The Bone Fire by S. D. Sykes

The Bone Fire Cover

Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton (Hardcover – 25 July 2019)

Series: Somershill Manor Mystery – Book Four

Length: 310 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

In the mood for a clever and captivating historical murder mystery? Look no further than the latest book from the brilliant S. D. Sykes, The Bone Fire, which continues the adventures of her reluctant 14th century murder-solving protagonist, Oswald de Lacy, who this time finds himself stuck in a unique situation.

After several years of respite, the Plague returns to England in 1361. As a survivor of the original outbreak in 1350, Oswald de Lacy, lord of Somershill in Kent, knows the devastation the sickness can bring. Desperate to save his family, he accepts an invitation from one of his friends, Godfrey, to shelter for the winter in his remote castle in the Romney Marsh with a select company of friends and allies. The rules are simple: once the de Lacy family enters the castle, the gates will be closed and no-one will be allowed to leave until the Plague has passed.

Arriving just ahead of the Plague with his wife, son, mother and valet, de Lacy finds that Godfrey’s castle is a grim refuge filled with a disagreeable group of fellow guests and servants. Despite this, the castle appears to be the safest place for them, especially with the Plague already ravishing the outside countryside. That is until their host is found murdered in his own library.

As the residents deal with the shock of losing the lord of the castle, other bodies are discovered within the castle walls. With nowhere to run except onto the plague-infested island outside the castle walls, de Lacy must once again rely on his talent for solving mysteries to save the day. However, it soon becomes apparent that de Lacy is up against a ruthless killer who delights in violence and is seemingly able to move about the castle undetected. Can de Lacy solve this crime before it is too late, or will he and his family face a fate worse than the sickness keeping them trapped within the castle?

The Bone Fire is the fourth book in Sykes’s Somershill Manor Mystery series, which started back in 2014 with Plague Land. The Somershill Manor Mystery books are an intriguing historical mystery series which follows the investigations of its protagonist in the land devastated by the Black Death. I had not previously read any of Sykes’s books, although her preceding release, City of Masks, is probably one of the books I most regret not reading in 2017.

I was initially drawn to The Bone Fire by the beautiful cover and the really cool-sounding plot, and I thought that this novel had some real potential. I am extremely glad I decided to get a copy of this book, as I was blown away by the fantastic and clever story. Sykes does an excellent job of combining a complex and compelling murder mystery with a unique and fascinating historical setting. The entire story is extremely fast paced, and I found myself racing through the book in no time at all, especially as it proved to be pretty darn hard to disengage from the fantastic story.

Those readers who have not had the opportunity to read any of Sykes’s books can easily enjoy The Bone Fire without any foreknowledge of the previous entries in the Somershill Manor Mystery series. Each of the books in the series can be read as a standalone novel, although existing readers will note the continuation of character arcs from the earlier entries in the series. Some information from the previous books does play a role in the story, including how the protagonist survived the first outbreak of the Plague, however Sykes always does a careful job of reintroducing these elements in The Bone Fire well before they become relevant to the plot.

At the heart of this book lies an excellent murder mystery storyline, as the protagonist is forced to investigate a series of killings in a remote English castle. Sykes has come up with a thrilling murder mystery storyline that follows a twisting and intriguing investigation. The protagonist has a huge bevy of potential suspects, each of whom has their secrets and schemes, which de Lacy has to unravel in order to get to the bottom of the murders, and there are a variety of motives for the killings occurring in the castle. The case goes in some very interesting directions, and the end result was very satisfying, with some well-plotted-out twists and some truly unique motivations for a murder. I had a great time trying to figure out who the killer was, and this was a terrific storyline to centre the book upon.

While the murder mystery storyline is an excellent part of this book, readers will also be entranced by Sykes’s use of a fascinating historical setting. Like the first two books in this series, the author has set the story in the midst of plague-ravished England. However, unlike the previous books, which dealt with the first bout of the Black Death between 1348-51, this story is set in 1361, when a second plague hit the country. This time the populace, including all the characters in this book, were much more aware of how deadly the Plague could be and took steps to try and avoid it. Sykes does an amazing job capturing the subsequent sense of despair, fear and paranoia that emulates from people who previously experienced the Plague, and it makes for a fantastic emotional background to the story. The various theories and ideas of the cause of the Plague are pretty fascinating, as are the methods with which the protagonists attempt to protect themselves from its influence. It also results in some heartbreaking, if not cruel, decisions from the protagonist, who is still traumatised from his experiences during the first sickness, and results in some dramatic character moments.

I really enjoyed the way that Sykes utilised the Plague and other intriguing historical aspects, such as religion, to enhance the murder mystery storyline of this book. The restrictions of the Plague keeping the residence within the castle helped make the story feel like a classic whodunnit in places with a small group of suspects trapped in an enclosed location and only one investigator trying to sort out the entire case. The historical setting also resulted in a number of intriguing potential motives for the story, such as religious differences, complex inheritances, arranged marriages and even clocks, all of which adds a compelling edge to the story.

The Bone Fire by S. D. Sykes is an exciting and gripping historical murder mystery that is really worth checking out. The author did a fantastic job creating a clever mystery storyline that perfectly utilises its bleak and intriguing historical setting. The end result is a terrific fourth book from Sykes that was a lot of fun to read. It is safe to say that Sykes’s Somershill Manor Mystery series is now firmly on my reading radar, and I will be keeping an eager eye out for the next book in the series.

