The Holdout by Graham Moore

The Holdout Cover

Publisher: Orion/Penguin Random House Audio (Audiobook – 18 February 2020)

Series: Standalone

Length: 10 hours and 15 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

From acclaimed author Graham Moore comes an amazing new thriller story that is one part legal drama, one part murder mystery and 100 per cent awesome: The Holdout.

The Holdout is an outstanding standalone book that I have been looking forward to for a little while now. I really enjoyed the sound of the premise when I first heard about it, so I was really glad when I received a copy of this book. Moore is probably best known as a Hollywood screenwriter, having written the screenplay for The Imitation Game, which won him an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay. However, Moore is also a novelist, having previously written two books, The Sherlockian and The Last Days of Night, the latter of which I read and enjoyed back in 2016. The Holdout is Moore’s first foray into contemporary fiction, and he has produced quite a fantastic read.

It was the trial of the century. Jessica Silver, the 15-year-old heiress to a vast fortune, vanishes and the prime suspect is her African American teacher, Bobby Nock, with whom she was having an inappropriate relationship. With substantial evidence against him, a verdict of guilty for Jessica’s murder seemed assured, until one juror voted not guilty. This one holdout, Maya Seale, refused to alter her verdict and was eventually able to convince the other jurors to change their votes. Their resulting decision would shock the country and change the juror’s lives forever.

Now, 10 years later, Maya is a successful defence attorney who has tried her hardest to move on from the infamous trial that ruined her life, until Rick Leonard, her fellow former juror and secret lover during the trial, tracks her down. Rick has spent the last 10 years obsessing with case, believing that they let a guilty man go free. Now, to mark the 10th anniversary of the trial, a true-crime show wants to interview each of the jurors in the hotel they were sequestered at during the trial. At the end of the interview, they will be presented with new evidence that Rick has uncovered which he believes definitively proves Bobby Nock’s guilt. While initially reluctant to go, Maya ends up making an appearance, only to find Rick dead in her hotel room.

Now the prime suspect in Rick’s death, Maya is forced to relive the infamy that has dogged her for years. Determined to prove her innocence, Maya begins interviewing the only potential witnesses to the crime, the former members of the jury who were gathered at the hotel. However, her investigation reveals that Rick has been digging up dirt on each of the former jurors, and several of them may have had a motive to kill him. As she digs deep, Maya begins to believe that the solution to this current murder lies in the trial that brought them together. Did they let a guilty man go free all those years ago, and is that decision coming back to haunt them with lethal consequences?

Wow, just wow, this was a pretty incredible thriller novel. Moore has pulled together quite a compelling and complex read which presents the reader with a fantastic and intricate story that combines an excellent legal thriller with a captivating murder mystery to create a first-rate read.

The Holdout’s story is told in alternating chapters, with half of the chapters set back during the original trial in 2009, and the rest of the book is set 10 years later in the present day. The 2019 chapters are told exclusively from the point of view of Maya as she attempts to uncover who killed Rick Leonard, while each of the chapters set in the past are told from the perspective of a different juror as they observe the events surrounding the trial. This is a really clever storytelling technique as it presents the reader with two connected but distinct storylines. The storyline set during the original trial is a legal drama-thriller in the vein of 12 Angry Men or Runaway Jury, and it shows various points of the Bobby Knock murder trial and the jury deliberations that followed. Through the author’s use of multiple perspectives, the reader is able to see how the various members of the jury came to their ultimate verdict, what factors influenced their decisions and what they thought about the various people involved in the case and their fellow jurors. The storyline set in the present day, on the other hand, reads more like a murder mystery, and it deals with the protagonist’s hunt to find Rick’s killer in order to prove her innocence. Both of these separate storylines work extremely well together, especially as the Maya storyline explores the impacts of the events that occurred during the older timeline. I also think that Moore did an excellent job jumping between the various time periods and character perspectives, and this clever storytelling style helped to create a compelling read with a fun flow to it.

At the centre of this novel lies two fantastic and complex mystery storylines set around 10 years apart. The first one of these revolves around what happened to Jessica Silver in 2009, while the other involves the murder of Rick Leonard in 2019. Both of these separate cases are really intriguing, and they present the reader with some clever twists, compelling potential theories, alternative suspects and conflicting evidence, so much so that the eventual solutions to these mysteries are actually quite surprising. While both of these two mysteries work really well by themselves, the real beauty is in the way that they combine together throughout the book. The solution to the Rick Leonard murder is strongly rooted to the original 2009 trial with the jury, while the eventual revelation about Jessica Silver doesn’t come out until the events of the 2019 murder are concluded. I really enjoyed seeing both of these mysteries come together, and it was cool to see the motives for one case be revealed in a prior timeline, while the protagonist investigated in the present.

