Quick Review – Crusader by Ben Kane

Crusader Cover

Publisher: Orion (Trade Paperback – 27 April 2021)

Series: Lionheart – Book Two

Length: 393 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Impressive historical fiction author Ben Kane returns with the second entry in his Lionheart series, Crusader, which does an amazing job of continuing the epic story of King Richard the Lionheart.

Synopsis:

KING. POLITICIAN. WARRIOR. CONQUEROR.

1189. Richard the Lionheart’s long-awaited goal comes true as he is crowned King of England. Setting his own kingdom in order, he prepares to embark on a gruelling crusade to reclaim Jerusalem.

With him on every step of the journey is Ferdia, his loyal Irish follower. Together they travel from southern France to Italy, to the kingdom of Sicily and beyond.

Finally poised to sail to the Holy Land, Richard finds a bitter two-year-long siege awaiting him. And with it, the iconic Saracen leader responsible for the loss of Jerusalem, Saladin.

No one can agree who should fill the empty throne of the Kingdom of Jerusalem and Saladin’s huge army shadows Richard’s every move. Conditions are brutal, the temperatures boiling, and on the dusty field of Arsuf, the Lionheart and his soldiers face their ultimate test…

Kane has produced another amazing novel in the Lionheart trilogy.  While Kane is best known for his incredible Roman historical novels, I have been particularly enjoying his compelling foray into medieval fiction with this outstanding series that examines the life of King Richard the Lionheart.  Told through the eyes of fictional character Ferdia, better known as Rufus, the first novel in this series, Lionheart, did a remarkable job of covering some of the most influential younger years of Richard’s life, which cumulated in him seizing the throne.  Crusader continues this epic retelling of Richard’s life by recounting the events that occurred as Richard led his forces on a bloody journey to the Holy Land.

Crusader contains a historically rich narrative that explores one of the most iconic periods of Richard’s life, the crusades.  Kane produces a very detailed story that focuses on the journey to the east as well as the battles in the Holy Land.  This includes the army’s stops in Sicily and Cyprus, where Richard was forced into conflict with other Christian rulers, before eventually arriving in the Holy Land and engaging in his legendary conflict with Saladin.  Kane attempts to cover every major battle of this Crusade, with several sieges, large-scale attacks, skirmishes and the infamous massacre at Acre.  At the same time, Rufus continues his deadly rivalry with the dishonourable knight Robert FitzAldelm, while also secretly engaging in a very risky romance.

This proves to be a very compelling story, and I very much enjoyed seeing this detailed portrayal of this legendary crusade.  Kane does a wonderful job of bringing all the dry historical facts to life throughout Crusader, and I found it fascinating to see his take on the entire journey and eventual battles with Saladin’s forces.  While the story does occasionally get a bit bogged down in medieval politics, royal disputes and petty squabbles, Kane keeps the novel going at decent pace, and the reader is treated to several epic and dangerous fight scenes.  The author can write a deeply impressive and thrilling battle sequence, and the reader is left on the edge of their seats multiple times, especially as the various characters you come to care about find themselves in utter peril.  I also enjoyed the bitter conflict that occurred between the non-fictional Rufus and his rival, FitzAldelm.  While not as prominent as in the first book, this rivalry is still a fantastic part of the book, especially as it adds an intrigue-laden edge to the main story.  While I really enjoyed this great novel, I do think that it suffered a little being the middle novel in the series, primarily because certain overarching conspiracies and plots are put on hold because of the crusade.  I also felt the first half of the novel was a little slow in places, especially when compared to the intense second part of Crusader.  Still, this was a pretty amazing story, and I loved how the author managed to ensure that his tale contained both excitement and fascinating historical fact.

Just like in the first novel in this series, Kane spends considerable time examining the complex historical figure of Richard the Lionheart.  In this book, Richard is portrayed as a multifaceted and intense being with a wide range of emotions and moods.  Most of the story focuses on the classic King Richard, the inspirational and personable figure that the protagonist Rufus eagerly vows to follow.  This includes multiple portrayals of Richard’s prowess in combat, especially in the Holy Land where he leads his troops to many great victories.  The author features several intense battles throughout the book where Richard either lead the charge or proved to be something more than human, such as fighting through a superior forces or chasing off an entire army by himself.  I initially assumed that Kane was taking a bit of artistic licence with some of these outrageous scenes, but it turns out that most were based on real historical accounts.  While I found these epic depictions of Richard to be cool, I also appreciated the way in which Kane tries to show the king’s darker side.  There are multiple scenes that portray Richard in a despondent mood, especially when faced with setbacks or betrayals, and this low mood could often transform into a dangerous anger at a drop of a hat.  This makes for a very complex and contrary portrayal, and I really appreciated the way in which Kane attempted to examine the true mind and thoughts of Richard, as seen by his closest friend.

It was also really interesting to see the continued growth of Rufus throughout Crusader, as he keeps moving away from the helpless Irish hostage he was at the start of the series, and is now a knight and close companion to the King.  Rufus goes through a lot in this novel, and it was fascinating to see how he deals with the horrors and dangers of the war around him.  I found his description and concern about the massacre of Acre to be particularly intense, and it was interesting to see him witness such an event while remaining loyal and dedicated to Richard.  Rufus’s rivalries and loves were a major focus of this novel, and it is clear that Kane is setting up something major with them for the final novel.  It was also intriguing to see the changes occurring with additional fictional character Rhys, Rufus’s squire and close confidant, who has accompanied the protagonist on all his adventures.  Rhys, after killing a vicious knight in the first book, has become a little bloodthirsty, and is constantly seeking to prove himself in combat, much to Rufus’s concern.  I really enjoyed the inclusion of these fictional characters amongst the more historically accurate tale of Richard’s campaigns, and it serves as a great narrative device, while also adding in some additional drama and conflict.  I am very curious about how Rufus and Rhys’s stories will end in the final book, although I am not expecting a happy ending.

Overall, Crusader was a pretty amazing historical novel that presented a detailed and captivating picture of King Richard’s crusades.  Loaded up with some excellent portrayals of historical events and a series of epic battles, Crusader will appeal to a wide range of historical fiction fans, and readers will have an outstanding time digging through Kane’s captivating text.  A clever and intriguing novel, I am very keen to read the final entry in this series next year, especially as we all know how dark the final chapters of King Richard’s story are.

The Shadow of the Gods by John Gwynne

The Shadow of the Gods Cover

Publisher: Orbit (Audiobook – 4 May 2021)

Series: The Bloodsworn Saga – Book One

Length: 18 hours and 13 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Artifact Space by Miles Cameron

Artifact Space Cover

Publisher: Gollancz (Ebook – 29 June 2021)

Series: Arcana Imperii – Book One

Length: 568 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

After already conquering the world of thrillers, historical fiction and fantasy fiction, bestselling author Miles Cameron presents his very first science fiction epic, the outstanding and brilliant Artifact Space.

Far in the future, humanity has spread out amongst the stars, expanding its influence and bringing trade and technology across multiple planets.  The success of humanity’s current expansion can primarily be attributed to xenoglas, a strong and mysterious material that forms the basis for trade, construction, and the economy.  Xenoglas is obtained from a mysterious alien race known as the Starfish, who can be found at the Trade Point, a massive structure at the edge of human space that only the most sophisticated and powerful ships are capable of reaching.  Humanity has created the greatships, kilometre long ships with massive city-sized cargo holds, capable of transporting all manner of human goods the long distance between the greatest human orbital cities to Trade Point and bring back vast hauls of xenoglas.

Marca Nbaro has always dreamed about venturing into space aboard a greatship and escaping her harsh upbringing in the notorious Orphanage.  However, after getting on the wrong side of the corrupt Dominus, Nbaro is forced to flee with few possessions, scandals dogging her step and an incomplete education.  Pawning everything for some forged records, Nbaro boards the greatship Athens as a junior officer as it prepares to depart on the multi-year journey to Trade Point.

Despite being constantly terrified of her sordid past being discovered, Nbaro is soon able to gain friends and standing aboard the greatship, and for the first time ever her future looks bright.  However, Nbaro’s dreams of mercantile success are soon blown out of the water when news of the destruction of two other greatships reaches the Athens.  It soon becomes apparent that the Athens is also at risk of from whatever mysterious forces have suddenly appeared.  Involuntarily brought into the midst of a dangerous conspiracy, Nbaro is recruited by Athens AI and the greatships’ security office to protect the ship.  As Nbaro works to safeguard her new friends and home, she finds herself facing an insidious and dangerous enemy that is determined to stop the Athens and its crew by any means necessary.  Can Nbaro and her friends protect the Athens as it makes a hurried journey towards the Trade Point, or will her first flight end in ruin and destruction?