Howling Dark by Christopher Ruocchio

Howling Dark Cover

Publisher: Gollancz and Recorded Books (16 July 2019)

Series: Sun Eater – Book 2

Length: 679 pages or 28 hours and 3 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Outstanding new author Christopher Ruocchio, who blew me away last year with his debut novel, Empire of Silence, returns with the second book in his brilliant Sun Eater series, Howling Dark.

Empire of Silence was one of my favourite books from last year, easily making my Top Ten Reads for 2018 list, and I absolutely loved the author’s highly addictive story and its vast new science fiction universe. This was a fantastic first book from Ruocchio, and when I finished it, I really wanted to know what happened next. As a result, I have been waiting to read this sequel for a while, having done a Waiting on Wednesday article on it and including it on my Top Ten Most Anticipated July – December 2019 Releases list. I was pretty excited to receive a copy of this book a few weeks ago, especially as Ruocchio was nice enough to mention my blog in his acknowledgements (this has not affected my review or rating in any way). However, due to having a huge number of other books that were high priority reads, I ended up listening to the audiobook format of Howling Dark instead, which is narrated by Samuel Roukin. I had extremely high hopes when I started reading this book, and I was definitely not disappointed by the final result.

The Sun Eater series is set far in humanity’s future, where humans have left Earth and expanded out to thousands of worlds. While humanity, mostly in the form of the Roman-inspired Sollan Empire, has flourished, for the last four hundred years they have been fighting a brutal and destructive war with the Cielcin, a spacefaring race of aliens who have destroyed hundreds of colonies and billons of humans. Each of the books in the series is written as a part of the autobiographical chronicle of series’ protagonist, Hadrian “Halfmortal” Marlowe, otherwise knowns as the Sun Eater. Hadrian is the man who will one day destroy a sun in order to burn every Cielcin to a cinder, and in doing so become both history’s greatest hero and most infamous monster. However, these events are set to occur much further on in the future, and these earlier books focus on the events that formed Hadrian’s character, and show how he became the man to end it all.

In Howling Dark, the story is set some 50 years after the events of Empire of Silence. During this time Hadrian Marlowe has been wandering the outer fringes of the galaxy trying and failing to find a myth. Leading a band of mercenaries, former gladiators and disguised Imperial legionnaires, and carrying a cargo of frozen Cielcin prisoners, Hadrian hopes to travel the lost planet of Vorgossos. The planet’s mysterious master apparently has a way to contact the Cielcin, who Hadrian hopes to finally negotiate peace with, ending the brutal war that has ravaged both races.

However, finding Vorgossos has proven far more difficult than Hadrian initially anticipated. The legendary planet is well hidden, and the only way to uncover its location is to deal with the Extrasolarians, a group of humans who live outside of Imperial control and whose reliance on technology and enhancements borders on the heretical. As Hadrian and his companions locate a promising lead, they are suddenly ordered back to the fleet as the war against the Cielcin needs every soldier.

Determined to bring his plan for peace to fruition, Hadrian and his companions disobey these orders and go rogue. Entering the worlds of the Extrasolarians, the Exalted and other grim horrors at the edge of the known universe, they are able to obtain passage to Vorgossos. However, what they find at their destination may be even worse than the alien foes they are attempting to contact. Between facing technological monstrosities, a cruel, immortal king and the appearance of humanity’s oldest and most feared enemy, Hadrian has his work cut out for him. But the further along his path he travels, the more Hadrian begins to understand the grim destiny in front of him and the terrible cost he will have to pay.

This is another epic book from Ruocchio! Howling Dark is a dark, gothic science fiction masterpiece that was an absolute treat to read, and which really highlights the author’s creativity and ability to create a wide-ranging universe with some unique and captivating features.

This was another incredible and ambitious story from Ruocchio, who takes the reader on an extended and powerful adventure through his great universe. The Howling Dark contains a lengthy and compelling plot which goes in some very interesting directions. While this is a long book, Ruocchio does a great job of pacing the story out, and there is rarely a moment where the plot is not progressing in an intriguing way, or where the reader is left bored. I really enjoyed some of the dark places that the author took the story in this book, and there are a variety of cool new locations, antagonists and other monsters that the protagonist and his friends need to deal with in one way or another. Hadrian goes through some notable character development in this story as he takes more and more steps down the road to becoming the biggest legend in the universe. Howling Dark has a pretty epic conclusion to it, with some major plot developments occurring in the last 100 pages or so, and I really liked how Ruocchio wrapped up the storyline. Overall, this book has an intense and captivating storyline to it, and I am exceedingly glad I got a chance to read it.

I did find that the start of the book was a tad hard to get into. Due to the complex storylines (and possibly because I have read so many different books in the last year) it took me a little while to remember whom some of the characters were and where the plot was up to. It did not help that the story had jumped ahead by 50 years, and some of the events that occurred during this break are mentioned a few times at the start of the book. However, once I was able to get my bearings, it did not take me long to get hooked on the story and I had no problems following the enjoyable plot, especially as the author does a great job explaining these missing events and offering the reader several recaps of the events from the first book. Readers of the physical copy of Howling Dark will also be helped by the detailed dramatis personae, index of worlds and lexicon of terms that is included at the back of the novel, which can really help to clear up some confusion about the events that have occurred. I would say that readers would probably be best served checking out Empire of Silence first before trying to read Howling Dark, but I believe that new readers will be able to fully enjoy this story once they reach the recaps and get a sense of what happened in the previous books.