I also had a great appreciation for the legal aspects of The Holdout, as the author dives deep in the United States court system and shows off what happens during a murder trial. There are some tricky legal scenes throughout this book, and one of the major appeals of the 2009 storylines is seeing the entirety of the murder trial unfold. Moore also does a great job exploring how the jury system works and how jurors deliberate and decide upon a person’s innocence and guilt. There are some intriguing examinations of the jury system throughout the book, and it was interesting to see what information they are given and how a jury could come up with one verdict when the rest of the country has already decided. The use of multiple perspectives works well during the 2009 part of the book, and I quite enjoyed seeing how the disparate jurors had different opinions about the information presented to them. The 2019 storyline also contains some intriguing legal scenes which are shown from the perspective of Maya as a successful defence attorney. As a result, these scenes contain fascinating information about legal strategy and defence plans, and it was a little scary to consider innocent people being advised that their best legal strategy for a crime they didn’t commit was to claim self-defence. The Holdout also tried to show the chaos that surrounds a high profile court case, including examining the crazy media coverage, the impact of public perception, and the fact that people involved are often more concerned with making money or advancing their careers rather than finding out who actually committed the crime. All of this is extremely fascinating, and I enjoyed seeing Moore’s take on the current legal system, especially as he comes across as somewhat critical of it at times.

Moore has also filled this book with a number of complex and relatable characters in the form of the jurors, who you get to know throughout the course of both storylines. Thanks to the two separate timelines, you get to see how the events of the trial affected these people as each of them had their lives completely ruined thanks to one decision they made 10 years ago. Thanks to the use of multiple perspectives during the earlier timeline, you actually get to briefly see inside the mind of each of the jurors, and explore how events in their past lives, plus the stress of the trial helped influence their verdict. I also found it fascinating to see how the not-guilty verdict impacted on other characters associated with the trial, such as the family of Jessica Silver and the accused, Bobby Nock. This was especially true in the case of Bobby, who, despite being found innocent, was controversially prosecuted for another crime and was then subsequently hounded by the media for years, resulting in some compelling scenes around this character in the 2019 storyline. I also have to point out the underlying theme of obsession that the author expertly inserted into this story. Obsession with the trial affected several characters within the book, causing many of them to act in unpredictable ways to achieve their goals. This obsession came from a number of places, including from guilt, a sense of righteousness, a desire for revenge or to find justice, and it was quite compelling to see what this obsession drove some characters to do. One member of the jury in particular is driven to do some very dark things that were completely out of character to the person who was introduced in the earlier storyline, and this characters development was extremely fascinating to behold. Moore did an amazing job with these characters, and I really liked seeing how the events depicted in the book influenced and impacted them.

I ended up listening to the audiobook format of The Holdout, which was narrated by Abby Craden. The Holdout audiobook runs for just over 10 hours and I found myself flying through this novel, especially when I became obsessed with working out the overall solutions to this book. Craden is an excellent audiobook narrator, and I previously enjoyed her work on Recursion by Black Crouch last year. For The Holdout, Craden comes up with a number of distinctive voices for the various characters featured within the book. Each of these voices fit their respective characters extremely well, and I think that Craden did a good job portraying these character’s various ethnicities and genders. All of this really helped me to enjoy this incredible story, and this format comes highly recommended as a result.

The Holdout was an absolutely incredible read that does a fantastic job showcasing Graham Moore’s superb skill as a master storyteller. This amazing novel expertly combines together a compelling legal thriller with an addictive murder mystery in order to produce a first-rate story with some captivating twists and intriguing character developments. The Holdout gets a full five-star rating from me, and I am very excited to see what this remarkable author produces next.

The Warsaw Protocol by Steve Berry

The Warsaw Protocol Cover

Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton/Macmillan Audio (Audiobook – 25 February 2020)

Series: Cotton Malone – Book 15

Length: 11 hours and 48 minutes

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

In the mood for an exciting thriller that not only features an intense, high-stakes spy adventure but also an intriguing and detailed examination of a nation’s history and culture? Then you are going to love The Warsaw Protocol, the latest novel from bestselling thriller author Steve Berry and the 15th novel in his long-running Cotton Malone series.

Former United States Justice Department agent Cotton Malone is now retired and enjoying his life as a rare book dealer and occasionally supplementing his income with some freelance intelligence work. In Bruges to attend a book fair, his holiday takes an unexpected turn when he attempts to stop the theft of a rare religious artefact. His interference accidently places him in the centre of a new conspiracy threatening to engulf Poland, one with massive global ramifications.

A notorious information broker has obtained a series of documents that reveal troubling secrets about the President of Poland, Janusz Czajkowski, and his past during the communist occupation of his country. These secrets, if revealed, would ruin the political career of Czajkowski and are the ultimate form of blackmail. With a controversial proposal surrounding an advanced American missile defence system in Poland on the table, both the United States and Russia want these documents, as do several other interested nations. The documents will be auctioned off in a secret location, with the price of admission one of seven sacred Christian relics located around the world.

