Prodigal Son by Gregg Hurwitz

Prodigal Son Cover

Publisher: Macmillan Audio (Audiobook – 2 February 2021)

Series: Orphan X – Book Six

Length: 13 hours and 42 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

One of the most exciting and impressive thriller series out there returns with the sixth entry in Gregg Hurwitz’s Orphan X series, Prodigal Son.

Over the last couple of years I have really been expanding my love for the thriller genre and I have been getting into several cool series, many of which have been spectacular reads.  One of my favourites at the moment is the fantastic Orphan X series by Gregg Hurwitz.  The Orphan X series follows protagonist Evan Smoak, the titular Orphan X, a lethal and highly capable special operator who was recruited out of an orphanage when he was 12 and trained in every conceivable aspect of combat and spycraft.  After breaking from the Orphan Program and moving to Los Angeles, Evan has taken on a new moniker as The Nowhere Man, a vigilante who helps those in desperate situations as penance for his former life as an assassin.  I had a lot of fun reading the fourth book in the series, Out of the Dark, which saw Evan go up against the corrupt President of the United States.  I also deeply enjoyed the fifth book, Into the Fire, which was one of my favourite books from the first half of 2020 and one of the best audiobooks of the year.  As a result, I have been really looking forward to reading the new Orphan X novel for a while now and I was excited to see what sort of fascinating story Prodigal Son would have.

After successfully taking down the shadowy forces behind the Orphan Program, Evan Smoak is ready to retire.  With an unofficial pardon from the new President, all Evan has to do to stay off the government’s radar is to stop his activities as The Nowhere Man and live a normal life.  However, the past once again returns to haunt Evan when he receives a phone call from a woman claiming to be his long lost mother, asking for his help.

Shocked and rattled by the revelations, Evan’s curiosity and need for family drives him to meet with this woman and discover what she wants.  After tracking her down, Evan is surprised at the woman’s one request: to find and help Andrew Duran, a nobody living in LA whose life has gone off the rails.  Working a dead-end job at an impound lot, Andrew witnesses the mysterious death of a former drone pilot, and now finds himself being hunted by a pair of brutal killers.

While initially reluctant to take the case and risk his pardon, Evan’s interest is piqued when he barely survives a hellfire missile strike on Andrew’s house.  Digging deeper in the circumstances around the murder at the impound lot, Evan begins to uncover a deadly conspiracy involving a ruthless weapons contractor and his next generation drone weaponry.  However, the biggest dangers to Evan may come from a direction he would never expect, as his new client, Andrew, brings up unwanted memories from his traumatic past.  What is Andrew’s connection to Evan’s mother and his childhood and how will an emotionally compromised Evan save everyone important to him?

Wow, that was impressive.  Hurwitz has once again come up with an epic and exciting Orphan X novel that combines high-octane action, with a fantastic plot, some excellent characters and an intense amount of growth and emotional turmoil surrounding the series’ protagonist.  The combination of this results in a deeply addictive and extremely captivating read that ended up getting a full five-star rating from me, and it proved extremely hard to put Prodigal Son down.

This latest Orphan X novel contains a particularly clever and enjoyable narrative that sees Evan once again engage in a deadly mission as The Nowhere Man, although this time he is drawn in for far more personal reasons than usual.  Hurwitz starts Prodigal Son off with a fun introduction, as Evan attempts to live a peaceful life in retirement (which goes about as well as expected), before his curiosity at the cliffhanger ending of the previous novel, Into the Fire, drives him to seek out the woman claiming to be his mother.  This in turn leads him to attempt to save another lost soul from dangerous forces, as he goes up against a sociopathic tech genius and their ruthless assassins (as well as some repugnant bastards he encounters along the way).  The rest of the story progresses at an intense and enjoyable pace as Evan attempts to get to the bottom of the plot that his client finds himself in.  This results in several really impressive fight scenes, including a particularly brutal sequence in a impound lot (I will never, ever think about putting a torch in my mouth again).  Hurwitz really has a talent for writing action scenes, and I loved all the ruthless detail and fun moments that he features within them (never bring a Tesla to a gun fight).  In addition, there are some cleverly written infiltration scenes that I had fun with, especially when it comes to Evan breaking into some very high-security places with some elaborate disguises and a vape pen.  All of this comes to a head with an explosive conclusion which, while a tad predictable, was still a fun way to end the book and should make for some interesting future entries in the series.  I really enjoyed getting through Prodigal Son’s story and I found it to be particularly addictive and fun.

One of the most impressive and distinguishing highlights of the Orphan X series has always been its compelling and complex protagonist, Evan Smoak.  Evan is a highly trained professional assassin who learnt a meticulous code of honour and responsibility as a child and now seeks to redeem himself by helping those in trouble.  Thanks to his troubled and complicated past, as well as some mild OCD (brought on by a need for perfection in his work), Evan has been a particularly compelling character to follow, and there has been an intriguing subplot about his troubles connecting to other people.  However, the emotional turmoil hidden within the character really comes to a head in Prodigal Son when Evan is reunited with the woman who abandoned him as a baby.  Hurwitz really dives deep into the character’s psyche for this latest novel, presenting an intricate and powerful picture of a conflicted person, one who is torn between his long-repressed desire for family and to fit in and his training to be independent and alone.  This emotional turmoil becomes even more pronounced when several secrets and revelations come to the surface, and this really throws Evan for a lot of the book.  These added emotional distractions prove to be an intriguing part of the book’s plot, especially as it dulls Evan’s usual keen senses and amps up the risk during his missions.  Hurwitz also spends time diving back into Evan’s childhood, including through a series of flashbacks to when he was first recruited to the Orphan Program, and it was fascinating to see more of his early life, especially when it impacts on his current state of mind.  I also quite enjoyed the way in which Hurwitz explores Evan’s relationship with several other characters, and it was fascinating to see more of this killer’s paternal instincts and cravings come to life, especially after he finally comes face to face with his mother.  In addition, Hurwitz also explores his protagonist’s mentality when it comes to retirement, and it proved interesting to see how Evan reacts when he is once again exposed to danger and violence.  This is easily some of the best character development and exploration that Hurwitz has ever done, and I really appreciated the dramatic edge that it gave to Prodigal Son’s story.

Aside from Evan, this novel is filled with a selection of amazing and well-developed characters.  The most prominent of these are probably Evan’s client, Andrew, and his long-lost mother, Veronica.  Both serve as intriguing catalysts to Evan’s own development, and it was fascinating to see how their introduction to the plot impacted the protagonist’s mentality, especially when their various secrets come to life.  Andrew in particular proves to be a great addition to the plot, and I liked to see another one of Evan’s clients whose life is both upended and improved by his interactions with The Nowhere Man.  Several recurring characters from the previous Orphan X series also have some fantastic roles in this book, and I really enjoyed seeing more of Joey, a former Orphan Program participant and master hacker, who Evan treats like a little sister/daughter.  Joey is a very fun character whose style, personality and expertise in all things technological strongly clash with Evan, but together they form a great team, and they have some amusing interactions throughout the book, especially when Evan finds out that Joey is dating and instantly enters protective dad mode.  There is also the usual inclusion of the other residents of Evan’s apartment complex, including his love interest Mia and her young son Peter.  While many of the characters in this complex seem a bit weird or one-dimensional, they actually prove to be an intriguing part of the book’s plot, especially as Evan is able to reconcile his own emotional issues with some of the problems they are facing.  This is particularly true when it comes to Mia and Peter, and there are some interesting developments on that relationship throughout Prodigal Son.

Aside from these excellent side characters, Hurwitz has also come up with some fun villains for this latest novel that Evan needs to contend with.  The main three villains of the story are a pretty unique group of antagonists, including the brother-sister team of Declan and Queenie Gentner, contracted assassins who have been hired to kill Andrew and other witnesses to their boss’s plot.  Declan and Queenie are an interesting and sadistic pair of killers who prove to be a bit of a challenge for Evan throughout the book.  I really appreciated that Hurwitz spent the time developing both of them, especially Declan, who has some major childhood traumas, and I felt that their arc throughout Prodigal Son was rather clever.  The main villain of this story is the Gentner’s employer, known as the Doctor, who has access to some rather dangerous technology.  The Doctor has a very James Bond villain feel to him, right down to having an odd and distinguishing physical characteristic and a sinister vision for the future.  While a little more mystery or a twist about who the Doctor ultimately was might have worked out well, I still thought they were a great villain.  I particularly liked the inclusion of all the drones that they used, and it was really fascinating to see how the author envisioned the future of warfare and how a trained agent like Evan would deal with them.  Overall, there are some great side characters in this novel, and I look forward to seeing how Hurwitz utilises them in future Orphan X entries.

Like I did with the previous novel in the Orphan X series, I ended up choosing to listen to Prodigal Son’s audiobook format.  This was a fantastic decision as this version of Prodigal Son was well put together and proved to be an excellent way to enjoy this amazing story.  Prodigal Son has a decent run time of 13 hours and 42 minutes, which dedicated listeners can get through fairly quickly, and was narrated by the talented Scott Brick.  Brick is an exceptional narrator who has lent his voice to an impressive catalogue of audiobooks, including several excellent thrillers, such as the Steve Berry’s Cotton Malone series (I enjoyed his narration for The Malta Exchange and The Warsaw Protocol) and the rest of the Orphan X novels.  For Prodigal Son, Brick once again gives an excellent performance, providing the characters with some tough voices which fit each of the perfectly and helped to bring the story to life.  I ended up getting really wrapped up in this audiobook and I felt that it was an amazing way to experience and step inside of this fantastic novel.

Prodigal Son by Gregg Hurwitz is an exceptional and powerful read that serves a great new addition to the amazing Orphan X series.  I had an outstanding time listening to this fantastic new book, especially with its epic story and terrifically deep characters, and this is swiftly becoming one of my favourite thriller series.  Prodigal Son comes highly recommended and I cannot wait to see how Hurwitz continues this in the future.

Altered Realms: Ascension by B. F. Rockriver

Altered Realms cover

Publisher: Audible (Audiobook – 18 November 2020)

Series: Altered Realms – Book One

Length: 21 hours and 26 minutes

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

In the mood for a really cool LitRPG novel?  Look no further than one of my favourite debuts of 2020, the impressive first book in the Altered Realms series, Ascension by B. F. Rockriver.

Welcome to the magical land of Entarra, an elaborate world filled with all manner of complicated people, creatures and war, where death lies just around the corner.  For simple hunter Eli Miller, his life consists of protecting his family and his small grove from outside forces, the most dangerous of which are the Adventurers.  The Adventurers are a dangerous group of seemingly immortal beings from another dimension who treat his world like their own personal playground, killing and destroying all they encounter with little concern for consequences and the lives of the citizens of Enterra.

When a group of Adventurers attack his home, killing him and his family, Eli finds his worst nightmare coming true when, after being stabbed by a mysterious blade, instead of dying he becomes an Adventurer.  Forced to become a whole new person, Eli returns to his hometown, only to discover that no-one recognises him and that he is now bound to the rules of Enterra, with quests, character sheets and a bodiless guide voicing advice in his head.

As Eli begins to explore the limitations of his new life, he soon begins to realise that his world was not what he thought it was.  Enterra Online is a vast and futuristic video game, of which he and his family were NPCs, or non-player characters.  Determined to find out if his family also somehow survived and get revenge on the people who attacked and killed him, Eli begins to play the game and soon becomes involved in a quest to save the land from the mysterious Blight.  Teaming up with fellow Adventurer Don Nutello, Eli begins to master his new character and level up.  But as the two progress even further, the finds that something is very wrong with Enterra Online.  Forced to contend with mindlessly controlled Blighted creatures, dangerous magic users and corrupted Adventurers, Eli will need to use every bit of his resolve and courage to face his destiny.  If he fails, it could mean the destruction of Enterra and every person and NPC trapped within.

This was an interesting and compelling read from a brand-new author who has created an excellent LitRPG novel.  I have to admit that the Literary Role Playing Game genre, which features fantasy or science fiction adventures set within the environments of a game (rather than a tie-in novel, like a World of Warcraft book for example), is one that I am not massively familiar with.  I have only really read one or two of these sorts of books in the past (the first two novels in Jason Segel and Kirsten Miller’s Last Reality series, Otherworld and OtherEarth are the only ones coming to mind at the moment), but it is a genre that I have always been interested in as there are some fantastic-sounding LitRPG novels out there.  A couple of weeks ago I was in the mood to try something new and thought that this would be a good place to start, especially after I came across the synopsis for Altered Realms: AscensionAscension is the debut novel of exciting new author B. F. Rockriver, which I believe was previously released in parts online, and it ended up being a particularly fun and exciting read.  This was an outstanding debut and a particularly good introduction to the LitRPG genre for me.

I thought that this was a pretty impressive first effort from Rockriver, who tells a rather intriguing tale in Ascension that felt to me like a fun combination of Sword Art Online and the upcoming Ryan Reynolds film, Free Guy, as an NPC starts to play the game he is trapped within.  Told primarily from the point of view of Eli, Ascension contains a vast and compelling narrative filled with adventure, action and substantial world-building, as Eli turns from a hapless, yet sentient, NPC into an Adventurer, and is forced to play Enterra Online the same way the human players do.  The story takes a little while to get going, with the author building up some key elements in the beginning, but once the main character gets killed and then respawned as an Adventurer, allowing for the intriguing RPG elements to work their way into the plot, the book really picks up.  The reader is than treated to an intriguing bit of world-building as the gameplay of Enterra Online is explained, before the confused protagonist is dropped back into the world, understandably freaking out.  After some false starts and the introduction of the book’s other main character, Don, Eli starts getting into the game, as he needs to gain levels and equipment to get revenge for his family.  This leads the two characters to get involved in a series of interesting quests that may directly impact the survival of the entire game, forcing them to venture towards an ancient temple to cure themselves, and the world, of a magical, sentient disease known as the Blight.  Along the way they’ll contend with dangerous creatures, friendly and malicious NPCs, hostile Adventurers with conflicting motivations and world-changing events that are impacting both the game and the humans trapped within.  All of this leads up to an epic and exciting confrontation as Eli and his friends come face to face with the corrupted Adventurers who killed his family.

