his groove when it comes to portraying Felix, and the character reigns supreme as a sarcastic, but loyal friend.  I have really grown to like Felix, and readers will become pretty invested in his tale.

After being overlooked a bit in Skavenslayer, Gotrek has a lot more focus on him in Daemonslayer, as he re-visits one of his old failures and reunites with some of his dwarf kin.  For most of the novel, Gotrek is his usual gruff and battle-hardened self, still searching for his doom while managing to kill anything that he comes across.  While this is always a lot of fun, King makes sure to feature some deeper character elements in this novel, by highlighting some of his inner feelings and giving hints at his past.  There are several compelling mentions of Gotrek’s pre-Slayer life in this book, as well as some early hints at the character’s true destiny and the dark fate surrounding him.  King also shows a surprising amount of emotion in the character for this book, and Gotrek has some moving scenes with Felix as he contemplates the mistakes of his past and his many regrets.  I really enjoyed seeing how the character’s friendship with Felix has developed over the course of the last few books, and there is even a scene where Gotrek admits he is apprehensive about journeying to the Chaos Wastes and even lets Felix know he does not have to follow him.  While all this character development is great, King also makes sure to continue to portray Gotrek as an absolute badass in Daemonslayer, as he goes up against a ton of different enemies and opponents.  The various fight scenes with Gotrek are so much fun, although I do worry that King is perhaps making Gotrek a little too overpowered, especially as he manages to defeat a Bloodthirster, literally the most dangerous creature in the entire Warhammer canon (admittedly Felix helps a lot).  I still really love this great character and I cannot wait to see what other crazy adventures he goes on in the future.

Just like his previous books, King loads Daemonslayer up with a great range of supporting characters, and several of the characters introduced in this novel end up becoming major recurring figures in the Gotrek and Felix series.  Probably my favourite was Snorri Nosebiter, a fellow dwarf Slayer, who has had way too many blows to the head.  Snorri proves to be a fun companion to Gotrek and it was interesting to see a character who makes the titular protagonist seem sane in comparison.  There was also a fun character in Varek Varigsson, who is essentially the dwarf version of Felix, except with a range of explosive devices.  In addition, you cannot overlook the dwarf engineer turned Slayer, Malakai Makaisson, and I had a good chuckle when the characters discuss the fates of his previous, unfortunately named ships.  I also really liked that King reused two of his most entertaining characters from the previous novel, the Skavens Grey Seer Thanquol and Lurk Snitchtongue.  Both serve as secondary antagonists in the story, and prove to be excellent comic reliefs, especially as their schemes constantly go against them.  It looks like King has some fun plans for Snitchtonuge in the future, and I liked the fun changes he went through.

As I did for Skavenslayer, I really need to point out the extreme lack of female characters in this book.  Daemonslayer literally had only one named female character, Ulrika Magdova, who naturally falls in love with Felix the first time they lay eyes on each other.  While this is pretty lazy writing on King’s part, at least Ulrika is a much better written character than the females featured in Skavenslayer.  Ulrika is a badass Kislev fighter, who proves to be a dangerous fighter (of course, Felix has to be just a little bit better).  Still, I have a feeling she is going to be a bit of a damsel in distress in some of the future novels, and I hope that King balances it out with some additional female characters in the future.  Overall, there are some great characters featured throughout Daemonslayer and I look forward to seeing the ones who survive in some of the other Gotrek and Felix novels.

I ended up grabbing the audiobook format of Daemonslayer, narrated by Jonathan Keeble.  With a relatively short runtime of 9 hours and 38 minutes, the Daemonslayer audiobook is an easy audiobook to get through, and I managed to finish it off quickly.  The audiobook format proves to be a great way to enjoy this excellent book, especially as it allows the fantastic and chaotic landscape and characters to come to life in all their ghastly glory.  Keeble continues to impress as the narrator of this series, and I love the amazing array of voices he brings to the table.  Daemonslayer really highlights just how varied his voice can be as Keeble produces a substantial number of different accents and vocal tones to capture the rich and unique cast.  This includes Scottish-sounding dwarfs, Russian-esque Kislev lancers, humans with cultured British accents and the mad, loud voice of Snorri Nosebiter.  Keeble also has to voice the various inhuman monsters that the protagonists encounter, from the great Skaven characters, to the monstrous daemons and warriors of Chaos, all of which prove very fitting and amusing.  He also brings an immense amount of passion to his narration that deeply enhances the experience of anyone listening to the book.  The way in which he gets into the various fight sequences is amazing, and you can hear the sheer excitement in his voice as he reads.  This is especially true in the final epic fight scene, and the listener soon finds themselves on the edge of their seat as Keeble works his way up to the conclusion.  This is really an impressive and amazing format to enjoy Daemonslayer in, and I cannot recommend this audiobook enough.

Daemonslayer by William King is an exceptional and amazing entry in the fantastic Gotrek and Felix tie-in series.  This awesome novel contains an epic and intense story, as its two iconic protagonists continue to explore the dark and deadly Warhammer Fantasy world.  Filled with action, adventure, comedy and some dramatic character moments, Daemonslayer is an outstanding novel that comes highly recommended for all Warhammer fans.  I look forward to seeing how the rest of the series turns out and I am really enjoying my current jaunt into the world of Warhammer tie-in fiction.

Daemonslayer 2 Cover

Throwback Thursday – Skavenslayer by William King

Skavenslayer Cover

Publisher: Black Library (Audiobook – December 1999)

Series: Gotrek and Felix – Book Two

Length: 10 hours and 30 minutes

My rating: 4.5 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.  The adventures of my two favourite Warhammer Fantasy protagonists, Gotrek and Felix, continues, with the second incredible and extremely fun entry in their series, Skavenslayer.

After their previous escapades throughout the Empire and beyond, wandering adventurer, outlaw, and writer Felix Jaeger is still reluctantly following the Dwarf Slayer Gotrek Gurnisson on his quest to find a glorious death.  After travelling to the Imperial city of Nuln, the two heroes attempt to make some money to support their travels.  However, danger is always around the corner, as the heroes find themselves thrust into the middle of a vast conspiracy when they take on a menial job.  The chittering and evil hordes of the Skaven are amassing beneath Nuln, determined to conquer the city by any means necessary.  Led by a dangerous and ambitious leader, the rat-men have several sinister plots to kill all the humans above and appropriate their city and technology for their own glorious purposes.  The only chance the city has to survive this chaos appears to be Gotrek and Felix, who are constantly dragged into the middle of the Skavens’ plots, thanks to fate, Skaven pettiness or terrible bad luck (both Felix’s and the Skaven’s).  Can the two heroes save Nuln from the Skaven hordes, or will Gotrek finally find the death he always seeks?

Wow, this is such a fun and entertaining series.  Skavenslayer is the second entry in the Gotrek and Felix series, which follows the two titular heroes as they journey throughout the Warhammer Fantasy world, battling all manner of monsters, demons and creatures.  After enjoying some of the excellent Warhammer 40,000 fiction out there (Deathwatch: Shadowbreaker and Kal Jerico: Sinner’s Bounty), I recently dove into the first Gotrek and Felix novel, Trollslayer, which contained several exciting and compelling short stories.  I loved the fantastic mixture of action, world-building and fun characters featured within Trollslayer, and within a couple of weeks I had started listening to SkavenslayerSkavenslayer proved to be another excellent novel, and I honestly think it was a slightly stronger novel than Trollslayer, thanks to its much more connected plot.  This was an outstanding read that has many amazing elements to it.

Skavenslayer contains an outstanding and deeply addictive narrative that follows Gotrek and Felix as they attempt to stop the Skaven plot to destroy the city of Nuln.  Skavenslayer is made up of several short stories linked together by Felix’s journal entries.  Unlike the previous novel, all six stories and the epilogue are linked, forming one continuous narrative and resulting in a tighter and more comprehensive read.

Skavenslayer’s first short story is Skaven’s Claw, which sees Gotrek and Felix employed as sewerjacks, guards who patrol the vast catacombs underneath Nuln.  On patrol, they chance upon a clandestine meeting between a Skaven and a human noble, placing Gotrek and Felix in the middle of a conspiracy involving the head of Nuln’s secret police.  Skaven’s Claw is an excellent first story that does a wonderful job establishing most of Skavenslayer’s plot details and introducing several key characters, including recurring antagonist Grey Seer Thanquol.  I loved the combination of action, world building and intrigue that was contained within Skaven’s Claw, and it results in an awesome, fast-paced story.  The Nuln sewers prove to be a claustrophobic and memorable setting for most of the battles.  I also enjoyed the use of secondary antagonist Fritz von Halstadt, a fanatical human who has been manipulated by the Skaven, as his story arc was very well established and quite compelling.  This is an awesome entry that gets Skavenslayer off to an impressive start.

Next up we have Gutter Runners, which sees the Clan Eshin assassin, Chang Squik, lead a group of Skaven Gutter Runners on a mission to kill Gotrek and Felix at the inn where they are working as bouncers.  This was a quick and action-packed story which proved to be a lot of compelling fun.  The action is swift and deadly, as the protagonists are attacked on multiple fronts, and there are several great battle scenes throughout.  This is a fun story that you can easily power through in one short sitting, and I felt that it did a great job keeping the reader’s attention after the fantastic introductory story.

The third entry is the fantastic and funny Night Raid, which focuses on the members of Clan Skyre, the insane Skaven engineers and weapon designers.  The leader of the Clan Skyre contingent, Heskit One-Eye, plans a raid on the Nuln College of Engineering to appropriate the latest human weapons and technology and obtain glory.  However, the jealous Grey Seer Thanquol organises a significant roadblock in the form of Gotrek and Felix.  This is another outstanding entry in the novel, and I consider it to be the most comedic and entertaining of the bunch.  Not only do you get to see amazing examples of Skaven backstabbing and betrayal but you also have an extremely funny and exciting sequence at the college, where all hell breaks loose when a Skaven gets stuck in a Steam Tank.  This story also serves as an excellent introduction to the various Skaven side-characters, and a lot of elements from Night Raid have major impacts on the rest of Skavenslayer’s story.

Up next, we have the disgusting and captivating story, Plague Monks of Pestilens.  In this story, a brewing plague strikes quick with deadly consequences.  However, this is no ordinary plague; it is a deadly concoction dreamt up by the demented plague monks of Clan Pestilens, led by the terrible Vilebroth Null.  Warned again by Thanquol, Gotrek and Felix attempt to stop the plague monks before it is too late.  Plague Monks of Pestilens is an amazing middle story that is pretty memorable.  Rather than the pure hack-and-slash narrative of the previous story, King works in an interesting mystery element, as Felix tries to work out where the plague monks are attacking from.  Once battle is joined, you are in for a dangerous and gruesome fight, especially as the author goes into full horror mode when describing the grotesque plague monks and their malformed, diseased bodies.  This is an extremely intense and disturbing story which really enhances Skavenslayer’s overall narrative and gives it the more serious edge it needed.

The penultimate story of Skavenslayer is Beasts of Moulder, which sees Gotrek and Felix attempt to stop the master mutators of Clan Moulder, led by Izak Grottle, try to unleash their latest creation.  This was a decent addition, although if I am being honest, it was probably the weakest entry in the entire book.  Not only are the stakes a little lower, but it repeats the pattern of the previous two entries.  I did quite enjoy the scene where Felix visits the palace, especially as everyone there assumes he is some sort of master monster hunter, but the rest of the story fell a little flat, especially the Elissa subplot.  Still, it fits into Skavenslayer’s narrative well and does a good job setting up the final story.

The last entry in Skavenslayer is the major concluding storyline, The Battle of Nuln.  In this story, both the citizens of Nuln and the Skaven army hiding beneath the streets have been afflicted by plague and famine.  In order to achieve victory, Thanquol leads a daring raid on the Countess’s palace during a ball, while the rest of the Skaven army attacks the city.  With Gotrek and Felix stuck in the middle of several Skaven plots, can they save the city before it is overwhelmed by rats, disease and vile Skaven magic?  The Battle of Nuln is an incredible and captivating entry that serves as the action-packed conclusion to the entire book.  King brings together all his fantastic storylines, and the readers are rewarded with an intense and extended war sequence, as the full wrath of the Skaven force is unleashed.  I deeply enjoyed this final story, and it did an outstanding job of providing satisfying, if occasionally lethal, conclusions to all the character arcs and storylines.  There is so much action going on in The Battle of Nuln, and I loved seeing the consequences of all the previous short stories finally come to the fore for both sides in the war.  An excellent and exciting conclusion that will put you in the mood for even more Gotrek and Felix.

I had an outstanding time getting through each of the short stories above, and not only are they fantastic reads on their own but together they form an impressive and intense overarching narrative.  King did a wonderful job crafting together all six stories, and I felt that the use of a single location and overarching antagonists worked extremely well, especially once you are introduced to the four iconic Skaven clans.  While some of the middle stories do suffer from plot repetition, this is still a great book which is extremely fun to read.  King ensures each story has a great combination of action, character development and humour, and each of the stories can easily be read on their own without a lot of context from the others.  This is also a very good Warhammer Fantasy novel, and readers only need minimal prior knowledge of the franchise, especially as King provides a great amount of detail and self-contained lore.  I felt that it came together perfectly, and readers are in for an exceptional time when they check this novel out.