Recruited by his former boss, Stephanie Nelle, Cotton attempts to steal one of the remaining relics in order to enter the US into the auction. However, despite the best-laid plans of the new President of the United States, the auction turns into a disaster, with Russian duplicity, Polish intelligence agents and a rival information broker all coming into play. As Cotton attempt to recover the documents, he is faced with severe moral implications, should he really be party to an American plan to blackmail a foreign nation?

Berry is an outstanding thriller author who has been producing consistent and enjoyable work since his 2003 debut, The Amber Room. While he has produced several standalone novels, his main body of work is the Cotton Malone novels, which started in 2006 with The Templar Legacy. So far, I have only read the prior book in the Cotton Malone series, The Malta Exchange, which came out last year. I really enjoyed The Malta Exchange and became an instant fan of the way that Berry combined exciting thriller storylines with historical conspiracy theories and deep dives into the history and culture of various nations. I have been looking forward to The Warsaw Protocol for a while now, and I even featured it on my recent Most Anticipated Books for the First Half of 2020 list.

Like the rest of the books in the series, The Warsaw Protocol can easily be read as a standalone novel, with absolutely no knowledge of any of the prior books required to enjoy the fun and exciting story contained within. Long-term fans of the series will definitely enjoy this new entry, not only because of its great story but because some of the events depicted are likely to have major repercussions for future books in the series. Berry makes excellent use of multiple viewpoints to tell this story, with several major characters getting a number of chapters to themselves, which not only show their actions in the current day but also dive into their own personal history and the history of the people or places they are interacting with. This leads to a richer overall narrative, and I think it was the best way to tell this complex story. Overall, I am really glad that I decided to dive further into the Cotton Malone series, as I found The Warsaw Protocol to be another fantastic and captivating thriller with some first-rate depictions of the complex nation of Poland.

At the centre of this book lies an outstanding thriller which sees the agents of several different nations fighting over sensitive material that could change the balance of power in the world. Berry takes this thriller storyline in some fantastic directions, and I really enjoyed the fast-paced and exciting final result. I loved seeing the past coming back to haunt people, especially as this allowed the author to dive back into Poland’s history when it was part of the Soviet Union. The Warsaw Protocol contains several excellent action sequences, although the book has more of a focus on uncovering the past and solving historical clues. I felt that the author’s use of multiple viewpoints worked really well to increase story’s suspense and intrigue, especially as you get to see the various major players react and enact countermoves against each other. I was a tad surprised that the author did not really do much more with the holy relics the auction participants needed to collect, especially as I spent a good part of the book thinking they were going to lead to some other great Polish treasure. There were also some other McGuffins and secrets that were mentioned or discovered throughout the book that didn’t really go anywhere either, and I would have been interested to see what impact they would have had on the plot if the protagonist had known about them. Still, this was an incredibly captivating piece of thriller fiction, and thanks to the fast-paced and exciting story, I had a really hard time putting The Warsaw Protocol down.

One of the main things that draws me to the Cotton Malone series is the way that Berry makes sure to dive into the history and culture of the countries in which his books are set. I really loved the in-depth look at Malta in his previous book, and I have a great appreciation for all the intriguing details about Poland that he features in his latest novel. Make no mistake, while this book does mainly follow the story of an American intelligence agent, The Warsaw Protocol is first and foremost a novel about Poland, featuring examinations of the nations troubled history and its unique cultural mindset. I am a huge history buff, so I absolutely loved Berry’s examination of these elements of Polish history. His major focus was on Poland when it was controlled by the Soviets following World War II, although he also looks back at the medieval history of the country as well. I found this examination of the Communist occupation of Poland to be quite fascinating, although Berry makes sure to point out the terrible circumstances that the people found themselves in and the lasting impact Communist control has had on the nation. The author sets up the seeds of the book’s central thriller in the country’s Communist past, and the resultant bloom turned out to be an excellent story.

In addition to the country’s history, Berry also attempts to showcase the social and cultural identity of Poland, while examining how the country’s long history of dissention, political upheaval and oppression from other nations has helped to create a unique society of people with a distinctive social mindset and way of life. Berry obviously has a lot of love for the people of Poland, and his examination of their national personality is quite intriguing. It is also another element of this book that works well with the overarching thriller storyline, as several of the point-of-view characters are able to predict how the general population of Poland will react if the information up for auction is released, motivating several of the characters. All in all, this was an incredibly fascinating and compelling examination of one of Europe’s most distinctive and important countries, and I really liked how Berry was once again able to use these captivating elements to produce an excellent spy thriller.