This narrative proved to be extremely exciting and captivating, and I found myself getting really caught up in the adventures of this excellent and conflicted protagonist.  There are a number of amazing elements to this book, and I very much enjoyed seeing the author combine the LitRPG elements with a classic fantasy adventure tale and some cool advanced science fiction elements as well.  The author does an excellent job setting up his game world throughout Ascension and the reader quickly becomes deeply concerned with the fate of Enterra Online and all its players and NPCs.  I also loved all the very cool action sequences featured throughout the story, and there are a number of intense and deadly scenes that really stood out to me. 

I did find the writing to be a little rough in places, and there is room for Rockriver to grow as an author.  For example, there was a bit of repetition throughout the novel, as a number of key plot points kept getting brought up again and again.  While some of this repetition was done to replicate how an online game talks to its players, a lot of it was the author providing unnecessary re-examinations of certain story elements, character back story and emotional responses, which I felt interrupted the flow of the novel.  I also felt that Rockriver should have ended Ascension a lot sooner for a more climactic finish, as the novel continues for a number of chapters after the book’s big showdown.  While this later section of the novel contained a lot of interesting and enjoyable moments, I do think that perhaps the author could have saved most of them for the next entry in the series.  Still, overall this was an excellent read, especially with the inventive and exciting story, and it does set up the rest of the series quite nicely.

As I mentioned above, Ascension proved to be quite an outstanding introduction to LitRPG novels, a genre that Rockriver is clearly very passionate about.  Ascension contains a huge amount of RPG elements which are seamlessly woven into the story.  Once the protagonist wakes up as an Adventurer, every element of a classic MMORPG comes into effect, with Eli choosing a race, gaining experience, being forced to complete quests, obtaining skill points, distributing attribute points, deciding his class and a huge range of other game features a player in his situation would have to consider.  I felt that this was an incredibly realistic portrayal of what an avatar in a game would experience, and the author covers this in exceptional detail, down to the pun-ridden quest titles and the funny names of the other Adventurers Eli and Don encounter.  Rockriver has also created an impressive and vast MMORPG to serve as the setting for his novel, and it actually sounds like it would be a really cool game to play (you know, minus the ethical implications of the AI and the deadly disease which tries to turn you evil).  I have to admit that I did not quite know how all the various skill and quest updates would play throughout the book, but Rockriver did an excellent job working them into the story and it felt very natural to see Eli get an update, new skill or experience.  All the LitRPG elements also work incredibly well in some of the action sequences, and seeing the protagonist get debuffs or watch him lose health, mana and energy during a fight actually added to the intensity of the scenes.  The author also works in some intriguing twists to the gaming world, with the protagonists set to face off against a major antagonist threatening people both in the game and outside of it, and I quite enjoyed how this raised the stakes of the narrative.  Overall, I really fell in love with Ascension’s LitRPG elements, and this is definitely a genre I can see myself getting into.

I really enjoyed some of the characters featured within Ascension, as Rockriver has come up with some amazing complex figures for this clever LitRPG story.  The main character is Eli, a former NPC who is turned into an Adventurer and swiftly becomes a key figure in saving Enterra Online.  Eli proved to be a really intriguing character to follow, as he is forced to adventure whilst facing a major existential crisis.  Due to the situation surrounding his death and rebirth, Eli is an emotional mess, grieving for the loss of his family, while simultaneously finding out that they never truly existed.  This makes him a particularly deep and intriguing character to follow, as his new experiences changes his perspective completely.  Thanks to his complete lack of knowledge about anything related to online gaming, Eli proves to be the perfect protagonist for this book as every element of this game is explained to him in great detail.  I also quite enjoyed the fantastic handicap that Rockriver installed to his main character halfway through the book, as Eli learns a Berserk Rage move that forces him to lose control when he is close to death or encounters one of the players who killed him and his family.  This causes a number intense scenes throughout the book, and I really appreciated the incredible scenes that the author wrote around the first time Eli lost control, which got pretty dark and bloody.  While Eli was not the most consistent character at times, as he occasionally experiences some random personality changes, it was still really interesting to see him develop, especially as a number of intriguing elements about his past become quite essential to the plot.

Aside from Eli, the other main character in the novel is Don Nutello, a player who befriends Eli when he spawns as an Adventurer and follows him throughout the game.  Don plays a humanoid turtle race, known as a Turta, and has chosen to play him as a monk class, dressed in purple and fighting with martial arts and occasionally a staff (I wonder who his favourite ninja turtle is?).  Rockriver gives Don a particularly intriguing background as a former soldier playing Enterra Online long-term as a treatment for his PTSD, flashes of which come through into the game at times, and his role as a healer in the team is related to his former profession as a medic.  Don proves to be a particularly great supporting character to Eli, not only helping him to understand the game but giving him a different perspective on the other people playing as Adventurers.  Don also has a very appealing pacifistic edge to him, choosing not to attack people or sentient AI if he can help it, which does get the characters in trouble but helps to distinguish them from the antagonists.  Don ended up being my favourite character in the end, and I really enjoyed his unique partnership with Eli as they formed a fantastic and deep friendship over the course of the novel. 

In addition to Eli and Don, Rockriver has also loaded this book up with a series of intriguing side characters, most of whom are NPCs in Enterra Online.  I liked the contrast in how the NPCs are blissfully unaware that they are in a game, while most Adventurers are portrayed as selfish and murderous.  This is mainly because the Adventurers are unaware that the NPCs are sentient, and are playing the game the way they typically would for an MMORPG. Indeed, I routinely do all the same bad things when I play games, everyone does (or so I tell myself so I can sleep at night).  This interesting dichotomy in the perceptions of the world between these two unique groups was pretty interesting to see, and I very much enjoyed seeing a game where every NPC is fed up with the invading human players. 

I also have to highlight some of the fun Adventurer characters in the novel, most of whom are fairly typical of the sort of people you would encounter in the game.  For example, the third person to join Eli and Don’s party is Michelle, a sexy female troll with an attitude, who serves as their tank.  Michelle is one of those players who flaunts their avatar’s sexuality, even though you are a little uncertain whether they are a guy or a girl in real life. Michelle was a rather sassy and fun character to follow, and she definitely evened out the serious personalities on the team.  I also quite liked some of the selfishly antagonistic Adventurers who the heroes eventually go up against, and game players will easily see parallels between them and the worst sort of people you’ve played against online, even if some may be influenced by things outside of their control.  Each of these excellent characters adds a lot to this great book, and I look forward to seeing how they develop in the future instalments of this series, especially with some major changes impacting the Adventurers long term.

In order to enjoy Ascension I ended up grabbing the audiobook, which proved to be a fantastic way to experience the fun story.  Ascension has a pretty hefty run-time of 21 hours and 26 minutes, which is almost one of the longest audiobooks I have ever listened to.  Naturally, this took me a little while to listen to, although once I got really caught up in the story I found myself getting through it even quicker, especially with some of the epic combat sequences, which I never wanted to interrupt.  I always find that the audiobook format is a great way to fully absorb all the details contained within a novel, and this was particularly true with Ascension, as Rockriver has come up with an amazing amount of inclusions that are really great to absorb in this format.  This audiobook also featured the excellent narration of Maximillian Breed, a relatively new audiobook narrator, who has so far vocalised an interesting collection of fantasy and science fiction novels.  I felt that Breed was a great choice for this epic audiobook and I enjoyed listening to his narration of Ascension for the full 21 plus hours.  While it took me a little while to get used to his voice, I felt that it fit into the story really well, and I especially liked the somewhat robotic/computer generated tone he used whenever the system talks to the protagonist, such as during a quest update, or when it provides details about equipment or skills.  All of this makes for a great listen, and I would definitely recommend the audiobook format of Ascension to anyone interested in checking out this fun book.

Ascension by B. F. Rockriver is a fantastic and impressive debut novel that serves as an outstanding first entry in the Altered Realms LitRPG series.  Rockriver has come up with a clever and captivating tale that masterfully utilises video game elements, cool characters and some awesome action sequences to create a first-rate read.  I had an absolutely incredible time listening to this book and I cannot wait to see where the series goes next.  Rockriver is currently working on two separate novels at the moment, the second entry in the Altered Realms series, Uprising, and a companion novel, Origins, which examines the backstory of several key Altered Realms side characters.  Both sound like a lot of fun, with some superb covers (BTW how epic are the covers that Ascension had!), and I look forward to reading them.  Until then, Ascension is a guaranteed exciting read for LitRPG fans.

Altered Realms Cover 2

Star Wars: Thrawn Ascendancy: Chaos Rising by Timothy Zahn

Thrawn Ascendancy - Chaos Rising Cover

Publisher: Random House Audio (Audiobook – 1 September 2020)

Series: Thrawn Ascendancy – Book One

Length: 15 hours and 5 minutes

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

The master of Star Wars fiction, Timothy Zahn, returns with a brand-new series that explores the early days of his most iconic character, Grand Admiral Thrawn, with the first book in the Thrawn Ascendancy trilogy, Chaos Rising.

A long time ago, beyond a galaxy far, far away…

Beyond the edges of the known galaxy, past the borders of the Republic, beyond even the backwater Outer Rim, lies the Unknown Regions.  The Unknown Regions are a chaotic and barely explored section of space, where hyperspace travel is difficult and dangers lurk around every corner.  Despite this, many species flourish in this region, fighting for their survival and forming civilisations hidden from the eyes of the Republic and the Separatists as they fight their bitter civil war.  However, out of all these races, none are more mysterious, secretive and dangerous than the Chiss Ascendancy.

The Chiss have long considered themselves to be one of the most powerful races within the Unknown Regions.  Boasting vast fleets of powerful vessels which can appear anywhere within the Unknown Regions thanks to their great secret weapon, the force-sensitive children who can navigate hyperspace in the Unknown Regions, known as Skywalkers, the Chiss believe themselves safe and secure.  However, a sudden ill-fated attack on their home planet by a mysterious fleet quickly shatters this allusion.  While many, including the Chiss ruling council, are convinced that the attacking ships are a precursor to an invasion and begin preparations to withdraw their outer fleets, Supreme General Ba’kif believes that there is more to this attack then what is apparent.  In order to explore his suspicions, Ba’kif calls upon one of his most talented officers to investigate, the young tactical genius Senior Captain Mitth’raw’nuruodo, better known as Thrawn.

Many years before he became the Emperor’s most effective weapon as a Grand Admiral in the Imperial Navy, Thrawn, served his own people as a member of the Chiss Expansionary Defence Fleet.  Already renowned for his rare tactical ability, as well as his disregard for the politics and rules of the Ascendancy, Thrawn begins his investigation into the attack and swiftly determines that it was merely a feint, designed to draw the Ascendancy’s attention away from a much more dangerous threat.  A new malevolent alien empire is building strength in the Unknown Regions, and its eyes are firmly fixed on the Chiss.  With his hands tied by protocol and with his political enemies within the Ascendancy trying to take him down, Thrawn may be unable to stop the upcoming attack before it is too late.  However, Thrawn always has a plan, and the Unknown Regions are about to understand just how dangerous he truly is.

This was another fantastic outing from Timothy Zahn, who has produced a cool and intriguing prequel novel to his previous series.  Zahn is one of the most experienced and highly regarded authors of Star Wars tie-in fiction in the world today, having written several impressive novels for both the current Disney-owned canon, and the previous Star Wars Legends canon.  While he has written various Star Wars novels, such as the fun standalone novel Scoundrels, Zahn is probably best known for his 1991 release, Heir of the Jedi, which is generally considered to be the start of a whole new era of Star Wars tie-in fiction.  While there are a number of interesting aspects to Heir of the Jedi, one of the most important things about it was that it introduced Zahn’s most distinctive and popular creation, Grand Admiral Thrawn, a rare alien officer in the xenophobic Imperial Navy who was revered as their ultimate tactician.  Thrawn proved to be a very popular character whose backstory and characterisation was later expanded on in a number of Zahn’s other Star Wars Legends novels.

Due to the Disney purchase of the Star Wars franchise and the subsequent removal of everything except the movies and the animated series from canon, Thrawn was temporarily erased as a canon character until the third season of the Star Wars Rebels animated television series, where he was reintroduced with an altered backstory and history.  As part of this reintroduction, Zahn was contracted to write several new Star Wars novels examining this new history of the character, and thus he wrote the Thrawn trilogy, featuring the excellent novels Thrawn, Alliances and Treason, which are among some of the best pieces of Star Wars tie-in fiction I have so far read.  This trilogy ended in 2019, but Zahn is far from done, having started a new trilogy, the Thrawn Ascendancy series, last year.  The Thrawn Ascendancy trilogy, of which Chaos Rising is the first entry, is an intriguing and detailed series that serves as a prequel to the novel Thrawn and which show a younger version of the character as he serves the Chiss during the same time period as the Clone Wars.  Chaos Rising is an excellent and enjoyable novel which I read a few months ago, but which I have only just had a chance to review.  It was fantastic to see this complex and compelling character in action again, as well as more of Zahn’s impressive world-building.

This new novel from Zahn contains an amazing story that looks at the earliest adventures of Thrawn.  This is a very clever and layered tale that explores the main character in more detail while also providing him a new opponent to face in this book as he attempts to engage in battle against a dangerous enemy threatening his people.  Zahn builds a great narrative around the fight against this new antagonist, with Thrawn forced to engage in a number of intricate campaigns in order to obtain information and determine which points of weakness to exploit, whilst also have to contend with the machinations of members of his own race who are concerned with the reckless Thrawn’s actions.  At the same time, the author builds up a number of intriguing side characters who help to tell the tale of Thrawn in greater detail and with some interesting personal arcs.  This main storyline proves to be an extremely enjoyable and captivating read which flows at a great pace for most of the book, broken up with a number of cool and impressive battle sequences.  The main story is also supported by a fantastic collection of flashback sequences that depict an even younger version of Thrawn, showing some of his earlier encounters with many of the characters featured in the novel and highlighting how different the character has always been.  These flashbacks are used to great effect throughout the novel, not only building up the various characters’ pasts and personalities but also creating a great pace for the novel, with several key events from the protagonist’s life introduced where necessary to the main plot.  All of this helps to turn Chaos Rising, and indeed the entire Thrawn Ascendancy series, into an intriguing prequel to the Thrawn trilogy as it begins to set up the various reasons why Thrawn was sent away by his people and recruited by the Empire.  One part of Chaos Rising even directly ties into the events of one of the books from the previous trilogy, Alliances, with the reader seeing an alternate viewpoint to Thrawn meeting with Anakin Skywalker that gives an entertaining context to the events of that previous book.  All of this results in a fantastic and clever story that is easy enjoy and which sets up some more intriguing adventures in the later entries in this series.