I really enjoyed how Ruocchio continued to write his story in the chronicle format that worked so well in the first book. Each of the books in the Sun Eater series are presented as part of a self-written chronicle of Hadrian’s life, penned some years in the future after he destroyed the sun. As a result, the story is told exclusively from Hadrian’s perspective and features his memories of the various events that formed his character. This is a great way to tell the story, mainly because the reader gets to see a contemplative version of the narrative. There is a real and palpable sense of regret in Hadrian’s narration, which really adds to the book’s grim tone, as the reader gets to hear the protagonist recount events that are not only traumatic for him, but which set him down the path to his defining moment. Due to Hadrian’s lifetime of self-reflection, you also get a far more in-depth examination of the character’s motivations for taking certain actions, as well as an analysis of why other characters acted the way did, which adds a great edge to the story. I also liked how the protagonist hinted at some of the key moments that occur later in the book or may occur in later books. This dramatic irony does a wonderful job of keeping a sense of tension in the air, as the reader knows that the worst is yet to come. Ruocchio’s use of the chronicle format for these novels is cleverly done, and I really enjoyed how it helped enhance the overall story.

Possibly Ruocchio’s biggest strength as a writer is his amazing ability to come up with a widespread and intriguing new universe to use as a setting for his fantastic story. This was one of my favourite things about Empire of Silence, as I loved the large, sprawling human empire that Hadrian lived in during the first book. This Sollan Empire was created after a major war with artificial intelligences thousands of years before, and therefore any technology that is too advanced or which thinks for itself is considered heretical by a controlling religious organisation. The massive empire is heavily inspired by the Roman Empire, with a similar government, military system, social castes and culture. This also affects the overall tone of the story, as the narrator, Hadrian, is a true son of this empire, and thus has a classical education that guides his overall view of life. As a result, the story is filled with the Hadrian quoting a number of historical verses and aphorisms to tell his tale, which really helps to give the overall story a more classic tone in the science fiction environment. I really liked this cool combination of science fiction elements with this antique mindset, and the general history of the Sollan Empire, with its veneration of other historical empires such as the Romans or the Victorians, is deeply interesting. This Sollan Empire actually reminded me a bit of the Imperium from Warhammer 40k, which also has a Roman inspiration and overarching gothic theme to them. As a fan of Warhammer 40k, it was cool see a universe built along similar ideas, and Ruocchio comes up with a number of clever and unique new elements to make his Sollan Empire stand out. Although most of the story in Howling Dark is spent outside of the main empire, the author still spends time expanding on elements of this massive organisation, and the reader gets more of a sense of them. I especially enjoyed seeing the Imperial legions in battle during this book, and it results in a number of incredible scenes that I really enjoyed.

Ruocchio also does an outstanding job introducing a number of intriguing new universe elements to this book in the form of the Extrasolarians. I found the dive into the world of the Extrasolarians to be extremely fascinating, especially as Ruocchio let his creativity run wild during this part of the books, coming up with all manner of technological marvels, body augmentations, genetic modifications and other science fiction wonders. However, many of these technologies have a darker side to them, which the protagonist and his friends find out the hard way. Some of these modifications are downright creepy, and this really helped the author create a dark and distinctive expansion to his universe. I was especially impressed with one of the new antagonists of this story, Kharn Sagara, a sinister, technologically enhanced ancient with hidden motivations (check out the cover below to see how cool his character design is). The reader also gets a much more in-depth look at the Cielcin in this book, as the protagonist starts to understand more about them and how they think. Ruocchio does a fantastic job exploring the mindset of these creatures and showing them as truly alien beings with very little similarities to humanity, and the reader starts to get an understanding of why Hadrian will eventually be forced to destroy them. All of this is really cool, and I could honestly go on for pages about all the cool world building that Ruocchio does in this book, it was that impressive.

As I mentioned above, I ended up listening to Howling Dark’s audiobook format. The audiobook runs for 28 hours and 3 minutes and is narrated by Samuel Roukin, who does a fantastic job bringing this story and the characters to life. This is a lengthy audiobook, and readers will need to make a bit of room in their listening schedule to get through it. It is actually the longest science fiction audiobook that I have ever listened to (so far) and would easily make my Top Ten Longest Audiobooks That I Have Listened To list. I found that Howling Dark’s audiobook format was a great way to enjoy this epic novel. I always find that listening to a complex story helps me absorb a lot more of the story and universe details, making for a much fuller read. This was definitely true for Howling Dark, as I was able to really appreciate the huge amount of gothic science fiction detail that Ruocchio installed in his work. I also found that Roukin’s narration also did a wonderful job of capturing Hadrian’s inherent regret and despair, and this really helped me appreciate the entirety of the book’s story. Roukin also creates some terrific voices for the various characters and does a fantastic job bringing them to life through the audiobook. This was a fantastic format to enjoy Howling Dark with, and I will strongly consider listening to the audiobook of the next book in this series.

Overall, I think that Christopher Ruocchio does an excellent job following up on his spectacular debut, Empire of Silence. Howling Dark is an amazing read that I absolutely loved. Ruocchio has come up with a complex story for this book, which is massively enhanced by his clever writing style and impressive imagination. Clearly, Empire of Silence was no fluke, as Howling Dark gets a full five stars from me. I am really looking forward to checking out the next book in the series, especially as Ruocchio has left a huge number of intriguing storylines open, and I fully intend to stick with this series until Hadrian destroys that sun.