Berry also spends a lot of time bringing several iconic Polish locations to life to serve as backdrops for his story. There are some absolutely fantastic locations featured within this novel, including a number of major cities, some important castles, significant religious sites and even a world-famous salt mine. Berry has apparently spent a lot of time faithfully replicating these sites within his book, with some minor exceptions for plot reasons. The author really paints a vibrant picture when he presents these locations to the reader, and many of them sound like incredible places to visit (I personally would love to see the aforementioned salt mine after reading this book, as it sounds pretty damn awesome). There is also a rather fun sequence at the start of the book set in the Belgium city of Bruges, which the author uses to full advantage, setting a great chase sequence in the city’s iconic canals. There are also descriptions of several real-life restaurants, cafes and other such locations throughout this book, and it is clear that the author has really done his homework. Indeed, the author has even included a substantial notes section at the back of the book discussing the accuracy of his portrayals of history and locations. All of these are amazing backdrops for this fast-paced thriller storyline, and I really enjoyed seeing some of the action taking place in this amazing historical and cultural locations. Those readers who have been to these locations in Poland are bound to get a kick out seeing them so lovingly portrayed in this book, and I think that Berry did a wonderful job of bringing these places to life.

One of Berry’s inclusions that I found particularly interesting was the character of the new US President, Warner Fox. Fox is a brash, undiplomatic and ill-informed former businessman who practices cronyism and is generally painted as being an incompetent and unworthy President by the book’s characters. This sort of US President is becoming more and more common in thriller novels these days for obvious reasons, and I always find it intriguing to see what perceived impacts authors believe such a person would have on the intelligence community. In The Warsaw Protocol, the President is portrayed in an antagonistic manner, as Cotton Malone greatly disagrees with him and his methods. The President and his advisors blunder through the entire book, failing to listen to the advice of seasoned intelligence operators and generally make the entire situation far worse, while the other world leaders easily run rings around them. This actually becomes a major issue for the protagonist, as not only does it make his mission more difficult, but this new President ends up shifting the entire landscape of the series. I thought that this was a really intriguing, if somewhat horrifying, addition to the novel, especially as it is a potentially accurate depiction of how the current administration would interfere with or attempt to control intelligence agencies, and I look forward to seeing how Berry expands on this point in future novels (especially after the next election).

Just as I did with the previous book in the Cotton Malone series, I chose to listen to The Warsaw Protocol’s audiobook format. The Warsaw Protocol audiobook is narrated by Scott Brick and runs for just under 12 hours, allowing for a relatively quick read for a determined listener. I personally find that the audiobook is a great format to enjoy Berry’s books with, as listening to the story helped me appreciate his vivid descriptions and intriguing examinations of history a lot more. Brick is an excellent audiobook narrator who has narrated nearly all of the Cotton Malone books in the past and also provides his vocal talents to a number of other thriller novels, such as the recently released Into the Fire by Gregg Hurwitz. I find that Brick has a fantastic voice for thriller novels such as The Warsaw Protocol, and he is able to present the complex story in an enjoyable way, as well as provide some great Eastern European accents for some of the individuals featured in the novel. If I had to make a complaint, though, I did find it a little hard at times to distinguish between a couple of characters with similar voices, especially when they are having a conversation with each other. This was not a major issue; it just occasionally left me wondering for a couple of seconds who was talking, although it was usually made clear right after I had that thought. As a result, I would strongly recommend the audiobook format to anyone who is interested in checking this book out, and I personally loved listening to the story unfold.

Steve Berry has once again produced an incredible and deeply enjoyable thriller novel that utilises his trademark love for all things historical and cultural to create a fantastic read. The Warsaw Protocol does a wonderful job of combining an exciting story with an in-depth look at the vibrant, distinctive and at times chaotic nation of Poland, and I loved the final result. I cannot wait to see what amazing adventure Berry comes up with next time, and I fully intend to keep reading all the Cotton Malone books he brings out. This is a highly recommend thriller that I think a lot of people are going to enjoy.

A Little Hatred by Joe Abercrombie

A Little Hatred Cover

Publisher: Orion (Audiobook – 17 September 2019)

Series: Age of Madness Trilogy – Book One

Length: 20 hours and 20 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

One of the very best authors of dark fantasy fiction, Joe Abercrombie, returns to his epic First Law series with A Little Hatred, an outstanding and deeply entertaining read that serves as an excellent start to a whole new trilogy.

28 years after the failed Gurkish invasion of the Union and Jezal dan Luthar’s sudden rise to the throne, the world is much changed. Industry has come to the Union, with vast factories, production lines and businesses now defining the Union’s various cities at the expense of the nation’s farmers, labourers and working classes. In this time of change, a whole new generation is ready to make its mark in the world, but the rivalries, hatreds, manipulations and disappointments of those who have come before are hard things to overcome.