One of the things I always try to address while reviewing a Star Wars novel is what level of franchise knowledge a reader needs to have in order to fully enjoy the story.  While most Star Wars novels are generally fairly accessible to new readers or casual fans, I would say that Chaos Rising is one of those books that should primarily be read by major fans of the franchise.  This is because Zahn loads this novel up with a ton of Star Wars references and details, including details of obscure parts of Star Wars lore and characters.  While the author does do a good job of explaining all the relevant aspects of this extended universe through the book, I would say that having some pre-knowledge about some of these elements is important.  At a minimum I would suggest that the readers read Zahn’s original Thrawn trilogy first, especially as Chaos Rising serves as a prequel to them, although fans with some basic knowledge of the character of Thrawn should be able to follow along without too much difficulty.  For new readers who do get through Chaos Rising, you are going to experience a huge amount of new information about the Star Wars universe as Zahn does a substantial amount of universe building throughout this book.  In particular, the author explores the legendary Chiss Ascendancy, a mysterious alien empire existing outside of the main Star Wars galaxy.  This is the first time that the Chiss planets and culture have been explored in any real detail in the current canon, and it proves to be a fascinating experience learning more about them and seeing the culture that produced such a unique character as Thrawn.  This novel contains a lot of detail about this alien race, as well as many other aspects of life outside the main galaxy setting of the Star Wars franchise, and while it is a tad overwhelming at times, I had a great time expanding my Star Wars knowledge and exploring this new, intriguing region.  It seems likely that Zahn will go into even more detail about this part of the Star Wars universe in future novels in the trilogy, and I look forward to seeing what other cool aspects he comes up with.

One of the best things about this book was seeing the return of the amazing and compelling character of Thrawn.  Thrawn is a very unique and enjoyable character, mainly because he has an unfathomable mind and is able to tactically outthink and outmatch any opponent that he comes across.  A highly analytical being who is able to discern fantastic insights about a person or species’ intentions, personalities and general mindsets from viewing some aspects of their creativity, mainly their artwork, Thrawn is easily able to predict actions and provide effective or crazy counters that shock and surprise everyone watching.  This makes him an incredibly fun character to see in action, especially as he makes some amazing and credible leaps of logic off the smallest details that Zahn features in his descriptions.  These analytical leaps then lead into a number of awesome and cool scenes where he outsmarts everyone around them, including in the book’s various battle sequences, which are awesome to read as there are some truly outrageous and clever tactical moves that no one can see coming.  Because of his way of thinking, Thrawn has a very closed off and odd personality that unnerves a lot of the people he deals with and makes many wary of his motivations and actions.

Just like he did in the previous novels, Zahn portrays Thrawn as a little less vicious and dangerous than he appears in Star Wars Rebels, with a little more humanity (or the Chiss version of it) added into his character.  Zahn also continues to explore the character’s lack of political awareness, a major flaw in his thinking that continues to cause him trouble as he constantly battles against the overarching hierarchy to take actions he knows will benefit or save his people.  I felt that Chaos Rising took a very interesting look at the character’s history, personality and backstory, and I quite liked the examination of his earliest trials and battles.  Thanks to the author’s use of flashback sequences, the reader gets a great view at different parts of his history, and you see the various steps that he takes rising up the military ladder and the various aliens and people he crossed or destroyed on the way.  All of this proved to be really cool to see, and Thrawn remains one of my favourite characters in the Star Wars canon, especially after this great outing from his past.

One of the most distinctive parts of any novel that follows Thrawn is the fact that none of the story is shown from his point of view; instead other characters tell his story.  This is mainly done to really highlight just how brilliant Thrawn is and to ensure that his eventual plans and insights come as a major surprise to the reader, much in the same way that a Sherlock Holmes novel is told from Watson’s perspective.  Chaos Rising features several different point-of-view characters, including one or two antagonists, who encounter Thrawn throughout the course of this novel and witness him utilise his tactical acumen.  I love seeing the various characters react to Thrawn’s impressive and clever schemes, and it is always fun when they realise that the impossible is happening right in front of them.  Several of these characters, particularly Thrawn’s allies, also provide a much deeper examination of the main character’s personality and mentality, and you see a different side to the character as a friend and mentor.

While these characters are primarily there to follow Thrawn, Zahn does take the time to explore each of these characters, with a particular focus on Thrawn’s impact on their life.  Many of these characters have some excellent and enjoyable backstories to them, and it was fascinating to see these great characters have their carefully planned out lives completely thrown around when they meet Thrawn.  While I failed to connect to some of these point-of-view side characters (for example, I just could not get invested in the arc surrounding the Skywalker Che-ri), others proved to be quite intriguing to follow.  Examples include Admiral Ar’alani, Thrawn’s former classmate at the academy, who becomes a lifelong friend and constantly finds herself trying to protect the protagonist from himself, or Thalias (Mitth’ali’astov) a former Skywalker whose encounter with a young Thrawn inspired her to join his clan and gave her a new vision for the future.  I also rather enjoyed following Qilori, an Unknown Regions navigator-for-hire, who secretly serves the Nikardun Destiny while also taking jobs for other clients like Thrawn and the Chiss.  It was immensely entertaining seeing Qilori attempting to manipulate Thrawn on the orders of the main antagonist, especially as Thrawn sees through every single one of his tricks.  Each of these great side characters added their own edge to the story, and I really appreciated having so many varied and unique viewpoints of the fantastic main character.

While I did receive a physical copy, I decided to listen to the audiobook format of Chaos Rising, not only because it made my reading schedule easier but because Star Wars audiobooks are always so much fun to listen to.  I think that I made the right decision here, as the Chaos Rising audiobook was a very awesome experience and I had a great time listening to it.  With a run time of just over 15 hours, this is a somewhat longer Star Wars audiobook, although once you get wrapped up in the story you don’t really mind.  Everything about this audiobook is cool, from the classic Star Wars sound effects, which help to drag the listener into the story (it is so much easier to imagine a dangerous fight scene when you can hear the blaster shots), to the outstanding use of John Williams’ iconic musical score, which just makes everything epic.  This audiobook also features the superb narration of the amazing Marc Thompson, who does a wonderful job.  Thompson, who has a vast experience voicing Star Wars audiobooks (for example, all the previous Thrawn novels, Dark Disciple, and roles in the Count Dooku and Doctor Aphra audio dramas), has an exceptional range of different voices which he uses to full effect throughout Chaos Rising.  Each of the characters is given a distinctive and enjoyable voice which allows the listener to easily follow who they are, while also getting an impressive and comprehensive idea of the character’s emotions and passion.  However, his most impressive work is saved for the main character himself.  Thompson has an excellent Thrawn voice, which very closely matches the voice of Lars Mikkelsen, the actor playing Thrawn in the Star Wars Rebels animated show, which helps to bring the character to life in vivid and impressive detail.  Thompson’s take on the character captures the character perfectly, and you get an amazing sense of the character’s deep analytical nature and constantly calm façade.  This was an exceptional bit of voice work from Thompson, and it really added so much to my enjoyment of the story to have this character’s words read out to me.  An overall exceptional and outstanding audiobook, this is the perfect format to check out Chaos Rising.

Thrawn Ascendancy: Chaos Rising is another outstanding novel from amazing Star Wars author Timothy Zahn that provides the reader with a captivating look at the early life of the incredible character of Grand Admiral Thrawn.  Featuring a clever and intriguing tale set deep in an unexplored area of the Star Wars universe, this novel serves as a fantastic and addictive prequel to Zahn’s impressive Thrawn trilogy and adds new layers to the author’s most iconic creation.  The second entry in this series, Greater Good, is set for release in a few months and looks set to be one of the most intriguing Star Wars novels of 2021, especially with renewed interest in the character of Thrawn after the second season of The Mandalorian.  I am extremely keen to see how the next novel turns out, but if it as good as Chaos Rising, then we should be in for a treat.

Film Review – Batman: Soul of the Dragon

Batman - Soul of the Dragon

Studio: Warner Bros. Animation and DC Entertainment

Series: DC Universe Animated Original Movies – Film 40

Director: Sam Liu

Producer: Bruce Timm

Writer: Jeremy Adams

Length: 82 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Prepare to dive into an intense and addictive DC Comics martial arts adventure with the latest entry in the DC Universe Animated Original Movies range, Batman: Soul of the Dragon, an outstanding and deeply enjoyable film that explores several amazing DC characters in a very unique way.

While The Unseen Library is primarily dedicated to providing book and comic reviews, I have in the last year been experimenting with reviews and articles about another great passion of mine, animated superhero films.  I have always had a lot of fondness for this genre and I started focusing on it more last year when I reviewed Justice League Dark: Apokolips War, and even further when I did an extended Top Ten Tuesday article listing my favourite superhero animated films, which primarily featured DC Universe Animated Original Movies.  DC continues their domination of the animation market with the very awesome Soul of the Dragon film, which serves as the 40th entry in the DC Universe Animated Original Movies range.  I had an outstanding time watching this latest animated offering and it is definitely a new favourite film of mine.

Bruce Wayne, Richard Dragon, Shiva and Ben Turner are four of the best martial artists on the planet, utilising their skills and training to become truly elite fighters.  While each of these renowned warriors are now on their own different paths, they shared a similar start on their journey as students at the secret monastery of Nanda Parbat.  Training under the legendary O-Sensei, these four, along with other notable students, not only learned the martial techniques that allowed them to become the fighters they are today but also became a close-knit family, until one terrible night changed everything for them.

Now their paths are about to cross again when Richard Dragon discovers that a fanatical organisation, the Cult of the Kobra, have stolen an ancient and dangerous artefact that Dragon and his fellow former students are intimately and tragically familiar with.  Travelling to Gotham City, Dragon recruits Bruce Wayne, who now fights criminals as the vigilante Batman, to help him stop Kobra and save the entire world.  Attempting to recover another artefact guarded by Shiva, now a feared Gotham crime boss, they soon discover just how long and deadly Kobra’s reach is.

With Shiva and Ben in tow, the four former disciples of O-Sensei prepare for the battle of their lives as they attempt to infiltrate Kobra’s island base.  However, nothing will prepare them for the dangers they will encounter, nor the horrors unleashed from their past.  Can these four dangerous fighters work together to save the world or will an ancient and deadly force be unleashed?

Batman: Soul of the Dragon is an excellent and amazing animated comic book film that proved to be an absolute treat to watch.  This is a standalone film which is directed by Sam Liu, written by Jeremy Adams and featuring Bruce Timm as an executive producer, and together these talented people have produced a fantastic and powerful feature.  Liu and Timm are the genius behind some of the best animated comic films that are out there, including Justice League vs. Teen Titans, Suicide Squad: Hell to Pay and the incredible The Death of Superman, and they have once again done an outstanding job with Soul of the Dragon, creating a unique and entertaining comic book tale.  Making excellent use of an exceptional narrative, a great group of characters and a very distinctive vibe, Soul of the Dragon is an outstanding and wonderful film that is really worth watching.

Soul of the Dragon has a particularly awesome and captivating narrative that follows its four iconic central protagonists on an epic quest to right the wrongs of their collective past.  This movie contains an original tale set in the 1970s that draws heavily from classic DC martial arts comics to create a fantastic film that not only dives into the origins of some amazing DC characters but which also presents an exciting character-driven adventure.  This movie starts off with a captivating bang with Richard Dragon discovering a sinister plot with ties to his time as a student.  The story then quickly starts to reunite the four major characters, with several impressive action set-pieces dominating the early part of this movie, all of which were a real treat to watch.  The story than takes the protagonists to an island fortress where they must face their enemy before he can unleash a terrible force of destruction.

Interspersed with the main story are a series of compelling flashbacks that follow the protagonists’ training under O-Sensei, which provide some excellent context to the main story.  I thought that the flashbacks were a particularly impressive part of the movie and I liked they expertly tied together main narrative with the past, creating a richer overall story.  I also felt that the narrative did an excellent job of introducing each of the characters while also highlighting the differences between their modern appearances and their former lives as students.  I did think that the main story was a little rushed and could have potentially used a little more plot in between the protagonists’ reunion and their arrival at the antagonists’ island.  Still, this did not impact my enjoyment of the movie too much, and the last third of the film is so damn epic and emotionally charged that you forget about this slight misstep of pacing.  All of this wraps up with a memorable and interesting ultimate conclusion, which will leave you wondering about what, if anything, is going to happen next.

Thanks to the standalone nature of this movie, potential viewers do not need to have watched any prior DC animated features to enjoy Soul of the Dragon, and indeed minimal knowledge of the various characters and comic elements is needed to follow along, as the narrative provides a fantastic and detailed introduction to all the relevant parts of the plot.  All of this makes for an epic and just plain awesome story that honours some classic DC characters and comics while also introducing them to a new generation of DC fans with this fantastic adventure.

In addition to the first-rate story, I was also impressed with how well this cool movie was put together.  It contains some outstanding animation, especially when it comes to the impressively exciting action scenes, with a particularly well-put-together car chase halfway through the film being an amazing example.  This proves to be a very action-heavy film, with a huge number of fluid combat sequences that perfectly captures the skill of the combatants and which successfully translates the style of the original martial arts comic.  Parents should be warned that this is not an animated feature for younger children, thanks to some of its over-the-top content, but everyone else is going to love seeing all the exciting fast-paced scenes unfold.  I particularly liked how this animated movie had such a distinctive and entertaining style to it, which really enhanced my enjoyment of the film.  As the story is set in to the 1970s, the creators attempted to replicate the feel and tone of the era in a number of different ways, such as the technology, locations and the animated appearances of the characters.  The creative team also made sure to include a ton of appropriate slang (you haven’t seen anything till you’ve seen Batman say: “Let’s get it on”) and an excellent instrumental musical score that is not only very 70s in its sound but which perfectly fits the movie’s distinctive narrative and tone.  Soul of the Dragon draws a lot of inspiration from classic kung fu films, especially those featuring Bruce Lee, and you can really feel the creators’ love of the genre with all the little details they chuck in.  There are also a number of fantastic allusions to classic James Bond films, including several very familiar musical themes, some entertaining lines from certain characters and even a dangerous car chase with a gadget-laden car that ends with a vehicle getting whisked away on an electromagnet attached to a helicopter (a very fun call-back to You Only Live Twice).  I absolutely loved how well this film came together, and all the exceptional animation and clever tonal shifts combine perfectly with the great story to produce an enthralling and memorable viewing experience.