One of the more entertaining and fun parts of this novel was King’s use of the Skaven as the villains of the story.  The giant rat-men known as Skaven are chaotic beings who, thanks to their spiteful nature, massive ambitions and weird array of abilities, weapons, magic and fighting techniques, are one of the most entertaining and recognisable races in the Warhammer Fantasy canon.  I think that King did a particularly good job bringing the Skaven to life in Skavenslayer, and they proved to be a very intriguing and memorable group of antagonists.  Not only does the author showcase several unique Skaven clans (each of them is covered in a short story), but he also captures the Skavens’ treacherous nature, speech pattern and insane pettiness.  While the Skaven have an elaborate plan, their own paranoia and self-serving mindset gets in the way of its success, and it is wonderful to see the various backstabbing, betrayals and plots that occur throughout the course of the book.  Despite this, they still prove to be a dangerous group of enemies, and they manage to hit the protagonists and the rest of the humans in Nuln in a big way.  I really enjoyed the way that King utilised the Skaven throughout this novel, especially as their duplicitous or cowardly actions are the catalyst for most of the book’s humour, and Skavenslayer is a fantastic and detailed introduction to this impressive Warhammer Fantasy faction.  That being said, there are only so many times you can hear a scared Skaven getting ready to “squirt the musk of fear”, and some different wording might have been better.

Another highlight of this book is its complex characters.  The most notable and prominent of these are titular protagonists, Gotrek and Felix, and it is still incredibly fun to see the unusual partnership of a doomed Dwarf Slayer and a former wealthy poet turned notorious adventurer.  Due to his position as the book’s main point of view character, much of Skavenslayer’s focus lies on Felix.  While there are still hints at his somewhat cowardly past, especially as he seems apprehensive before every single fight, Felix has become a much more fearless and dangerous being in this book, and he leads the way in several battles throughout Skavenslayer, proving himself a fantastic hero.  There are some interesting character moments for Felix throughout this book, especially as he encounters his brother, Otto, the first member of his family to reach out to him since his banishment.  There are some great comparisons between the wealthy Otto and the more adventurous Felix in Skavenslayer, and it was intriguing to see what Felix might have turned into if he was not bound to Gotrek.  I also liked how Felix developed more into his role as the sane straight man to Gotrek, and his dry humour really adds a lot of comedy to the books.  Overall, Skavenslayer is quite a strong outing for Felix, and he proves to be an outstanding central character.

Aside from Felix, the other main character is Gotrek, the mad, death-hungry Dwarf Slayer, who is constantly denied his desired doom in glorious combat due to his own unnatural skill.  Gotrek is his usual crude and disrespectful self throughout Skavenslayer, and it is an absolute joy to see him in battle, even if his portrayed as way too overpowered.  While he is a great character, Gotrek was underutilised in Skavenslayer, and he was mainly just a supporting player in the Felix-based stories, only appearing when there is a need for fighting.  Still, it was great to see him, and he does get a lot more attention in the next novel.

While Gotrek was a bit overlooked, King does a wonderful compromise by introducing an exceptional primary antagonist in the form of Grey Seer Thanquol, a powerful Skaven sorcerer who goes on to be a major recurring figure within the Gotrek and Felix novels and the wider Warhammer Fantasy universe.  Thanquol is an impressively entertaining character who represents the absolute best (or worst, depending on your point of view) of Skaven society.  He is insanely ambitious, arrogant, power-hungry and dangerous, and rose to power thanks to an unfortunate “accident” involving his predecessor, a loaded crossbow and an exploding donkey.  Due to his ambition and an unwillingness to share any glory, Thanquol spends just as much time plotting against his equally aspiring subordinates as he does attempting to conquer Nuln or kill Gotrek and Felix.  Indeed, several conflicts with the Skaven are due to Thanquol himself informing the protagonists about his rival’s plots, often through some hilarious letters which are clearly written by a Skaven (despite Thanquol’s own belief that they are masterful forgeries).  The sheer overconfidence, deluded self-belief and inability to take responsibility for his failings make Thanquol a particularly nasty antagonist, however, it is just so entertaining to see him strive and then fail, that you end up wanting him to live and succeed against his Skaven opponents.  Thanquol proves to be an excellent antagonist, and I really enjoyed seeing his alternative point-of-view which highlights the Skaven plans.  King really outdid himself coming up with this villainous rat-man, and he is one of the best things about Skavenslayer and the overall Gotrek and Felix series.

King has also filled Skavenslayer with an interesting collection of side characters who add a lot to the plot.  The author does a good job of introducing these major side characters throughout the various stories, and he manages to build them up and flesh out their personalities in a short amount of time.  There are great human supporting characters, such as Heinz and Doctor Drexler, and several fun and amusing Skaven.  The majority of these Skaven characters are leading members of the main clans who not only serve as secondary antagonists for the novel, but who are also cast as rivals to Thanquol’s rise to power.  I had a fantastic time seeing each of these Skaven characters in all their treacherous, self-serving glory, although my favourite had to be the aptly named Lurk Snitchtongue, who is a very fun and cowardly character.

If I had to make one major criticism, it would be about the complete lack of any decent female supporting characters.  While you can forgive some older fantasy books for their lack of gender diversity, it is a painfully obvious problem in Skavenslayer.  There are literally only two female characters of note within the novel, and both are badly written.  The first is Felix’s romantic partner, Elissa, who quickly becomes a major burden to the story by forming conflicts with Felix.  Their romance is thankfully over before the end of the book, and you cannot feel anything but relief as she leaves.  The other character is the ruler of Nuln, Countess Emmanuelle, who gets only a couple of lines at the end of the novel.  While her one scene does shine her in a good light, the rest of the novel hints that she is a vapid, lustful and incompetent ruler.  The underuse of female characters is probably going to be a major feature of Gotrek and Felix series in the future (for example, Daemonslayer only has one female character), however, I really hope that any who feature are written a lot better than the ones featured in Skavenslayer.

Just like I did with Trollslayer before it, I chose to listen to Skavenslayer on audiobook rather than grab a physical copy of the book.  I have a lot of love for the Warhammer Fantasy audiobooks, especially as they always perfectly capture the excitement, grim horror and elaborate fantasy of this franchise.  Skavenslayer was another great example of this, and I had a wonderful and thrilling time listening to this amazing novel in this format.  Much of the reason for this was the excellent narration by Jonathan Keeble, a brilliant narrator who has lent his voice to most of the Gotrek and Felix novels.  Keeble has an outstanding voice for dark fantasy stories such as this, and I loved the grim tone he gives to several of the characters, particularly Gotrek, as well as the sheer excitement that infects his tone whenever there is a fight sequence or dangerous scene.  Keeble also a lot of fun voicing the various Skaven characters, and he expertly mimics their high-pitched, whiney tones, which helps highlight their fickle and cowardly nature.  This excellent voice work helps turn the Skavenslayer audiobook into an absolute treat to listen to, and with a runtime of only 10 and a half hours, listeners will power through this in no time at all.

William King’s second Gotrek and Felix novel, Skavenslayer, was another outstanding and wildly enjoyable novel that I had an incredible time listening to.  Featuring a compelling connected narrative filled with intense action and fun villains, this is an amazing fantasy tale that is perfect for all Warhammer Fantasy fans.  I can think of no higher compliment for this book than to reveal that the moment I finished Skavenslayer, I immediately grabbed the next novel in the series, Daemonslayer, which proved to be just as much fun.

Skavenslayer 2

The Shadow of the Gods by John Gwynne

The Shadow of the Gods Cover

Publisher: Orbit (Audiobook – 4 May 2021)

Series: The Bloodsworn Saga – Book One

Length: 18 hours and 13 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Prepare to dive into a dark and powerful Norse-inspired fantasy with the incredible and addictive new novel from superstar fantasy author John Gwynne, The Shadow of the Gods.  Gwynne is highly regarded fantasy author who has been making some major waves since his 2012 dark fantasy debut, Malice, the first book in The Faithful and the Fallen series.  Gwynne has so far written two major fantasy series, the four-novel long The Faithful and the Fallen, and the sequel Of Blood and Bone series.  His latest novel, The Shadow of the Gods, is the first book in The Bloodsworn Saga, which will follow a group of epic protagonists in a bloody and grim Norse-inspired fantasy world.

I must admit that until recently I had not had the pleasure of reading any of John Gwynne’s novels.  This has always seemed like a major oversight on my behalf, especially as most fantasy reviewers massively talk up Gwynne’s existing series. While my attention was drawn to this book thanks to its baller cover (I mean look at it, so awesome), it initially was not a major reading priority for me.  However, this changed once the reviews for The Shadow of the Gods started pouring in.  Within a day of its release, my inbox was getting blown up with glowing reviews, as nearly every member of the fantasy fiction community started singing the praises of Gwynne’s new book.  While I generally like making my own reading decisions, after seeing so many different reviewers claim it was one of the best books of the year, I honestly had no choice but to check it out, and boy was I glad that I did.

Hundreds of years ago, the gods fought in a brutal and fatal war in the lands of Vigrið for power, vengeance, and pride.  When the fighting stopped all the gods lay dead, the land was shattered, and hordes of monsters and demons were unleashed upon the world.  Now, after barely surviving the carnage of the god’s war, humans dominate Vigrið, with powerful jarls fighting for control of the towns while mercenary war bands quest after monsters and the most feared inhabitants of Vigrið, the Tainted.  The Tainted are human descendants of the gods who bear small remnants of their savage power, and who are now hunted out of fear and a desire to harness their power for the wars to come.

While life is always bloody in Vigrið, times are especially bleak now with war looming on the horizon, monsters roaming the wilds and sinister forces gather out of sight.  In these dark times, three dangerous people will find the fate of Vigrið resting in their hands.  These new heroes include Orka, a hunter and trapper who lives a quiet life in the wilds with her family, attempting to avoid her troubled past while raising her young son.  Meanwhile, Varg, an escaped thrall seeking answers, finds unexpected friendship by joining the legendary Bloodsworn mercenary company.  Finally, Elvar, a young noblewoman running from her family, seeks glory and battle fame as part of the Battle-Grim, another mercenary band who specialise in capturing Tainted humans.

Soon, all three of these fighters are faced with new and life-changing challenges.  Orka is forced to embark on a bloody mission of vengeance when her peaceful life is shattered and her son is taken from her.  Varg attempts to reconcile his responsibilities to the Bloodsworn and his own personal oaths, as the war band march into the wilderness to face a mysterious foe.  Elvar and the Battle-Grim embark on a legendary quest to find the final battleground of the gods.  However, all three will be unprepared for the revelations, lies and bloodshed about to be unleashed before them.  A dangerous conspiracy is forming in Vigrið that will shatter the very land and bring untold chaos to humanity.  Not all the gods are dead, and those that survive are very angry!

So, a little life lesson for me here: when the entire reviewing world says a book is good, then you can be damn sure that it will be an amazing read!  In this case, The Shadow of the Gods turned out to be an exceptional and captivating novel which provides an intense and clever story with great characters exploring a harsh and broken world.  Gwynne did an incredible job with his latest novel, and this was easily one of the best fantasy books I have read so far this year, earning an easy five-star rating from me.  The Shadow of the Gods has an incredible and powerful narrative that becomes even more addictive and exciting the further you get into it.  This is an outstanding and dark fantasy story which cleverly Gwynne has anchored to three separate point-of-view characters, Orka, Varg and Elvar.  I really liked how Gwynne came up with three separate narratives that are fun and memorable in their own unique way, and The Shadow of the Gods is stronger because of this.

The first one of these independent storylines revolves around Orka, a skilled and deadly warrior who has taken to living as an isolated hunter with her husband and young son.  Initially attempting to stay out of the politics and battles of Vigrið, and with a mysterious past surrounding her, Orka is eventually forced into action when her home is destroyed and her son is kidnapped.  What follows is a bloody and brutal revenge story, as Orka traverses the landscape in search of her son, killing everyone in her way.  Accompanied by two inexperienced fighters, Orka cuts a fantastic path of vengeance and despair throughout the world, eventually revealing just how dangerous she can be.  Orka’s story is really fantastic, and I loved seeing her on her quest for vengeance, blood and her son.  Gwynne weaves an incredible narrative around the character and takes her to some dark and dangerous places, as she is forced to contend with conspiring jarls, rogue warbands, vengeful fighters and dangerous Tainted with unknown agendas.  The author also puts some very impressive character work into Orka.  Initially shown as a mysterious being who is haunted by her past and is only just keeping her aggressive instincts in check for the sake of her family, Orka soon displays increasing violence and prowess as her storyline continues and she loses more control.  This was a fantastic and epic story, which has an outstanding ending with some extremely fun, if slightly predictable, twists to it.

The next storyline follows the amazing Varg, a former thrall who has run away after killing his owners.  In desperate need of magic to avenge his dead sister, Varg attempts to join the Bloodsworn, a highly regarded mercenary company, to make use of their seiðr-witch.  After impressing the Bloodsworn, Varg travels with them as an apprentice mercenary, unable to use the seiðr-witch until he proves his worth.  His first quest with the Bloodsworn takes him to a remote part of Vigrið to investigate missing villagers.  As Varg struggles between fulfilling his oath to his sister and starting a new life, he will experience betrayal, despair, and terrible revelations.  This is another excellent storyline which has a lot of awesome elements to it.  Not only is there a lot of action and intrigue as the Bloodsworn find themselves in the middle of the chaos infecting Vigrið, but it also serves as a fantastic tale of friendship, redemption, and camaraderie.