Howling Dark Cover 2

A Capitol Death by Lindsey Davis

a capitol death cover

Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton (Hardcover – 4 April 2019)

Series: Flavia Albia – Book 7

Length: 383 pages

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

For the last 30 years, Lindsey Davis has been one of the most prolific and impressive authors of ancient history murder mystery, writing 28 amazing books during this period. Starting in 1989 with The Silver Pigs, Davis introduced the world to Falco, the private investigator who solved murders in ancient Rome. This series, known as the Marcus Didius Falco series, eventually ended after 20 books in 2010; however, several of the characters and storylines explored in these books were continued in 2013’s The Ides of April, the first book in the new Flavia Albia series. In each of the following years, Davis has released a new book in this second series, resulting in A Capitol Death, which is the seventh Flavia Albia book to be released.

I was lucky enough to get a copy of The Ides of April when it first came out, and absolutely fell in love with the awesome main character and her fantastic investigations. I have since gone out of my way to grab every book in the Flavia Albia series, as Davis is one of my auto-buy authors, and I currently have reviews for the last two books in the series, The Third Nero and Pandora’s Boy on my blog. I really loved Pandora’s Boy last year, and it even got an honourable mention on my Top Ten Reads for 2018 list. As a result, I have been quite eager to get my hands on A Capitol Death for a while now.

In Rome, in 89 AD, while the city is preparing for the return of the cruel Emperor Domitian, murder is literally in the air. The body of a minor government official has been found at the base of the symbolic Capitoline Hill, and it appears that he was pushed off the top of the cliffs. While a case like this would usually be a low priority for the city’s authorities, the man who died was responsible for all the transportation during the Emperor’s upcoming triumph and his death is now politically sensitive.

Enter Flavia Albia, professional informer and adopted daughter of the legendary investigator Falco. Employed by her husband, the magistrate Faustus, to investigate the murder for the city, Flavia sets out to discover who is responsible for this crime. However, that is easier said than done, as the victim is revealed to have been an extremely unpleasant individual whose attitude and shady dealings made him a very unpopular person. With a huge list of suspects lining up before her, Flavia has her work cut out for her.

When a second murder occurs on the hill, the case becomes even more complicated. Flavia must work out the connection between the two victims and who would want to murder both of them. As the start of the Emperor’s triumph gets closer, Flavia must interrogate a lengthy list of people, including oyster farmers, slaves, diviners, goose handlers, seamstresses and more in order to find the killer. What happens when the killer finds her instead?

A Capitol Death was another great addition to the Flavia Albia series, and well worth the wait. Davis once again sets a compelling mystery within her excellent Roman historical setting, and sets her unconventional protagonist on the case to find out the truth in an ancient city that is portraying some very modern attitudes and mentalities. The result is a captivating and entertaining read that I was able to finish off in relatively short order. While I did not quite enjoy A Capitol Death as much as the last two Flavia Albia novels, this was still a fantastic piece of historical crime fiction and I will be grabbing the eighth instalment of this series when it comes out next year.

At the heart of this story is a well-thought-out and compelling murder mystery. Davis constructs a complex case, involving a deeply unpopular victim, a huge number of suspects with substantial motives, very little evidence and a complete lack of cooperative witnesses. Without modern forensic techniques in this ancient setting, the protagonist’s main investigative recourse is to talk to everyone with a connection to the victim in an attempt to find out who would want to kill him. As a result, Flavia digs her way through the lives of everyone involved in the case, finding out deficiencies in stories and the various connections between the various suspects and witnesses. I really enjoy the way that the protagonist investigates this case, and it is interesting to see the variety of evidence and leads she can come up with simply by asking the right questions. The case has a substantial number of twists and turns, as well as a huge number of likely suspects that act as good red herrings. The entirety of the case is very intriguing, and I really enjoyed the investigative angle of this book.

While the murder investigation is a key part of the main plot, Davis also spends a bit of time focusing on the chaotic personal life of series protagonist Flavia Albia. Between setting up her new home, dealing with her high-maintenance family and helping out a husband only recently recovered from a freak lightning strike, there is a lot going on for the character, even before she is forced to investigate a murder. While some readers might have trouble caring about a character setting up a household, entertaining her family or finding reliable domestic help, I actually found it to be an enjoyable part of the book, mainly because the author uses these scenes to make a number of jokes of humorous observations. In addition, after all these books, I have grown attached to the main character and I am genuinely interested to see how her life progresses.

Davis has always done a great job of utilising the ancient city of Rome as a setting for her stories, and she continues to do this in A Capitol Death. This story is set in 89 AD, during the reign of the Emperor Domitian, and features an interesting version of the city. In this book, Domitian is returning to the city after a military campaign and the city is organising a triumph in his honour. This means that the city is filled with all manner of secret agents, Praetorians and officials organising the triumph for the Emperor, which makes for an intriguing background setting for this story. I really enjoyed the author’s examination of the triumph, which becomes a big focus of the book due to several of the case’s suspects or persons of interest being involved in its planning and set-up. There are a number of sequences that show the huge amount of preparation that goes into the triumph, and it was entertaining to see how they may have faked certain required elements of the triumph, such as dressing up random citizens to use as fake captured prisoners.

In addition to the examination of the political make-up of the city and the preparation for the military triumph, Davis also spends this book looking at some other fascinating aspects of the city and its citizens. The presence of certain witnesses who live outside the city of Rome necessitates a visit to one of the smaller Roman towns on the Italian coast, and it is always interesting to see the protagonist leave the city. The visit also allows the author to spend some time highlighting the process behind the creation of the coveted imperial purple dye that was used for the priciest garments in ancient Rome. There was also an intriguing focus on Capitoline Hill as the site of a murder. The Capitoline Hill, as one of the original Seven Hills of Rome, is a major feature of city, and Davis really dives into its history and importance during the course of her book, giving the reader a great idea of what this historical location is like and what goes on there. I always love it when an author takes the time to teach the reader about some obscure aspects of history, and Davis showcases some really cool bits of historical trivial in A Capitol Death. This is a fun aspect of this book and one I quite enjoyed, especially as Davis does an excellent job of weaving it into the murder mystery part of the story.