In addition to have an amazing and entertaining narrative, Soul of the Dragon is backed up by a fantastic roster of characters from across the DC Comics canon, voiced by an exceptional and talented collection of actors.  While this movie contains several great supporting characters, the story is mostly set around Bruce Wayne, Richard Dragon, Shiva and Ben Turner, each of whom are heavily featured in both the main narrative and the flashbacks.  While all four of these main characters are great in their own right, a lot of their appeal lies in fantastic connection they have with each other and with their master, O-Sensei.  These great protagonists have an excellent rapport, and it proved to be really great to see them interact with each other throughout the film.

The lead of the film is probably Batman, who is voiced by David Giuntoli of Grimm fame, who provides a fantastic take on the character with his voice work.  I liked how there were two versions of Batman: the vigilante who featured in the main story and the younger student in Nanda Parbat.  This proved to be an interesting portrayal of this iconic character, as the writers attempt to explore Bruce’s determination, even as a young man, to do the impossible and fight evil no matter the cost.  It was also great to see him evolve from the student in the flashbacks to the vigilante in the main story, and there are some fun scenes that showcase him becoming a more focused and terrifying fighter when he puts on the mask.

While Soul of the Dragon is nominally a Batman movie, Bruce is somewhat overshadowed by some of the other main protagonists.  This is no fault of the character’s portrayal or characterisation; it is just because the other protagonists are just a little more exciting and enjoyable.  Part of the reason why this is the case is that Batman is the least skilled martial artist in what is essentially a kung fu movie, as it is established that his fellow students are better fighters than him (this is true in both the film and in the comics).  While this does mean that some of the other characters’ action sequences are a little more visually impressive, you instead get to see Batman fight in different ways.  There is a great focus on how Batman utilises trickery and fear to supplement his weaker fighting abilities, and there are some excellent scenes around this, including a key one towards the end of the film where he uses a combination of his gadgets, cunning, and even his own cape to defeat a superior foe.  I did think that the version of the character was a bit blasé about keeping his identity secret with his friends, and he didn’t seemed as opposed to people using lethal force as you would expect, but this was an outstanding take on Batman and I really enjoyed his appearance in this film.

One major character who was a true highlight of this movie was Richard Dragon, an iconic character who is widely regarded as one of the best fighters in the DC canon.  Despite his popularity in DC’s martial arts comics, this is the character’s first appearance outside of the comics (the Richard Dragon featured in Arrow is a different character altogether) and he voiced by The Chairman himself, Mark Dacascos.  Depicted as Asian in the film (the comic character is traditionally a red-haired Caucasian), this character looks a lot like Bruce Lee in Enter the Dragon and is portrayed as an international super spy.  Despite this being a Batman film, in many ways Richard is just as much the main character of this movie, with much of the story revolving around him.  Richard grabs focus right from the start, where he engages in some amusing spy antics, which include outwitting a James Bond-esque character in a fancy casino, effortlessly and stylishly fighting off some goons, and parachuting onto a boat filled with beautiful women (a scene very reminiscent of The Living Daylights, Bond music included), before identifying himself as “Dragon, Richard Dragon”.  Each of Dragon’s subsequent scenes are really fantastic, from the fluid and exceptional action sequences to the fun interactions he has with other characters, including an entertaining scene with a pompous bouncer.  Dacascos does an exceptional job voicing this character and he provides Richard with a confident, intelligent and generally calm air that proves to be extremely easy to enjoy, while also including some vulnerability in several amazing scenes.  All of this helps to produce an exceptional character and I am extremely glad that the introduction of Richard Dragon to a wider media went so well.

The next major character in the movie is the dangerous and delightful Shiva, who was voiced by the talented Kelly Hu.  Lady Shiva, as she is better known, is one of the deadliest assassins and martial artists in the DC canon.  I felt the creative team did an outstanding job showcasing Shiva in Soul of the Dragon, as she is portrayed as a merciless killing machine and living weapon able to destroy her opponents with minimal effort and nothing but her bare hands.  The character has some of the most brutal combat sequences, which were not only beautifully animated but which proved to be extremely entertaining to watch.  I felt that Shiva went through some fantastic character development throughout the film as she transforms from a dedicated student to a ruthless crime lord who even Batman is afraid to deal with: “I’m working up to it…”  I also really loved the choice of voice actor for this character as Kelly Hu does a sensational job bringing Shiva to life.  Hu, who is known for her comic book roles in both animation (as Cheshire in Young Justice and Karai in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles) and live action (as Lady Deathstrike in X-Men 2 and China White in Arrow), has previously voiced Lady Shiva in the Batman: Arkham Origins video game, and it was great to see her return to this fantastic character.  She gives this version of Shiva a particularly deadly air; you can tell with every sentence just how confident she is in her own ability and lethal potential.  Not only does Shiva have some of the best fight scenes in the movie but she also has some of the best lines, such as when she chooses her opponent in one of the big boss fights: “I’ll take the girl, her look offends me!”  I also absolutely loved one scene which saw the voice of Karai from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles face off against three green-clad ninjas respectfully wielding sai, nunchaku and a bo staff.  The character’s casual comment of “You know how to use those?” followed by her effortlessly taking all three out was just perfect and it has me laughing pretty heavily.  I think that Shiva was probably my favourite character in the entire movie and I am really impressed with how she was written and portrayed.

The final member of the main four characters is Ben Turner, the angry and dangerous African-American fighter better known as Bronze Tiger.  Bronze Tiger is a major martial artist in the DC canon who is probably best known for his run in the Suicide Squad comics.  Bronze Tiger is voiced by Michael Jai White, who recently portrayed the live-action version of the character in Arrow.  I really liked Bronze Tiger throughout Soul of the Dragon, as the film captures a lot of his essence from his original comic appearances and subsequently turn him into a fantastic character in this movie.  Part of the reason why is that he goes through the most development out of all the main characters, especially as several flashbacks bridge the gap between his student days and his current character, showing several pivotal events in his life.  I absolutely loved his look in this movie, as they made the decision to model him on African-American actor and martial artist, Jim Kelly, with some elements of other 70s African-American characters like Shaft and Luke Cage thrown in.  There is a particularly fun joke around this character when Richard misremembers the character’s codename as Black Samurai, a reference to the Jim Kelly movie of the same name, and the subsequent approval of the team at his actual codename of Bronze Tiger was very entertaining.  White does some excellent voice work for Bronze Tiger in this film and he successfully showcases the character’s intense anger at the start of the story before evolving it into a more zen-like persona towards the end.  I would say that Bronze Tiger was a little overshadowed by the three other protagonists, but he was still a great addition to the movie and is a fun character to follow.

Aside from the main four characters, there is a particular focus on the mentor character of O-Sensei, who is voiced in this film by the legendary James Hong.  O-Sensei is a fantastic character with an intriguing history in DC Comics, being a major figure in the lives of Richard Dragon, Shiva and Bronze Tiger.  This is actually O-Sensei’s first named appearance outside of the comics, and he proves to be a fantastic and fun addition to the movie’s narrative.  Hong portrays the character as a wise but humorous kung fu master, offering deep insights and amusing jokes in equal measure to the younger characters, while also forming them into a close family.  O-Sensei proves to be an extremely likeable character, with some deep and powerful moments that ensure that the viewer appreciates and enjoys him.  I particularly loved Hong’s voice work throughout the movie and I felt that he really dived into the character and made him stand out, especially in some later scenes in the movie where there are some intriguing twists around him.  An overall outstanding and exceptional part of the cast, I am extremely glad they got Hong for this movie.

No comic book movie will be complete without some villains, and to my mind this is where Soul of the Dragon falls a little flat.  The antagonists of this film are the members of the Cult of the Kobra (essentially DC’s version of Hydra, both of which were created by Jack Kirby).  Kobra are led by their prophet, Jeffrey Burr (voiced by Josh Keaton), backed up by his henchmen Schlangenfaust (Robin Atkin Downes), Lady Eve (Grey Griffin) and King Snake (Patrick Seitz).  While all of these characters are voiced perfectly and have some cool moments throughout the movie, such as Burr’s creepy introduction, his belief in his prophesised destiny and Schlangenfaust’s hidden abilities, I honestly found each of these villains to be a little underwhelming.  None of them (with the possible exception of Schlangenfaust) really stood out to me and they were all very generic sort of villains to the story.  That being said, Soul of the Dragon did feature two hidden antagonists at different points of film who add some major twists to the tale.  Both of these villains were rather good and moved the story along in some intriguing and entertaining directions.  I particularly loved the appearance of one antagonistic character towards the end of the movie, and while his appearance was slightly predictable, it proved to be a major highlight of the film, resulting in some outstanding scenes.  As a result, it was rather easy for me to forgive some of the downsides of the Kobra villains as the overall antagonists of this film turned out to be extremely good.

Overall, I think that Batman: Soul of the Dragon was an exceptional animated film that was a heck of a lot of fun to watch.  Thanks to its combination of an epic story, captivating and well-written characters and a tone that is a fun nod to classic and campy kung fu movies, this movie gets a full five stars from me.  This is definitely a movie I will watch multiple times in the future, and it comes highly recommended.  I very much looking forward to seeing the next entries in the DC Universe Animated Original Movies range (there is a Justice Society movie and an adaption of Batman: The Long Halloween coming out later this year), and I will have to have a go at reviewing them when they come out.

Either Side of Midnight by Benjamin Stevenson

Either Side of Midnight Cover

Publisher: Michael Joseph (Trade Paperback – 1 September 2020)

Series: Jack Quick – Book Two

Length: 327 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Following his outstanding 2018 debut, up and coming Australian crime fiction author Benjamin Stevenson returns with an excellent and exciting new novel, Either Side of Midnight.

Sam Midford is a man who seems to have it all.  The host of a popular current affairs program, Midnight Tonight, Sam routinely provides fun and insightful jokes to the Australian public.  But his latest show is about to deliver something very different for the audience, as a nervous Sam pulls out a gun on live television and shoots himself in the head.  The resulting video is seen by millions, and the entirety of the country is shocked by his actions, believing it to be the tragic suicide of a secretly disturbed and haunted individual.

However, there is one person who is convinced that Sam’s death was something very different from suicide: his twin brother, Harry.  Harry believes that Sam was murdered, but with incontrovertible evidence of his suicide seen by a multitude of witnesses, how can this possibly be the case?  Determined to prove that there is more to his brother’s death, Harry seeks the help of someone who is almost as notorious as his dead brother, disgraced former television producer and true crime documentary maker Jack Quick.

Following the infamous and deadly conclusion to his documentary series, Jack is currently serving time in prison for tampering with evidence in a murder investigation.  In the final days of his sentence, Jack is approached by Harry, who believes that he is the only person capable of finding out the real truth behind Sam’s death.  In desperate need of money to support his family, Jack reluctantly accepts the case, believing that all he will uncover is proof that Sam committed suicide.  However, he soon discovers several inconsistencies in Sam’s death as well as evidence that connects his suicide to that of a young girl in the brothers’ past.  Diving deeper, Jack begins to think that there is a sinister killer at work, using subtle and deadly methods to murder their victims.  There is more than one way to kill someone, and Jack is about to discover just how dangerous his new obsession is.

Either Side of Midnight is a fantastic and outstanding read from one of the rising stars of Australian fiction, Benjamin Stevenson.  Stevenson is a Canberra-born comedian and musician who recently made the jump to crime fiction author with his debut novel, Greenlight (which was subsequently released as Trust Me When I Lie and She Lies in the Vines outside of Australia).  Greenlight was a compelling and intriguing novel that followed a guilt-ridden true crime documentary maker who suddenly became convinced that the man his show released from prison was actually guilty.  Set amongst the distinctive scenery of Australia’s wine country, Greenlight was a deeply impressive debut that provided the reader with a dark and clever murder mystery.  Either Side of Midnight is the sequel to Greenlight and is set 18 months after the events of the first book, with the same protagonist engaging in another sinister investigation.

Either Side of Midnight contains an outstanding story that presents the reader with another captivating and intense investigation told through the eyes of the series’ damaged and dark protagonist.  Stevenson has come up with a very clever story for this novel which forces the characters to investigate a murder that appears to be a very public suicide.  I really liked this cool plot premise when I first heard about it and I was glad that Stevenson was able to work it into such a captivating and cohesive narrative.  The investigation starts off quick and fast and does not slow down throughout the entire book, as the author comes up with some excellent twists and dark turns to throw the reader on an emotional rollercoaster, and I was deeply surprised with the final reveals of this mystery.  The entire premise of how the victim is killed is extremely clever and topical, and while I cannot talk about it without spoiling the plot, I felt that Stevenson came up with a great story around it and did a fantastic job tying it into real-world events.  I also really enjoyed Either Side of Midnight’s intense and impressive ending, not only because of the eventual reveal of the true perpetrator of the murder was extremely clever and perfectly set up, but also because of the thrilling and deadly confrontation with the protagonist, which includes the villain setting up extraordinarily evil and extremely memorable means of taking Jack out.

Either Side of Midnight also serves as an excellent sequel to Stevenson’s first novel and I felt that the story elements from Greenlight flowed really well into the plot of this second novel.  This fantastic mystery can also be easily read as a standalone novel, as the author does a great job of revisiting some of the key plot elements from the previous entry.  This ended up being a fantastic read, and I really appreciated the very dark edge that Stevenson gave to the story, which allowed for an extremely compelling and dangerously addictive tale.  I do need to point out that this book is probably best avoided by readers who are triggered by mentions of suicide, as there are some rather graphic scenes and discussions, so be warned about that.  That being said, I had an amazing time reading this new novel from Stevenson and I ended up powering through this intense story in less than a day.