Varg proves to be a really good central protagonist and readers will quickly become attracted to his resilience, natural battle prowess and deep inner tragedy.  A former slave, Varg is unused to friendship or support from those around him, as the only person he could ever count on was his sister, whose death he seeks to avenge.  However, when confronted by the easy friendship of his fellow Bloodsworn brothers, Varg finds himself suffering from some dramatic inner conflict, especially as he believes himself undeserving of support and kindness, and his happiness feels like a betrayal to his dead sister.  This is an amazing bit of character work here, and I really appreciated Varg’s impressive personal story.  His background as a slave also ensures that this storyline features more background about this world than some of the other stories do, and you also get a series of training montages as Varg learns how to fight as a member of the Bloodsworn.  This storyline is further enhanced by a great band of supporting characters, especially as Varg finds himself fighting side by side with an eclectic group of unique and outrageous warriors.  There are several fantastic and enjoyable side characters featured amongst the Bloodsworn, although my favourite must be the cocky and entertaining Svik, a skilled warrior with a love of cheese and a funny tale to back it up (trust me, it is worth reading just to see him tell his cheese tale).  These supporting characters help to make Varg’s storyline the most entertaining and humorous parts of the book and it is near impossible not to fall in love with the various members of the Bloodsworn.

The final character arc featured in The Shadow of the Gods follows the young warrior, Elvar.  Elvar is the daughter of a powerful jarl who gave up a life of comfort and forced marriage to join the Battle-Grim, another notorious mercenary warband who specialise in killing monsters and trapping Tainted to sell them for profit.  After capturing an unusual family of Tainted, Elvar and the Battle-Grim embark on a quest of epic proportions that will change the world.  This was another impressive and captivating storyline which has some very unique differences from the other character arcs.  Elvar is an excellent point-of-view character with a complex past, who presents an interesting counterpoint to the other two protagonists.  While Orka and Varg and primarily motivated by family and vengeance, Elvar is primarily concerned with proving her worth to her crew, her commander, and her overbearing family, and is determined to win enough battle fame to outshine her father.  I also loved the comparisons between the Bloodsworn and the Battle-Grim, and it was interesting to see how the similarities and differences between the warbands, especially as the Battle-Grim are more concerned with wealth and reputation.  This storyline is a particularly ambitious and contains some amazing battle sequences, especially one at the start against a troll, and there is much more of a focus on fighting within a shield wall as a unit.  This storyline also has one of the best twists in the entire novel, as well as an extremely impressive ending that will have major implications for the rest of the series.

The three narratives are generally kept very separate right up until the end with only a minimal amount of crossover.  This means that the readers end up getting three distinct stories with a unique group of characters set within the same book.  I think that this was a pretty cool way to start the wider series off, especially as it let the reader see more of the universe, while also expertly establishing the main protagonists and their storylines.  At the same time, limiting the narrative to only three major characters (I understand that Gwynne usually uses more), also ensures that the story does not get too fractured, and that the reader has time to get properly invested in each storyline.  I had a wonderful time reading each of the three storylines, and I honestly enjoyed each of them pretty much equally.  This is pretty rare for novels that use multiple POV characters, as there is usually one narrator or storyline that the reader enjoys more than others.  I will admit that Elvar’s storyline did take me a little longer to get into, but I become extremely hooked on it after a few chapters.  If I had to choose an absolute favourite storyline, I would say that the Varg chapters were really appealing to me, and I enjoyed seeing his cool story of redemption, as well as his fun companions.  While the stories were primarily kept separate, a few overarching plotlines and a couple of supporting characters are shared between the three arcs.  While subtle, it does perfectly set up an overarching conspiracy that has major implications for the entire plot and which sets up the next novel perfectly.  This makes for a pretty epic novel, and it is one that no fantasy fan will be able to easily put down.

I was deeply impressed by the clever and memorable fantasy universe that Gwynne came up with for The Shadow of the Gods.  The world of Vigrið is a thrilling dark fantasy setting, filled with all manner of dangerous monsters, dead gods and roving warbands, all of which proves to be an amazing backdrop to the overall story.  I loved the beautiful combination of fantasy elements with Norse historical inspirations, and it was pretty damn cool to see Viking-esque warriors facing off against monsters and magically enhanced beings.  The author does a great job capturing the intricacies of these Norse elements, and the reader is treated to detailed depictions of Viking tactics, weapons and fighting styles, such as a several brutal shield wall sequences.  Gwynne really tries to enhance the authenticity of these elements by using the Norse names for various things, such as brynja for a coat of mail, and I really appreciated this attention to detail.  I am not entirely sure he needed to describe someone’s head as a thought-cage every single time, though, as it that was a tad annoying.  In addition to the cool Norse elements, I loved the whole concept of a land of fallen gods where their human descendants are hunted and enslaved.  This opens some great storylines, especially around how the Tainted are treated, and it proves to be rather interesting to see which characters are secretly empowered (some are more obvious than others).  I think that Gwynne did a good job of introducing all the key elements of his universe throughout the course of the book, and the reader is never unsure or confused about what is going on.  This truly was an impressively inventive new setting, and I look forward to seeing what chaos and destruction occurs throughout it in the next novel, especially after that ending.

I ended up listening to The Shadow of the Gods’ audiobook format, which turned out to be an amazing and captivating production.  The Shadow of the Gods has a substantial run time of just over 18 hours; however, listeners are guaranteed to power through it in no time at all.  I found myself really enjoying into this book’s audiobook format, especially as it really helped to bring the excellent story to life for me, with many fantastic details and thrilling fight scenes become so much clearer.  One of the main reasons that this format works so well is the excellent narration from Colin Mace, a man who has lent his vocal talents to some great novels in the past, including The Black Hawks by David Wragg (as well as its upcoming sequel, The Righteous).  Mace has a very gruff and commanding voice that perfectly fits the dark, Nordic tone of The Shadow of the Gods.  Mace does an awesome job moving the story along at a quick pace, and there is never a single slow spot for the listeners to get stuck in.  At the same time, he produces some rough and damaged voices for the various characters featured within the book which I felt fit each of them perfectly and which helped to highlight their distinctive personalities.  This results in an exquisite and memorable audiobook production, and I would strongly recommend this format to anyone interested in checking this impressive novel out.

With his latest incredible novel, the impressive John Gwynne once again shows why he is one of the leading authors of dark fantasy fiction.  The Shadow of the Gods is a fantastic and captivating read that takes the reader on thrilling adventures with some exceptional characters.  Featuring a powerful narrative and an intricate and grim new fantasy setting, The Shadow of the Gods is an outstanding and addictive novel that is one of the best fantasy books of 2021.  A highly recommended read for anyone looking for their latest dark fantasy fix, I cannot wait to see where Gwynne takes The Bloodsworn Saga next, but you have to know it is going to be something particularly epic.

Throwback Thursday – Trollslayer by William King

Trollslayer Cover 2

Publisher: Games Workshop (Audiobook – August 1999)

Series: Gotrek and Felix – Book One

Length: 9 hours and 55 minutes

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5

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.  In this latest Throwback Thursday article, I review a classic Warhammer Fantasy novel, the iconic Trollslayer by William King.

Over the last year or so, I have started to get back into the exciting and captivating extended universe that surrounds the Warhammer tabletop game franchise.  The Warhammer games are a lot of fun to play, but I have always deeply enjoyed the rich and extensive universe that has formed around it.  This is particularly true when it comes to the extensive literary world that has been created, with a huge collection of unique novels added every year.  I personally have barely scratched the surface of this franchise, having only recently read the exciting Space Marine novel Deathwatch: Shadowbreaker, and the fun crime novel Kal Jerico: Sinner’s Bounty.  For this review, however, I veer away from the science fiction based Warhammer 40,000, and instead look at a book in the Warhammer Fantasy universe.

The Warhammer Fantasy universe is set on a fantasy world where various races and factions fight for power, immortality, dark deities, and a general desire for bloodshed (Blood for the Blood God, Skulls for the Skull Throne!) in both large-scale battles and smaller skirmishes.  I love the fantastic and thrilling world of Warhammer Fantasy, especially as I used to play (my preferred factions were the Empire and the Lizardmen).  While there are many great novels set in this universe, the most recognisable and well-established series are the Gotrek and Felix books.

The Gotrek and Felix novels are some excellent dark fantasy books that follow the titular heroes, Gotrek Gurnisson and Felix Jaeger, as they traverse their world, facing every single monster, demon or villain they can find.  Created by William King, this long-running series has also been authored by fellow writers Nathan Long, Josh Reynolds and David Guymer, the last of whom has just released the latest entry, Gitslayer.  I have always heard good things about this series over the years, and I have previously enjoyed some of the short stories featured online or in the White Dwarf magazine.  As a result, when I had the brainwave to expand my knowledge of the Warhammer canon, this is one of the main series I wanted to check out, and to do so properly, I had to start with the original novel, TrollslayerTrollslayer, which was originally released in 1999, is an interesting novel that features seven original Gotrek and Felix short stories, including Geheimnisnacht, which was originally written as a one-off in 1988.  These seven stories have been bundled together into one continuous narrative, which proves to be an excellent and entertaining fantasy adventure.

Trollslayer Cover

Felix Jaeger, the son of a wealthy merchant and student in the Imperial capital Altdorf, used to live a blameless and dull life until he met the deranged Gotrek Gurnisson.  The son of a wealthy merchant and student in the Imperial capital Altdorf, Felix’s life was changed forever when Gotrek saved his life.  Gotrek is a Slayer, a dwarf who, after committing a terrible crime, has sworn to seek out a glorious death in battle, and who now wanders the world to find a foe worthy of killing him.  After a particularly damaging night of drinking, Felix drunkenly swears to follow him on his adventures to compose an epic ballad about Gotrek’s glorious death.

Bound by his oath, Felix now reluctantly accompanies Gotrek wherever he goes.  Their latest adventures will take them far and wide, as they venture throughout the Empire and beyond, travelling to the notorious holdings of the Border Princes, the mountainous realms of the dwarves and even under the halls of the conquered dwarf city of Karak Eight Peaks.  While they experience many unique discoveries and locations, one thing remains the same: enemies lurk around every corner, and Gotrek and Felix are forced to battle against some of the most dangerous creatures in existence, including orcs, goblins, trolls, the undead, mutants, beastman and more.

However, the most dangerous foe they face may be something far more insidious and unknowable.  The fell powers of Chaos are gathering throughout the land, and Gotrek and Felix seem to constantly become wrapped up in their plots and vile missions.  With danger and deadly foes all around, will Gotrek find the glorious death he seeks, and will Felix be able to survive whatever might foe eventually manages to kill his companion?

Wow, that was a cool novel I really should have read years ago.  Trollslayer was a fantastic and exciting novel that does a great job exploring some of the more dangerous settings in the Warhammer Fantasy world with two amazing characters.  Featuring seven dark and compelling short stories, Trollslayer is an outstanding book, and I had an incredibly fun and entertaining time getting through its audiobook format.  Banded together by some journal entries which bring the separate stories together, Trollslayer has a fantastic joint narrative that presents the reader with a collection of epic adventures.

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The book begins with the original Gotrek and Felix short story, Geheimnisnacht (Night of Secrets).  The two companions are stuck out in the dangerous forests of the Empire during Geheimnisnacht, an auspicious night of the year.  After nearly being run over by a dark carriage on the road, Gotrek and Felix investigate the actions of a dangerous Chaos coven out in the woods, and find more than they bargained for.  This is a rather entertaining and short entry in Trollslayers that serves as a fun introduction to the main protagonists and their quest.  King does a great job setting up both characters and you soon get a fantastic glimpse into their compelling personalities.  The author presents a very dark story within this first tale, as the heroes discover and fight the true horrors of chaos.  An excellent and intense opening story that will get you pumped up for the rest of the book.

The next entry contained within Trollslayer is called Wolf Riders, which sees Gotrek and Felix at the very edge of the Empire with plans to venture to the fallen dwarf stronghold of Karak Eight Peaks.  After encountering a beautiful young woman, Felix convinces Gotrek to join the doomed expedition of a cursed, banished noble family as they journey to the Border Lands to set up their own settlement.  Hired on as guards, the two heroes are forced to protect the caravan against a ravenous Greenskin horde, who are determined to destroy every one of them.  However, the true threat may lie within the convoy, as it soon becomes clear that someone has their own nefarious plans to kill everyone journeying with them.  Wolf Riders is an incredible second entry in the collection of stories, and it is easily one of the best tales in Trollslayer.  Not only does it reinforce the likeability of the two protagonists, but it also contains its own compelling and impressive narrative.  King manages to achieve a lot in Wolf Riders, introducing a cohort of great characters, showing several intense action sequences, and even presenting a clever and malicious mystery.  The entire narrative comes together extremely well, and readers are soon wrapped up in the compelling tale of redemption and bloodshed, which culminates in a tragic and memorable ending that forever changes one protagonist.

The third story is The Dark Beneath the World, which follows on immediately after Wolf RidersThe Dark Beneath the World sees Gotrek, Felix and some new companions journey into the dwarf stronghold of Karak Eight Peaks, which was infamously conquered by greenskins and Skaven in ages past.  Seeking treasure, holy relics and a glorious battle, the adventurers will face untold horrors in the halls beneath the city.  However, nothing will prepare them for the true dangers of Karak Eight Peaks, as the restless dead are stirring in response to a monstrous presence.  This was another great story that really highlights have exciting and action packed one of these stories can be.  I love how King takes his great characters right into the heart of one of the most iconic and dangerous settings in the entire Warhammer canon, and it proves to be an amazing backdrop to this compelling story.  A brutal hack and slash epic with some very intense moments, this is an excellent and fast-paced addition to Trollslayer that was an extremely thrilling read.