I have always loved the way that Davis has introduced characters with more modern attitudes and personalities into her historical stories, as it makes for a funny and enjoyable story. Watching characters in an ancient setting act exactly like a person in a modern city is always enjoyable, and Davis makes sure to amp up the snark in each of her characters, making for a fun bunch of characters. Flavia is of course the snarkiest of them all, and as the story’s narrator and point-of-view character, her amusing opinions, thoughts, descriptions of the other characters and anecdotes from her past really help to give this book a light-hearted and entertaining tone. This is always a great feature of the Flavia Albia books, and I am glad that Davis continued it in this book.

This was another amazing outing from Davis that once again shows why she is the master of the ancient history murder mystery. Not only does she do an excellent job blending together a clever murder mystery with some fascinating historical details, but she also brings her trademark humour to the mix, creating another entertaining tale. I look forward to continuing this series next year, with The Grove of the Caesars, set to be released in April 2020, and I am sure I will have an incredible time reading the next instalment of the Flavia Albia series.

Knight of Stars by Tom Lloyd

Knight of Stars Cover

Publisher: Gollancz (Hardcover – 27 June 2019)

Series: The God Fragments – Book 3

Length: 440 pages 

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Lynx, Toil and the rest of the Cards are back for another rip-roaring fantasy adventure, as the “heroes” of Tom Lloyd’s The God Fragment series prepare to bring all manner of violence and chaos to another unsuspecting corner of their fantasy world.

Knight of Stars is the third book in The God Fragments series, which follows the adventures of Anatin’s Mercenary Deck, a band of skilled mercenaries otherwise known as the Cards, whose adventures have caused havoc across the Riven Kingdom. The Cards are so called as each member of the band are given a card number or description based on a fictional deck of cards from this universe, which corresponds to their rank within the band. This is the third series from Lloyd, who has previously written the Twilight Reign and The Empire of a Hundred Houses series. The God Fragments series has so far consisted of Stranger of the Tempest in 2016 and Princess of Blood in 2017, with each of the book titles referring to the rank one of that particular novel’s major or most significant character.

In this third book, the Cards are celebrating after surviving and getting paid for their previous adventures in the Labyrinth under the city of Jarrazir. However, their last adventure had unexpected side effects as several of the band have also been magically marked by the powerful Dugar artefact they discovered in the Labyrinth. Not only have these marks magically bound many of the Cards together but they have also had unexpected effects on the Deck’s mages, who have found their magical abilities greatly increased.

The Deck’s employer, the dangerous relic hunter and intelligence officer Toil, has found them a relatively simple job in the distant Mage Islands to take over the holdings of a defaulting gang for a powerful bank. With the prospect of good food, sun, booze, bar fights and the chance to let loose in combat, the Cards are treating it like a holiday, especially as it moves them out of reach of several powerful enemies they have recently made. While Toil seeks out allies and resources for her patron city, the company’s mages attempt to research the magical consequences of their time in the Labyrinth.

However, no mission for the Cards ever goes as planned, and the Mage Islands are a very dangerous place to visit. Between the rival mage guilds, the various gangs and the thousands of giant serpentine tsyarn that surround the city, any miss-step could lead to disaster, and none of the Cards are known for treading lightly, especially as their number includes an infamous exile from the Mage Islands who has left many enemies behind. Unsurprisingly, the members of the Deck soon find themselves in conflict with many powerful members of the Mage Islands’ hierarchy. However, the real trouble comes when several of the Cards accidently awaken something dangerous that dwells beneath the islands.

I was initially drawn to Knight of Stars by the cool plot synopsis, but I found the first 50 or so pages, which detailed the actual journey to the Mage Islands, to be very slow and a little hard to follow. This may have been partly because this was my first time exploring The God Fragment series; I have not had the pleasure of reading the first two books in the series. As a result, I spent quite a bit of time trying to come to grips with the story and the large number of returning characters who were featured in the opening pages of the book. While the summary at the start of the book does a great job of detailing the major points of the adventures that occurred in the previous books in the series, this summary only focuses on a few of the main characters. This means that new readers will not have a good basis for several of the important side characters and may struggle to work out who they are. After getting deeper into the book I was eventually able to come to grips with all of the characters, especially as more details about them were released; however, it was easy to become lost when trying to figure out who was who to begin with. It also didn’t help that the real action and intrigue didn’t really start until the characters got to the Mage Islands, as before that they are mostly stuck talking on a couple of barges. There is a brief fight with some elementals, although what they were and the reason for their presence was a bit unclear in my opinion. While I am glad that I continued past it and enjoyed the rest of story, the first part of the book might not be able to hold some new readers’ interest.

While this is not the most ideal start to the book, those readers who persevere will find that Lloyd has created an excellent and highly entertaining novel. The author has done a wonderful job of taking his band of rogues to a deadly new location within his fantasy universe and the allowing them to run wild, resulting in all manner of chaos. The overall story becomes extremely compelling the deeper you get into it, and the last 150-odd pages are pretty darn epic, featuring some big moments with some significant stakes for the protagonists. All of this results in a very enjoyable story, and I ended up have an absolute blast reading this book.