You cannot talk about Either Side of Midnight without discussing the compellingly damaged main protagonist, Jack Quick, who returns for another harrowing adventure.  When we last left Jack, he had been sentenced to two years in prison for manipulating evidence to ensure the success of his true crime documentary.  Jack, who was extremely emotionally and mentally strained in the first book, has started to recover somewhat since the events of Greenlight, having finally started to get help with his bulimia and having confessed his darkest secret to his father.  But life once again gets substantially complicated for Jack when he is reluctantly drawn back into the triggering world of lies, murder and television production due to his family obligations.  I liked Stevenson’s portrayal of Jack in this novel; the events of the first book have made him a little more responsible and compassionate and less of a dick than before.  However, he is still a clever and somewhat manipulative person who manages to BS his way towards the truth and proves to be an entertaining protagonist to follow.  Stevenson continues to examine Jack’s battle with bulimia, a particularly distinctive character trait for a male crime fiction protagonist, in a realistic manner and I really appreciated the way in which the author dives into the psychology of the disorder.  There is also a fantastic continuation of the storyline from the first novel around Jack’s older brother Liam who, after an accident Jack witnessed as a child, has been in a permanent vegetative state.  The fate of Liam and the guilt that Jack feels for his condition is a major part of the protagonist’s character arc in Either Side of Midnight, especially as Jack and his father are forced to discuss ending his care, and it proved to be an excellent and touching part of the novel’s plot.  I really enjoy Stevenson’s outstanding portrayal of this complex character and the examination of his various battles and issues was an essential part of Either Side of Midnight’s outstanding plot.

While the obvious focus of Either Side of Midnight is Jack, Stevenson has also loaded up his second novel with several other damaged and distinctive characters, each of whom add some intriguing angles to this great story.  The most significant of these characters are the Milford twins, Sam and Harry, who serve as the victim and main driving force of the novel respectfully.  The Milford twins, also known as the Midnight Twins, are a former comedy duo who split apart several years earlier, when Sam went on to host his television show and Harry vanished into obscurity.  The author really dives into the background and psyche of these two characters.  Sam was haunted by the guilt over his lost girlfriend, who died while the two twins were trapped on a Ferris wheel.  Harry, the younger twin, is filled with regret and sadness over how their partnership ended, and their relationship soured.  Both characters ended up being complex and damaged individuals, and their struggles have major impacts on Either Side of Midnight’s narrative.  Stevenson did a fantastic job with these characters, and I really appreciated the intriguing storylines that he weaved around them.  It was also interesting to see Benjamin Stevenson portray a set of twin comedy entertainers, as he himself is a member of a comedy duo, known as The Stevenson Experience, with his twin brother James.  You have to assume that Stevenson used a lot of his own experiences to build up these characters and their comedy routine, and I felt this was a fantastic part of the novel, although I’m going to avoid reading too much into the author killing off one of the twins.  I also really enjoyed some of the other damaged characters featured throughout the book, and the protagonist is forced to examine several compelling and tragic backstories to get to the truth of this case.  There is a particular focus on loss and the impacts it has on relatives of the deceased that I particularly appreciated, especially as three major characters (Jack, Harry and side character Ryan) each survived a great tragedy that impacted an older sibling.  I had an incredible time getting to know the broken and bereaved characters in this novel, and it turned out to be a significant part of this fantastic narrative.

One of the other cool features of this book was the author’s excellent use of the rugged Australian setting, which was also one of the most distinctive features of the first entry in the series.  While this book does not spend as much time in the rough countryside as Greenlight did, with most of Either Side of Midnight taking place in urban Sydney, a good part of the plot does take place in a small coastal town.  I really liked the parts of the novel set within this small-town environment as it proved to be an isolated and at times dark setting for this excellent mystery.  The author did a fantastic job of bringing a distinctively Australian rundown town to life in a way that is very realistic to anyone who has done some travel around coastal Australia, which was really cool to see.  I also liked how Stevenson takes the time to examine and parody some elements of wider Australia, particularly its television industry, with the investigation centred on a fictional Australian television network.  This fictional network shares a lot in common with some of the real-life television networks here in Australia.  Anyone who is familiar with some of the main Australian networks will really appreciate Stevenson’s portrayal of these television stations, as he mirrors the stations’ numerical names, provides notable callouts to some extremely popular shows, and portrays some of bitter rivalries the main commercial networks have with each other.  This actually becomes a major part of the plot, and I loved seeing the cynical protagonist navigating the cutthroat rivalries based around a series of soap operas and reality television programs (especially as I am not a big fan of these sort of shows, and they are absolutely saturated in our programming).  Overall, I felt that the author provided a very Australian setting which proved to be an amazing backdrop to this excellent novel.

Either Side of Midnight was an exceptional and amazing second novel from Australian author Benjamin Stevenson that comes highly recommended.  Stevenson has produced an addictive and dark crime fiction story that sees an excellent protagonist investigate an impossible crime.  Featuring great characters, an impressive mystery and a fantastic setting, Either Side of Midnight is an excellent novel that is easily one of my favourite Australian fiction novels of 2020.

Doctor Who: Time Lord Victorious: The Knight, The Fool and The Dead by Steve Cole

Doctor Who - The Knight, The Fool and The Dead Cover

Publisher: BBC Books (Hardcover – 1 December 2020)

Series: Time Lord Victorious – Book One

Length: 178 pages

My Rating: 4.25 out of 5 stars

Prepare to follow the Tenth Doctor into one of his darkest adventures as he faces death itself in the early days of the universe with the first novel in the Time Lord Victorious multimedia series, Doctor Who: The Knight, The Fool and The Dead, by bestselling author Steve Cole.

Shortly after the events of the 2009 television special The Waters of Mars, the Tenth Doctor attempts to outrun his guilt and his prophesised death by fleeing deep into the past to the Dark Times.  Near the birth of the universe, life flourishes and death is barely known.  Only a few rare people die, and most beings live for vast quantities of time.  That is until the Kotturuh arrive and turn the peaceful and bountiful planet that the Doctor is visiting into a dead world within seconds.

The Kotturuh are a vile and terrible race who are spreading throughout the cosmos dispensing death and destruction on an unbelievable scale.  Worshiping a mysterious equation, the Kotturuh view themselves as the arbiters of life and death, travelling to planets and dispensing mortality.  With each new species they encounter, they decree what that species’ lifespan will be, whether centuries or moments, and any who have lived beyond their set time are instantly killed.

Determined to stop the Kotturuh’s reign of terror, the Doctor and a small team of companions begin to work on a defensive strategy that will ensure life forms are immune to the Kotturuh’s power.  After travelling to the Kotturuh’s world and witnessing the equation that they follow, the Doctor begins to formulate a plan that will not only stop the Kotturuh for good but may even put an end to the Doctor’s greatest enemy, death.  Determined to change all of time and space so that life will win for all time, the Doctor will become more than just a Time Lord, he will be The Time Lord Victorious.

Now it will probably surprise no-one who is familiar with my blog that I am quite a fan of Doctor Who (just add it to the massive list of fandoms that I follow).  Despite my love of the televisions shows, I have not gotten into the Doctor Who novels, audio dramas or comics, although that may change in the future.  The Knight, The Fool and The Dead is an intriguing and compelling Doctor Who tie-in novel that takes the reader on a fantastic and exciting ride with the Tenth Doctor.  Written by Steve Cole, who has written a huge number of Doctor Who novels and audio dramas among other intriguing works, this book is a vital entry in the Time Lord Victorious project.  Time Lord Victorious is a connected series of Doctor Who tie-ins told across multiple forms of media, including novels, comics, audio dramas and various other formats, which sees various incarnations of the Doctor encounter similar foes and each-other in a massive adventure.  The Knight, The Fool and The Dead, is a major part of this expanded tie-in series, introducing one of the main antagonistic species and producing some of the major connected moments.

The Knight, The Fool and The Dead had an intriguing and enjoyable narrative which places the Tenth Doctor in an interesting and deadly conflict.  I had an awesome time reading this amazing story and, in many ways, it felt like an episode of Doctor Who, with the Doctor being confronted by danger, recruiting a unique team of individuals, including an immortal, a mad scientist and a time travelling Ood hitman (a hitood??), before finding an inventive solution to the conflict.  This proved to be a fun and enjoyable adventure, although it does get somewhat dark towards the end, mainly due to the Doctor’s vulnerable mental state and the reckless course of action that he undertakes.  While the book mostly follows the Tenth Doctor and his companions, there are also some flashback scenes to some of previous Doctors, each of which show the Doctor telling one of his companions the same story in different ways.  These flashback scenes are very interesting, especially to fans of the franchise, and they have some clever connections to the main story and to the overarching events of the Time Lord Victorious.  Due to how short the novel is (only 178 pages), The Knight, The Fool and The Dead, is extremely fast paced, although Cole does an amazing job setting everything up in a short period and then ensuring that the story that follows is cohesive with a good flow.  I found myself powering through this novel in extremely short order, especially once I got stuck into the excellent story, and I really enjoyed how the entire narrative turned out.  I particularly liked the intriguing and shocking cliff-hanger, which definitely makes me want to check out the next novel in the series.

This latest novel from Cole proved to be quite an enjoyable Doctor Who tie-in novel that really captures the tone and feel of the television show.  Like many pieces of tie-in fiction, The Knight, The Fool and The Dead, is best read by fans of the Doctor Who franchise, especially those who loved the Tenth incarnation of the Doctor.  Due to it being part of the Time Lord Victorious project, The Knight, The Fool and The Dead has some intriguing connections to the wider universe, with several other significant figures and characters making appearances, resulting in a lot of references for eagle-eyed fans.  While some knowledge of the wider Doctor Who canon would be ideal for readers of this novel, I felt that the story contained within The Knight, The Fool and The Dead was accessible to newcomers who should have fun getting through this interesting science fiction adventure.  While this novel is connected to a huge range of other Doctor Who media releases, I felt that readers did not need to have enjoyed any of the other entries in the Time Lord Victorious series before this book to follow the story.  While The Knight, The Fool and The Dead is a major entry in this connected franchise and is necessary reading for people trying to enjoy the Time Lord Victorious as a whole, this book can easily be enjoyed on its own.  I am rather curious about some of the comics and other novels being created as part of this, and I might have to check them out at some point in the future.

One of the things I enjoyed most about this book was the author’s portrayal of the Doctor.  The Knight, The Fool and The Dead features the Tenth Doctor, who was played by David Tennant on television, as the central protagonist of this book, and I felt that Cole did an outstanding job of bringing this iconic character to life.  Cole captures so much of this Doctor’s personality, including the way he speaks and thinks, so much so that while I was reading through this novel my brain automatically read all of the Doctor’s lines to me in Tennant’s voice.  This helped turn The Knight, The Fool and The Dead into such a fun story, especially as Tennant’s Doctor is probably my favourite version of the character.  However, the real highlight of Cole’s portrayal of the Tenth Doctor is how the author brings a much darker and conflicted tone to the character.  This version of the Tenth Doctor is only shortly removed from the climatic events of The Waters of Mars, where the Doctor’s hubris led to the suicide of a woman he was trying to save.  Because of this, and because his own upcoming death has been foretold, the Doctor has fled back in time to try to outrun his problems.  I really enjoyed the way in which the author portrays a much more unpredictable and emotionally ragged Doctor throughout this book, especially one who is still getting flashes about what happened during his last adventure.  This somewhat damaged Doctor ends up making some rather rash and dangerous decisions, especially when an opportunity to end all death comes before him.  The way in which the author works this more damaged version of this fantastic character into the narrative is extremely cool and I really appreciate the way in which he brings the story back to the events of the television series.

Overall, Doctor Who: The Knight, The Fool and The Dead by Steve Cole is an excellent and compelling Doctor Who tie-in novel.  Thanks to its quick narrative and fantastic depiction of the Tenth Doctor, I had an absolute blast getting through this new book, which serves as a key entry in a captivating multi-media series.  This is a great book to check out, especially if you are a major Doctor Who fan, and I will need to get the next novel in this series, All Flesh is Glass, to see how this storyline ends.

Call of the Bone Ships by RJ Barker

Call of the Bone Ships Cover

Publisher: Orbit (Trade Paperback – 24 November 2020)

Series: The Tide Child – Book Two

Length: 491 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

One of the biggest rising stars in fantasy fiction, the always impressive RJ Barker, returns with the second novel in The Tide Child trilogy, Call of the Bone Ships, an epic read that was one of the best fantasy releases of 2020.

Welcome back to the boneship known as Tide Child, a black ship of the damned crewed by those condemned to death for various crimes in the Hundred Isles and tasked with fighting in a war against their nation’s rivals, the Gaunt Islanders.  Following their first grand adventure, which saw Tide Child save the last of the vast sea dragons from whose bones the powerful ships are made, much has changed in the world.  The Shipwife of Tide Child, Lucky Meas Gilbryn, seeks to undermine her mother, the ruler of the Hundred Isles, by working with black ships of both nations to create a new settlement outside of their tyrannical controls.  However, their previous decision to save the last dragon has had unexpected consequences, and soon the ocean is alive with the news that more dragons have returned.  With their return comes the battle to kill the creatures and harvest their bones to create more ships, as the nation with the most ships will rule the waves.  However, the crew of Tide Child find themselves drawn into a different conflict when they chance upon a damaged ship with a hold full of dead or dying prisoners.

Attempting to find out more about the mysterious cargo, Meas and Tide Childs’ Deckkeeper, Joron Twiner, try to follow it to its original destination, only to discover that their new island sanctuary has been destroyed and its people carried off for a nefarious purpose.  As they start to fight back against their former comrades in the Hundred Isles, Tide Child finds itself in the midst of a dark conspiracy which will push the entire world into chaos and conflict.  A new war is coming to the oceans, and no-one is safe from its deadly consequences.

Well damn, how does Barker keep on doing it?  Over the last few years, RJ Barker has been one of the most consistent and outstanding fantasy fiction writers out there, producing several incredible and deeply enjoyable novels.  I was a major fan of his debut, The Wounded Kingdom trilogy, as all three novels, Age of Assassins, Blood of Assassins and King of Assassins were amazing reads, with each one being better than the last.  However, Barker’s writing was on a whole other level in 2019 when he published the first entry in The Tide Child trilogy, The Bone Ships, an epic read that detailed the trials and tribulations of a condemned crew aboard a ship made from dragon bones.  I absolutely loved The Bone Ships and it was one of my favourite books and audiobooks of 2019.  Needless to say, I was extremely eager to receive my copy of Call of the Bone Ships, and it was one of my most anticipated reads for the second half of 2020.  Unfortunately, circumstances forced me to hold off reading this novel until the end of the year, which I deeply regret as this was another awesome novel from Barker that got an easy five-star rating from me.