From powerful action to great humour, the next entry is the slightly shorter The Mark of Slaanesh.  This story sees Gotrek and Felix return to the Empire, where they encounter some malicious cultists of the Chaos god Slaanesh in a small town.  Unfortunately for Felix, Gotrek is suffering from amnesia after a blow to the head.  Forced to shepherd a docile Slayer through the town’s many dangers, Felix takes drastic action to bring his friend back to his senses.  The Mark of Slaanesh represents a very intriguing change of pace, with more of a focus on humour, as a weary Felix is forced to contend with a pacifist Dwarf Slayer, an eccentric doctor, and comedic mutants.  There are several extremely funny moments in this short story, which helped to turn The Mark of Slaanesh into one of the most entertaining entries in the entire novel.  I particularly appreciate how King was able to craft together such a despicable central antagonist in quite a short period of time, and it was great to see his implied comeuppance towards the end of the story.

King again rapidly switches gears with the next entry in the book, Blood and Darkness, a grim war story set in the darkest forest in the Empire.  This story sees Gotrek and Felix come across a ravished village within the Drakwald Forest, which has been utterly destroyed by beastmen.  Finding a young survivor, Kat, Gotrek and Felix escort her through the woods to the next village.  However, a vengeful and ambitious champion of Chaos is close behind them, with unholy plans for Kat and anyone else she comes across.  Blood and Darkness is another exceptional entry in the series, which is probably my overall favourite Trollslayer story.  Loaded with action, fantastic new characters and a particularly gruesome premise, Blood and Darkness really stands out from some of the other stories in this book, and I was blown away by how dark King made the narrative.  I really loved the story’s complex antagonist, and the entire plot surrounding Kat comes full circle in a great way.  While it is a tad creepy to see just how young Kat is in this story, especially as Felix apparently falls in love with her in a future novel (she gets aged up like 20 years before this happens, but it is still weird), this was an impressive and powerful story that really showed how complex, powerful and mature a Warhammer story can be.

The penultimate story in Trollslayer is The Mutant Master, which again switches pace and has a more humorous tilt to it.  After being attacked on the road by a swarm of mutants, the protagonists arrive at a struggling village and soon discover that the mutants are being controlled by a sorcerer in a nearby tower.  Betrayed by the villagers, Gotrek and Felix find themselves as prisoners and soon must deal with an insidious sorcerer who shares a history with Felix.  This was another great short story that places the protagonists into a uniquely dangerous position.  King includes some excellent humour in this novel, especially in the scene where Felix and the sorcerer have a very entertaining encounter, which proves that everyone, even dark sorcerers, fall to pieces when encountering former classmates.  While much of this story is dedicated to humour, the author fits in a particularly dark moment towards the end of the novel, which pushes one protagonist further than ever.  Another awesome and memorable story, I powered through this one extremely quickly.

The final entry in this book is the intense Ulric’s ChildrenUlric’s Children sees Felix trudging through a snowed-in forest, attempting to escape the cold and the wolves.  When they hear the sounds of a fight up ahead, Felix gets separated from Gotrek, and ends up getting captured by a dangerous group of soldiers.  The soldier’s leaders end up being revealed as cultists of the Chaos god Tzeentch, who are desperate to capture a mysterious family living nearby, who have strange powers and strengths.  Caught up in their conflict, Felix soon finds himself trapped in a manor house with two very different monsters and must try to overcome the powers of Chaos that threaten to consume him.  This was another fantastic story that serves as a great conclusion to the entire novel.  While I think that Ulric’s Children was one of the weaker stories in Trollslayer, it was still a compelling and thrilling tale which readers will enjoy.  I loved the inclusion of werewolves in this novel and it was fun to see Felix attempt to overcome a dangerous foe without Gotrek’s determined backup.  With some intriguing foes and an exciting story, this is a fun and fantastic entry in the book which will leave readers wanting more Gotrek and Felix in the future.

King really has loaded Trollslayer with an amazing range of different stories that highlight the gritty adventures of two memorable and loveable characters.  I had a great time getting through each of the short stories contained within this novel, and I think that the author did a good job combining seven shorter stories together into one cohesive tale.  I love how each of the stories has some impressive action set pieces, and readers are given an in-depth look at the true dangers and darkness that inhabits the Warhammer world.  King has also ensured that each tale contains a compelling blend of humour, dramatic character development and dark fantasy elements, all of which produce an outstanding overall narrative.  It was also very cool to see just how dark and gruesome King could make his narratives, and quite a few elements of this book closely bordered the horror genre.  Since the stories were originally published in instalments, readers are in for some repetition, especially as King rehashes Gotrek and Felix’s origin in every entry, and you also get quick summaries of their prior adventures.  While this and other pieces of repetition (for example, Gotrek runs his finger over his axe blade in every tale) can be a bit annoying at times, I personally thought it was a small price to pay for such an awesome and epic book.

One of the most impressive things about Trollslayer is the complex and distinctive characters.  Naturally, the main characters are series protagonists Gotrek Gurnisson and Felix Jaeger, both of whom prove to be really fantastic and exciting characters.  King has come up with an exceptional pairing in these two characters, and I absolutely love the combination of a doomed dwarf Slayer and a disgraced human with a penchant for poetry.

As the primary narrator of the separate stories in this book, Felix gets a great deal of attention, and you really get to grips with his superb character throughout the book.  I loved the depiction of a former arrogant dandy who finds himself in a situation well over his head, and Felix has a “fun” time facing off against all sorts of monsters in this book.  While most of the novel depicts him as a bit of a coward, Felix does manage to achieve some major heroics and you cannot help but sympathise with the terrible situations he finds himself in.  While the use of multiple short stories does tend to backslide Felix’s character at times (he reverts to a coward at the start of each story), I did enjoy seeing some of the excellent development that occurs around Felix.  Not only does he grow more confident in his own abilities, but he also becomes harder with each adventure, especially as he experiences tragedy and despair around every corner.  It was actually hard to see how some of the more tragic events of the book affected him, but I really appreciated the amazing character work that King worked around him.

The titular Trollslayer, Gotrek Gurnisson, is one of the most beloved figures in Warhammer Fantasy lore, and a magnificent character who I really enjoyed.  Much of Gotrek’s past is shrouded in mystery, and all you really know is that he is a mighty warrior who previously committed some great crime that still haunts him to this day.  Determined to find a glorious death, Gotrek willingly walks into the most dangerous of places, but always survives, much to his displeasure (even doomed dwarves are far too stubborn and proud to simply let an enemy kill them).  King mostly paints Gotrek as a crude, rude and bloodthirsty being, which is a lot of fun to see.  However, there is so much more to Gotrek than killing and fighting, and you see several glimpses of his true inner self in this book, especially when he thinks about the past.  I loved how King keeps Gotrek as a mostly enigmatic figure, mostly by not showing any of the story from his point of view, and the reader is never quite sure what he is thinking or planning.  All of this results in an excellent and memorable protagonist, and I am deeply intrigued to see what sort of adventures he has in the future, as well as any revelations about his past.

Aside from Gotrek and Felix, Trollslayer contains a range of interesting and compelling characters, several of whom act as point-of-view figures at various parts of the book.  King does a really good job of introducing and utilising so many unique figures throughout his various stories, and it is simply amazing how well he can develop and establish his character in such a short amount of time.  Even though you only see some characters for a few pages, you quickly become quite invested in their stories, which is the sign of a really good author.  However, readers are advised not to get too attached to anyone, as most of the side characters will come to a gruesome and tragic end.  Still, these supporting characters are really fun, and I look forward to seeing what unique figures are introduced in future Gotrek and Felix books.

Trollslayer also features the dark and well-established background setting of the Warhammer Fantasy world, with the protagonists adventuring through many iconic locations.  King makes excellent use of this fantastic background throughout his story, and I loved seeing all the cool locations, interesting factions and dangerous monsters contained within the story.  This actually serves as a really good introduction to the Warhammer Fantasy world, and readers unfamiliar with the various aspects of Warhammer will learn a lot here.  King can really craft together some dark and dangerous locations with his writing, and I love how spooking and claustrophobic some of his settings felt, especially the ancient dwarven catacombs and the haunted, monster infested forests.  I also loved the sheer range of different creatures and races featured within Trollslayer, as the author includes as many foes as possible.  It was extremely awesome to see Gotrek and Felix cut their way through various greenskins, monsters, and servants of Chaos, and there is something for all fantasy fans within this book.  I am extremely keen to see what other monsters and races are utilised in the future novels, and I am sure they will be pretty amazing.

I ended up listening to the Trollslayer audiobook format, which was an outstanding way to experience the awesome adventures contained within this book.  With a decent run time of just under 10 hours, I powered through this audiobook in a matter of days, especially once I got caught up in the fantastic depictions of intense action and dark creatures.  I was also really drawn in by the impressive narration of Jonathan Keeble, who has lent his voice to all the Gotrek and Felix audiobooks, as well as several other Warhammer projects and some of my favourite historical fiction novels, such as the Eagle of the Empire series.  Keeble has an epic voice, and the sheer passion that he brings to Trollslayer is immediately obvious, especially during the action scenes, where his excited voice captures the intensity and movement of the fights.  I also felt that Keeble did an exceptional job bringing all of the characters to life in an impressive way.  I particularly loved the gruff voice that he used for Gotrek, which fit the doomed dwarf warrior perfectly, and he also does a really good job voicing the often terrified Felix.  I also found some of the voices that he used for the supporting characters to be really fun and fitting, and I had a lot of love for a couple of the crazed sorcerers/alchemists they encounter, which were quite amusing.  All of this helps to turn the Trollslayer audiobook into an outstanding experience, and I think that this will be the format I check out the future Gotrek and Felix novels out in.  I might also have to consider listening to some historical fiction novels on audiobook in the future, especially as I know that Keeble will do a wonderful job narrating them.

Trollslayer by William King is an exceptional and clever Warhammer Fantasy novel that showcases the exciting and powerful adventures of the iconic Gotrek and Felix.  Serving as the main introduction to these two iconic heroes, Trollslayer contains seven outstanding and wildly entertaining short stories with some fantastic and wacky plots.  Readers who check out Trollslayer are in for a heck of a lot of fun and will swiftly become fans of this great duo and their outrageous adventures.  A highly recommended read, I suddenly have some major plans to check out more Gotrek and Felix novels in the future.

Throwback Thursday – Heroes in Crisis by Tom King and Clay Mann

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Publisher: DC Comics (Paperback – 1 October 2019)

Writer: Tom King

Artists: Clay Mann, Travis Moore, Lee Weeks, Mitch Gerads, Jorge Fornes

Colourists: Tomeu Morey, Arif Prianto, Mitch Gerads

Letterer: Clayton Cowles

Length: 234 pages

My Rating: 4 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 latest Throwback Thursday article, I look at an interesting DC Comics crossover event from a couple of years ago, the deep and compelling Heroes in Crisis.

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Now I have to admit that I have been somewhat avoiding a lot of the recent DC crossover events, mainly because I think the universe is getting a bit too complicated, what with the multiple versions of characters and timelines.  However, I recently grabbed the Heroes in Crisis collected edition (containing all nine issues of the limited series), mostly because I had heard some conflicting reports about whether it was any good, and I thought that it would be worth seeing just what sort of comic it really was.  I was also drawn to this comic as I am major fan of Tom King and Clay Mann after the work they recently did on Batman, which featured some really cool and compelling storylines.  Heroes in Crisis turned out to be a rather fun and intriguing comic, especially as King came up with another fascinating narrative.

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After years of fighting and surviving against the very worst evils in the universe, even the greatest heroes will start to crack under the unreal pressures of their chosen lives.  Realising this and determined to help their fellow superheroes, the trinity of Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman designed Sanctuary.  Sanctuary is a hidden facility containing a cutting-edge artificial intelligence programmed to provide advanced therapy, support and counselling to any hero that needs it after harsh battles and traumatic events.  However, no sanctuary lasts forever, and after losing contact with the facility, Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman arrive to find Sanctuary in shambles and several patients brutally killed.  As the world’s superheroes reel from the deaths of friends and colleagues such as Roy Harper, Red Devil, Commander Steel, Poison Ivy and Wally West, their thoughts swiftly turn to justice.  But who is responsible for the killings, and could the culprit be one of their own?

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The answer may lie with the only two survivors of the Sanctuary massacre, the greatest hero you have never heard of, Booster Gold, and the mad clown princess, Harley Quinn.  However, Booster and Harley are both convinced that they saw the other commit the crime, and are now out to stop the other survivor by any means necessary.  As the heroes attempt to uncover the killer lurking amongst them, their world will be further turned upside down when the confessions and therapy sessions recorded at Sanctuary are leaked to the media, casting a new light on them.  Can the killer be caught before they strike again, or will this case irreparably damage the world’s greatest superheroes?  Whatever happens, the DC universe will never be the same again.

This was a very unique and fascinating crossover comic which contains some notable flaws, but is something that I quite enjoyed.  King, Mann, and their artistic team produced a clever comic that really dives into the minds of the collected heroes of the DC universe.  Featuring a great story, some powerful character moments and some impressive artwork, Heroes in Crisis turned out to be a fun and heartfelt comic that I had a wonderful time reading and which has really stuck in my mind.