Genuine question: is there any genre that Miles Cameron cannot write amazing novels in?  Well, after reading Artifact Space, it looks like Cameron really can do it all, as his latest novel is an exceptional and captivating read.  Cameron, who also writes as Christian Cameron and Gordon Kent (a joint pseudonym shared with his father Kenneth Cameron), is an author who I have been a fan of for a while.  I deeply enjoyed some of the great historical fiction reads he released as Christian Cameron, such as Tyrant and Killer of Men, as well as his more recent release The New Achilles.  I am also a major fan of the awesome fantasy novels he released as part of his Master and Mages series, including Cold Iron and Dark Forge.  Both of these awesome novels were exceptional reads that got five-star reviews from me, with Dark Forge being one of the best books and audiobooks I enjoyed in 2019.

Due to how much I enjoyed his great fantasy and historical fiction novels, I was very intrigued when I saw that Cameron was writing Artifact Space, his debut science fiction novel set in his newly created Arcana Imperii universe.  After featuring Artifact Space in a Waiting on Wednesday article, I was lucky enough to receive an advanced proof from Cameron, which I managed to read last week.  I am a little annoyed with myself for taking so long to get to Artifact Space, as it turned out to be an exceptional and deeply compelling epic that takes its reader of an exciting adventure out into the depths of space.  I had an amazing time reading Artifact Space and it is yet another of Cameron’s incredible novels to get a five-star rating from me.

Artifact Space contains a powerful and engrossing science fiction narrative that follows a complex and damaged protagonist as she engages in a dangerous and thrilling adventure out into the stars.  Cameron starts his novel off without much preamble, with the protagonist engaging in a dangerous race to the Athens to escape her past.  Once aboard, Nbaro becomes enfolded in the day-to-day life aboard the Athens, which swiftly teaches her, and by extension the reader, much about Cameron’s new setting.  The first half of the novel is pretty intriguing, as Cameron not only sets up his fantastic protagonist, great supporting characters and fantastic universe, but he also features some compelling adventures in space as the protagonist finds her feet aboard the ship while also dealing with some lethal personal problems.  While I really enjoyed this cool start to Artifact Space, the novel enters a completely new gear towards the second half of the book, especially after it becomes clear that a shadowy conspiracy has plans to destroy the Athens, with the protagonist stuck right in the middle of the key events.  Following a particularly intense and exciting sequence near the middle of the book, the rest of Artifact Space flows across at an extremely brisk pace, as several key storylines are resolved, and the Athens finds itself under increased attack from a variety of places.  All of this leads up to an impressive and captivating conclusion that sets up the following novel perfectly while keep the reader wanting more.

I really enjoyed the clever and powerful story that Cameron came up for Artifact Space.  There is something deeply compelling about seeing a great character getting an in-depth lesson in something new and fantastic, and I loved all the cool sequences of spaceship life, piloting and control that formed a great part of this book.  I am also a massive fan of how exciting and suspenseful the second half of the book turned out to be, as Cameron installs an excellent and thrilling storyline with plenty of threats, revelations and twists, which constantly leaves the reader on the edge of their seat.  Cameron also features several intense and exciting action sequences both aboard the ship and out in space, all of which are fantastically written and deeply enhance the cool and compelling narrative.  I quite liked how Cameron also adapted his writing style to suit the science fiction genre.  While the author maintains his propensity to feature an immense amount of detail in his story, I found that the writing was a lot more fluid and a little less formal than how he writes his historical fiction and fantasy novels.  I think this worked well for Artifact Space, as not only did it fit the futuristic setting a lot better, but it also ensured that the reader could get through the novel a little quicker.  I had an amazing time getting through this incredible narrative and it honestly did not take me long to become completely engrossed in Artifact Space’s story.  I absolutely flew through the second half of the narrative as I could not wait to see what obstacles the protagonist would experience next, as well as how the novel would end.

I was deeply impressed by the fantastic and impressive science fiction setting that was featured in this novel.  Cameron has come up with a compelling and detailed universe for Artifact Space, and it was one that I had a lot of fun exploring.  The story is set hundreds of years in the future and features a period of human exploration and expansion after a historic dark age which forced people to leave Earth.  Much of humanity’s current economy and progress is due to its xenoglas trade with the Starfish, and much of the book’s plot revolves around this trade, featuring the greatships, the alien Trade Point and the various human planets that lie between the Trade Point and the human population centres.  Each of these locations is very cool, and Cameron expertly brings them to life with his detailed and descriptive writing, which produces some excellent backdrops for the narrative.  Cameron also spends a lot of time describing the fantastic setting that is the greatship itself.  The greatship, an immense vessel filled with a unique collection of crew, cargo, rooms, and technology, all of which are needed to take the assembled characters from one end of the galaxy to the next.  Most of the story is set aboard the greatship Athens, and it proves to be a fantastic setting to explore.  Thanks to the author’s use of a new crewmember as the narrative’s point-of-view character, the reader is given an in-depth view of the ship and everything that makes it tick and it really will not take them long to fall in love with the Athens and all its unique features and quirks.  I think that Cameron did an exceptional job introducing all the elements of this universe throughout Artifact Space, and I never found myself getting lost of confused about what was going on.  There are so many exciting, fascinating, and clever universe details featured throughout this novel and I look forward to seeing how Cameron populates this universe in the future.

I also really enjoyed the great selection of characters.  The most prominent of these is central protagonist and point-of-view character, Marca Nbaro, an orphan from a formerly wealthy family who cons her way aboard the Athens.  Due to her hard early life at the Orphanage, a terrible state-run institution, Nbaro is an extremely damaged character.  Forced to spend most of her life looking over her shoulder and expecting betrayal, Nbaro is unfamiliar with the easy camaraderie and friendship she experiences aboard the Athens and is generally suspicious of everyone she encounters.  She is also terrified that the rest of the crew will find out about her forged grades, which would see her chucked off the ship, while also harbouring a low opinion about her own abilities and skills, believing that she did not really earn her place aboard the ship.  This is a fantastic basis for a character, and I really appreciated the way in which Cameron examined the mentality and deeper concerns of his protagonist, especially as it ensures that you really care for Nbaro and want to see her succeed.  I liked the way in which Nbaro grew as a character throughout the course of the novel, especially as she gains a sense of self-worth thanks to her natural abilities and the connections she forges.  The character soon finds herself in a variety of unique and dangerous situations as she puts everything on the line to save her new friends and home, and it was great to see the character enter hero mode and succeed.  I am really looking forward to seeing how Nbaro continues to develop in the next novel, as well as where her personal story ends up.

Cameron has also filled Artifact Space with a wide range of intriguing and likeable supporting characters who the protagonist engages with during her adventures.  There is a fairly large collection of supporting characters in this book, especially as Nbaro makes friends and collections throughout the entire greatship and beyond.  I had a lot of fun getting to know some of the characters throughout this novel, and I was a particular fan of the weird and brilliant Dorcas, Nbaro’s friendly roommate Thea, and the ship’s clever and sarcastic AI, Morosini.  All these characters, and many more, added a lot to Artifact Space’s story, especially as most of them form a unique relationship or friendship with Nbaro.  While a few interesting supporting characters don’t survive to the end of the novel, the remaining swath of fun characters should help to make the next entry in this series very special.  I enjoyed seeing several of these characters develop alongside the protagonist, and they were great additions to this fantastic novel.

With Artifact Space, outstanding author Miles Cameron has shown the world that he is more than capable of writing science fiction, as he produces a compelling, character-driven epic, set deep in the future with aliens, giant spaceships and galaxy spanning conspiracies.  This was an amazing and captivating read which quickly drags the reader in with its intense and exciting story and exceptional science fiction setting.  I had an absolutely incredible time reading this impressive novel, and Artifact Space comes highly recommended to anyone who wants a great science fiction read.  I cannot wait to see how this series continues in Cameron’s next book, but in the meantime I need to make tracks to finish his Master and Mages series, as I cannot get enough of Cameron’s incredible writing.

Inscape by Louise Carey

Inscape Cover

Publisher: Gollancz (Trade Paperback – 27 January 2021)

Series: Inscape – Book One

Length: 426 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

The future is a cyperpunk nightmare in Inscape, the fantastic and clever science fiction thriller debut from amazing author Louise Carey.

Years after an apocalyptic event, the world is now run by corporations who battle for control and influence.  One of the most powerful corporations is InTech, which sits on the cutting edge of a variety of technologies and advances and which does not take any prisoners in their war for dominance.  When a valuable piece of information is stolen, InTech sends a team of agents into the unaffiliated zone to retrieve them.  However, only one agent will return alive and unharmed.

Tanta has spent her entire life training to work and fight for InTech.  An orphan who was raised solely because of the company’s good will, Tanta is crushed when her first mission ends in near failure.  Attacked by a mysterious enemy agent with advanced weapons technology, Tanta is barely able to survive and is subsequently tasked with retrieving the information that the thief stole.  Teaming up with an unconventional technical genius, Cole, Tanta begins her investigation, only to discover that someone is attacking InTech’s interests around their city.