For Call of the Bone Ships, Barker has come up with another exciting and amazing narrative which follows a unique group of protagonists on a deadly adventure through a dark fantasy world.  Told primarily from the point of view of Tide Child’s Deckkeeper (first mate), Jordon Twiner, this is a massive character-driven story filled with action, intrigue, and betrayal.  While the first novel in this series focused on a wild adventure as a ship followed their new captain on a quest to find a sea dragon, this second novel focuses more on the politics of the Hundred Isles, as the Tide Child and their allies attacking as undercover rebels to undermine the cruel ruling hierarchy and determine what their plans are.  After an intriguing introduction, Call of the Bone Ships swiftly devolves into a war novel, as Meas and her crew begin to fight back against the oppressive Hundred Islanders who oppose them.  At the same time, Joron is forced to deal with a number of personal issues aboard the ship as he finds himself thrust into the midst of danger and betrayal as everything in his life goes to hell around him.  The plot of Call of the Bone Ships goes into some dark but captivating directions, and the Tide Child crew are hit with some major curveballs and tragic events.  All of this leads up to an impressive conclusion which is highlighted by a major and dramatic cliff-hanger that is going to require any reader of this book to desperately wait for the final entry in this series to be released.  While this book was a tad slow to start, especially if you were unfamiliar or somewhat forgetful of the events of The Bone Ships, it eventually resulted in a truly epic and outstanding story that proves impossible to put down once you get wrapped in its intense and captivating narrative.  The plot of Call of the Bone Ships has a fantastic flow on from the previous entry in the series and served as an excellent sequel, making great use of several of the story elements introduced in The Bone Ships and more than living up to the hype Barker established with the first The Tide Child novel.

One of the things that I have been most impressed with for this series is the author’s ability to create a gripping and consistently well-written maritime story.  Narratives that are primarily set aboard boats are notoriously hard to write, but Barker has risen to the challenge, writing a novel rich in naval and maritime detail, with a major fantasy fiction edge to it.  Call of the Bone Ships contains an intense amount of intriguing detail about the coming and goings aboard the ship out at sea and Barker does an amazing job highlighting the various day-to-day actions a crew are expected to undertake, as well as all the unique features that makes a ship in this fantasy universe different from real-world ships.  This impressive attention to detail translates extremely well into several naval battles and combat sequences, and it was cool to see the Tide Child engage in battle with other ships in some outstanding and beautifully written sequences.  In addition, Barker ensures that every major character in this novel had a real nautical feel to them.  Everything about these characters, from the way they spoke to how they act or think aboard the ship made you think of old sea-salts who had spent a lifetime on the waves, which helps to bring an interesting ring of realism to the story.  I also really love the intense and encapsulating atmospheres that Barker creates with his excellent writing ability, and you get a real sense of the moods of the entire ship throughout the novel, whether it be despair at something bad that has befallen the ship, or the sense of repetitive boredom that arrives from the ship doing the same action day after day with no break in routine.  All of this helps to produce a truly exceptional narrative, and I cannot emphasise how impressive the author’s various nautical inclusions are.

While the series is nominally about the dangerous events that the Tide Child finds itself involved with, in many ways its plot is driven by the growth and development of the main protagonist and point-of-view character Joron Twiner.  At the start of this series, Joron was a depressed and embittered young man who was unjustly forced aboard the black ship and made its Shipwife due to his lack of courage and determination.  But after meeting Meas and beginning to serve under her, Joron has become a competent officer who has the respect of most of his crew and who is now dedicated to Meas and her mission.  Call of the Bone Ships turns out to be a major novel for Joron as he participates in several adventures and battles, showing his skill as a commander, warrior and leader throughout the novel.  However, participation in these adventures has severe consequences as Joron gets beaten down and broken apart multiple times from injuries, betrayal and personal tragedy.  Watching Joron suffer is quite a hard part of this novel as the reader becomes extremely attached to him due to his likeable personality and sheer determination.  However, it is worth it to see Joron rise again as a stronger and much more developed person, and this ended up being a fantastic part of his personal story arc.  A lot of this book is also dedicated to Joron’s mysterious ability as the caller, someone who is prophesied by the Gullaime (the enslaved avian wind mystics who provide power to the ships) as a great saviour.  Joron, who first experienced these powers while calling a sea dragon to his aid, continues to develop certain abilities which prove to be rather effective and spectacular throughout the novel and opens up a lot of opportunities for the character.  The end of Call of the Bone Ships leaves Joron in an extremely intriguing position, and I am deeply curious about how his story will end in the final novel.

In addition to his complex protagonist, Barker also includes a literal raft of impressive and captivating characters, most of whom serve as members of Tide Child’s crew.  These great characters each have distinctive personalities and add a great deal to the narrative.  The main side character is easily Lucky Meas, the Shipwife of Tide Child who has turned her ship from a bastion of reprobates to a group of heroes with a noble purpose (mostly).  Meas is a truly inspirational character who has served as a close mentor to Joron and who continues to lead her crew with wisdom, experience, and humility.  Meas was a little less utilised in this novel than in the first book, with Joron taking more of a lead now that he has some command experience.  She was still a fantastic and distinctive character within this latest novel, and I really enjoyed where her personal story arc went, even though we still do not have that much information about her backstory.  Another great character was Tide Child’s ultra-powerful Gullaime, who continues to work along the crew, especially Joron, who has a special connection to the creature.  The Gullaime also has a rather intriguing arc in this novel, and it is clear that he will play a rather substantial role in the ending of the overall series.  The mysterious bird creature also develops a lot more as a character in this novel, especially after encountering different members of his species, although he continues to provide his entertaining tirades of broken speech to the crew.  The rest of the crew prove to be extremely compelling, and I liked the fact that Barker spent time expanding out the roles and personalities of a huge number of side characters, including giving several of them brief point-of-view chapters.  However, in some of these cases it did seem that the author only gave these characters more of a role so that he could then brutally kill them off, much to the heartbreak of the reader.  A number of these characters do get some rather substantial and enjoyable story arcs, and it will be interesting to see where the remaining members of the crew end up in the final book.

I have a lot of love for the dark and elaborate fantasy worlds that Barker creates in his novels, and the one featured in The Tide Child series is particularly amazing.  I deeply enjoyed this harsh and cruel world of small islands, deadly seas and warring nations, especially with the cool gender-bent world (for example, captains are known as Shipwives, while boats are referred to as him).  I really enjoyed returning to this amazing and creative world, especially as it proves to be an incredibly rich setting for the novel’s awesome and addictive narrative.  Barker does some excellent world-building in this second entry in the series, and you get some cool features, such as different groups of Gullaimes who lack wind powers but serve as jailers for their powered brethren, some new powers for the characters and some intriguing new locations.  All of this helped to create a more elaborate and impressive narrative and it is always cool to see more of this grim and deadly fantasy universe, especially as Barker’s awesome writing bring so many of the more impressive elements, such as the giant dragons, to life in such epic fashion.

The final thing I wanted to praise about Call of the Bone Ships were all the little details featured within the paperback version of the novel, that I would have previously missed in the first The Tide Child novel due to me checking out The Bone Ships in audiobook format.  I definitely have to highlight the impressive and intricate cover above, which was drawn by talented artist Edward Bettison.  The covers for this series are extremely cool, and I cannot wait to see what amazing design the artist comes up for the final entry in the series.  I also really liked the awesome artwork that was featured within the novel.  Not only is there a fantastic and detailed map at the very front of the book but there is also some sweet artwork at the start of each chapter, which depicts locations, creatures and characters from within the book.  Barker has also featured a short index at the end of the novel which contains some of the crew titles that were created for the series, detailing what each crew member is supposed to do.  All of these details are great and eye-catching inclusions to the novel, and I felt that it made Call of the Bone Ships just a little bit more special.

Call of the Bone Ships by RJ Barker was another epic and outstanding novel that shows why Barker is one of the most impressive new fantasy talents in recent years.  This incredible sequel to 2019’s The Bone Ships contains an exceptional and addictive story at sea, featuring rich and complex characters and all set within a creative and vibrantly dark fantasy world.  The combination of these awesome elements helps to create a captivating and powerful read which turned out to be one of the best books of the year.  I cannot recommend this novel enough.  If you have not found out about RJ Barker yet, you are really missing out!

Cyber Shogun Revolution by Peter Tieryas

Cyber Shogun Revolution

Publisher: Penguin Random House Audio (Audiobook – 3 March 2020)

Series: United States of Japan – Book Three

Length: 10 hours and 55 minutes

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

If you like the sound of a gritty spy thriller set in an alternate version of America filled with destructive mechas, then you really need to check out Cyber Shogun Revolution, the third novel in Peter Tieryas’s outstanding United States of Japan series.

The United States of Japan novels are a fun and inventive series that is routinely described as a combination between The Man in the High Castle and Pacific Rim.  This series is set in an alternate history in which the United States lost World War II after Japan invented mechas to defeat the Allies.  Following the end of the war, the United States was split between the Japanese Empire and the Nazis, who subsequently engaged in an extended and brutal Cold War against each other.  This latest novel is set in 2020 and features an intense and thrilling new tale that is separate from the stories told in the previous two entries in the series.

Following the end of the latest war against the Nazis, the United States of Japan is facing a crisis as their corrupt governor appears to be a Nazi sympathiser, secretly doing their enemy’s bidding.  Seeking justice after a brutal Nazi attack in Kansas, mecha pilot Reiko Morikawa joins a secret organisation of high-ranking soldiers, mecha pilots and politicians, known as The Sons of War, who plot to assassinate the governor and replace him with one of their own.  While their initial plan to kill the governor goes awry, their target is still killed thanks to the intervention of the mysterious assassin and feared Nazi slayer, Bloody Mary.

However, Bloody Mary has a whole different agenda and swiftly turns against The Sons of War, assassinating key members of the organisation in a brutal strike that leaves Reiko as the only survivor.  Determined to find out why Bloody Mary betrayed them, Reiko teams up with Bishop Wakan, an agent of Japan’s secret police, the Tokko, to hunt her down and stop her plot.  Tracing a shipment of black market mecha parts to Nazi America, Reiko and Bishop travel into enemy territory to find answers and soon find themselves in the midst of a massive conspiracy.  Bloody Mary has plans to change the entire United States of Japan forever, and she does not care who dies to achieve her goal.  Can Reiko and Bishop stop her before it is too late, or will the entire world feel Bloody Mary’s wrath?

Cyber Shogun Revolution is an exciting and compelling new novel from Tieryas, which serves as the third entry in the United States of Japan series.  I have a lot of love for this series after powering through the second novel, Mecha Samurai Empire, when it came out a couple of years ago.  I have been meaning to check out this latest entry for some time now, and I was glad I was able to get around to it before the end of 2020.  This latest book was really cool, and I loved the bold new story that Tieryas was able to come up with, especially as he once again makes excellent use of his unique and captivating alternate world.

This latest entry in the United States of Japan series proved to be a fun and fast-paced novel, which sees two intense protagonists forced to investigate a lethal conspiracy in an inventive and clever setting.  Told from the alternating perspectives of its two main characters, Reiko and Bishop, this story gets off the ground quick and does not slow down one bit throughout the entire book as the protagonists quickly find themselves in the midst of all manner of intrigue and suspense.  This was a deeply exciting novel, and I liked how the author changes focus from the previous novel, writing Cyber Shogun Revolution as more of a spy thriller with alternate history and science fiction elements.  I really liked the impressive pace of this novel and I was quickly drawn in by the compelling and complex thriller that Tieryas weaves for the reader, especially as it makes great use of its setting and unique world elements to tell the entire story.  The author throws in a few good twists and turns throughout the narrative, and I quite enjoyed seeing the story unfold in all its action-packed glory.  Readers do not need to have any pre-knowledge of the United States of Japan series to enjoy this book as the narrative is mostly unrelated to the events of the previous novels, although fans of the series will no doubt enjoy seeing the various changes to the universe.  Overall, Cyber Shogun Revolution had a fantastic and exhilarating story that is guaranteed to keep the reader wildly entertained throughout the entire run of the book.

A major highlight of Cyber Shogun Revolution, and indeed the entire United States of Japan series, is the inventive and unique alternate version of the world that the author has created.  The Japanese-controlled America featured within this series is an intriguing blend of Western and Japanese culture, mixed with advanced technology and an entirely new history.  I really enjoyed seeing all the clever combinations of culture that the author featured throughout his story, and there are quite a few amusing references and ideas featured throughout.  There is a particular focus on cuisine, and Tieryas once again enthrals the reader with descriptions of intense and interesting-sounding fusion foods, many of which I would love to try out.  These descriptions of the United States of Japan are really cool, and it proves to be a rich setting for the narrative to run through, especially as it is not the shiny utopia that it appears on the surface.  The country is instead a dangerous and oppressive regime ruled over by fanatical thought police, where even a momentary slipup is enough to condemn you to a horrible fate.  Tieryas spends time really highlighting this darker side of his universe in Cyber Shogun Revolution and it ends up become a major part of the plot.  The author also takes the reader on a brief tour of Nazi-occupied America, which proves to be a particularly horrible experience (strangely enough, the Nazis are just as bad, if not worse, in this reality), mainly due to the Nazis’ reliance on bioengineering rather than machines, which results in a number of disturbing and disgusting creatures, such as their bimorphs (giant organic mechas).  The comparisons between the Japanese and Nazi controlled parts of America are really fascinating, and I am really glad the author based a bit of the story there.  Needless to say, I absolutely loved the setting for Cyber Shogun Revolution, especially as it helped create a clever and complex narrative, and I cannot wait to revisit it in some of Tieryas’s future novels.