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Heroes in Crisis has an intense and powerful character driven narrative that presents the reader with an interesting mystery, while also attempting to dive into the minds of some of the most iconic comic book characters out there.  I very much enjoyed the excellent premise that King came up with for this comic, especially as he starts the narrative off by showing several iconic heroes brutally killed around the Sanctuary within the first several pages.  At the same time, two of DC’s most unique and complex characters, Booster Gold and Harley Quinn, are fighting to the death, with both claiming that the other is responsible for the crimes.  This proves to be an excellent start to the comic which really drew me into the book, and which quickly leads into a compelling investigation angle with Booster, Harley and the DC Big Three (Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman) all working towards the same goal while also fighting amongst themselves.  At the same time, a mysterious opponent is manipulating events from the shadows, ensuring that the protagonists are distracted by the public revelations about their mental fragility.  All of this leads up to an interesting and heartfelt conclusion where the killer is finally revealed in an emotional confrontation.

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This was a rather intense and fast-paced narrative and it was clear that King was drawing a lot of inspiration from the iconic Identity Crisis crossover comic (another controversial comic that split the fan base, although I personally consider it a masterpiece).  However, unlike Identity Crisis, I think that Heroes in Crisis fell a little flat and I can see where a lot of the criticism surrounding it came from.  While this comic has a great start and the author sets up the whole mystery and characters perfectly, I felt that the ending had some major flaws to it.  The reveal of the killer, despite some hints throughout the story, is a bit of a letdown (admittedly, due to internet spoilers, I did know who it was in advance of reading this comic, but this didn’t massively impact my overall reaction).  While I could appreciate some of the motives surrounding the killer’s choices, especially as it ties into the psyche aspects of the comic, it was a bit of a weak choice that undermined an amazing and well-established character.  In addition, many aspects of the conclusion, such as the reveal, the killer’s motivations, and the eventual solution to some established problems, were unnecessarily complicated and required some major logic leaps.  I also did not quite get why King included a certain “bros before heroes” scene, as it proved to be a very odd inclusion for such a serious story.  While I did greatly enjoy the set-up, as well the impressive inclusion of flashbacks and character centric panels throughout the entire comic, this ending was a bit of a letdown that substantially affected how much I enjoyed Heroes in Crisis.

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While the flaws in the story were a little disappointing, I think that King’s excellent character work more than makes up for it.  As he has previously done with his recent run on Batman, King attempts to really dive into the heart of the characters featured within Heroes in Crisis, highlighting their complex psyches and personalities to help to draw the reader in.  I also quite liked how this comic focuses on a very unique selection of characters, including several of my personal favourites.  While much of the story follows the Big Three, with some additional inclusions from the Barry Allen Flash, the major focus of the comic is on the fun duo of Booster Gold and Harley Quinn.

Booster Gold, unconventional time traveller and the greatest hero you have never heard of, is a character I have a lot of love for, especially as he is usually shown to be a bungling hero trying to do the right thing.  Booster ends up being an excellent character in Heroes in Crisis as he desperately tries to understand who is responsible for the deaths at Sanctuary, especially as he is a suspect himself.  While much of Booster’s appearance is comical, there is a deeper sadness to him, both before the killings and after them.  King does a masterful job showing off Booster’s inner thoughts in some of his therapy sessions while also presenting him as a damaged person potentially capable of committing the murders.  I loved seeing Booster used so prominently in the comic and I hope we see more of him in the future.  The appearance of Booster also ensures that we get to see some of his robot companion, Skeets, who has a fun relationship with Booster, often pointing out the stupidity of several of his plans, such as telling the Flash that he may be responsible for Wally West’s death and not realising it would get him punched in the face.

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Heroes in Crisis also strongly features Harley Quinn, who DC have been heavily promoting recently.  Harley is her usual fun, chaotic self throughout Heroes in Crisis, although like Booster, deep down she is hurting.  King makes sure to explore the various damages that she still bears from her abusive relationship with the Joker, while also focusing on her current, relatively healthier relationship with Poison Ivy (who has a very lethal idea about therapy).  However, when Ivy is killed, Harley snaps a little and is determined to hunt down the person she thinks is responsible.  King does a great job showing off Harley’s unpredictability, humour and inner turmoil, and I liked how he presents her as a real threat, even to the likes of Superman and Batman.  Harley has a number of great moments throughout this comic, including a dangerous standoff, some great character development and some fantastic lines.  Harley also serves as a great foil to Booster, and when they are not trying to kill each other their conversations highlight their similarities, as both consider themselves failures in one way or another.  I deeply appreciated the use of Booster and Harley as key characters, and they were an outstanding focus of this comic.

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Heroes in Crisis also features a fantastic array of supporting characters, and the creative team takes full advantage of their story to bring back some great underutilised heroes.  I loved how King spent time exploring all the various characters who were massacred at the start of the novel, especially as he examines why they were there seeking help.  While there is an obvious focus on the more prominent heroes like Wally West and Poison Ivy, I had a lot of fun seeing characters like Lagoon Boy, Commander Steel and Gnarrk the Last Cro-Magnon.  King did a lot with these very minor DC characters, using a few short sequences to build them up as sympathetic and likeable characters, ensuring that the impact of their death was a little more significant to the reader.  The inclusion of Wally West was also mostly well done and I appreciated the exploration of all the trauma and pain he has gone through in the last few years (being written out of existence for a few years is a painful experience).  Batgirl and Blue Beetle (Ted Kord) also show up as supporting characters for Harley and Booster respectfully, and I quite enjoyed the examination of the unique relationships between these friends.  All of these characters really add a lot to the story and I very glad that King took the opportunity to explore and highlight how complex some of these DC heroes can be.

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While Heroes in Crisis has many good and bad qualities, without a doubt the best thing about it is the examination of traumatised heroes.  A large part of this comic’s narrative revolves around the fact that all the superheros in the DC universe are deeply traumatised or emotionally damaged because of their heroic careers, requiring them to seek treatment at Sanctuary.  While I know that some readers really disliked this portrayal of superheroes being emotionally and psychologically damaged, I personally felt that it was a clever inclusion from King that added a lot of realism to the DC universe.  Of course these heroes are going to be traumatised!  Most of them have been fighting crime or dealing with crazy people for most of their lives, experiencing innumerable tragedies and losses along the way, including dying and coming back to life multiple times.  It is honestly rather refreshing to see this acknowledged within the comics, and I deeply appreciated that King decided to feature it so prominently in Heroes in Crisis.

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One of the reasons that this psychological plotline works so well is because Heroes in Crisis features a ton of panels and scenes highlighting the heroes as they discuss their trauma.  Not only do you get glimpses at several AI assisted therapy sessions, some of which are quite intense (Lagoon Boy’s one hurts to read at times), but there are a ton of “confession” panels, which show the various heroes sitting in a special room discussing their pain to a camera.  These confession scenes are cleverly scattered throughout the comic and are worked into the story extremely well, showing the raw psyche of some of the comic’s major characters or murder suspects and providing possible motivations for their actions.  At the same time, they work to show the reader just how damaged some of your favourite heroes can be.  While there is a focus on characters who were part of the Sanctuary massacre, nearly every DC superhero makes an appearance at some point in Heroes in Crisis, talking about their pain and their sorrow.  King ensures that each of these confessions, even the single-panel ones, are really emotionally rich and moving, and you get some amazing feelings out of all of them.  Highlights for me include a great sequence with Batman lamenting the death of his sidekicks, and another one with Commander Steel, who is pretty damn traumatised by his experiences of dying, being reborn as a zombie, having his corpse mutilated, and then coming back again.  Booster, Harley and Wally West also have some very intense, story driven confessions which both moved the story along and helped to get to the roots of their issues.  I found these scenes of trauma, healing and emotions to be particularly well written and very powerful, and they are one of the main reasons I enjoyed this comic as much as I did.

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Another major highlight of Heroes in Crisis is the exceptional artwork by a massive collection of artists who banded together to produce some iconic and powerful pieces of art.  All of the scenes within this comic are very well drawn, and there is a real sense of movement, purpose and intensity in every panel.  I loved all the cool action sequences, and the artists really did not pull any punches when it came to highlighting the tragic deaths of so many different heroes.  Some of the best artwork, however, lies around the amazing and wonderful background and landscape shots throughout the comic.  There are so many fantastic shots that superimpose the characters in front of some beautiful settings, whether they be fields, sunsets or other pieces of nature.  These shots are not only visually impressive but they really add to the dramatic feel of the entire comic, especially as they remind you of the hope that so many of the damaged characters want to feel, but cannot, either because of the events of this comic or some pre-existing trauma.  The artistic team also has a lot of fun bringing to life a host of heroes from various periods of DC’s history, including some obscure characters we have not seen for a very long time.  While some of them were brought back only to die a painful death, it was great to see them again and the artwork surrounding them turned out to be superb.  I also deeply appreciated the artists’ ability to portray emotion and sorrow on the faces of each of the characters featured within Heroes in Crisis.  You get a real sense of the darkness and pain lying behind some of the characters’ eyes, especially in some unguarded moments, and it helps to enhance the emotion of the pages.  Overall, this was some impressive and memorable artwork that did a great job enhancing King’s intriguing tale.

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Heroes in Crisis was a very interesting and memorable comic which I had a great time reading.  While it does have some flaws, I think that the creative team behind it managed to create a very touching character driven narrative that succeeded in highlighting the vulnerabilities of several iconic DC superheroes.  I had an amazing time reading this comic and it is definitely worth checking out, especially if you are interested in exploring the damaged minds of some of your favourite heroes.

The Girl and the Mountain by Mark Lawrence

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Publisher: Penguin Random House Audio (Audiobook – 29 April 2021)

Series: Book of the Ice – Book Two

Length: 16 hours and 48 minutes

My Rating: 4.75 out of 5 stars

One of the most impressive current authors of fantasy and science fiction, Mark Lawrence, returns with the second novel in The Book of the Ice trilogy, The Girl and the Mountain.

Lawrence is a highly regarded and enjoyable writer who burst onto the scene in 2011 with the first novel in The Broken Empire trilogy, the bestselling Prince of Thorns.  Since then, Lawrence has produced a range of exciting and compelling novels, including The Red Queen’s War trilogy, The Book of the Ancestor trilogy, and the Impossible Times trilogy.  I have long been interested in checking out Lawrence’s work; especially after seeing glowing reviews from nearly every fantasy of science fiction reviewer out there.  Because of this, I was rather excited when last year I received a copy of the first entry in Lawrence’s The Book of Ice trilogy, The Girl and the Stars, as I thought it would be a good opportunity to experience the author’s writing style and imagination.

The Girl and the Stars ended up being an extraordinary read which featured an intense and captivating story of powered individuals on the ice-covered planet, Abeth, who are banished to an underground cavern to survive amongst a plethora of threats, while also learning about the various terrors inhabiting their world.  This amazing novel ended up being one of the best books I read last year, and Lawrence was one of the best new-to-me authors I experienced in 2021.  Due to how much I enjoyed his previous book, and because he left The Girl and the Stars on such an intense cliffhanger, I have been keen to check out The Girl and the Mountain for a while.

After her adventures below the ice with the Broken and the discovery of her powerful quantal abilities, former Ice Tribe member Yaz has returned to the surface with her brother and friends.  However, their plan to escape from all dangers of their icy home fails miserably when the insidious and dangerous Priests of the Black Rock, followers of the dangerous Hidden God, capture her and throw her friends back down the hole they escaped from.

Imprisoned within the Black Rock, Yaz begins to discover the true evils of the priests, who wish to use her to conquer the central green corridor of Abeth and help their twisted god bring a devastating change to the planet.  Determined to avoid this horrible fate, Yaz attempts a daring escape before it is too late.  Elsewhere, Yaz’s friends have made their own journeys to the Black Rock, and both Thurin and Quell are determined to save Yaz and the other prisoners they discover.  However, there are many horrors lurking within the Black Rock, and not even Yaz and her new powers may be enough to stand up to them.

As Yaz and her friends battle against the priests and their Hidden God, dark secrets from the ancient past of Abeth will come to the surface and the true dangers of their planet will become clear.  To fully understand her destiny and to save everything she knows, Yaz will be forced on an epic journey to reach the warm central belt of Abeth.  However, this journey will not be easy, and neither Yaz nor her friend may have the strength to survive, especially with the mad city intelligence Seus, who believes himself to be a god, manipulating events from above.  Friends will fall, destinies will be found, and the fate of Abeth will hang in the balance as Yaz’s life-changing journey begins.

This was another impressive and compelling novel from Lawrence which I had an amazing time reading.  The Girl and the Mountain serves as an amazing sequel to The Girl and the Stars, and I really enjoyed the inventive and intriguing science fiction and fantasy story featured within.  The Girl and the Mountains has some fantastic elements to it and readers will quickly find themselves engrossed by the clever story, impressive setting and relatable characters, which results in an outstanding and powerful novel.

Lawrence has come up with a unique and compelling narrative for The Girl and the Mountain, which I found myself becoming extremely drawn to.  This book starts off quickly, following three major characters from the previous novel, Yaz, Thurin and Quell.  All three of these characters initially get an equal share of the book’s plot through their separate point-of-view chapters, resulting in a comprehensive and varied story.  The characters quickly resolve the cliffhanger from the first novel and then find themselves invading the Black Rock, fortress of the antagonistic priests of the Hidden God.  These three point-of-view characters find themselves separated at the start of the novel and end up entering the Black Rock from different directions.  All three protagonists encounter a range of threats, characters and plot devices which not only enhance the stakes of their mission but help to enhance the reader’s knowledge of the setting.  Each storyline is intriguing and exciting in its own right, and the three separate perspectives complement each other extremely well, with the protagonist’s actions impacting that of their unseen colleagues, as they unknowingly encounter similar obstacles and opponents.  Yaz, Thurin and Quell’s storylines all come together about halfway through the book, which results in a major clash with an intriguing antagonist and produces an intense conclusion to this initial storyline.