In the North, war once again rocks the lands, as the forces of Stour Nightfall invade the Dogman’s Protectorate, forcing the armies of Angland to come to their aid. Young lord Leo dan Brock is desperate to seek honour and glory on the battlefield; however, his forces are too small to defeat the vast Northern hordes. Requiring help from the Union, Leo is hopeful that a relief force led by Crown Prince Orso may help to turn the tide of battle, but the Crown Prince is a man known to constantly disappoint all who pin their hopes on him. However, the arrival of the mysterious Rikke, daughter of the Dogman, may provide him with a all the help he needs, especially with her ability to see through the Long Eye. Back in the Union, Savine dan Glokta, daughter of the feared Arch Lector Glokta, is making a name for herself as a ruthless businesswoman. Dominating the world of business and industry, Savine believes that she is untouchable, but dissent amongst the working classes are about to show her how wrong she is.

As both the North and the Union find themselves on the dawn of a whole new era, chaos will absorb all before it. While this new generation attempts to find their place, they soon begin to realise what the previous generation found out the hard way that they are not the ones in charge of their destiny, and there is nothing a little hatred cannot ruin.

Joe Abercrombie is a highly acclaimed author who has produced some truly amazing pieces of dark fantasy fiction over the years. While he has written other books, such as the Shattered Sea trilogy, he is probably best known for his First Law series. The First Law series is currently made up of seven books (including A Little Hatred), which detail bloodshed, politics and manipulation in a dark fantasy world. This series started with The First Law trilogy, which debuted in 2006 with The Blade Itself and ended in 2008 with Last Argument of Kings. The First Law trilogy followed the adventures of several complex and amazing characters as they fought to not only stop the Gurkish invasion of The Union but also the end a war in the North. Abercrombie would eventually follow this original trilogy with three standalone novels, which were set after the events of The First Law trilogy. These three books, 2009’s Best Served Cold, 2011’s The Heroes and 2012’s Red Country, each had various degrees of connection to the original trilogy, and in many cases showed what happened to some of the major characters from the first three books. These standalone novels were eventually collected together into the loose Great Leveller trilogy. I absolutely loved the original First Law trilogy, and it remains amongst one of my favourite fantasy series of all times. I do need to check out all of the Great Leveller books at some point, although I have no doubt the will all prove to be first-rate reads.

A Little Hatred is Abercrombie’s first entry in the First Law series since 2012, and it is set 28 years after the events of the original trilogy and 15 years after the events of Red Country. A Little Hatred is also the first book in a new connected trilogy that Abercrombie is producing, The Age of Madness trilogy, with the next two books in this trilogy to be released in September 2020 and September 2021. I have been looking forward to reading A Little Hatred for a while now, mainly because of how much I enjoyed the original The First Law trilogy, and I was very happy to not be disappointed with this new book. A Little Hatred was an incredible and captivating read which I powered through in short order. Not only does this book get a full five stars from me, but I even listed it as one of my favourite novels from 2019 when I was only about halfway through it.

For his latest book, Abercrombie utilises the same writing style that proved to be so successful in the previous First Law books. Readers are once again in for a dark, gruesome and very adult story that follows seven main point-of-view characters as they experience the events unfolding throughout the book. While each of the seven main characters has their own unique arcs, their various stories combine throughout the course of the novel to produce a deeply compelling overall narrative. I really like all the places the story went in this book, and it turned into an excellent blend of war, political intrigue, violent social revolution and intense interaction between a number of amazing characters. Abercrombie does not hold back any punches in this story, and there are a number of intense and excessively violent fight and torture scenes in this book, and there is plenty to keep action fans satisfied. At the same time, the author also installs a fun sense of humour throughout the book, which usually relates to the personalities of the various characters who are telling the story. All of this adds up to an absolutely amazing story and you are guaranteed to get quickly get drawn into A Little Hatred’s plot.

I thought that the author’s use of multiple character perspectives was an extremely effective storytelling method, especially as the seven point-of-view characters followed in this book often find themselves on different sides in the various featured conflicts. This allows the reader to see all the relevant angles to the political, social and military conflicts that are shown in the story, whilst also advancing the book’s various character arcs. These multiple character perspectives also allow the reader to see multiple viewpoints of the same events. This is especially effective during a couple of the larger battle sequences or during a particular duel scene, where you get to see the thoughts, fears and plans of the various participants and spectators, allowing for richer and more elaborate scenes. There are also a bunch of brief scenes which are told from the perspective of several minor characters, which are used, for example, to show off the extreme chaos surrounding the takeover of a city by members of the working class. I also really liked how Abercrombie used these different character viewpoints to imbue the story with some intriguing symmetry, such as by having two separate characters spending time with their respective parents back to back in order to show the differences and similarities in their relationships. All of this produces an excellent flow to the novel, which I really appreciated, and which helped with the overall enjoyment of the book.