Now there is no way that I can talk about Cyber Shogun Revolution without mentioning the mechas, the giant and powerful human-controlled battle machines which won the war for the Japanese.  Mechas are a distinctive and exciting pop culture creation, especially in anime, and Tieryas uses them to great effect throughout the entire book.  While this latest entry in the series has a definite focus on conspiracies and espionage, Tieryas still slips in several mecha fights and combat scenes.  Indeed, the entire last third of the novel sees the protagonists go up against a series of different and powerful mechas in some intense and epic sequences.  The author has clearly had some creative fun in this book as Cyber Shogun Revolution features a raft of new mechas, each with some unique or advanced piece of technology that gives them an edge over their opponents, including mechas with magnet guns, a mammoth-shaped mecha with a chainsaw trunk, and a mecha that has super speed.  This naturally leads to some fantastic and distinctive sequences, as the protagonists need to find a way to defeat the varied opponents around them.  I particularly enjoyed one sequence that saw one of the characters fighting against a rival mecha, while the other protagonist assists from the outside while riding a jetpack.  Needless to say, if you love mecha combat and fantastic battle scenes (who doesn’t?) then you are going to have a lot of fun with Cyber Shogun Revolution.

In order to tell this fantastic novel, Tieryas utilises two excellent, if damaged, point-of-view protagonists in the duo of mecha pilot Reiko Morikawa and secret agent Bishop Wakan.  After both have separate run-ins with Bloody Mary in which they are the only survivor, the two team up in order to get to the bottom of why she betrayed their nation and what her end goal really is.  Both characters are extremely interesting, mainly because they both have complex and tragic pasts which drive them towards their goals.  Tieryas does an amazing job diving down into these characters’ inner psyches, creating some truly complex characters with major flaws who the reader are inexorably drawn to.  In addition, both characters also have some intense history with Bloody Mary and some of her co-conspirators, resulting in some emotionally charged moments throughout the novel.  These two characters are also a little anti-authoritarian, having seen the dark side of their nation firsthand, which alters the way that they deal with events, and also ensures that they are a little more susceptible to their enemy’s manipulation.  I really enjoyed these amazing characters and I thought that they made for a great duo of central protagonists.

While I had initially planned to grab a paperback version of this book, I ended up splashing out and getting Cyber Shogun Revolution’s audiobook format.  This audiobook has a relatively quick runtime of just under 11 hours and was narrated by the talented Emily Woo Zeller.  Zeller, who I recently enjoyed in the Star Wars: Doctor Aphra audio drama, did an exceptional job narrating Cyber Shogun Revolution and I had an outstanding time listening to it.  Zeller came up with some fantastic and distinctive voices for the various characters featured within this novel, and the entire audiobook quickly flew by thanks to her fast-paced narration.  I also loved having the cool mecha fights being narrated to me, as hearing the action being described made it pop a lot more for me than simply reading it on a page.  Because of this, Cyber Shogun Revolution comes highly recommended in its audiobook format, and I really enjoyed hearing all the awesome action and excitement contained within this amazing novel.

Cyber Shogun Revolution is an epic and captivating novel from the amazing Peter Tieryas that serves as the third entry in his fantastic United States of Japan series.  Containing an intense story laden with action, intrigue, and treachery, all set with a clever alternate version of America, Cyber Shogun Revolution is a ball of excitement that readers will have an incredible time reading.  An excellent and fun read to check out, I look forward to exploring more of Tieryas’s outrageous universe in the future.

Star Wars: Darth Vader: Volume One: Dark Heart of the Sith

Darth Vader - Dark Heart of the Sith

Publisher: Marvel Comics (Paperback – 24 November 2020)

Series: Darth Vader (2020) – Volume One

Writer: Greg Pak

Artist: Raffaele Ienco

Colour Artist: Neeraj Menon

Letterer: VC’s Joe Caramagna

Length: 136 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

One of the first entries in a new set of Star Wars comics is here and it is pretty damn awesome, as Greg Pak, Raffaele Ienco and Neeraj Menon present the first volume of the 2020 Darth Vader series, Dark Heart of the Sith.

DarthVader2020-1-Ienco

Dark Heart of the Sith contains issues #1-5 of the Darth Vader (2020) comic book series which takes place right after The Empire Strikes Back.  The Darth Vader (2020) series is part of a new range of Star Wars comics which include the Star Wars (2020), Doctor Aphra (2020) and Bounty Hunters series, all of which are set in the year between the events of The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi.  These comics follow on from earlier series which were set between the events of A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back.  This latest round of comics attempts to provide details about what occurred between the events of the second and third films, as well as create some new and exciting adventures.  All of the comics in this range sound fantastic, and I have been eagerly anticipating all of them, especially Darth Vader (2020) due to all the potential for action and drama that it has.

To tell this unique tale, Marvel have utilised the fantastic team of author Greg Pak, artist Raffaele Ienco and colour artist Neeraj Menon.  Greg Pak is a film director and author who has written several amazing comics in his career, with a particular focus on the Hulk and Hercules series for Marvel.  I am somewhat familiar with Pak’s work, enjoying his current run of Firefly comics for Boom!.  I am a little less familiar with Ienco and Menon (although Menon did work as a colourist on the Target Vader limited series), but both are experienced artists who have worked on some intriguing-sounding projects in the past.  This is an intriguing team, and they came together to produce an excellent and powerful Darth Vader story.

DarthVader2020-1-Daniel

During the climatic events of The Empire Strikes Back, Darth Vader revealed that he was Anakin Skywalker to his son, Luke, and offered him a chance to rule the galaxy by his side.  However, Luke refused to join him out of fear and disgust, choosing instead to plunge to an unknown fate beneath Cloud City.  Now, rejected and betrayed, Vader finds himself full of rage and determined to seek revenge on anyone who kept his son from him and made him weak.

Tracing Luke’s life before the Rebellion, Vader attempts to find anyone he can take his frustrations out on.  But with everyone in Luke’s past dead and beyond his wrath, Vader decides to investigate what happened to his wife, Padmé Amidala, after their final confrontation on Mustafar.  Investigating a listening device left in Padmé’s apartments on Coruscant, Vader travels to a hidden Rebel base where he makes the startling discovery of a woman with a shocking resemblance to an older Padmé.

DarthVader2020-1-delMundo

Despite the initial shock, Vader is soon able to determine that this is not his dead wife returned from the grave but the Queen’s Shadow, Sabé.  Sabé was once Padmé’s most loyal friend, handmaiden, bodyguard and double, and her death has haunted Sabé for years.  Determined to use Sabé to find the answers he is looking for; Vader decides to work with the former handmaiden to find out the truth of Padmé’s last moments.  The information that they need apparently resides on Naboo, and Vader is forced to relive the ghosts of his past life as Anakin Skywalker to find the truth.  However, more treachery awaits Vader on Naboo as a secret organisation waits to kill him.  The Handmaidens of Amidala know who truly killed their mistress, and they are finally ready to take their revenge.

What is it about Darth Vader that makes it impossible for someone to create a bad comic about him?  I mean, seriously, all the previous Darth Vader comics in the current canon have been absolute masterpieces, from the epic 2015 Darth Vader series (check out my reviews for Volume One: Vader, Volume Two: Shadows and Secrets and the crossover comic Vader Down), the impressive prequel series Darth Vader: Dark Lord of the Sith (check out my reviews for Volume Two: Legacy’s End and Volume Three: The Burning Seas), the first volume of the 2015 Star Wars series, Skywalker Strikes, or the fun limited series, Dark Visions.  Each of these comics has been impressive in its own way, and in each of them Darth Vader shines as the ultimate badass.  This first volume of the new Darth Vader series is no exception as it follows Vader through a harrowing journey of discovery that takes him back into his tumultuous past and explores the consequences of his actions at the formation of the Empire.

DarthVader2020-1-2nd

Dark Heart of the Sith contains an epic and emotional narrative which follows one of fiction’s greatest villains after he encounters one of the biggest setbacks in his life.  Set mere moments after Vader’s final appearance in The Empire Strikes Back, the Dark Lord of the Sith embarks on a deeply personal mission that is half rampage and half voyage of discovery.  After some initial setbacks, Vader eventually finds Sabé, the Queen’s double, whose appearance in the final panel of Issue #1 was a major selling point for the series.  Sabé’s introduction to the plot leads Vader to revisit some of the most important locations from his life as Anakin Skywalker, before an inevitable run-in with Padmé’s former followers, who hold Vader responsible for her death and the death of Anakin Skywalker.  This entire arc is extremely well written, and I absolutely loved the ambitious and clever story that Pak came up with.  The author does an awesome job of combining an exciting narrative made up of several epic and impressive moments and with a deep dive into Vader’s mind, and this results in a captivating and powerful read that serves as a particularly distinctive chapter in the history of Darth Vader.  I really enjoyed where Pak took Dark Heart of the Sith’s amazing story, and while certain elements lose their impact in the internet age of freely available spoilers, there are some big and impressive moments in here that all Star Wars fans need to see.

One of the things I most enjoyed about this comic was the way that the creative team brought in elements from the Star Wars prequel films and inserted them into a story set right after The Empire Strikes BackDark Heart of the Sith takes the reader back to several key locations from the prequel films and reintroduces several minor characters who appeared in them, including Sabé, one of the pilots from The Phantom Menace and Captain Gregar Typho, Padmé’s security guard in Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith.  This use of these elements from the prior movies works extremely well in the context of this comic’s story, as Vader is forced to revisit his past at a point when he is the most vulnerable in the present.  This makes Dark Heart of the Sith quite an interesting comic for Star Wars fans, who will greatly enjoy the inclusion of elements from two distinctive eras of the franchise.  I felt that Dark Heart of the Sith was a very accessible comic for readers with limited familiarity with Star Wars fiction, and readers only need to check out some of the films to get a good understanding of what is happening. 

DarthVader2020-2

However, as an established fan of the franchise, I was quite overjoyed to see that this comic had an interesting connection to some interesting pieces of Star Wars extended fiction, namely two recent novels by E. K. Johnston, Star Wars: Queen’s Shadow and Star Wars: Queen’s Peril.  These two novels, which serve as sequel and prequel to The Phantom Menace respectively, are set around the lives of Padmé and her handmaidens and provide added details about how they came into her service and the loyalty that they felt to her.  The narrative contained within this comic serves as a sequel to an arc set up in Queen’s Shadow, where Sabé swears to find justice for the death of Padmé, with several of the unique characters who were either introduced or sufficiently fleshed out in these novels also appearing.  This results in several awesome scenes, including one particularly epic sequence in which Vader is confronted by Padmé’s surviving handmaidens, who engage in an all-out brawl against him.  I found all of this to be immensely cool, and I really enjoyed seeing some of the elements from these books concluded in this comic, especially as Dark Heart of the Sith serves as a definitive conclusion to these character arcs.

Unsurprisingly, the standout character of this comic is Darth Vader himself, who goes through a lot during Dark Heart of the Sith.  Pak really turns this first volume into a deep exploration of Vader’s complex psyche, and there is an interesting examination of how Vader is feeling in the immediate aftermath of Luke rejecting him.  Without his usual determination and dedication to the Dark Side, Vader is lost in this comic, acting out of impulse and searching for someone or something to take his rage out against.  The introduction of Sabé and the return to several key locations from his past only adds to his confusion and emotional instability, and it is blatantly obvious that this is not the same Vader we have come to fear and admire.  Instead, this Vader hesitates to do some of his usual acts of destruction.  Certain memories from his past suddenly spring to the forefront of his mind, turning him away from his desired actions, such as sparing Sabé after revisiting his memory of killing Padmé.  Vader is also continually thrown by the return of several figures from his past, each of whom had a connection to both Padmé and Anakin Skywalker, and it proved to be quite fascinating to see Vader interact with them differently, especially as none of them are aware that Vader is Anakin. 

DarthVader2020-3

This comic also contains some key moments of history for Vader; not only does he finally visit Padmé’s tomb but he also admits to her murder, all of which have major emotional implications for him.  I quite enjoyed this dive into Vader’s psyche and I really appreciated the way that the creative team tried to show just how complex and conflicted the character can be.  Based on how Volume One ends, this is probably going to be a recurring theme of the Darth Vader (2020) series and it will be interesting to see the many different changes in the character’s psyche.  I should mention that even though this is a focus on Vader’s mind and his innumerable regrets, the creative team do go out of their way to show just how much of a badass he is and there are several impressive sequences where he doles out death and destruction on an epic level, including killing some of the biggest and most dangerous creatures on Naboo.  All of this results in a deeply impressive Darth Vader comic, and I love the creators’ take on this amazing villain.

Aside from Vader and the returning characters from the prequels, Dark Heart of the Sith also features a fun new posse for Vader in the form of three Death Troopers (the elite Stormtroopers introduced in Rogue One) and the forensics droid Zed Six Seven, who accompany Vader throughout this mission.  While the Death Troopers do have a key role in this comic as Vader’s bodyguards and backup, they are mostly just background characters, without any major defining characteristics or moments.  Zed Six Seven, on the other hand, does a lot of talking, commenting on every event and revelation that occurs within the course of the narrative.  This extra commentary is essential, as Zed Six Seven provides nearly all the necessary exposition within the narrative, as Vader has less dialogue than a typical comic protagonist.  Despite primarily being an exposition machine, Zed Six Seven does prove to be an entertaining character, and I quite enjoyed his reactions to certain revelations or the events, even if his inability to keep his robotic mouth shut does cost him in the end.  Overall, I really liked all the character inclusions and development featured within Dark Heart of the Sith, and it helped to make an epic and powerful story.

DarthVader4MainCover

I really must highlight the exceptional art featured within this volume as the two artists, Ienco and Menon, do an amazing job bringing this captivating narrative to life.  I absolutely loved all the art contained within this comic and I felt that each of the scenes was drawn very well, with the various featured characters representing their film counterparts in impressive detail.  I particularly enjoyed the excellent way that the artists recreated a ton of key events from the prequel movies and featured them throughout the comic.  The recreated shots from the films were done with a distinctive red filter and were utilised as Vader’s flashbacks to key events from his life.  These flashback scenes help to highlight just how muddled and conflicted Vader’s thoughts are, and they are utilised to great effect throughout this first volume, often shown side-to-side with current events for some amazing contrasts.  I felt that this excellent artwork really helped to enhance Pak’s clever story, especially as the artwork provides the reader with some fantastic visuals of Vader’s emotional range.  It is a real testament to their drawings that you constantly have an idea of how Vader is feeling even with the mask on, and a lot of this is down to the way that the artists portray his body language and reactions.  I also loved several sequences that recreate Luke’s fall to the bottom of Cloud City at the end of their duel in The Empire Strikes Back.  These sequences are featured multiple times throughout the comic, with Luke replaced with several other characters, including various iterations of Vader himself, reflecting just how fractured or lost Vader feels.  This comic is also filled with some action-packed and explosive moments that see Vader attempt to kill everyone and everything in his path.  These action sequences are an exciting treat at several key points throughout the narrative and it is always fun to see Vader kick ass and take names.  Highlights included several sequences where Vader faces off against the megafauna of Naboo, including one massive leviathan (whose introduction is one of my favourite panels in the entire comic).  There is also a particularly brutal fight sequence towards the end of the comic where Vader releases years of anger and frustration in one destructive flurry.  All this awesome art adds so much to the comic and I cannot compliment it enough.