One of the main things that I liked about this book that was the non-stop fantasy action featured within it. It is obvious that Lloyd has a real talent for writing exciting combat sequences, which he uses to his full advantage by featuring a huge number of electrifying fight scenes throughout the course of his book. Many of these amazing scenes feature elements of the unique magical system that Lloyd has created for The God Fragments series, and I particularly liked the mage-guns that were a major feature of the action. Mage-guns are specialised weapons which all the Cards are armed with that fire various magical rounds of ammo to great effect. This includes electrical blast, ice shots, blasts of flame and devastating earth based shots designed to smash buildings and the ground. The author does an amazing job showcasing these unique weapons and the tactics behind them throughout the book, and they really add a whole new element to the combat sequences. While the combat for the first three quarters of the story is really cool, the fight between the Cards and the major opponents that they encounter in the last part of the book are extremely impressive and very ambitious. I would therefore heartily recommend Knight of Stars to those readers who are looking for a good piece of fantasy action, as it is an amazing feature of this book.

On top of the awesome action, the Cards of the Mercenary Deck are pretty fun. I really liked how Lloyd decided to set a story around a group of rough, fun-loving group of frankly oversexed mercenaries, as it makes for a very amusing tale. The story is told from the perspective of several members of the group, including Lynx, the original protagonist of the series; Toil, the secret agent who is funding the group; and Sitain, one of the group’s three mages. The Cards are a fun group of protagonists, most of whom have seen or done too much violence, so they now see the world through a rather cynical viewpoint. Their love for life is quite infectious, and they make for an entertaining group of narrators, with their rude and crude attitudes often coming to the fore. The Cards also have a very unique way of dealing with problems, and it is always fun to follow a group whose master plan involves starting a particularly violent bar fight. Several of the characters have interesting story arcs within this book, especially Teshen, the titular Knight of Stars, who returns to the Mage Islands to face the demons of his past. There are a couple of major developments for some of the characters in this book, and readers should be careful about some upcoming heartbreak. This is a wonderful group of characters, and I really enjoyed seeing how their story progressed in this book.

The location for this latest book, the Mage Islands, is a really cool setting for this action-packed story. The Mage Islands is a brand-new setting, located some distance away from where any of the previous books were set. The Mage Islands is home to a ramshackle city of canals, slums, lagoons and giant sloths as pack animals, and is a great backdrop for all the action and criminal activity that occurs throughout the book. Lloyd does an excellent job of portraying a hot, tropical location filled with all manner of dangers, criminals and pests. However, rather than the usual vast number of tropical bugs and insects, the city is surrounded by a huge swarm of giant monsters, the tsyarn (the monster on the cover). As you can probably guess from the name, the city is also home to a massive population of mages, and the Cards find themselves drawn into a conflict between some of the rival mage guilds. Overall, this was a fantastic location for this enjoyable story, and I look forward to seeing where the Cards end up next.

Knight of Stars is an exciting and captivating third instalment in Tom Lloyd’s The God Fragments series. While I did initially struggle to get into the story, once I stuck with it, I was able to enjoy its compelling plot, amazing action, great characters and excellent new location. This book is worth checking out, and I look forward to reading Lloyd’s future instalments in this series.

Commodus by Simon Turney

Commodus Cover

Publisher: Orion (Trade Paperback – 11 June 2019)

Series: The Damned Emperors – Book 2

Length: 482 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Quick Review – Rejoice, A Knife to the Heart by Steven Erikson

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Publisher: Orion Publishing (Audiobook Format – 18 October 2018)

Series: Standalone / Book 1

Length: 15 hours and 58 minutes

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Rejoice, A Knife to the Heart, is a complex piece of science fiction that I listened to on audiobook earlier in the year, and which I’ve been needing to review for a while. Rejoice is an enjoyable book which contains quite a fascinating story concept of aliens intervening on Earth to stop humanity’s destruction of the planet as a viable biome.

Hachette Australia Synopsis:

From the bestselling author of the epic Malazan Book of the Fallen, comes a story of mankind’s first contact and a warning about our future.

An alien AI has been sent to the solar system as representative of three advanced species. Its mission is to save the Earth’s ecosystem – and the biggest threat to that is humanity. But we are also part of the system, so the AI must make a choice. Should it save mankind or wipe it out? Are we worth it?

The AI is all-powerful, and might as well be a god. So it sets up some conditions. Violence is now impossible. Large-scale destruction of natural resources is impossible. Food and water will be provided for those who really, truly need them. You can’t even bully someone on the internet any more. The old way of doing things is gone. But a certain thin-skinned US president, among others, is still wedded to late-stage capitalism. Can we adapt? Can we prove ourselves worthy? And are we prepared to give up free will for a world without violence?

And above it all, on a hidden spaceship, one woman watches. A science fiction writer, she was abducted from the middle of the street in broad daylight. She is the only person the AI will talk to. And she must make a decision.

I had fun with Rejoice, which is a very high-concept science fiction novel and which dives deep into the heart of current world issues. The main plot focus of this book, the intervention by aliens, is a really interesting idea, which Erikson explores to its full potential. The various ways the aliens intervene in an attempt to make humanity better are really intriguing, ranging from force fields to stop violence and destruction of natural resources to providing humans with advanced technology and ending economics as we know it. It is also really cool to see the various ways Erikson imagines humanity would change if we were no longer able to commit violence or act on our hate. Obviously, there are some political undertones to this story which some readers may not be the biggest fans of, but I thought there were some quite salient points, and it was fascinating to view these current issues from a science fiction perspective.