Believing the culprits to be working for a rival corporation, Tanta and Cole attempt a dangerous infiltration into their city.  However, their mission quickly runs into problems when their contact is captured and Tanta’s tech appears to be compromised.  Attempting to survive in enemy territory, the two InTech agents engage in a risky heist to find answers.  But with all evidence pointing to a traitor high up in InTech’s ranks, can Tanta and Cole survive their dangerous mission, or will secrets from both their pasts destroy them and everything they love?

I am really glad that I decided to check this cool debut out as it ended up being a pretty impressive science fiction read.  Inscape was the first solo novel from author Louise Carey, who has previously written several novels and comics with her father, comic author Mike Carey, and her mother, Linda Carey.  Carey has come up with an exciting and compelling read in her first novel, especially as it combines an excellent science fiction thriller storyline with some great characters and an inventive and unique cyberpunk setting.

At the centre of this fantastic debut is an outstanding narrative that combines an electrifying spy thriller novel with some compelling science fiction.  Carey starts Inscape off quickly, with Tanta and her comrades brutally attacked by a dangerous enemy agent out while trying to recover some stolen files.  After this great opening scene, which sets up most of the narrative perfectly, Tanta is chucked into the midst of a massive conspiracy which sees her beloved corporation under attack, and which requires her to find who stole the files and for what purpose.  The rest of the novel is captivating and clever, as readers become engrossed by Inscape’s fantastic thriller elements as the protagonists attempt to get to the bottom of the conspiracy, which includes an extended undercover sequence where they infiltrate a rival corporation’s city to discover what they know.  This entire awesome sequence, which takes nearly a third of the novel, is extremely exciting, as Tanta and Cole are forced to rely on the minimal of resources to not only survive but to also pull off a daring prison break.  I really fell in love with this novel during this part of the story, and Carey makes sure to end it with an amazing conclusion which sees some major secrets come out and significant developments moments occur for the main characters.  I felt that the author wrapped Inscape up perfectly and readers will deeply enjoy where the story leaves off, especially as there are some great hints as to where the series will go from here.

One of the key things that I really loved about Inscape was the amazingly inventive and distinctive cyberpunk themed world that Carey created as a background to her awesome story.  The world of Inscape is set several years after an apocalyptic technological event which left much of the world in ruins.  Most civilisation now revolves around massive corporations who manage cities and safe zones while monitoring their citizens and assigning resources to the most useful.  There were also some intriguing pieces of technology introduced in this novel, such as the communications and information devices built into everyone’s heads, known as scapes, which serve as a key part of Inscape’s story.  This was an impressive and well-designed science fiction setting, and I enjoyed the cool blend of advanced technology, changing social norms and predictions of future corporate control.  I felt that Carey did an amazing job of introducing information and key points about the setting and advanced technology as the novel progresses, and it proves to be an excellent backdrop to Inscape.  I also appreciated the way in which technology like the scapes are utilised throughout the story as the instantaneous communication and information they contain help to enhance some of the action orientated scenes as well as amp up the intrigue and connections between characters.  You also occasionally get the opposite effects where this technology is deactivated and the protagonists are forced to rely on their own senses, which can be rather jarring for them.  Carey works in some compelling discussions about over-reliance on technology, free will and corporate greed throughout Inscape, all of which adds a darker and fascinating edge to the entire story.  All of this makes Inscape a very intriguing read that fans of science fiction and cyberpunk will deeply enjoy.

Another wonderful aspect of Inscape was the fantastic characters featured within, particularly the three main point-of-view characters.  Carey makes excellent use of multiple character perspectives throughout the novel to provide compelling alternate viewpoints of key events and character actions, which I felt really added a lot to the overall narrative.  In addition, the author introduces several amazing characters, most of whom either have a compelling base to their unique personalities or who go through some substantial development throughout the course of the novel.

The most prominent of these is central protagonist Tantra, a young woman who was raised by InTech since she was orphaned and who has been training all her life to be an agent for them.  Tantra starts the novel as a particularly zealous and passionate character who is unquestionably loyal to her corporation and her handler, Jen.  A skilled survivor, fighter and intuitive investigator, Tantra serves as a great protagonist for the early part of the novel, as she swiftly and efficiently begins the hunt for the person who is attacking her beloved InTech.  However, as the novel progresses, Tantra goes through some substantial changes, especially after she discovers some harsh truths about InTech and herself.  While this turns her into a much more likeable and free-spirited person, it does raise certain questions about Tantra’s true self and her motivations, which is rather intriguing and captivating to see.  Tantra is a fairly badass character throughout the entirety of Inscape, and I deeply enjoyed her intensity, intelligence, capacity for violence and acting abilities, the last of which results in a couple of fun scenes.  I also enjoyed how Carey made her a lesbian character, and she has a nice and touching relationship with a fellow orphan, Reet, although certain aspects of the narrative make Tantra contemplate how and why their relationship occurred.  This was a fantastic central protagonist, and I am curious to see what happens to her in the future.

The next major character in the novel is Cole, an InTech scientist who finds himself partnered with Tantra on the case to find the missing information.  Cole is a great character, a brilliant man who has recently lost his memories due to a technological mishap.  As a result, he spends much of the novel attempting to work out who he is, which impacts much of his personality and motives.  Cole ended up being a rather fun and interesting addition to Inscape, and I loved the unusual team that he forms with Tantra.  In many ways, Tantra and Cole are complete opposites, as Cole has a bit of an anti-authoritarian streak and sees the other characters and corporations in a different light to his partner.  Cole is also far less trained as a corporate operative and finds himself extremely overwhelmed when out in the field.  In several great sequences he is shown to be very out of his depth and is forced to rely on Tantra’s skill and knowledge, which is particularly jarring for him as he is substantially older than her.  I very much enjoyed seeing Cole finding his feet throughout this book and getting a crash course in espionage and survival from his teenage partner, and I liked the fun and substantive friendship he formed with Tantra.  Several great secrets and reveals come out about Cole as the novel progresses, and it results in some great discussions about whether he is the same person that he was before he lost his memories.  These reveals are likely to have a major impact in some future novels and should result in some intriguing story arcs.

The final major point-of-view character in this novel is Jen, Tantra’s handler at InTech, who Tantra views as a mentor and mother figure.  Jen is an ambitious and driven woman who is determined to climb the InTech ranks, and who sees her control over Tantra as the way to do it.  I really liked the way that Carey portrays Jen through the various perspectives as you get a very different viewpoint of who and what Jen is.  For example, in Tantra’s eyes Jen can do no wrong, and is one of the few people that she loves and respects.  However, when Cole sees her actions, he realises just how manipulative Jen is and how little she actually cares for Tantra.  Jen’s true ruthlessness and uncaring nature is further explored in some of the scenes shown from her perspective, and it is fantastic to see the differing viewpoints about her motives and actions.  Jen serves a great role throughout the novel as Tantra’s motivation and as a dangerous controlling figure and I really enjoyed seeing the entirety of her storyline unfold.  Each of these three main characters were written pretty perfectly and I loved the fantastic development and exploration that Carey did with them in Inscape.

Inscape by Louise Carey was an incredible and addictive debut novel that ended up being a really fun and compelling read.  Carey did a wonderful job of blending an excellent thriller narrative with some great science fiction elements, amazing characters, and a clever examination about humanity’s over-reliance on technology.  I look forward to seeing how this series continues in the future, especially after this amazing first novel, and Inscape is really worth checking out.

The Two-Faced Queen by Nick Martell

The Two-Faced Queen Cover

Publisher: Gollancz (Audiobook – 25 March 2021)

Series: The Legacy of the Mercenary Kings – Book Two

Length: 20 hours and 6 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Two-Faced Queen Cover 2

The Warsaw Orphan by Kelly Rimmer

The Warsaw Orphan Cover

Publisher: Hachette Australia (Trade Paperback – 28 April 2021)

Series: Standalone/sequel to The Things We Cannot Say

Length: 416 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Prepare to have your heart broken again and again as Australian author Kelly Rimmer presents a captivating, powerful and dark historical drama, The Warsaw Orphan.

Warsaw, 1942.  The Nazis have a firm control over all of Poland and have moved the entire Jewish population into the infamous Warsaw Ghetto.  Vastly overcrowded and with limited supplies, life is extremely hard in the Ghetto, and many have given up all hope.  For Jewish teen Roman Gorka, all he can do is try to survive and earn enough to keep his family alive.  However, when rumours spread through the Ghetto about the Nazi plans to transport them to “work camps” out in the forest, Roman knows that it is time to act.  Knowing that the lives of himself and his parents are already forfeit, Roman attempts to find a way to save his younger siblings.