A Little Hatred is an excellent continuation of the previous First Law books, and Abercrombie has come up with a bold new direction for the series. This latest novel is strongly connected to the events of the previous entries in this overarching series and continues a bunch of the storylines established in the prior books. It also continues the adventures of several characters who have previously appeared in the series, showing what has happened to them in the intervening years and how their legacy is being continued. Despite this strong connection to the previous six books in the First Law series, I would say that it is not a major necessity to have read any of the prior books, as the author does a great job of rehashing all the relevant major events while also successfully reintroducing some of the main characters, allowing new readers to enjoy this book. That being said, those readers who are familiar with some of the prior books, especially The First Law trilogy, are going to have a much better understanding of the events and characters that are featured within A Little Hatred, which may also result in a change in how readers view certain characters and events. For example, one of the main characters from the original trilogy makes several appearances throughout the book, interacting with some of the point-of-view characters. As these new characters have no prior experiences dealing with him, they believe he is a fairly harmless and friendly old man, which is how he is then presented to new readers. However, those readers who are familiar with him from the original trilogy know just how dangerous he can be, and his harmless routine actually becomes a little sinister. Readers with knowledge of the events of the original trilogy are also in for a lot more cringe throughout this book, as you know all the shocking details of a certain inappropriate relationship well before it is revealed to one of the characters later in the book.

I thought it was interesting that Abercrombie included such a significant time skip between this book and the original trilogy, but I think that it really paid off and created an excellent new setting. While the North and the conflicts that defined it remained very similar to what was featured in the previous books, the main setting of the Union proved to be very different. Since the last time you saw it, the Union has started to evolve from a more medieval society to an industrial society, with factories and production lines, which in many ways were very reminiscent of the Industrial Revolution in places like England. Of course, these changes result in different types of conflicts, as the lack of traditional jobs combined with the rich ruthlessly taking the agricultural industry away from the peasants results in an interesting bout of extreme class warfare, led by the organisation called the Breakers. These Breakers bear a lot of similarities to the organised instigator of real-life industrial revolts that occurred throughout historical Europe, and it was interesting to see Abercrombie’s take on them, especially as he included an anarchist sub-group, the Burners. I really liked this intriguing focus on class revolution, and it looks like this is going to be one of the major story threads of this new trilogy. I am very curious to see how it all unwinds, and I imagine there is more anarchy, chaos and bloody revolution on the horizon.

While the above elements are all pretty outstanding, the true highlight of the First Law books has always been the complex and damaged protagonists through whose eyes the story is told. Abercrombie has a real knack for creating compelling and memorable characters, which he once again showcases within this book. There are some really enjoyable and complex characters here, and I really liked their various interactions and character arcs. These new point-of-view characters include:

  • Crown Prince Orso – son of King Jezal and notorious wastrel who, despite his outward appearance as a lazy, useless and apathetic drunk, is actually a surprisingly capable and deeply caring individual, who hides his abilities and real feelings, especially as his attempts to be a good person usually have disappointing results.
  • Savine dan Glokta – daughter of Arch Lector Glokta, Savine has capitalised on her business sense and the fear of her father to become a successful investor. As a woman in a man’s world, she is forced to be utterly ruthless like her father, and Savine mostly comes across as heartless until a traumatic experience and revelations about her past almost break her.
  • Rikke – a Northern girl who is the daughter of the Dogman. Rikke is a powerful seer with the ability to see both into both the past and the future, although she has limited control of these powers. Rikke starts the book out as quite an innocent woman, until Stour Nightfall’s invasion hardens her and makes her keener for violence and revenge.
  • Leo dan Brock – a Union lord who is the son of two of the protagonists of The Heroes. Leo is a young man’s man, eager to prove himself in combat, whose abilities have made him a popular hero. However, his impatience and desire for glory ensure calamity on the battlefield, which guilts him to try and learn a new way of command. However, once he tastes glory again, he forgets all the lessons he has learned and the friends who got him there.
  • Vick dan Teufel – a Union Inquisitor serving under Arch Lector Glokta. Despite the fact that Glokta framed her father in the original trilogy and sent her and her entire family to a prison camp, Teufel appears loyal to him and the Union, as she likes being on the winning side. Despite her misgivings about the people she works with and her respect for some of the people she is investigating, she continues her missions and tries not to get close to anyone. Teufel is actually very similar to Glokta in personality, especially as she has the familiar storyline of being forced to investigate a conspiracy that no one wants solved.
  • Gunnar Broad – a former Union soldier who returned home after many years of fighting for his country to find that the local lord has stolen his farm. Attempting to find work in the cities, Broad becomes involved in the events of the Breaker’s revolution. Broad is a killer without peer whose temper, bloodlust and the emotional trauma of war drag him into great acts of violence, even when these actions backfire on him and his family.
  • Jonas Clover – a veteran Northern warrior who finds himself serving as an advisor to the young warlord Stour Nightfall. Clover is easily my favourite character in A Little Hatred, as his sense of humour, penchant for mockery and jaded personality really stand out amongst the more serious and blood thirsty characters he interacts with and he has some of the best lines in the whole book. Clover affects an air of laziness and cowardice and is constantly spouting wisdom and council to the younger warriors, who either don’t listen or openly mock him. Despite his apparently amiable nature, Clover is actually a vicious bastard when he needs to be, and he has a couple of memorable kills throughout the book.