One of the main reasons the focus on the alien intervention worked so well was because Erikon tells this story from a huge number of different perspectives. While the main character can probably considered to be Samantha August, the woman the aliens choose to be their main contact on Earth due in part to her status as a science fiction author (they are so intelligent, don’t you know), a ton of other perspectives are shown. Not only does the reader get to see the reactions of world leaders but they also get a view of events shown from the eyes of a huge range of other people directly or indirectly impacted by the alien intervention. This includes seeing the events through the eyes of farmers, tech companies, child soldiers in Africa, a family suffering domestic violence, astronauts, fighters in Israel and Palestine, an arms dealer, reporters and conspiracy theorists. In addition, there are facsimiles of several real-world people, including a certain media mogul and a rich pair of brothers, although neither of these portrayals are particularly flattering. There are also good representations of the current regimes in countries such as America, Russia or China, although I did think some of them were a tad less critical then they could have been. Overall, all these different perspectives allowed for an extremely powerful and compelling view of world events, and it was extremely fascinating to see how the author imagines these different sorts of people would react to an alien intervention.

I ended up listening to Rejoice in its audiobook format, which was narrated by Laurence Bouvard and runs for nearly 16 hours. I felt personally that the audiobook format was the best way to enjoy this novel, as it allowed me to absorb a lot more of the clever science fiction concepts featured in the story. Bouvard’s narration was also really good, especially considering she had to produce a huge number of accents from a range of different nations and peoples.

I found that Rejoice, A Knife to the Heart was an extremely clever and well-thought-out piece of science fiction that offered a unique and intriguing story. While the complex science fiction commentary on modern issues may not be for everyone, I really liked them and would recommend this book to those readers looking for a thought-provoking science fiction story.

War of the Bastards by Andrew Shvarts

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Publisher: Hyperion (Hardcover – 4 June 2019)

Series: Royal Bastards trilogy – Book 3/Final

Length: 392 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

War, rebellion, magic and one hell of kickass story! Shvarts brings the outstanding Royal Bastards trilogy to an end with War of the Bastards, the relentlessly entertaining conclusion that rounds out the series with an epic bang. The Royal Bastards trilogy is the debut work of author Andrew Shvarts, who has produced an incredible young adult fantasy series that has been an absolute delight to read over the last three years. Set in the fantasy nation of Noveris, the series follows the adventures of its protagonist, Tilla, and her friends as they try to navigate the treachery and war that has engulfed their nation.

I had an absolute blast reading the second book in the trilogy, City of Bastards, last year. Not only did the book feature a compelling story style and an amazingly captivating plot, but it ended with an outstanding cliff hanger with the protagonist failing to stop the antagonist’s sinister plot, which results in the entire royal family being killed off and the enemy gaining control of the throne. This was such an epic ending, especially because the massacre of the entire royal family was just so unexpected (I really was expecting a last-minute rescue from the protagonists), and I have been extremely curious to see how this story ended for quite a while.

It has been a year since the destructive events that changed Noveris forever. After orchestrating the explosion that decimated the royal court of Noveris, killing the King and Queen and most of Noveris’s nobles, Lord Elric Kent has assumed the throne. With a huge number of powerful bloodmages under the command of his ruthless Inquisitor, Miles Hampstedt, Kent’s rule over Noveris looks to be nearly absolute. However, many are still fighting back against the despotic new rule, including Kent’s bastard daughter, Tilla.

Tilla is a member of the resistance group known as the Unbroken, which fights to return Tilla’s friend, the rightful Queen, Lyriana Volaris, back to the throne. With the help of her lover, Zell, and Lyriana’s cousin, Ellarion, Tilla and the Unbroken are engaged in a brutal guerrilla war against the new regime. However, the situation looks dire and victory near impossible to achieve, until a mission to rescue a major source of rebel intelligence reveals that their informant was none other than King Kent himself. Kent’s rule has been usurped by Miles, whose absolute control over the bloodmages has allowed him to take over Noveris without anyone noticing. While attempting to deal with the implications of capturing Tilla’s father, the Unbroken also free Syan Syee, a young woman from the Red Wastes with mysterious magical powers, who brings an urgent message to the people of Noveris. Syan warns of a coming apocalypse and believes that defeating Miles is the key to stopping it. Needing new allies, Tilla, Lyriana, Zell, Ellarion, Kent and Syan journey to the Red Wastes, hoping to recruit Syan’s people to their cause. However, what they discover in the Red Wastes will change everything. With this new knowledge, can Tilla and her friends save Noveris, or will Miles’s lust for power and control tear their world apart?

Before I started reading this book, I honestly thought that Shvarts was going to have an extremely hard time matching the awesomeness of City of Bastards. However, I am pleased to report that War of the Bastards is an incredible and massively compelling read that I enjoyed just as much as the second book in the series. While it may lack the shocking cliff hanger ending of City of Bastards, War of the Bastards has an excellent fast-paced story that proves extremely hard to put down once you start.

I really loved the story contained within War of the Bastards and felt that it was an amazing conclusion to the trilogy. The tale of an epic battle to free a kingdom is a classic, but the author has put some fantastic modern twists on it, and his entertaining writing style and dedication to bringing out huge moments, really turns this into something special. Shvarts has included a number of cool twists and turns throughout this book, and I really liked where the story went at times. There was also a slight turn away from fantasy towards another genre about two-thirds through the story that proved to be a bit surprising, but I found it to be an interesting addition to the story. Without giving too much away, I was very satisfied with the clever way that the antagonist was taken down at the end of the book, and it was a nice call-back to earlier events in the series. I really enjoyed how this story turned out, and it was an outstanding conclusion to the epic tale that had been told throughout the Royal Bastards trilogy.