At the same time, a young woman, Elzbieta Rabinek, has just arrived in the city and appears to be a typical Polish girl living with her family.  However, Elzbieta is hiding a dangerous secret: her real name is Emilia, and she is the younger sister of an executed Jewish sympathiser.  Fleeing her village with her new family, Emilia is kept hidden from any potential pursuers.  But when Emilia discovers the truth about the Ghetto, she becomes determined to help and joins an underground group of women working to smuggle Jewish children to safety.

As Emilia becomes more involved with the secret work of her organisation, she soon encounters Roman.  Working together to save Roman’s younger sister, the two grow close and soon their fates are inevitably tied together.  But when a terrible tragedy strikes, both Roman and Emilia will be thrown into disarray.  As Warsaw becomes overwhelmed with fire and despair, can these two young people survive with hope, or will they be washed away in a flood of righteous anger?

Wow, just wow.  This was an incredibly touching historical drama that has really impressed me thanks to its moving story and striking portrayals of life in World War II Warsaw.  The Warsaw Orphan is the latest novel from Australian author Kelly Rimmer, who has previously produced moving novels such as Truths I Never Told You and Before I Let You GoThe Warsaw Orphan is actually a sequel to Rimmer’s previous book, The Things We Cannot Say, with some of the supporting characters from the previous novel appearing in more prominence in this latest novel.

I was lucky enough to receive a copy of The Warsaw Orphan a few weeks ago and thought it sounded like an intriguing novel, especially as it was from a new-to-me Australian author.  Based on the synopsis for the book, I knew going in that this would be a dark and emotionally rich novel, but I was very surprised with how compelling and poignant the narrative it contained would be.  Using the perspectives of the two narrators, Roman and Emilia, Rimmer paints a grim and powerful picture of the situation in Warsaw which the two protagonists find themselves in at the start of the book.  Both story arcs progress on their own separate way for a while, and it is intriguing to see the different experiences of two people living only a few streets away from each other in Warsaw.  It does not take long for the protagonists to encounter each other, combining the narrative together.  While the initial joining of their character arcs brings some hope to the story, Rimmer makes sure to quickly crush that with despair and heartbreak as both protagonists experiences tragedy after tragedy, as a series of different historical catastrophes engulf Warsaw and its people.  Every time the two central characters appear to be close to some sort of happiness, some new danger or disaster seems to befall them, and the reader is forced to sit back and watch as they endure their latest hardship.  While this novel is emotionally tough to read at times, Rimmer’s excellent storytelling ensures that you keep moving forward, especially as you become really invested in the lives of her two protagonists and the struggles of the various peoples of Warsaw.  While you may be left emotionally ragged and drained by the end of this book, readers will come away from this story extremely satisfied and with a little bit of hope.

I must really highlight the author’s outstanding and powerful depiction of historical events and places throughout The Warsaw Orphan.  Rimmer has clearly done her research on the subject and utilises a lot of fascinating and horrifying historical elements to great effect throughout the narrative.  For example, much of the story surrounding Emilia and the organisation she joins that helped to smuggle Jewish children out of the Ghetto is based on real life Polish hero Irena Sendler, with various features of Sendler’s work and personality imparted on some supporting characters.  The portrayal of occupied Warsaw is also extremely impressive, and you get a real sense of life in the city.  This is especially true of the Ghetto, as the author spends a significant amount of time exploring what happened within.  Rimmer pulls no punches when it comes to the horrors of the Ghetto and the brutalities the Nazi regime imparted on the Jewish population.  The various descriptions of the Ghetto are extremely harrowing, but through them the reader gets a sense of what the people within would have experienced.  I particularly appreciated the way in which she tried to capture the uncertainty that many of the characters, both Jewish and non-Jewish, had about the Nazis’ plans and you get a real sense of the fear and confusion in the lead up to the deportations.  Rimmer ends up covering all the key events that occurred in Warsaw between 1942 and 1947, and readers get some powerful and detailed views of the forced deportations to the camps, the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, the Warsaw Uprising, the German retreat and the subsequent Soviet occupation.  The author shows every dark aspect of these historical events as her point-of-view characters find themselves involved in them, often to their great detriment.  All these powerful and remarkable historical events and locations serve as a great backdrop to this dramatic tale, and I found it fascinating to learn more about some of these events.

Rimmer has come up with an incredible pair of young point-of-view characters for this book, Roman and Emilia.  Roman is a Jewish teen living in the Warsaw Ghetto with his family.  Through his eyes you get to see many of the horrors of the Ghetto, starvation, Nazi oppression and the constant fear and death.  Rimmer does an impressive job of capturing the inner thoughts and feelings of someone caught up in these terrible events, and I really appreciated the strong sense of survival and desperation you get from him.  This quickly morphs in anger, righteousness and revenge when Roman experiences one tragedy too many, and he becomes in a number of dangerous fights against his oppressors.  Not only does this result in a number of brutal war sequences, but Rimmer paints a picture of a rebellious soul whose anger and moral outrage overwhelm his senses and force him to do darker and more dangerous deeds.  This depiction of anger and rage is quite powerful, and definitely fits an individual who loses everything and does not know what to do.

Emilia, on the other hand, is a somewhat more innocent figure, who, despite not being Jewish, has her own experiences with oppression after witnessing her brother dying in The Things We Cannot Say.  Due to the events of this previous book, she has fled to Warsaw with her adoptive parents, hiding under an assumed name.  Despite the troubles she is running from, Emilia chafes under the rules her guardians put in place, especially once she learns what is happening in the Ghetto.  Despite her fear, uncertainty and loyalty to her guardians’ wishes, Emilia soon becomes involved in the smuggling of children.  I really liked how Rimmer decided to utilise her previous character in this novel, and the author does a great job of revisiting parts of her story so that new readers can appreciate what has happened in her past.  Emilia proves to be a really interesting character throughout the book, and I loved the contrast in views between her views of Warsaw and Roman’s darker experiences.  Watching a non-Jewish citizen experience the horrors of the Ghetto for the first time is pretty moving, and the reader feels a certain kinship to her as they are also witnesses to the various tragedies.  I loved the storyline surrounding Emilia joining the movement to save Jewish children, and the author utilises her to tell this group’s very unique tale extremely well. 

Both Roman and Emilia have some fantastic storylines in The Warsaw Orphan, and I really liked the way their two separate character arcs come together.  These two characters experience an immense amount of grief, regret, violence and despair throughout the book, and their connection is one of the few things to keep them going.  Rimmer sets up both characters extremely well throughout The Warsaw Orphan and readers will quickly become obsessed with their unique tales and harrowing experiences.  I think both character storylines worked extremely well on their own, but together they tell an even more tragic story, as these two fall in love amongst the worst moments of human history.  Seeing the various tragedies and poor decisions that impact their relationship is pretty heartbreaking, and the reader is left in hope that they both survive in the end.  I think that Rimmer did an exceptional job creating and developing these two characters, and it is a mark of her writing ability that I ended up caring so much for them both. 

The Warsaw Orphan by Australian author Kelly Rimmer is an exceptional and incredible historical drama that comes highly recommended.  Rimmer has produced a first-rate story that perfectly utilises two tragic protagonists, an extremely dark and atrocious historical period and an addictive, if tragic, story of love, loss and survival.  The Warsaw Orphan is a powerful and compelling book that will stick in your mind long after you finish its final harrowing page.

The Kaiser’s Web by Steve Berry

The Kaiser's Web Cover

Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton/Macmillan Audio (Audiobook – 23 February 2021)

Series: Cotton Malone – Book 16

Length: 14 hours and 32 minutes

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

The always impressive Steve Berry returns with another amazing great historical conspiracy thriller, The Kaiser’s Web, which sees his long running protagonist Cotton Malone investigate secrets left over from World War II.

Germany is in the midst of a ferocious electoral battle as two very different candidates vie to become chancellor.  One is the incumbent chancellor, a long-term public servant who believes in the goodness of her fellow Germans, while her opponent is a far-right populist, stoking the flames of nationalistic hatred and resentment to gain his power.  Both have their own vision for the future, but the key to this election may lie in the past, specifically, to what really happened on 30 April 1945, the day that Hitler and Eva Braun supposedly died in their bunker underneath Berlin. 

When a series of mysterious documents hinting at secrets from her opponent’s past are delivered to the German chancellor, she turns to her long-time friend, former United States President Danny Daniels for help.  Determined to keep Germany from going to the far-right, Daniels calls on the services of former American intelligent agent, Cotton Malone, and his girlfriend, the resourceful Cassiopeia Vitt.  Together, Malone and Vitt follow the trail left in the documents to Chile, where they uncover a dangerous web of deceit and hidden Nazi money, seemingly created by Hitler’s closest confidant and personal secretary, Martin Bormann.