In addition to the above seven new point-of-view characters, there is also a bevy of great side characters which really help move the story along. While I could go on about several of them, I might just stick to Isern-i-Phail and Stour Nightfall. Isern is another older Northern character who serves as Rikke’s mentor and protector. While Isern is generally a hard and practical character she is in many ways crafted in a similar vein to Jonas Clover, gently mocking the younger characters she interacts with and producing some of the most entertaining insults and comments throughout the book. Stour Nightfall, on the other hand, is one of the primary antagonists of the book. The cocky son of Black Calder and the grandson of Bethod, one of the major antagonists of the original trilogy, Stour has a real sense of entitlement and viciousness, brought on by his famous relatives and his skill with the blade. In many ways he is a mirror to Leo dan Brock, as both are determined to seek glory in combat, and both seek to emulate the Bloody Nine, Logen Ninefingers, despite their elder’s warnings about what kind of person their hero really was. While at times Stour was a bit two-dimensional as a character, he changes after a significant event at the end of the book, and his future in the series should prove to be very interesting.

Aside from this new group of protagonists, several of the major characters from the original trilogy make a return in this book, allowing readers to get an idea of what has happened to them since their last appearances. This includes returning former point-of-view characters Jezal dan Luthar, Sand dan Glokta (who might just be the best character Abercrombie ever came up with) and the Dogman, as well as several secondary characters. While all of these characters get a few lines and are presented as major figures in the current world order, most of the focus of A Little Hatred is given over to the newer protagonists, which I think fits in well with the book’s overall focus on change. It was great to see these characters again, and there were even some major developments surrounding one of them. It was also cool to see them interact with the younger generations, especially when they see these new characters making the same mistakes they did at their age. A Little Hatred also features the return of the First of the Magi, Bayaz, who is still pulling all the strings in the world. Despite his grandfatherly appearance, Bayaz is probably the main villain of this entire series, and you just know that he is behind all of the events occurring in this book. I look forward to seeing more of the excellent villain in the future, and I cannot wait to see how and why he is manipulating everyone this time.

Rather than read a physical copy of this book, I ended up listening to the audiobook version, which was narrated by Steven Pacey. The A Little Hatred audiobook runs for 20 hours and 20 minutes, making it a fairly substantial audiobook that would actually come in at number 19 on my longest audiobook list. The audiobook format is an excellent way to enjoy A Little Hatred, as you get a real sense of all the gore and violence as it is narrated to you, as well as a better vision of the impressive, changed world that served as the setting of this book. I was really glad that they continued to utilise Steven Pacey as narrator for this new book as Pacey has narrated all the previous First Law audiobooks. It was really good to once again hear the unique voices that Pacey assigned to the characters from the original trilogy, especially as, to me, they were the defining voices of these original characters. The voices that he came up with for the new characters in this book were also good, and I think that he got the character’s personalities down pretty effectively. As a result, I would strongly recommend the audiobook format of A Little Hatred to anyone interested in checking out this book, and I am planning to listen to the rest of The Age of Madness books.

A Little Hatred by Joe Abercrombie is an outstanding and impressive new addition to his brilliant First Law series. Abercrombie has once again produced a captivating, character-based tale of bloody war and politics, while also adding some intriguing new elements to it. This is an exceptional book, which I had an absolute blast listening to. The Age of Madness is off to an extremely strong start, and I cannot wait to see where Abercrombie takes this amazing series to next.

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The Last Smile in Sunder City by Luke Arnold

The Last Smile in Sunder City

Publisher: Orbit (Trade Paperback – 6 February 2020)

Series: Fletch Phillips Archives – Book One

Length: 318 pages

My Rating: 4.75 out of 5 stars

From debuting Australian author Luke Arnold comes The Last Smile in Sunder City, an absolutely superb piece of fantasy fiction that presents a unique and powerful story of loss, redemption and despair in fantastic new universe.

The Last Smile in Sunder City is the debut novel of Australian actor Luke Arnold. Arnold, who has appeared in a number of Australian television shows and movies, is probably best known internationally for playing Long John Silver in the pirate adventure series Black Sails. Arnold has now made the rather interesting career change to writing fantasy fiction with this first book, which is the start of a new series known as the Fetch Phillips Archives. I have actually been looking forward to The Last Smile in Sunder City for a little while now, as I liked the intriguing-sounding plot synopsis and I thought that this book had some real potential.