In the previous books in the series, the author tended to only set the story in one general setting, such as the West for the first book and the Lightspire for the second book. In War of the Bastards, Shvarts continues to expand on his fantasy world, but this time he takes his characters to several new locations that had been alluded to in the other books. The story starts in the Heartlands and focuses on the characters fighting their guerrilla war there. This land has been transformed by the oppression of Kent and Miles, and it was intriguing to see how bad things had gotten under their rule. The protagonists also journey through the Southlands and the Red Wastes, both of which are pretty fascinating and distinctive locales. The Red Wastes was definitely the most unique location, ravaged by terrifying magical storms and featuring interesting new civilisation. Overall, these new locations are pretty cool, and readers will enjoy exploring more of this great fantasy world.

One of the major strengths of Shvarts’s previous books has been the excellent character work. Each of the major characters has gone through tremendous growth through the course of the first two books, and this growth has continued through the course of War of the Bastards. Tilla has gone from being two different types of social outcast (a bastard in the first book and a traitor’s daughter in the second) to a respected rebel warrior fighting the good fight. However, despite knowing she is fighting for what is right, Tilla is not natural killer and has to constantly deal with the guilt of her actions, keeping a running mental count of all those she has killed. She also has to finally come to terms with her strained relationship with her father once he joins them on their quest. Due to her status as a bastard, her father has always kept a certain distance with her. Now, with him joining their band, Tilla is forced to have several emotional confrontations with him over the terrible things he has done in previous books and how he treated her in the past. This results in some dramatic moments within the book, and the exploration of their relationship makes for great reading. Tilla still serves as the book’s narrator and point-of-view character, and it is through her eyes that we see the story unfold. This is extremely fortunate, as her sassy and sarcastic outlook on the events occurring around her leads to a lot of the book’s humour. All in all, I have always found Tilla to be a pretty awesome main character, and it was great to see how her story ended.

In addition to Tilla, the other three main characters from the previous Royal Bastards books all get great character arcs within this book. Lyriana spends this book as the Queen in exile of her people and is burdened with the responsibility of being a figurehead. However, she rises to the challenge and proves herself to be powerful badass and war leader thanks to her epic magical abilities. This was a massive change in her character from the second book, where she was devastated with loss and trauma, and it was great to see her at her full potential. Readers will also like the new relationship she finds herself in, and it was nice to see her finally get some emotional happiness. I would say that Zell is character least utilised in this book, but we do get to witness him trying to come to terms with guilt from the previous book thanks to the inadvertent role he had in facilitating the massacre. The character most impacted by the events of the previous book is Ellarion, Lyriana’s cousin and the most powerful magician in the lands. He lost his hands at the end of City of Bastards when defending his friends from the massive explosion and must now learn how to live without them and, more importantly, the magic they allowed him to perform. Shvarts did an amazing job portraying Ellarion’s despair at his situation and the longing he has for his lost magical arts. Some interesting things happen to him in this book and he has a major moment that readers will absolutely love.

Two new characters join the main characters in this book: Syan from the Red Wastes and Tilla’s father, Lord Kent. Syan is a pretty cool lesbian character who has some significant secrets in her past. Shvarts does a great job telling her entire story within this one book, and I found her to be quite an enjoyable character. Lord Kent was another fantastic addition to the main group of protagonists. While he has appeared in both of the previous books in the trilogy, we have never really gotten his side of the story before. In addition to all the drama surrounding his relationship with Tilla, we also get to see his motivations for his actions, as well as the regret for what he has brought about. I really liked the inclusion of Kent in War of the Bastards and thought it was a clever touch from Shvarts because of all the extra emotional complexities and drama he brings to the story.

I should quickly mention the main antagonist of this book, Miles. Miles has always been a pretty unlikeable character, especially after betraying the group in the first book due to his jealousy over Tilla choosing Zell. Shvarts really makes him even more despicable in War of the Bastards by showing him as the facilitator of all the worst things that have been done in Noveris in the last year. Later confrontations with him reveal that he has no remorse and really does not see himself as the bad guy. His continued obsession with Tilla is pretty messed up (cough, harem, cough), but I do like how that was used against him at times. Overall, Miles makes for an excellent series villain, and Shvarts did an amazing job utilising him in this final book.

The author has a very creative mind when it comes to the magic and fantasy elements contained within this series. The magical abilities and rules that govern the lands of Noveris are extremely interesting and have led to some impressive magical destruction and battles in the past. Shvarts continues to do this in the final book, and the exploration of the origins of magic and the devastating consequences of using it are really fascinating. Shvarts came up with some cool and unique new magical abilities in War of the Bastards, especially for the magic utilised by the people of the Red Wastes. The author has been really creative in this final book, and I am sure readers will like some of the ideas he comes up with.

Like the previous books in the series, War of the Bastards is being marketed towards the young adult audience. However, it should only really be read by the older teen audience, as it features a lot of adult content. While it does not have as much sex, drugs and drinking as City of Bastards did, it does feature a heck of a lot more violence, and some of the action scenes are pretty gruesome. This does mean the book is really easy for older readers to enjoy, and I would strongly recommend this to all adult fantasy readers.

While I am sad to see the Royal Bastards series end, War of the Bastards was such an incredible conclusion to the story that it does not seem too devastating. Due to its near perfect blend of electrifying story content, excellent characters and entertaining writing style, I found that it was near impossible to put War of the Bastards down, and I had an amazing time reading it. This is easily a five-star read, and I reckon this is my favourite young adult book of 2019 so far. With his debut trilogy, Andrew Shvarts has shown himself to be an extremely talented author, and I will be eagerly keeping an eye out for his next series.