When evidence suggests that Bormann, who everyone believes died in the last days of the war, may have actually survived and fled to South America with billions in stolen wealth, Malone and Vitt are shocked.  However, they soon discover that not everything is as it seems, and that someone has woven a dangerous trap around them, one that could tip the election in the far-right’s favour.  In order to save Germany from itself, Malone and Vitt must unravel the entire truth behind the conspiracy known as the Kaiser’s Web before it is too late.  But what impact can secrets from over 70 years ago have on present day Germany, and how far are people willing to go to protect them?  The truth about Hitler, Braun and Bormann will shock the world, and not even the legendary Cotton Malone will be prepared for the consequences.

Berry has been writing exciting and clever thrillers for nearly 20 years, ever since his 2003 debut, The Amber Room.  While he has written several standalone novels, Berry is best known for his Cotton Malone books, which started in 2006 with The Templar Legacy, and The Kaiser’s Web is the 16th entry.  I only started getting into the Cotton Malone series a few years ago when, on a whim, I decided to try the 14th book in the series, The Malta Exchange.  I ended up really enjoying the amazing story contained within The Malta Exchange, which combined together historical tales of Malta, the Knights Hospitaller and the Vatican, to create an impressive and addictive read.  I was also lucky enough to receive a copy of the 15th book in the series, The Warsaw Protocol, last year, which turned out to be another awesome read that dived deep into the heart of Poland’s history and politics.  Both books were really intriguing reads and I am now quite determined to check out any and all new Cotton Malone novels that come out.  I was particularly interested when I saw the synopsis for The Kaiser’s Web last year and I have been looking forward to reading it ever since.  I am extremely glad that I did, as Berry has once again produced a fantastic and captivating thriller that not only weaves a unique fictional historical conspiracy into an excellent and highly enjoyable story, but which also allows new readers to dive in and readily enjoy. 

For his latest novel, Berry has come up with another cool and impressive story that combines an investigation into historical secrets with an intense and dramatic thriller.  Told from the perspective of all the various players in the book, The Kaiser’s Web’s narrative starts off quickly when a mystery with world-altering implications is presented to the protagonists, forcing them to explore the final days of the Nazi regime and travel all over the world to find the answers.  While it initially seems like the protagonists are caught up in an elaborate and dangerous trap, the narrative quickly takes a turn when a third party intervenes, disrupting the entire plot and leaving everything, including the protagonist’s success or failure, up to chance.  There are so many amazing elements to this story and I loved the way that the author works his altered historical details into a high takes, thrilling narrative, with the secrets of the past very much having an impact of key events from the future.  Like several of Berry’s previous novels, The Kaiser’s Web has a lot less action in it than most thrillers do; instead most of the narrative is filled with talking, historical flashbacks and character building, which I personally really liked and which give this book a much more distinctive feel than some other examples of this genre.  That being said, there are several great, fast-paced action scenes in this book, which, when combined with the clever historical elements and investigation, resulting a thrilling and powerful novel.  I also liked how The Kaiser’s Web has much more a political thriller vibe to it than some of the previous Cotton Malone novels I have enjoyed, with the result of the protagonist’s investigation having severe impacts on the fate of Germany’s election, and indeed Berry works several different stages of the opponent’s campaign into the overarching story, showing how close the election is.  All of this comes together into one big and captivating conclusion, and while I was able to predict a couple of the big twists, including a particularly major reveal, Berry still surprised me in places, and I had an outstanding time getting through this awesome story.

To really flesh out The Kaiser’s Web’s narrative, Berry dives deep into the heart and soul of the country of Germany and its people to set up the story’s central conspiracy and explain its significance.  This includes a really intriguing examination of Germany’s history, both during the war and in the post-war period, and readers get a comprehensive understanding about what happened in Hitler’s bunker, and how history has recorded or, in many cases, failed to properly record these events.  Berry also features a really in-depth examination of some key Nazi figures, including Martin Bormann and Eva Braun, showcasing their psyches and personalities, as well as exploring their role in the war, the major policies that Bormann enacted and their significance to people like Hitler.  There is also an intriguing exploration around their recorded deaths, and the historical inaccuracies about them become a key part of the plot.  There is also a compelling look at what happened to former Nazis post World War II, both in Germany and outside of it.  In particular, the story traces the routes and hideouts that several former Nazis had in South American countries, and it was fascinating to see some of the real-life examples of fleeing Nazis that are repurposed for this narrative.  All of these historical aspects are very interesting, and I love the unique and clever story that Berry was able to create using them.

In addition to Germany’s wartime history, Berry also examines the current political and social climate of Germany, which becomes a significant part of the book’s plot.  Berry really attempts to explore a lot of the current attitudes that the modern German people have, especially as certain resentments, forced political concessions and other factors have seen a re-emergence of the far-right in Germany (and other European countries), and the election featured within the book becomes a real battle for the soul of the country.  The author has obviously spent a lot of time researching current German moods and political preferences, and this proves to be a powerful and compelling heart to the novel, especially as he really does not have to exaggerate some of the problems that new hard-right organisations in Germany are causing.  Berry does a fantastic job not only exploring the roots of a lot of these problems, many of which date back all the way to the war, but also working it into his clever thriller story, resulting in an amazingly powerful narrative that, thanks to these real-world issues, really drags you in.

One of the things that I always like about the Cotton Malone novels are the awesome depictions of the different countries and landscapes that form the backdrop for the impressive narrative.  It is obvious that the author has a real passion for travel and new landscapes, and this really flows through into his writing as Berry spends a lot of time describing all the key features and locations his characters see, both man-made and natural, in exquisite detail.  These depictions are so detailed and compelling that the reader can often believe they are standing next to the characters enjoying the view.  The Kaiser’s Web is no exception to this as the author once again details several amazing places that form the backdrop to the complex story.  As a result, the reader gets to experience some really cool locations, including several provinces of Germany, parts of Chile, brief looks at countries like Switzerland, Belarus and Austria, and an expanded exploration of the Free State in South Africa.  In each of these locations, Berry provides the reader with fantastic details about the landscape, the people, local industries and politics, as well as some fun snippets of history, most of which relate to the post-war period.  This becomes an extremely fascinating part of the book, especially as Berry’s enthusiasm for different horizons is quite infectious, and I had a great time exploring these new locations.  I cannot wait to see where the next Cotton Malone novel is set, as the author is bound to feature some new and intriguing places.

I have to say that I also really enjoyed some of the new characters featured within The Kaiser’s Web.  This was a pretty good book for characters, as Berry continues to not only showcase his long-running protagonist Cotton Malone but also reintroduces two characters who were somewhat underutilised in the previous book.  Cotton, who is something of a nexus for historical conspiracies, has another great adventure in this novel, and I loved seeing this ageing former agent turned rare book dealer get into all manner of trouble as he attempts to find the truth.  Despite being the nominal main character of this novel, I did think that Cotton was slightly pushed into the background of the story, mainly because several of the other characters were very heavily featured.  Part of this is because Cotton spends the entire novel teaming up with his love interest Cassiopeia Vitt.  Due to the fact that I have only read a couple of Cotton Malone novels, this was the first time I have seen the character of Cassiopeia in action, and I quite enjoyed her as a character.  Cassiopeia, who is also the focus of several Berry’s short stories and novellas, is another great character to follow and it was interesting to see her counterpoint to Cotton’s perspectives.  Cotton and Cassiopeia form a fantastic team in this book and I enjoyed seeing them work together and support each other in various ways.  Aside from Cotton and Cassiopeia, it was also great to see more of former US President Danny Daniels, who becomes a key part of the story.  I loved the idea of a popular former President running important international espionage missions after his retirement (could you imagine Obama doing something like that? That sounds pretty awesome), and he serves as a great supporting character getting Cotton and Cassiopeia involved in the story.

While the returning characters are good, my favourite point-of-view characters had to be Marie Eisenhuth, the current German chancellor who finds herself caught in the middle of dangerous events, and her main opponent in the upcoming election, Theodor Pohl, the book’s primary antagonist.  These two characters represent the very different ends of the German political spectrum, with Eisenhuth a pro-immigration and anti-Nazi politician, while Pohl is a far-right figure who is attempting to utilise the conservative populations to introduce damaging nationalistic policies.  Both Eisenhuth and Pohl get a substantial amount of focus in this book and it proved extremely fascinating to see them throughout the novel, especially as their electoral campaign plays out like a battle for the soul of Germany.  It was also great to see Pohl’s perspectives, especially when he is manipulating people or reacting to the actions of Cotton and his friends and is forced to put more deadly plans into play.  While The Kaiser’s Web initially focuses on their political differences, the novel soon examines various parts of both characters’ lives, pasts and families, which proves to be deeply compelling and interesting.  I love the cool reveals behind these characters, and their storylines reveal a very intriguing case of nature versus nature.  I think both characters had exceptional story arcs throughout this book and their storylines ended up being an outstanding part of The Kaiser’s Web.