However, this big confrontation is not the end of the novel; instead it only constitutes roughly half of the plot.  The second half of the narrative starts immediately after this confrontation and sees several characters embark on an epic and lengthy journey across the ice to the planet’s equator.  This results in a rather interesting change of pace in several different ways, as not only does the action become a lot more restrained but the story is told primarily from only one character’s perspective.  There is something a lot more personable and intense about this second half of The Girl and the Mountain, especially as the characters come together and bond during their trek.  While this second half did feel a little slow in places, the reader is kept extremely entertained, especially as there are a lot of dangers and distractions on the ice.  In the intriguing conclusion, Yaz and her friends finally reach a destination filled with danger and exposition.  This last quarter really brings the entire novel together and there are several great sequences and twists that will keep the reader on the edge of their seats.  The narrative eventually concludes with another intense cliffhanger in a memorable and important location, which will stick in the mind and ensure that readers of this second book will come back for the third and final entry in The Book of Ice trilogy next year.

This distinctive story split proved to be an interesting way to write The Girl and the Mountain, and I personally found myself enjoying this fantastic tale.  While it occasionally felt like there were two very different novels within The Girl and the Mountain, the halves came together extremely well, and I rather appreciated that the author tried something a little different.  I did feel that the book suffered a little from being the middle novel in this trilogy, with Lawrence trying to set up a lot of plot, which resulted in some minor but noticeable story drag.  This novel did serve as an excellent sequel to The Girl and the Stars, following up on all the storylines started in the first novel and setting up a fantastic scenario for the final entry in the trilogy.  Due to the complexity of the overarching series narrative, I would strongly suggest that readers read The Girl and the Stars first.  However, Lawrence does provide a very detailed and comprehensive summary of the first novel at the start of The Girl and the Mountains, which does bring new readers up to speed, as well as serving as a fantastic recap of some key details.  Overall, this exceptional narrative will leave readers extremely excited for the next entry in the series, especially as Lawrence has set up some very intriguing storylines for the final book.

I must highlight the amazing and inventive setting that is the ice planet of Abeth.  Abeth is any icy planet located around a dying sun, with only a thin corridor of unfrozen land at the equator.  Abeth is an amazing setting, and I loved the way in which is presents a fantastic blend of science fiction and fantasy elements.  Not only can most characters perform magic, but there are some intriguing alien elements to this world.  Large swathes of the story revolve around the mysterious race known as the Missing and their massive, frost-covered cities which are barely maintained by insane AI who consider themselves to be Greek gods.  This proves to be a really clever and amazing setting for this compelling narrative, and Lawrence does a wonderful job working his inventive locations, history and powers into the wider plot.  The Girl and the Mountain contains some interesting new locations, including the ghastly Black Rock, which is filled with insane creatures, creations, and antagonists.  There is also an intriguing and lengthy focus on the ice sheets that make up much of Abeth, as the characters attempt to track across them.  I deeply enjoyed the amazing detail that Lawrence put into bringing this harsh, icy landscape to life, and you get a real sense of the dangers and hardships that the characters experience while out there.  There are also some truly horrifying and creative monsters, constructs and inhuman antagonists throughout this world, which Lawrence uses to great effect, creating some memorable and powerful threats for his protagonists.  All of this works into the narrative extremely well, and you will have a hard time forgetting the ice planet of Abeth any time soon.

One particular intriguing aspect of this setting is the green corridor around the middle of Abeth.  This location was previously featured in Lawrence’s The Book of the Ancestor trilogy, and is the major setting for all three entries in this major series.  While I have not had the pleasure of reading The Book of the Ancestor novels yet, it is very clear that fans of these books will feel particularly drawn to The Girl and the Mountain, as the characters visit a key location from this earlier series.  As I understand it, The Book of the Ice novels are set well before The Book of the Ancestor trilogy and serve as a bit of a prequel.  Because of this, The Girl and the Mountain contains quite a lot of references that readers of The Book of the Ancestor’s novels will really appreciate, especially as they shed some additional light on some The Book of the Ancestor supporting characters.  While this makes The Girl and the Mountain a must-read for fans of Lawrence’s previous work, readers do not need to have read this previous trilogy, as Lawrence makes this latest series extremely accessible to new readers.  This great setting really enhances The Girl and the Mountain and it is very easy for fans of Lawrence, both new and established, to be drawn into the icy perils of Abeth.

Lawrence has also come up with an amazing and fantastic group of characters for The Girl and the Mountain, most of whom are carry-overs from the first novel in the series.  The main characters of this novel are Yaz, Thurin and Quell, who serve as point-of-view characters.  Each character has an intriguing background and has been bitterly changed by the events under the ice in The Girl and the Stars.  Lawrence focuses much of his character development on these central protagonists, and all three go through some major changes throughout their parts of the book.  Yaz is easily the most noticeable of these, especially as she needs to overcome her past both on the ice and under it, her uneasy destiny, and the unwanted leadership thrust upon her.  I also liked seeing how Thurin and Quell developed as well, especially as Quell became a little less of an ass, although I still disliked several of his thoughts in this novel.  I also must admit that I was not the biggest fan of the love triangle/square/pentagon (depending on how you look at it), that formed around Yaz, as there are hints of romantic feelings between her and all the major male characters.  It got a little ridiculous at times, especially as the male characters each saw each other as rivals, and I felt that the author could have cut back on it a little.

Aside from Yaz, Thurin and Quell, Lawrence also features a fun range of supporting characters, each of whom adds their own interesting edge to the narrative.  Most of these side characters continued the storylines set up in the first novel, and it was interesting to see them continue to develop.  One of the most significant of these supporting characters is Erris, the 5,000 year old boy who, after dying, found his soul stored in the mind of an ancient Missing city.  Erris now inhabits a powerful artificial body and serves as a great addition to the plot, especially as he has a unique connection to the devices and technology of the Missing.  Other characters, like Quina, Maya, Kao, Theus and Taproot all have their moments throughout this novel, and Lawrence is able to produce some fantastic storylines around them.  I also really enjoyed the brand new character Zox, a loyal mechanical dog companion who attaches himself to the group and proves to be a fun member of the team, even if there is something a little sinister about him.  All these characters are really amazing, although I would caution you not to get too attached, as Lawrence has a tendency to snuff out a few characters every novel.  I am very much looking forward to seeing how all the character arcs conclude in the final novel, although I am expecting much heartbreak and despair as Lawrence will probably be a little more lethal in his final entry.

Unlike the first novel in this trilogy where I read a physical copy of the novel, I chose to enjoy The Girl and the Mountain in its audiobook format.  The Girl and the Mountain audiobook has a decent run time just short of 17 hours, which took me a little while to get through.  While it is always interesting to change formats halfway through a series, I ended up having a great time listening to The Girl and the Mountain’s audiobook, especially as I found myself absorbing a bit more of the novel’s lore, awesome setting and intriguing character personalities.  One of the best things about this audiobook is the awesome narration from the talented Helen Duff, who has previously provided her voice to the novels in the Book of the Ancestor series.  Duff does an incredible job bringing all the characters in The Girl and the Mountain to life, especially as she has a plethora of fun and distinctive voices at her disposal.  Each character gets a unique voice of their own which fits their personality perfectly and helps the reader to understand and appreciate who they are.  Duff utilises some great accents for the main protagonists, which really helps to highlight the tribal upbringing of characters like Yaz, and which I found to be extremely fitting.  This amazing voice work really enhances this fantastic audiobook, and I would strongly recommend this format to anyone who wants to experience The Girl and the Mountain’s excellent and inventive narrative.

The Girl and the Mountain is an incredible and distinctive novel from impressive author Mark Lawrence, who once again shows off his inventiveness and ability for complex storytelling.  The Girl and the Mountain serves as an excellent middle novel in The Book of the Ice trilogy, and I really enjoyed seeing how Lawrence continued to develop his unique world, which expertly brings together fantasy and science fiction elements.  This is an amazing novel and readers will swiftly find themselves entranced by the epic and powerful story.  I cannot wait to see how this unique series ends next year, and I will really have to go back and check out some of Lawrence’s other series in the future.

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The Two-Faced Queen by Nick Martell

The Two-Faced Queen Cover

Publisher: Gollancz (Audiobook – 25 March 2021)

Series: The Legacy of the Mercenary Kings – Book Two

Length: 20 hours and 6 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Following his epic 2020 debut, one of the fastest rising stars in fantasy fiction, Nick Martell, returns with the second entry in his The Legacy of the Mercenary Kings series, The Two-Faced Queen.

Last year I was lucky enough to listen to a copy of Martell’s incredible first novel, The Kingdom of LiarsThe Kingdom of Liars was a gripping and impressive fantasy read set in Hollow, a crumbling city surrounded by an army of rebels, which followed the misadventures of the infamous Michael Kingman.  Michael is the scion of the legendary Kingman family, a noble clan of heroes and leaders who have guided Hollow for generations, serving as both supporters to the royal family and a check on their power.  However, the legacy of the Kingman family has been severely tarnished in recent years as Michael’s father was executed for the murder of the heir to the throne.  With their family disenfranchised, Michael grew up as an outcast in his own city, acting out against authority.  This changed when a chance encounter allowed him to investigate who was responsible for his family’s downfall and the death of the prince of Hollow.  While he was eventually able to discover the true murderer, his investigation also resulted in the King’s suicide, which subsequently saw him tried for regicide and sentenced to death.  The end of the book saw him manage to escape his execution, while also setting up several of the storylines for future entries in the series.  I deeply enjoyed the cool story of this first entry in The Legacy of the Mercenary Kings, and The Kingdom of Liars ended up being one of my favourite novels, audiobooks and debuts of 2020.  As a result, The Two-Faced Queen was one of my most anticipated reads of 2021.

Michael Kingman is a dead man walking.  Still accused of killing the King of Hollow, Michael is now under the protection of the Orbus mercenary company, serving as an apprentice under the mysterious mercenary Dark.  However, even with Orbus’s protection, everyone in Hollow still wants to either kill him or use him for their own dark ends.  The deadliest of these is the one person Michael is sworn to protect above all others, the heir to the throne, Princess Serena.  After spending years away, a vengeful Serena has returned to claim her throne and end Michael’s life.  Wielding great power, a lethal attitude and holding the keys to Michael’s heart, nothing will stand in the way of her wrath.

To restore his family’s position, save his home and convince Serena of his innocence, Michael needs to unravel the various conspiracies that have encircled Hollow and uncover the true motivations of the various power players in the city.  However, to succeed, Michael is forced to go up against a magnitude of foes, from the Corrupt Prince, the unhinged Rebel Emperor besieging the city, enraged royal guards, conspiring nobles, a scheming immortal, an insane serial killer, dangerous assassins and his former foster father, the man responsible for all his family’s ills.

But the more Michael attempts to understand Hollow’s hidden past and the dangerous plots surrounding his city, the more it becomes apparent that his is a mere pawn in a very dangerous game.  Immortals, monsters and mercenaries are all present in Hollow, and each of them has their own nefarious designs for Michael and his family.  Can he save everyone he loves before it is too late or has the Kingman family finally breathed its last?  Michael’s rise to become a Mercenary King continues, but who will truly wield power when the dust settles?

Now that was one hell of a sequel!  Martell absolutely crushed this second entry in this outstanding and exceptional fantasy series, producing a five-star novel that is extremely compelling, intense and so damn exciting.  I was absolutely enthralled with this book the moment I started listening to it and I loved every second.  The Two-Faced Queen is easily one of the best books I have read in 2021 and I think that any other fantasy novel coming out this year is going to be extremely hard-pressed to outdo it.

Martell has come up with a pretty incredible and intense narrative for The Two-Faced Queen, one that proves to be extremely addictive and insanely good.  Starting shortly after the events of The Kingdom of Liars, this novel starts fast and hard, with Michael following up on a number of storylines and revelations from the previous novel.  There is already so much going on right from the start of the novel, as the protagonist finds himself surrounded by enemies and conspiracies, both old and new.  While several secrets were revealed at the end of the first novel, there is still so much that Michael needs to understand.  However, as he attempts to learn these additional secrets, he must also try to avoid the deadly attentions of his beloved princess, end the rebellion plaguing the city, restore his family, defy a dangerous immortal, and make up with his betrayed friends.  While this is already a substantial amount of story, Martell keeps adding to it, as Michael also soon encounters a deadly assassin with a contract on him, and a deranged and unnatural serial killer.

While this may seem like too many story elements for one novel, it actually works extremely well, and the reader quickly becomes engrossed in Michael’s various adventures throughout the city.  I loved the inclusion of the serial killer storyline, as not only does it add some fantastic mystery elements, but it also proves to be a gateway to some intriguing world building, revealing more of the dark, immortal forces manipulating events from the shadows.  This storyline also results in several epic action scenes that place the protagonist and his friends in mortal danger from some unusual foes.  I had an outstanding time getting through this complex and well-constructed narrative, especially as every single scene has an intriguing revelation, intense character development or subtle clue to the future of the series.  Several key mysteries and secrets from the first novel are answered, partially or wholly, in this novel, although many more are introduced.  This really helps to keep the reader’s attention focused on The Two-Faced Queen’s plot, and I am not exaggerating when I talk about how addictive the secret-ridden narrative proves to be.  Readers are hammered with large amounts of lore and history in places, so I would recommend reading the first novel in the series, The Kingdom of Liars, before reading this book, although binge-reading this series is hardly a chore.  Overall, The Two-Faced Queen’s narrative is epic story writing at its best, and readers will love this terrific tale.