DarthVader5MainCover

Dark Heart of the Sith, the first volume of the Darth Vader (2020) series, is an absolute triumph that may be one of the best pieces of Star Wars fiction this year.  Featuring an outstanding combination of exciting narrative, compelling character development and eye-popping artwork, Dark Heart of the Sith was an absolute treat to read from start to finish.  I loved the way in which the creative team dived into the mind of my favourite Star Wars character, and it proved to be a gripping and powerful read.  This was one of the best things I read all year and it gets an easy five-star rating from me.

Star Wars: Doctor Aphra written by Sarah Kuhn and performed by a full cast

Doctor Aphra Audio Cover

Publisher: Random House Audio (Audio Drama – 21 July 2020)

Series: Star Wars

Script: Sarah Kuhn

Cast: Emily Woo Zeller, Jonathan Davis, Sean Patrick Hopkins, Sean Kenin, Nicole Lewis, Carol Monda, Euan Morton, Catherine Taber and Marc Thompson

Length: 5 hours and 35 minutes

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

The most brilliant and conniving archaeologist in the entire Star Wars canon gets her own audio drama as author Sarah Kuhn and an exceedingly talented cast of audiobook narrators present Star Wars: Doctor Aphra, the audio drama.

Throughout the galaxy Doctor Chelli Lona Aphra is renowned as a criminal and bringer of chaos without peer, but in her own eyes she is simply an archaeologist and technology enthusiast, albeit one willing to sell her findings to the highest bidder.  However, her latest venture is about to get her into the worst type of trouble, the sort that will haunt her for the rest of her incredibly short life.  Attempting to steal a dangerous weapon from a restricted alien vault, Aphra finds herself surrounded and slated to die, that is until Darth Vader, Dark Lord of the Sith and overall badass suddenly appears and saves her. 

Vader is engaging in a high-risk power play against the Emperor and Aphra has just become his most useful pawn, whether she likes it or not.  Working as his agent, Aphra must utilise her skills as a con-woman, genius technician and criminal mastermind to help Vader achieve his goals: depose the Emperor and find his new obsession, the pilot who blew up the Death Star, Luke Skywalker.  Determined to stay on Vader’s good side, Aphra, with the help of her two friendly murder droids, Triple-Zero and BT-1, helps her new master engage in all manner of shenanigans across the universe, including kidnappings, torture and elaborate heists.  However, Aphra knows that all it will take is just one mistake or slip-up to earn her new employers’ deadly wrath.  To avoid her inevitable appointment with Vader’s crimson lightsaber, Aphra will need to pull out every trick in her impressive arsenal if she is to survive.  But can even the great Doctor Aphra outsmart Darth Vader and the entire Empire, or has the smartest woman in the galaxy finally met her match?

Well this is an exceedingly fun and entertaining entry in the Star Wars expanded universe which provides a new angle to the tale of Doctor Aphra.  Doctor Aphra is an incredible and complex character who has only been recently added into the canon.  Introduced in the opening issues the 2015 Darth Vader comic book series, Doctor Aphra served as a major supporting character for much of the series run, entertaining readers with her antics and ability to survive working for Darth Vader.  Aphra proved to be an extremely popular character, and this resulted in the character getting her own comic book series (which ironically lasted more issues than the Darth Vader series she was introduced in).  The Doctor Aphra series ended up being an amazing hit thanks to some exceptional writing and it is one of my favourite pieces of Star Wars tie-in fiction (make sure to check out my reviews for the last two volumes in the series, Unspeakable Rebel Superweapon and A Rogue’s End), and there is even a second Doctor Aphra series on its way.  It seems that Aphra’s popularity has continued to grow as earlier this year this Doctor Aphra audio drama was released, written by talented author Sarah Kuhn.  This proved to be an exceptionally impressive audio release that does an amazing job bringing this fantastic character into an entirely new format.  This audio drama has a run time of around five and a half hours, which listeners are able to breeze through in no time at all.

The Doctor Aphra audio drama contains an intriguing and captivating story that follows the character as she engages in all manner of adventures in service to Darth Vader and her own survival.  Told entirely from the perspective of Aphra as she makes a series of recordings to an unknown person, and set shortly after the events of Star Wars: A New Hope, this story follows Aphra through the entirety of her ill-fated association with Darth Vader.  This employment places her in all manner of danger, as she completes a series of tasks important to Vader, including an elaborate heist; gets in the middle of a deadly conflict between Vader, one of his rivals in the Empire, and the protagonists of The Original Trilogy; and finds herself a prisoner of the Rebel Alliance before eventually attempting to manipulate the Emperor for her own ends.  At the same time, Aphra is constantly balancing on a knife’s edge, as her beloved boss has made it abundantly clear that he will kill her the moment she displeases him.  This forces Aphra into a number of tense and dangerous situations as she needs to convince Vader to keep her alive throughout the entire book.  This struggle to stay alive adds a substantial amount of suspense to the audio drama, as the listener really wants this entertaining character to survive, and it eventually leads to an outstanding and epic conclusion.  All of this proves to be an exceedingly captivating adventure, and listeners are in for an exciting and hilarious time, especially with Aphra’s entertaining and over-exaggerated narration of the events occurring. 

While I did really enjoy the story contained within this audio drama, I do need to point out that it is not actually an original tale; instead it is an adaption of several canon comic book series, namely the comics that featured Aphra’s early adventures.  The first part of the audio drama adapts most of the first two volumes of the 2015 Darth Vader comic series, Volume One: Vader and Volume Two: Shadows and Secrets.  From there the story follows the course of the crossover limited series, Vader Down, before moving on to the events of the fourth volume of the 2015 Star Wars comic, Rebel Jail.  Finally, the story returns to the Darth Vader comic, utilising parts of the fourth and final volume, End of GamesDoctor Aphra proves to be an exceptional adaptation of these comics although they only show off the events that Aphra herself witnessed or was a part of.  I had an amazing time listening to this adaptation and I really enjoyed seeing several of the amazing events that originally occurred on the page being brought to life by this enjoyable performance. 

People interested in listening to this audio drama do not need to have read the adapted comics first, as Kuhn provides Aphra with a great deal of narration that explains her role in the story and all the events leading up to the comics.  As someone who has read the comics before listening to this audio drama, I found that there was a lot in this production for fans of the comic.  I personally really enjoyed seeing these events from Aphra’s perspective (as the original comics mostly followed main characters such as Vader, Luke, Leia, and Han), and it was extremely interesting to see her thoughts on the various events occurring.  The author also comes up with a lot of additional backstory that helps to enrich Aphra’s involvement in the narrative, which fans of the character will really appreciate.  While I had a great time listening to this audio drama, I did notice that several events were glossed over, mainly because Aphra did not witness them occur in the comics.  For example, you have no idea who is behind several of the battles or attacks that Aphra finds herself in the middle of, with Aphra herself giving limited explanations for them.  While I knew full well what was going on, people who haven’t read the comics are going to be full of questions and this may make the audio drama a little confusing at times.  That being said, this was still an outstanding and deeply enjoyable production, and perhaps it will encourage listeners to check out some of the adapted comics (trust me, they are awesome).

One of the best things about this audio drama was the way in which the narrative explored the complex and exceedingly likeable character of Doctor Chelli Aphra.  Aphra is a clever, impulsive and chaotic rogue archaeologist who is obsessed with ancient technology, particularly unusual droids and dangerous weapons.  Aphra is a wildly entertaining character who is essentially an amoral version of Indiana Jones that has no problems cheating or betraying people who she encounters, as long as she gets to hold onto the valuable antiques or can sell them for vast amounts of money (none of her loot belongs in a museum!).  Aphra appears to have a relentlessly positive personality, providing the listener with a string of continual jokes and funny observations with an infectious amount of enthusiasm.  However, deep down Aphra is actually a deeply damaged individual who has suffered a number of losses and betrayals that impact her current outlook on life and other people. 

Despite the fact that Aphra is the very definition of an unreliable narrator (she literally deletes or edits the parts of the story she does not like to suit her agenda), I felt that this audio drama does an amazing job exploring this wily protagonist.  Having Aphra’s inner monologue about the events occurring during this story proved to be not only entertaining but also very enlightening, and it showed some fascinating glimpses of her inner personality and emotional state.  While much of Aphra’s story was previously explored in the comics that Doctor Aphra is based on, this adaptation does go a little further, pulling in some backstory that was introduced in the later Doctor Aphra comics and expertly working it into this narrative.  Kuhn also comes up with some additional history that is unique to this production, including a number of scenes that explore her previous romantic relationship with Sana Starros.  While this relationship has been mentioned and discussed in several of the comics, this is probably the most in-depth examination of it in the canon and it becomes an important part of the overall plot.  I really enjoyed the way in which Doctor Aphra examined its titular protagonist and I felt that the story really captured her essence and outrageous personality.

This audio drama sports an amazing voice cast and each of them does a fantastic job in this production.  However, I really must highlight the performance of Emily Woo Zeller, who portrayed the titular character.  Zeller is an experienced and talented narrator who has contributed to a huge raft of audiobooks, including several I am quite interested in checking out, such as Cyber Shogun Revolution by Peter Tieryas.  Due to how the audio drama is written, Zeller’s voice is the one we hear the most throughout Doctor Aphra, as she recounts all of the characters dialogue and the overall narration of this book.  I really loved the way that Zeller portrayed the character of Aphra in this audio drama and I thought she got all the aspects of the character down perfectly.  Zeller gives a particularly energetic performance throughout this adaption, and listeners get a real sense of the mischievous and over confident outer shell that Doctor Aphra portrays to everyone she meets.  However, Zeller also captures the vulnerable nature of this complex protagonist, showing off the character’s full range of emotions when she is scared, angry or contemplating her many regrets.  This rich and amazing performance from Zeller really helps to make this audio drama something special, and I am really glad that she was able to bring Doctor Aphra to life in such an exceptional way.

Doctor Aphra also makes use of several other impressive voice actors throughout this audio drama, each of whom are portraying major Star Wars characters who Aphra interacts with through the course of this adventure.  This audio drama features a who’s who of Star Wars audiobook narrators, many of whose works I have previously enjoyed in a range of productions including the previous Star Wars audio drama, Dooku: Jedi Lost.  These additional narrators include Jonathan Davis (who I previously enjoyed in Star Wars: Master and Apprentice and Lords of the Sith), Sean Kenin (Death Troopers), Euan Morton (Tarkin), Catherine Taber (Queen’s Peril and Queen’s Shadow), Marc Thompson (Thrawn, Thrawn: Chaos Rising, Dark Disciple and Scoundrels), Sean Patrick Hopkins, Nicole Lewis and Carol Monda.  Each of these voice actors did an exceptional job of bringing their various characters to life throughout Doctor Aphra.  I particularly enjoyed Marc Thompson’s Darth Vader and Euan Morton’s Emperor, as both voice actors brought some realistic menace to these iconic villains.  Catherine Taber, who is best known for her portrayal of Padme Amidala in The Clone Wars animated series, does an excellent Princess Leia in this production, and I really appreciated the choice to cast her.  Sean Patrick Hopkins does a really cool Luke Skywalker, and I was really struck by how close he got to a younger Mark Hamil’s voice.  I also really enjoyed Sean Kenin’s Triple-Zero, and I felt he really captured the essence of this crazy character.  Each of these side characters added a lot to the production as a whole and, while they were not as heavily featured as Aphra, each of them had their own entertaining moments and interactions.  I particularly loved the threatening aura that Darth Vader exhibited towards Aphra, and there is also a very entertaining interaction between Aphra and Han Solo that results in some of the best jokes in the entire production.  You also have to love the fact that Aphra ends up with a posse that essentially reflects the main characters from The Original Trilogy, with a protocol droid (Triple-Zero), an Astromech (BT-1) and a Wookie (Black Krrsantan).  Of course, Aphra’s friends are all dangerous killers, which makes for some extremely entertaining and deadly encounters.

In addition to featuring an impressive voice cast, Doctor Aphra also features the full range of iconic Star Wars sound effects and musical scores that were made famous in the movies.  Pretty much every action that occurs within the book is accompanied by a sound effect, whether it be blaster fire, the sound of engines or even a susurration from other people in a crowded room.  I always love how these sound effects helped to create an atmosphere throughout the course of a Star Wars novel, and I felt that they were particularly useful for this audio drama format due to the lack of narration that a standard audiobook would have.  I also have to talk up the excellent use of the incredible Star Wars musical score that features during several key scenes of the novel.  Hearing this music during some of the most pivotal, dramatic or action-packed sequences makes the narrative seem that much more epic, and I absolutely loved hearing this music throughout this production.  The use of the sound effects and music enhances the story in immeasurable ways, and it helps to turn this audio drama into an exceptional treat for the ears. 

Star Wars: Doctor Aphra is an impressive and deeply enjoyable audio production that brings fan-favourite character Chelli Aphra into a whole new light.  Cleverly adapting several amazing Star Wars comics, the Doctor Aphra audio drama features an interesting story from author Sarah Kuhn that shows the events from the perspective of the chaotic and duplicitous titular protagonist.  Featuring an exceptional voice cast, Doctor Aphra proves to be an extremely entertaining and exceedingly addictive listen that I had a very hard time turning off.  I personally think this was one of the best audio productions of 2020 and it comes highly recommended both to general Star Wars fans and to those who have read the adapted comics.  I had an amazing time listening to this audio drama and I hope that they think about adapting the later Doctor Aphra comic book series next as there are some impressive storylines featured in there.