I ended up listening to The Kaiser’s Web on audiobook, mainly because I have found that Berry’s awesome historically based conspiracies translate across to the audiobook format extremely well and I end up following all the cool detail and inclusions a lot more.  With a run time of 14 hours and 32 minutes, this is a fairly decent sized audiobook, but listeners should generally be able to power through it rather easily, especially once the cool conspiracy really hits its height.  I also really enjoyed the awesome narration of Scott Brick, who does an exceptional job with this latest Cotton Malone book.  Brick is a well-established narrator who has contributed his voice to an amazing number of audiobooks, including all the previous entries in the Cotton Malone series, as well as the fantastic Orphan X series (for example, he did a great job narrating Into the Fire and Prodigal Son).  I particularly enjoyed Brick’s amazing voice work in The Kaiser’s Web, mainly because he got an opportunity to show off the wide range of accents he could do.  Not only does he pull off a range of German accents for the various German characters, but he also does some amazing South American accents and some extremely authentic South African accents.  The South African accent, which is a really hard one to pull off (so many narrators and voice actors try and fail to do it properly, often coming off as Australian), was really good in this book, and I am really impressed by Brick’s skill.  At the same time, Brick’s general narration voice fit the intense tone of The Kaiser’s Web extremely well, and I thought that he moved this dense and complex story along at a decent pace, ensuring that the listener’s attention was constantly drawn in.  As a result, I had an exceptional time listening to this audiobook and this is easily my preferred format to enjoy Berry’s Cotton Malone novels with.

The Kaiser’s Web is another outstanding novel from Steve Berry, who has once again produced a captivating and clever historical conspiracy thriller.  Featuring a unique tale, intriguing dives into several countries and some fantastic characters, The Kaiser’s Web is a must-read for thriller fans and comes highly recommended.  I personally loved untangling all the threads in this cool thriller and I cannot wait to see what Berry comes up with next.

Relentless by Mark Greaney

Relentless by Mark Greaney Cover

Publisher: Sphere/Audible Audio (Audiobook – 16 February 2021)

Series: Gray Man – Book 10

Length: 15 hours and 39 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

One of the leading authors of the spy thriller genre, Mark Greaney, returns with the tenth epic book in his long-running Gray Man series, Relentless, an impressive and captivating read.

Mark Greaney is talented author who has been absolutely killing it over the last 10+ years ever since his 2009 debut.  While he has written some other books, including seven contributions to Tom Clancy’s iconic Jack Ryan universe (three cowritten with Clancy, and four written after Clancy’s death) and the military thriller Red Metal (cowritten with Hunter Ripley Rawlings, and one of my favourite books and audiobooks of 2019), Greaney is probably best known for his awesome Gray Man series.  Starting with The Gray Man in 2009, this series follows Court Gentry, a disavowed CIA operative turned assassin known as the Gray Man.  I am a major fan of this series, having read the last few entries, Mission Critical and One Minute Out (the latter was one of my favourite books and audiobooks of 2020), and I have been looking forward to this book for a while (indeed it was one of my most anticipated releases for 2021).

Around the world, several top intelligence agents are disappearing, and CIA deputy director Matthew Hanley wants to know why.  When a former American agent who was believed to be dead resurfaces in Venezuela under the protection of the local secret police, Hanley has no choice but to send in his most dangerous asset, Court Gentry, the Gray Man.  As the Gray Man, Gentry is feared around the world as a lethal assassin and rogue operative, but his real role is as a deniable hitter for Hanley at the CIA.  Journeying down to Venezuela, Gentry makes contact with the former agent, who spins a tale of conspiracy and espionage in the heart of Europe before being brutally murdered by a heavily armed team of assassins.

Barely managing to escape with his life and convinced of a larger conspiracy at foot, Gentry convinces Hanley to send him to Berlin to uncover the truth.  At the same time, Gentry’s fellow CIA agent and lover, Zoya Zakharova, is infiltrating a private German intelligence firm with connections to the dead man in Venezuela.  As Zoya attempts to find out who is really running the organisation, she finds herself once again in the crosshairs of her former masters in Russian intelligence, who send their most lethal assassin to kill her.

As Gentry and Zoya fight for their life in Berlin, they start to understand the full breadth of the conspiracy they have found themselves amid.  Someone is playing a dangerous game at a global level and they are willing manipulate the American and European governments to further their goals.  Can Gentry and his allies get to the bottom of this conspiracy before it is too late or will a terrible attack lead America into an unwinnable war?

The hits keep on coming from Greaney, as Relentless was a fantastic and incredible novel that is one of the best books of 2021 so far.  I loved the impressive and complex story contained within Relentless with all its twists and turns, and I swiftly became enthralled by the well-written and intense narrative.  I had an outstanding time reading this book and it gets an easy five-star rating from me.

At the heart of this awesome novel is an intense and fast-paced narrative that readers will quickly become addicted to.  Set shortly after the events of One Minute Out, this multi-perspective narrative sends protagonist Court Gentry to South America on a dangerous mission that has connections to the main conspiracy.  After a not entirely unexpected destructive fire fight from a third party, Gentry heads to Europe where he seeks to back up his love interest, Zoya, who is undercover in Berlin following another connected lead.  At the same time, the narrative expands out to showcase other groups involved in the conspiracy, including a manipulative spy master, two separate teams of killers who are hunting different protagonists, and an Iranian sleeper agent, just to name a few.  All their various storylines and character arcs are extremely interesting and exciting, as the author has crafted together some compelling narratives for each of them.  Greaney throws in a lot of amazing surprises and twists throughout the novel, and while I was able to guess how a few things were going to turn out, I could not predict the amazing scale and complexity of the overarching conspiracy that the characters find themselves involved with.  There is a comprehensive and captivating focus on international espionage throughout Relentless which fits into the story perfectly, and I loved all the cool details that author included, including a recreation of a recent real-life espionage event of great significance.  All these storylines come together extremely well, ending with a massive and memorable conclusion that was a lot of fun, and I ended up loving every second of this cool story.  Greaney also sets up some intriguing storylines for future novels in the series and I am really looking forward to seeing what happens next.

In addition to Relentless’s epic story, I really enjoyed Greaney’s cool writing style, which complemented the narrative perfectly.  The novel can be easily enjoyed by people unfamiliar with the series, and I really appreciated the amazing amount of detail and excitement loaded into the book.  There a particular focus on trade craft with this latest novel, with some great explanations about the various spy techniques utilised by the various characters, and this pumped some real authenticity into the story.  I also really enjoyed all the incredible action sequences featured within this latest novel.  Greaney has always had a talent for writing explosive and powerful action scenes, and Relentless contains some impressive examples of this as the protagonists duke it out with a wide range of enemies across the world.  Every action scene is well-planned out, realistic and very intense, ensuring the reader is constantly on the edge of their seat.

I also absolutely loved the author’s excellent use of multiple perspectives throughout the novel, which was a real highlight for me.  While there is an obvious focus on characters like Gentry and Zoya, nearly every other character, including many of the antagonists, have their side of the story shown.  I found this worked extremely well to tell a complex narrative, as the reader gets to see what everyone, from the mastermind of the conspiracy to members of the various kill teams hunting the protagonists, is doing and thinking.  Not only does this build up suspense, as you know in advance some of the dangers and threats coming towards the protagonists, but you also get to see the antagonists react to all of Gentry’s actions and watch them adjust accordingly.  This makes for a much richer and more impressive story, and it works particularly well in some of the combat sequences, as you get to see all the characters manoeuvring around the battlefield.  There are also some extremely awesome chapters where various characters are following each other throughout Berlin.  Watching several point-of-view characters engaging in surveillance and countersurveillance operations against each other, with some other interested parties thrown in for good measure, was very cool, and it ended up being one of the cleverest sequences in the novel.  I really loved how this awesome writing style enhanced the story and I think it worked really well.

As usual, Greaney comes up with an excellent selection of characters for Relentless, all of whom get explored in substantial detail throughout the book.  Most of Relentless’s focus is naturally on the series’ main protagonist, the titular Gray Man himself, Court Gentry.  Greaney continues to paint an interesting figure with Gentry, as a former official CIA operative who was forced to become an assassin with a conscience, before secretly re-joining the CIA in the Poison Apple program as a deniable asset.  Gentry has a great, action-packed story in Relentless, getting into all manner of dangerous situations, and I loved the cool ways he attempts to extricate himself from them, often by killing his opponents.  I also really liked how Greaney gave Gentry a significant handicap in this latest adventure, as he is suffering from a serious infection from a stab wound gained in One Minute Out.  This infection reduces his reaction speed and physical prowess throughout the book and forces him to seek continued medical care, all of which makes his mission even more dangerous and problematic, and which really raises the stakes for the entire book.  It was also great to see more of Zoya and Zack Hightower, the other two Poison Apple agents, both of whom were not featured that much in the previous novel.  Both these agents have some compelling and entertaining arcs in this book, and I always enjoy how well the former Russian knockout and the aging American special operator compliment Gentry as a team.  Interestingly, you also get to see a lot more of CIA deputy director Matthew Hanley, the man secretly running Gentry, as he even gets into the field for a particularly dangerous assignment.  Some big moments occur for Hanley in Relentless, and it will be interesting to find out what happens to him next.  I also quite enjoyed the wild Russian assassin, Maksim Akulov, a drunk lunatic with a death wish, who is assigned to kill Zoya, but eventually starts targeting Gentry, seeing him as the ultimate challenge.  All these amazing characters, and more, really added a lot to the story, and I look forward to seeing how the ones who survived are utilised in the future.