I absolutely must highlight the awesome and well-developed characters featured within The Two-Faced Queen.  The most prominent is series protagonist Michael Kingman.  Michael is an intriguing and distinctive figure through whose eyes most of the plot unfolds.  I have to admit that Michael was not my most favourite character in the first book, mostly because of his impetuous nature and selfish behaviour at times.  However, it was revealed that the reason for some of his annoying behaviour was due to some magic affecting his memories and personality.  As a result, Michael’s behaviour is substantially changed in The Two-Faced Queen and he comes across as a more considerate figure in this book.  He still has quite a few flashes of recklessness and stubbornness, but many of the rougher edges from the first novel are worn away here.  Still, a lot of people call Michael out for his crap in this book, including his friends and family, and it was great to see him finally heed their words.  There was also some additional exploration of how Michael deals with the legacy of being a Kingman; he is forced to live up to some big expectations.  There is a rather good scene where Michael is exploring the crypt of his ancestors with some of his friends, describing why some of them are famous and others are considered failures because they never achieved anything remarkable but just lived a normal life.  Seeing this, Michael’s friends, both of whom have been some of his greatest critics, start to understand just how much pressure he is under.  I really appreciated the way in which Martell continues to develop his protagonist, and it will be very fascinating to see how Michael’s story continues in the future novels.

Aside from Michael, there is an impressive collection of interesting supporting characters, each of whom have some fascinating storylines, as well as secrets or details from their past which helps to move the story along.  They also have their own motivations and plans to shape Hollow and the rest of the world to their advantage, which results in additional plots and conspiracies that the protagonists have to overcome.  The most prominent supporting character is probably Serena, the titular Two-Faced Queen.  Serena is Michael’s childhood friend and the royal he was sworn to, meaning that he was always destined to be her protector, advisor, and conscience.  However, after the death of her brother and Michael’s family were declared traitors, their relationship effectively ended.  Now returned, Serena is determined to destroy Michael for the apparent murder of her father, even if it leads to her own ruin.  The novel starts up with Michael visiting Serena only to find that she has hand-dug a grave for him, showing her resolve for killing him.  This forces Michael to attempt to change her mind, which is no easy prospect, and results in great calamity.  Naturally, these two characters share thorny romantic feelings for each other, which complicates Michael’s plans to stay alive, as Serena is a major blind spot in his defences.  Their entire joint character arc in this novel is extremely good, and I really appreciated the author’s take on their complex relationship.

Another key character is Dark, Michael’s mercenary master, who, aside from having his own mysterious past and motivations, is the son of Michael’s nemesis, Angelo Shade.  Due to Michael and Dark working together closely, the protagonist learns several of Dark’s secrets, especially those related to his troubled childhood and his encounters with the Heartbreaker serial killer.  While you don’t learn everything about Dark’s past in this novel (Martell is the master of dolling out just enough character detail to keep you interested, while also keeping plenty back for future novels), you do find out quite a lot, and what is revealed is extremely memorable.  Dark has a real dark side to him, no pun intended, and while Michael initially believes that Dark is his ally, he is soon faced with the possibility that he might have placed all his trust in a monster.  This results in a very interesting mentor/student relationship between the two, filled with much conflict and mistrust.  I really enjoyed learning more about Dark in The Two-Faced Queen, and it will be fascinating to see how the rest of his story unfolds in the future.

Other intriguing characters in this novel include Michael’s best friend Trey, who is attempting to forge his own path and take down both the nobles and the rebels, even if this leads him into conflict with Michael.  Trey has a fantastic arc as dangerous antihero in this book, taking control of the city’s criminal element in order to protect its citizens.  While a lot of his hostility towards Michael has ended, Trey and the protagonist still have a strained relationship, although Trey does go out of his way to help his friend.  Despite their friendship, it is clear that there is a major schism between the two planned in the future, which no doubt will result in all manner of pain and regret.  The ruthless immortal Charles Domet is still a firm favourite of mine, and it was fun to see his attempts to manipulate Michael, especially as Michael is now well aware of his true nature.  There are some interesting hints to Domet’s past in this novel, and he is clearly working up to something big.  The ambitious social climber Naomi also returns, although now she is suffering from a bad drug addiction which makes her even more entertaining, especially as she decides to torment Michael through embarrassment.  I also quite liked the expanded use of the chronicler, Symon.  Symon, who is determined to record and analyse every secret of Michael and his family, has taken to stalking them by living at the Kingman family home, and it is always entertaining to see his take on the events occurring before him.  He ends up actually narrating several interludes in The Two-Faced Queen, which are laid out as parts of his in-novel chronicles as part of a very clever and amusing supplement to the main story.  Symon really endeared himself to me in this novel, especially after his insulting descriptions of Michael in his proposed history book, and I deeply appreciated his increased presence.

I honestly could go on and on about the various characters featured within this novel; indeed, I have only just scratched the surface of the support cast in the paragraphs above.  However, it is more than clear that Martell does an excellent job in introducing and developing complex characters, and I loved the detailed and intriguing depictions of them throughout the novel.  Nearly every character featured within The Two-Faced Queen gets at least one big moment, and there are plenty of revelations and compelling backstories that are really cool to uncover.  I will say that you should probably not get too attached to the characters; however, I am very much looking forward to seeing what happens to each of the survivors, especially as Martell has set up some deeply captivating and powerful character arcs around them.

In addition to the fantastic story and amazing character work, Martell has also invested a lot of time in expanding his enthralling fantasy world.  The first entry in The Legacy of the Mercenary Kings did a great job setting up the key elements of Hollow, such as the noble families, the people of the city and the various problems they faced.  This unique setting of a besieged city filled with scheming nobles and set on a world where pieces of a shattered moon fall to the ground was so cool, and The Two-Faced Queen continues to expand on these previous elements, while also adding to the history and geography of the city and its surrounding nations.  Not only do you learn of several outside nations and locations but you also get to see how the key characters of this novel, or their ancestors, have impacted them, as well as the various dangers these realms represent.  However, some of the most substantial world-building revolves around some of the unusual creatures residing in this world, including a range of dangerous and destructive immortal creatures.  In the previous novel we only encountered one immortal (that we knew of), whose plots and schemes were a major part of the book’s plot.  This second novel, in contrast, is loaded with many more immortals, each of whom has their own unique abilities and plans for the world.  Martell introduces the lore around these immortals extremely well, and their various traits and schemes are worked into the plot extremely well.  It sounds like we are going to encounter a whole raft of intriguing and monstrous immortals in the future of this series, and I am very much looking forward to seeing what happens there.  The next book also looks like it will be set in a whole new location, and I will be extremely intrigued to see how that impacts the narrative.

One particular bit of world-building that I really enjoyed was the excellent expansions of Martell’s unique magical system.  The main magic of Hollow is known as Fabrication, which allows its users certain control over certain elements or phenomena at the cost of their own memories.  This is a really cool magical system, and Martell uses it to great effect throughout his novels, ensuring that there is all manner of destruction and manipulation throughout the narrative.  The Two-Faced Queen features multiple new Fabrication types, as Martell introduces unique Fabrications throughout the story, including several that even the protagonists have never heard of.  Examples include a particularly dangerous telekinetic Fabrication, which forces everyone to their knees (perfect for its user), while I was also very impressed with the disturbing blood Fabrication that one of the supporting characters pulled out.  In addition, Martell also introduces some different forms of magic from some of the other countries in his fantasy world.  While you only get to see one or two of these new magical abilities, they are still fun to see and they stand as an intriguing counterpoint to the already established magical abilities.  It looks like Martell is setting up some sort of mystery around the origins of all these different powers and it should prove pretty interesting to see how that turns out.

Martell also does an incredible job fitting the downsides of this magical Fabrication into the plot, as several characters experience memory loss, which affects their plans, reactions and relationships.  This is most obvious in Michael; as narrator, he loses several days of his life, resulting in him being unaware of plans he puts into motion or certain secrets that he learnt in these missing days.  Because the reader does not see these missing pieces of time either, this adds an extra amount of mystery and uncertainty into the narrative, as you try to work out both what is being deliberately hidden from Michael and what he has simply forgotten.  These bigger lapses in memory are a fantastic part of The Two-Faced Queen’s narrative, and it helps to make the flow of this book unique and compelling.  However, you also have to appreciate some of the smaller examples of memory loss throughout the book, some of which are quite heartbreaking in nature as the characters forget elements of their friends and families without realising it.  There is one extremely poignant scene in which Michael confesses to forgetting something very important to him, with the reader only then realises that a certain normal-sounding character description was evidence of memory loss all along.  Some of these subtle details are really impressive, and I deeply enjoyed seeing the hurtful side effects of this magical system.

To enjoy this awesome book, I ended up grabbing its audiobook format, mainly because I had such a great time listening to the first novel.  There were actually two audiobook versions of The Two-Faced Queen, and I ended up grabbing the Joe Jameson narrated version.  Jameson is a fantastic audiobook narrator who has previously lent his voice to amazing fantasy novels like King of Assassins by RJ Barker.  I loved his narration for The Kingdom of Liars last year and I was really keen to continue to listen to him in this sequel.  Jameson has a great voice for this complex fantasy read, and you swiftly become enthralled by the way he narrates the events occurring, as well as the fantastic voices he comes up with for his characters.  All the characters are given a unique voice in a variety of different accents, and each of them really helps to capture the character’s emotions and personality perfectly, whether it is the constant confusion and hurt in Michael, the raging anger of Serena, the cold menace of Dark or the calculating and manipulative voice of Charles Domet.  All this voice work is perfect and spot on and I really appreciated the effort that Martell put into this book.  Despite its runtime of 20 hours, I got through this audiobook in no time at all and I honestly wished it was a lot longer by the end.  This was another outstanding audiobook, and this format comes highly recommended to anyone interested in this fantastic novel.

With this epic and captivating second novel, Nick Martell has cemented his position as one of the best new fantasy authors out there.  The Two-Faced Queen was absolutely incredible, and I loved the complex and addictive story, set in a unique fantasy world.  There are just so many cool elements to this awesome novel and it really does not take long for the reader to become hooked on every single mystery, secret and hidden past that Martell features within this great read.  I cannot wait to see what happens next in this series, but it is already perfectly clear that The Legacy of the Mercenary King books are going to be one of the defining fantasy series of the next few years.

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Star Wars: Thrawn Ascendancy: Greater Good by Timothy Zahn

Star Wars - Thrawn Ascendancy - Greater Good Cover

Publisher: Penguin Random House Audio (Audiobook – 27 April 2021)

Series: Thrawn Ascendancy – Book Two

Length: 16 hours and 17 minutes

My Rating: 4.75 out of 5

One of the most impressive authors of Star Wars fiction in the world today, the legendary Timothy Zahn, returns with another epic entry in his Thrawn Ascendancy series, Greater Good, which continues to explore the early life of that awesome Star Wars character, Grand Admiral Thrawn.

Zahn is an outstanding author who has been writing Star Wars fiction since 1991, with the highly regarded Heir to the Empire.  Since then, Zahn has written several amazing Star Wars novels in both the current canon and the Star Wars Legends canon.  While I have not read all of Zahn’s Star Wars novels (yet!), the ones I have were all incredible and are some of my all-time favourite Star Wars novels (such as the awesome Star Wars: Scoundrels).  However, his most distinctive works have all surrounded the awesome character of Thrawn.

Grand Admiral Thrawn is an alien officer in the Imperial Navy, renowned for his amazing tactical knowledge, brilliance in battle and ability to discern insights about his opponents by observing their personality or culture, especially art.  Ever since his introduction in Heir to the Empire, Thrawn has been a firm favourite among the fans, so much so that he was one of the few characters from the Legends extended universe reintroduced in the new canon.  This reintroduction was done in the third season of the Star Wars: Rebels animated series, where he served as an impactful antagonist for the third and fourth season.  It also looks like Thrawn will also be getting a live-action appearance at some point in the future after his name was dropped in The Mandalorian, which is pretty damn exciting.

The character has been heavily featured in the current range of Star Wars novels, as Zahn was brought back in to write some exciting new Thrawn-based novels.  This started with a brand new Thrawn trilogy in 2017, made up of Thrawn, Alliances and Treason, which showed how Thrawn joined the Imperial Navy and his early career as an officer.  These novels were all incredible reads (Thrawn got a five-star review from me, and Treason was one of the best books I read in 2019), and I loved the character’s unique adventures.  Thrawn’s story was furthered expanded last year with Chaos Rising; the first novel in Zhan’s Thrawn Ascendancy series, which examines the character’s pre-Empire life. 

While the armies of the Republic and the Separatists battle for supremacy in the Clone Wars, another deadly conflict is occurring beyond the bounds of known space.  Deep in the unexplored regions, known as the Chaos, the mighty Chiss Ascendancy have just defeated the forces of General Yiv the Benevolent, shattering his empire, the Nikardun Destiny, and bringing peace back to their territories.  As the Chiss Ascendancy returns to normal, they are unaware that they are still under attack from a malevolent and clever foe that is determined to finish off the Chiss once and for all.

On a Chiss agricultural planet, a group of peaceful and seemingly harmless aliens have arrived, seeking to temporarily make a home.  In addition to their good nature, kind hearts and unique spices, these aliens have also brought something of great value that many people will kill for.  As news of the alien’s resources spread, cracks begin to appear in the very foundation of the Ascendancy, as the various powerful families fight for supremacy.

With civil war on the horizon, the future of the Chiss Ascendancy may lay in the hands of the brilliant and infamous Senior Captain Mitth’raw’nuruodo of the Chiss Expansionary Defence Fleet.  Thrawn, who is personally responsible for the defeat of Yiv and the Nikardun, is currently investigating the origins of their attack on the Ascendancy and, in doing so, comes across a previously unknown planet destroyed by its own deadly civil war.  As Thrawn attempts to explore this new mystery, he soon finds himself in the midst of a dark conspiracy.  An unseen force is attempting to take control of the entire Chaos, and the Chiss are the greatest obstacle to their plot.  Hamstrung by politics, family ties and his own inability to see the deeper motivations of his fellow Chiss, can Thrawn stop the oncoming conflict before it is too late, or will the Chiss Ascendancy burn from the inside out?

Zahn has once again produced an exceptional and outstanding piece of Star Wars fiction that further explores the fantastic early adventures of his greatest creation.  Greater Good is an excellent middle novel in this cool trilogy, and readers will deeply enjoy this book’s blend of intricate storytelling, great characters and impressive universe-building.  All of this results in an exciting and compelling novel that quickly draws readers in and has absolutely no trouble keeping their attention.  I had an outstanding time getting through this great novel and I was able to power through its audiobook format in no time at all.

At the heart of this outstanding novel is a clever and addictive narrative that follows Thrawn and a bevy of supporting characters as the Chiss Ascendancy finds itself in danger from an indirect attack.  Greater Good follows on immediately after Chaos Rising, and examines the next stage of a compelling conspiracy against the Chiss, while also focusing on Thrawn’s battles during this period.  The author utilises a substantial number of alternate perspectives to tell a rich and varied story and, while Thrawn is the centre of much of the book’s plot, Zahn has widened the focus of the novel with several compelling storylines and characters.  These include an investigation into the origins of a Nikardun attack on a remote planet, several jaunts out into different parts of space, internal political conflicts that are a threat to Thrawn, and exciting encounters with other inhabitants of the Chaos.  There is also a substantial focus on a new plot to destroy the Chiss, which includes several compelling flashback sequences that examines the origins and initial planning of the conspiracy.  This use of flashback is pretty impressive, and while certain aspects of the antagonist’s storyline are a tad odd, it was still an interesting tale.  I really enjoyed the vast array of different storylines and character arcs that really highlighted the richness of the setting and the unique plotlines they could inspire.  While some of these storylines might seem rather disconnected at times, Zahn cleverly brings them together at the end of the novel, resulting in a very impressive and intriguing conclusion.

As with most of Zahn’s novels, Greater Good is loaded to the brim with Star Wars lore and intriguing universe-expanding ideas as the author dives deeper into the origins, culture and history of the Chiss Ascendancy.  Zahn really expands on what he introduced in his previous Thrawn and Thrawn Ascendancy novels, especially Chaos Rising, and highlights the proud Chiss warrior culture.  A vast amount of new information of the Ascendancy is featured within this latest book, and the reader gets a fascinating look at the planets, political makeup and social hierarchy of this race, especially at the family level.  Not only is this really intriguing, especially for those readers who have enjoyed Zahn’s previous additions to the Star Wars canon, but the author uses it extremely well within the plot.  Much of the main narrative, including the conspiracy that threatens to destroy the Chiss, is based on their family makeup and the accompanying politics and family mentalities that go along with that.  I felt that Zahn integrated this into the narrative extremely well, forcing the characters to navigate their unusual and insane politics in order to survive.

The author also expands the reader’s knowledge of the previously unexplored area of the Star Wars universe known as the Chaos.  The Chaos, thanks to certain celestial anomalies, is harder to navigate and transverse than regular space; it is a mess of isolated planets, unknown societies and new alien races.  Zahn introduces several new aliens throughout this novel, with each unusual race playing an interesting role in the overall story.  I love the unique Star Wars setting of the Chaos, especially as many of the established Star Wars rules and technology are not as present.  For example, the various warships have some different armaments and shielding, such as acid-filled missiles, resulting in some unique and previously unseen battle tactics.  It was also interesting to see the different takes on the Force that the inhabitants of the Chaos have come up with.  Without any Jedi present, the various races within the Chaos each have their own interpretations or uses for the Force, such as the Chiss Sky-Walkers, young children who can use the Force to help ships navigate the Chaos more effectively, and it was intriguing to encounter different views of this throughout Greater Good.  Hardcore Star Wars fans will enjoy the intriguing additions that Zahn makes to the expanded universe, and the final few pages hint at some major lore introductions occurring in the next Thrawn Ascendancy novel that I am rather curious about.

While this was a great book and piece of Star Wars fiction, I did feel that it required some pre-knowledge of Zahn’s prior works.  The narrative of Greater Good is heavily linked to the events of its preceding novel, Chaos Rising, and while the author does re-explain some of the elements or storylines, a lot of the plot does rather assume you read the first book.  Having greatly enjoyed Chaos Rising, I was able to follow this quite easily, but I could easily see some newer readers getting a little lost or overwhelmed in places.  In addition, parts of the Thrawn Ascendancy series are heavily linked to the events of the previous Thrawn trilogy, and certain references or comments might not make much sense unless you had already read these books.  As a result, I would suggest newer readers check out some of Zahn’s earlier novels first, although it is still possible to enjoy Greater Good without it.  Those readers who have enjoyed these prior books are definitely in for a great treat though and will find the deeper dive into the Chiss and Thrawn’s past to be really enjoyable.

I cannot review one of Zahn’s Thrawn-centric novels without talking about the awesome space battle sequences they contain.  Each of these awesome books features some impressive and detailed space battles as the protagonists encounter a range of ships and fleets that they must fight against.  Greater Good is a particularly good example of this, as Zahn has written several outstanding sequences that are attention-grabbing and fun.  The sheer level of detail and planning that Zahn puts into these action sequences is incredible, and you get an amazing sense of what is occurring during the battle as well as the associated tactics and plans.  The sequences involving Thrawn are easily the best, as Zahn goes out of his way to showcase the character’s tactical brilliance.  This results in some very elaborate sequences, as Thrawn quickly determines the weaknesses of his opponents and uses that knowledge to craft intricate and somewhat insane strategies to utterly defeat them.  Watching these plans come to fruition is always amazing, especially as the reader has no idea in advance what is going on in Thrawn’s mind.  Instead, you only get to see the brilliance and impact of his tactics at the same time as the other characters, and it is always a lot of fun seeing how Thrawn was able to come to his conclusions about his opponents and use them against him.  Zahn comes up with some outstanding sequences for Greater Good that are guaranteed to leave readers on the edge of their seats.

In addition to the awesome narrative, action and universe-building, Greater Good also features an awesome collection of characters, each of whom add so much to the novel.  Naturally, the most impressive character is Thrawn himself.  Even amongst his own people, Thrawn is a strange being who sees the world in a very unique way, and everyone he encounters is impressed by his tactical know-how and unnatural observational skills.  I always enjoy the way in which Zahn depicts Thrawn’s actions in the novel, as Thrawn is one of the few characters whose perspective we do not see.  Instead, Thrawn is only portrayed through the eyes of the major point-of-view characters who observe and react to his actions.  Not only does this remove the inherent difficulties in depicting Thrawn’s mind, but it really enhances the impacts of his deductions and subsequent reactions.  The observing characters view Thrawn making his moves or claiming some impossible bit of knowledge, and then slowly work out how he did it, either through their own observations or thanks to comments by Thrawn.  This is done in a similar manner to the classic Sherlock Holmes novels, with the supporting characters in Greater Good acting in the role of Watson to witness and be impressed by the protagonist’s intelligent leaps.  Like with Sherlock Holmes, the use of the outside narrator in Greater Good deeply enhances the impact of Thrawn’s action, resulting in some awesome scenes.

One of the intriguing aspects of Thrawn’s character in Greater Good that I appreciated was the way in which Zahn continued to highlight his character’s one major weakness: politics.  Thrawn has absolutely no concept of politics, family alliances or some of the inner conflicts impacting the Chiss, and as such is unable to defend himself or others against political ambitions or vindictiveness.  I always really enjoy this trait in the Thrawn novels, especially as it gives Thrawn a noticeable weakness, while also enhancing the impact his fellow supporting characters have, as all of them understand politics better and can help Thrawn in this arena.  This blindness to political realities is particularly important in Greater Good, as not only is Thrawn being attacked by politicians from within his own family but the main threat facing the Chiss is more political than militaristic in nature.  This results in a rather intriguing handicap for Thrawn throughout Greater Good, and it was cool to see the sort of plan that the character came up with to compensate for it, as well as the mistakes he then makes.  Overall, Thrawn is a pretty awesome and fascinating character to follow, and I cannot wait to see what events happen to him in the final book in the trilogy.

Aside from Thrawn, I also really enjoyed some of the supporting characters featured throughout Greater Good.  In addition to being perfect conduits to observing Thrawn’s actions, each of these characters have their own intriguing storylines, many of which are continuing from Chaos Rising.  Examples of this include Thrawn’s old friend, Admiral Ar’alani, Thrawn’s second in command Mid Captain Samakro, the former Sky-Walker Thalias, who has tied her fate with that of Thrawn, and the powerful Mitth family politician, Thurfian, who serves as a secondary antagonist.  Each of these characters is further developed in Greater Good, and I enjoyed some of the cool storylines that Zhan is coming up for them.  Thurfian’s storyline is particularly intriguing going into the next novel, as the final scenes hint that he is going to come into possession of some very interesting knowledge soon.

Zhan also introduces several great new characters throughout Greater Good, many of whose narratives are tied into the malevolent plot to destroy the Chiss.  I found myself quite intrigued by the character of Lakinda, a fellow Senior Captain in the Chiss Expansionary Defence Fleet, who serves alongside Thrawn.  Not only does Lakinda offer an intriguing alternate observation angle on Thrawn, tinged with a bit of jealously and mistrust, but this character provides greater insight into the Chiss family structure.  Lakinda is an extremely loyal member of a mid-tier Chiss family, and she often finds her loyalties conflicted as she attempts to choose between family and the fleet.  This results in some captivating and emotional sequences which really help to highlight the unusual nature of Chiss society.

I also quite liked how Zahn spends time following the main antagonist of Greater Good, the mysterious alien Haplif.  Haplif and his people have been hired by a mysterious third party to orchestrate chaos and dissent within the Chiss Ascendancy to destroy them.  As a result, he masterminds an ingenious plot to promote conflict between various members of the Ascendancy.  I really enjoyed the complex and clever plot that this character came up with, and it was really cool to see him manage to manipulate several people throughout the course of the book, and he was an interesting alternative to the previous antagonist, Yiv.  It was a little odd to see Haplif, a supposedly brilliant planner and master manipulator, find his plans constantly stymied by a spoiled teenager and a backwater rancher, but it was fun to see his arrogance work against him.  All of these characters are amazing, and I really appreciate the time and effort that Zahn put into developing them.

It will not surprise anyone that I ended up listening to this Star Wars novel’s audiobook format rather than seeking out a physical copy of the book.  I absolutely love Star Wars audiobooks, and this was another excellent example that comes highly recommended.  The Greater Good audiobook has a runtime of just over 16 hours, which, while substantial for a Star Wars novel, is extremely easy to get through, especially once you become engrossed in Zahn’s cool story.  Like most modern Star Wars audiobooks, Greater Good makes amazing use of the classic Star Wars sound effects and film score to enhance the story.  I particularly enjoyed its use in Greater Good’s various space combat sequences, and it really amps up how epic those scenes were.

The real standout of this audiobook was the outstanding narration by Marc Thompson.  Thompson is an experienced narrator of Star Wars fiction who, aside from contributing his voice to all the books in the Thrawn and Thrawn Ascendancy novels, has also narrated awesome audiobooks like Light of the Jedi, Doctor Aphra, Dooku: Jedi Lost, Dark Disciple and more.  Thompson does an incredible voice for Thrawn that is filled with the character’s control, intelligence, and gentle menace, and which is very, very close to how the character is portrayed in Star Wars: Rebels.  This amazing voice for Thrawn is easily one of the best parts of the audiobook, and it is fun to listen to the character lay out his elaborate strategies in Thompsons’s awesome tones.  Aside from Thrawn, Thompson also produces a great range of different voices for Greater Good’s supporting characters.  Each character gets their own distinctive voice, which matches their personality and physical qualities, and the listener is never in doubt about who is talking.  I also quite enjoyed how Zahn makes fun accommodations for the various different species featured within the audiobook, tailoring his voices to make them sound more alien at times.  Zahn also gives more rural accents to some of the Chiss characters featured in this novel who are from, or are located on more backwater planets, which I thought was a very nice touch.  All of these amazing features help to turn the Greater Good audiobook in an absolute treat for your ears, and it is an incredible way to enjoy this epic novel.

Thrawn Ascendancy: Greater Good is another exceptional piece of Star Wars fiction from Timothy Zahn.  Featuring his iconic and impressive creation, Grand Admiral Thrawn, Greater Good serves as an outstanding second entry in the Thrawn Ascendancy series, which charts the early life of this great character.  With a clever and exciting story, chock full of universe building, fantastic characters and some unique and memorable battle moments, Greater Good is an excellent novel that comes highly recommended.  I have so much love for Zahn’s Thrawn and Thrawn Ascendancy novels and, after really enjoying Greater Good, I am very excited to see how this series ends.  The final book in the Thrawn Ascendancy trilogy, Lesser Evil, is coming out in November 2021, and I cannot wait to get my hands on it.