While I did receive a physical copy of Relentless, I ended up enjoying this book in its audiobook format instead.  I have had a lot of fun with Greaney’s audiobooks in the past and I generally find that the intense and epic action and espionage translates into this format extremely well.  Relentless was no exception, and I found myself really enjoying listening to all the cool sequences unfold and at times I almost felt like I was there witnessing it.  With a run time of 15 hours and 40 minutes, Relentless’s audiobook is pretty long and might take listeners a while to get through.  However, it is worth the time investment and you will find yourself quickly powering through it once you get caught up in the story (I personally listened to it for nearly five hours straight at one point).  This latest Gray Man audiobook also sees the return of Jay Snyder as narrator.  Snyder is an experienced and prolific audiobook narrator who has contributed his voice to a wide range of awesome audiobooks in the past, including all the previous entries in the series.  Snyder has a fantastic gruff voice that fits the tone of Relentless perfectly, and which he uses to great effect moving the story along and describing all the deadly action and chaos.  Snyder also produces some great voices for the various characters which I think encapsulate each person really well and proved to be very effective.  I was a little wary about a Minnesota accent that he had to do for one of the characters, but it grew on me as the book progressed and I think it was a decent attempt in the end.  All of this makes for an epic and enjoyable audiobook and this is definitely an amazing way to check Relentless out.

Relentless is another exceptional spy thriller from the always impressive Mark Greaney that comes very highly recommended.  The 10th entry in the always outstanding Gray Man series, Relentless contains another captivating and deeply exciting narrative, which, combined with Greaney’s impeccable writing and fun characters, makes for a truly excellent thriller.  I had such an awesome time reading Relentless, and this book is one of the best releases of 2021 so far.  I look forward to seeing how Greaney continues this series in the future, and I must really go back and check out some of the earlier Gray Man novels this year, especially as a movie adaption of The Gray Man is currently being made by the Russo brothers with Ryan Gosling and Chris Evans set to star (I mean, talk about a movie with some real potential).

The Girls I’ve Been by Tess Sharpe

The Girls I've Been Cover

Publisher: Hodder Children’s Books (Trade Paperback – 9 February 2021)

Series: Standalone/Book One

Length: 361 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

From bestselling young adult author Tess Sharpe comes an outstanding and deeply impressive new novel, The Girls I’ve Been, an extremely clever and emotionally rich young adult thriller that is easily one of my favourite books of 2021 so far.

When young teen Nora O’Malley started her day, she thought that the worst thing she would have to deal with would be an awkward chance meeting with her ex-boyfriend at the local bank with her new girlfriend in tow.  However, things get decidedly worse when two armed men storm the bank, shooting wildly and demanding the manager.  When their plan goes awry, the two robbers take the staff and customers hostage, locking them in and barricading the doors.  With only a small police force in town, the nearest SWAT team hours away and the gunmen getting more and more antsy, things look grim for the hostages until Nora takes the lead.

Despite only being 17, Nora has a complicated and terrible past.  Born the daughter of a self-centred and manipulative con artist mother, Nora spent the first 12 years of her life helping her mother run her dangerous cons, first as a prop, then as an active participant, learning everything there is about lies, deceit and becoming a whole different person.  However, after their final job went terribly wrong, Nora eventually left her mother behind to escape and become Nora.  Despite living a relatively quiet life for the last five years with her long-lost sister, Nora is prepared to dive back into her past lives as a conwoman to ensure that everyone gets out this dangerous situation alive.

Using every trick and subtle deception at her disposal, Nora must try to manipulate the two robbers into letting them go, while also attempting to distract them from her friend’s escape attempts.  But as conditions in the bank get even worse, Nora begins to realise that these robbers have their own deadly plan, and that the only chance to survive is to reveal her true identity to her captors.  Nora has a deadly secret in her past, one that she has been running from for years, and which may prove to be far more dangerous than anything the robbers can throw at her.

The Girls I’ve Been is an impressive and captivating young adult thriller that I was lucky enough to receive a copy of a few weeks ago.  This is the latest novel from Tess Sharpe, an author who specialises in novels with strong female protagonists, including Barbed Wire Heart, Far From You and the Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom tie-in novel, The Evolution of Claire.  I must admit that before receiving her latest novel, I was a little unfamiliar with Sharpe’s work, although I did hear good things about her Marvel Comics tie-in book, Captain Marvel: Liberation Run.  However, the moment I received The Girls I’ve Been, I knew that I had to read it as I really liked the cool synopsis and the fantastic-sounding plot.  I ended up powering through it in a few short days as I quickly became engrossed in the excellent and complex narrative that Sharpe weaved around her damaged protagonist.  I had an outstanding time reading this book and, considering how engrossing and powerful I found it, I have no choice but to give it a full five-star rating.

For this amazing book, Sharpe has come up with an exceptional story primarily told from the point of view of the book’s protagonist and narrator, Nora.  The author starts the story off quick, pushing the protagonist and her friends, the dramatic pairing of her hurt ex-boyfriend and her long-time crush turned recent girlfriend, into the midst of a violent and dangerous situation when the bank they are in is stormed by two gunmen.  After this explosive start, Nora quickly slips into action, plotting her escape while trying to find some way to manipulate their captors into letting them go, which in turn reveals her past as a conwoman’s daughter.  The author then starts layering in a series of fantastic flashback sequences or chapters loaded with details about the protagonist’s past or her relevant skills and experiences.  Not only do these become relevant to the current crisis that the characters find themselves in, but they also provide more context for Nora’s actions, as well as containing hints about her troubled past.  These flashbacks fit seamlessly into the main narrative, and as the book progresses and the situation in the bank gets worse, the reader becomes more and more aware of just how dangerous and messed up Nora’s childhood.  The depictions of the character’s past are exceedingly fascinating, and this entire flashback narrative proves to be an awesome addition to the plot, especially as some of her previous actions have severe consequences on current events.  Both the past and present come together extremely well to form an impressive conclusion, which also leaves open the potential for sequels in the future.  I really enjoyed this awesome overarching narrative, due to its fast-paced intensity, clever humour (I particularly liked the inclusion of text at the start of some chapters describing the progress of Nora’s various plans), and impressive character development, and it really did not take me long to get invested in the story.

Easily the best thing about The Girls I’ve Been is the extraordinary amount of character development that Sharpe puts into her point-of-view protagonist, Nora.  Nora (not her real name) is a character who has a unique outlook on life due to her past, which she is constantly haunted by.  When we are first introduced to Nora, the reader is shown a seemingly normal girl, albeit with a complex love life, but it does not take long for the reader to understand just how different she is.  Not only do we witness her immediately take control of the situation inside the bank, but soon the reader sees a powerful series of flashbacks showing the character’s chaotic early life.  Each of these great flashbacks help to produce a layered and captivating figure and it was truly fascinating to see how Nora was born and raised as a criminal conwoman.  Sharpe really dives down deep in Nora’s psyche, allowing you to see how messed up she is and how her past shaped her.  I particularly enjoyed the various flashback chapters that show her committing cons when she was younger, each time with a different name.  With each of these cons, the protagonist learns a whole new set of skills and personality traits, either because her mother demanded it to make the con work or because the trials she underwent during this job required her to learn them.  The protagonist attributes each of these traits to the distinct person she was during the job, and she calls on each of these personalities to shape her into the mostly stable and capable person that she is today.  The author pulls no punches in showing the reader all the terrible things that Nora experienced as a child, and I think she did an outstanding job capturing the lasting impact painful events would have on a young person.  Despite this trauma there is a noticeable strength to Nora that drives her to survive and help others, even if it means sacrificing herself or taking a more lethal approach to solving a problem.  Naturally, all this impressive backstory helps to produce a truly compelling protagonist who the reader cannot help to pull for, especially as Sharpe also imbues her with a sarcastic and clever sense of humour that really appealed to me.  It will be interesting to see if Sharpe continues utilising this unique character in the future and I for one would love to see what happens to her next.

In addition to Nora, Sharpe has also included several other great supporting characters who help to turn The Girls I’ve Been into a first-rate novel.  While none of these characters get as developed as Nora, Sharpe has ensured that each of them is just as complex and nearly as damaged.  The main two supporting characters are Iris, Nora’s quirky current girlfriend, and Wes, Nora’s ex-boyfriend, both of whom are trapped in the bank with her.  While you would assume that this combination of characters would result in petty drama, Sharpe has come up with an intriguing relationship dynamic between the three of them which becomes a fantastic part of the narrative.  They prove to be quite supportive of each other, as all three have experienced various forms of neglect or abuse in the past, and together they are able to face their demons and become more stable people.  I really liked the way that Sharpe utilised Iris and Wes in the story, especially as both characters have some interesting characteristics, and it was amazing to see them all develop them throughout the course of the novel.

In addition to her friends, there is also a significant focus on Nora’s family, her sister Lee, and her mother, both of whom have had a major impact on her life.  I enjoyed both characters for very different reasons.  Lee is the strong older sister who, after experiencing a similar traumatic childhood like Nora, dedicates her life to saving Nora, even if she must ruin everything she loves.  Their mother, on the other hand, is a selfish, manipulative creature, who lives for the scam and is willing to drag her children through hell to get what she wants.  Both characters are great additions to the narrative, and it was fascinating to see what motivated them and what terrible things they are willing to do for different reasons.  All these characters add so much to The Girls I’ve Been, and I was really impressed with Sharpe’s excellent work on them.

Like several of Sharpe’s previous novels, The Girls I’ve Been is marketed as a young adult fiction novel for a younger audience.  I would say that this is an exceptional novel for teenage readers, as The Girls I’ve Been contains a complex and powerful story that features a young girl forced to endure amazing hardships and overcoming them in an intelligent way.  There are some deep and emotional issues that are hit on throughout this book, including children forced to deal with abusive parents, as nearly every parental figure in this novel is either abusive or complicit through negligence.  I think the author addressed these issues in an excellent way, especially as she did not try to talk down her intended audience, and I have no doubt that these elements will strongly resonate with some readers.  In addition, Sharpe also discusses some other important issues in this novel, such as endometriosis, as well as depicting some very positive LGTB+ relationships, all of which I think a lot of teenagers will also really appreciate seeing.  The novel does contain some more mature themes and elements, which might not be appropriate for younger readers, but which make it a great teen read.  This is also one of those young adult novels that can be quite easily enjoyed by an older audience, and I think that a wide range of readers will deeply enjoy this amazing novel.

The Girls I’ve Been is an outstanding and exceptional novel that I cannot give enough praise to.  Tess Sharpe has come up with a truly impressive young adult thriller, containing an amazing story and some exceedingly compelling characters.  I had an awesome time with this book, and I cannot recommend it enough.  I look forward to seeing what Sharpe will come up with next and I can certainly say that this is an author that I will be keeping a very close eye on.  I hope that she considers a sequel to The Girls I’ve Been in the future, although this great novel already has a pretty fantastic self-contained story to it, still it might be interesting to revisits the cool characters again.  There is apparently a movie adaptation of The Girls I’ve Been in the works, starring Millie Bobby Brown.  I think that this book would make for a really good movie, and Millie Bobby Brown is a fantastic choice to play Nora (I only just watched her in Enola Holmes).  In the meantime, do yourself a favour and check out The Girls I’ve Been, because you really will not be disappointed.

The Hunting by Stephen Leather

The Hunting Cover

Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton (Trade Paperback – 9 February 2021)

Series: Standalone

Length: 264 pages

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Bestselling thriller author Stephen Leather comes up with another wild and intense novel in The Hunting, a fun and very entertaining read about some terrorists who find themselves going up against a very different sort of opponent.

Billionaire Jon van der Sandt is a talented big-game hunter, having tracked and killed some of the world’s most deadly and ferocious animals across all the continents.  However, when his family is murdered in an attack by a team of ISIS killers, van der Sandt will embark on one last hunt against the most dangerous game of all.  Hiring a group of ex special forces mercenaries, van der Sandt organises for his family’s killers to be snatched from an ISIS base and flown back to his American estates, where he intends to hunt them down one-by-one and ensure that their deaths are up close and personal.

However, a case of mistaken identity results in van der Sandt’s mercenaries accidently grabbing the wrong man, and instead of one of the terrorists the soldiers snatch Raj Patel, a British doctor being held at the camp.  Unable to convince his new kidnappers of his identity, Raj finds himself dropped into the vast wilderness surrounding the isolated estate.  With van der Sandt out in the woods hunting them with a high-power rifle, Raj is forced to work with the ISIS fighters, his former captors, to survive.  With no provisions, no idea where they are and no mercy from a very determined van der Sandt, the prisoners have very little hope of getting out this alive.  However, Raj was not always a doctor, and he is ready to become as ruthless and resourceful as the man hunting him.  Let the hunt begin!

The Hunting is a fantastic and easily enjoyable book based on an amazing plot concept that proves to be extremely entertaining to read.  This was my first book from Stephen Leather, an established thriller author who has been writing novels, such as his intriguing Spider Shepherd thrillers and more, for over 30 years.  Leather’s latest novel is a great standalone read with an awesome story and some amazing action sequences guaranteed to excite any reader.  I had a lot of fun with this book and I ended up getting through it in less than day.

For this great novel, Leather came up with an extremely distinctive and memorable plot hook.  I must admit that the moment I heard that this book was going to be about a vengeful hunter going all “The Most Dangerous Game” on a group of ISIS terrorists, I knew that I was going to enjoy this book, although I was initially worried that the concept might be too silly to work.  Luckily, Leather was able to work a rather compelling story around this idea that proved to be both entertaining and well thought out.  The author sets up the entire narrative extremely well in the first part of the book, especially the reasons behind the antagonist’s decision to hunt down the ISIS fighters, and the case of mistaken identity around the protagonist.  This was a little more set-up than I was expecting, but I think that it worked to create a more complete and coherent narrative which pays off when all the characters are placed into the forest wilderness about 100 pages in.  This second part of the book is an intense and fast-paced thrill, with various supporting characters getting picked off quickly and brutally as van der Sandt kills his prey.  This leads to some great action scenes, and I really enjoyed seeing all the survival and hunting aspects come into play.  All of this results in a fantastic and explosive conclusion, which I think was the perfect way to end the novel.  Overall, I really got drawn into this exciting narrative which proved to be extremely addictive and easily to get through in a very quick period.

I have to say that I was impressed with some of the details that Leather included within this book.  The author clearly has either done some major research or has some firsthand experience about hunting and big game hunters which he uses to full effect throughout the book, meticulously detailing the different weapons, the different tactics a hunter would use and various tracking and hunting techniques.  This added level of detail really helped to enhance The Hunting’s story, and I felt that it added a certain layer of authenticity to it.  I also quite enjoyed seeing a big game hunter going up against Raj, a former Royal Marine with different experiences and knowledge then the murderous desert fighters he is trapped with.  Seeing a hunter versus a professional soldier, albeit a rusty one with a preference for medicine, proved to be an intriguing and exciting experience, and it ended up resulting in some very fun sequences.

While The Hunting is ostensibly a thrilling, action-packed novel, Leather did try to add some deeper elements to it, including several ethical discussions and complex characters.  This includes some compelling arguments about the benefits of legal big game hunting, and it proves to be quite fascinating to see into the mind of a hunter character, especially one who makes some clever comparisons about the brutality of hunters compared to terrorists.  It was also fascinating to see part of the story from the perspective of ISIS fighters who had engaged in a brutal massacre of innocent tourists.  While some are strongly dedicated to the cause, others have more doubts about what they have done, although they come across as fairly unrepentant.  Despite the general loathing most readers would have for these sorts of characters, you end up being forced to root for them for part of the book as they end up allying with Raj, who you want to see survive.  Raj himself is placed in a bit of a dilemma when it comes to working with these terrorists, as his new “friends” make it very clear they dislike his Hinduism.  Despite that and the knowledge of what they have done, Raj ends up helping them to survive, and even puts his life in greater danger to stay with the injured members of the party, which really fleshes him out as an ethical and noble protagonist.  I also quite enjoyed the complex character of Jon van der Sandt, who had some of the more compelling scenes in the book.  Despite nominally being the antagonist of the book, you tend to have the most sympathy for van der Sandt, and you can completely understand his motivations for revenge, even if the method is a bit extreme.  All of these more complex elements make for a rich and captivating read, and I really appreciated the author’s decision to feature them in his fun narrative.

The Hunting by Stephen Leather is an outstanding and thrilling stand alone read that takes the reader on a wild and bloody action adventure.  Featuring the amazing and memorable plot hook of a big game hunter stalking terrorists, The Hunting is an extremely fun and exciting read that readers are guaranteed to power through in no time at all.  This was a very cool new novel from Leather and I look forward to seeing what crazy tales he comes up with next time.