The continent of Archetellos has always had magic, with nearly every race or being having some access to the power that ran through the lands, extending their lives and giving them rare and amazing abilities. With these powers, the magical races ruled Archetellos, until the humans, the only race not gifted with magic, attempted to steal it for themselves. This resulted in the event known as the Coda, which saw all magic erased from the world. Overnight, the multitudes of beings who relied on magic for their very existence either died or were stricken down. The few survivors of these former magical races are now deformed, crippled and slowly dying in pain.

Fetch Phillips has been many things in his life (a guard, a peacekeeper, a soldier and a criminal) but now he is barely eking out a living as a man for hire in the former magical industrial hub known as Sunder City, which has been suffering ever since its magical fires went out. For a small fee Fetch will help you with whatever problem you have, although his sobriety will cost you extra. He only has only one condition: he won’t work for humans; his only clients are those former magical beings who need his help, because it’s Fetch’s fault that their magic is gone and never coming back.

Fetch’s latest case sees him hired by a school that specialises in teaching the children of former magical creatures. One of their professors, an ancient vampire who is slowly turning to dust, has gone missing, and the school is desperate to find him. Diving into the shady underbelly of the city, Fetch attempts to find some trace of the vampire or anyone who wanted to hurt him. But when one of the vampire’s students, a young siren, also disappears, Fetch needs to step up his game to find them. However, even without magic there are still monsters in Sunder City, and Fetch may not be able to survive his encounter with them.

This was a really impressive piece of fantasy fiction. With The Last Smile in Sunder City, Arnold has absolutely nailed his debut, presenting a clever and captivating fantasy mystery which makes full use of its inventive setting and excellent central protagonist to create an impressive and memorable book. This is a truly enjoyable story that contains a fascinating central mystery that blends extremely well with the book’s fantasy elements. I had a great time unravelling the full extent of this intriguing story, and Arnold takes the plot in some very interesting directions, producing some excellent twists and clever false leads. This is less of an action-based novel and more of an exploratory story which sets out the world and features a man of the city running through his contacts to investigate a curious disappearance. I think this worked out extremely well for this book, as it fitted into the book’s classic PI vibe while serving as a great introduction to the city which is no doubt going to be the main setting for any future books in this series. Arnold has also created a couple of fantastic subplots which not only help to explore the world but also help to expand on the compelling darker tone that has been injected into this book.

Without a doubt, the major highlight of this book is the deeply inventive and fascinating new world that Arnold has produced. When I first read The Last Smile in Sunder City’s plot synopsis about a world where magic no longer existed, I was intrigued and thought that it sounded like an interesting idea. However, I was not prepared for just how impressive and creative this turned out to be. In order to tell his story, the author first created a detailed fantasy world that was filled with a huge variety of classic magical creatures of all shapes and sizes, where magic was the ultimate power and in which humans, who have no access to magic, are second-class citizens. While this would have been an interesting place to set a fantasy mystery, the author immediately flips this setting on its head by showing how humans attempted to steal the magic from its source (via an animation intended for children that was cut across by the protagonist’s memories, which was a fantastic way to introduce this plot point), and how their intrusion resulted in the complete destruction of magic.

This of course leads to a very interesting world, as now all the creatures and beings who previously survived on magic have had their lives irreversibly altered. Arnold spends a good part of the book exploring the impact of this loss of magic, examining the impacts on the previously immortal elves who all suddenly died from old age, the werewolves and other shapeshifters who found themselves deformed and stuck at the halfway point between human and animal, the vampires who all lost their fangs and are slowly crumbling to dust, sirens whose human husbands all simultaneously left them, and so much more. There are also some cool examinations of the change in status quo, with humans now becoming the dominant species on the continent thanks to their superior numbers (humans were not affected by the Coda) and their ability to use technology as a substitute for the magic that used to run everything. Of course, humans being humans, there are a couple of examples of humanity taking revenge against the magical creatures that previously dominated the continent, which the author does a good job of working into the plot. All of this proves to be an extremely fascinating and enjoyable overarching backdrop to the story of The Last Smile in Sunder City, and I really have to congratulate Arnold on his amazing imagination. Every detail about this creative world was really cool, and I loved seeing how his vision of a fantasy realm bereft of magic come to life.

The main location of this book is the titular Sunder City. Sunder City is a former magical metropolis which has suffered in the post-Coda period. Once a place of marvels and magically-powered industry, the city is now a shell of its former self, with most magical beings now living in slums and struggling to get by without their abilities. There is a bit of a Depression-era vibe to Sunder City, especially as Arnold does an excellent job of imbuing much of the city with a sense of despair, resentment and hopelessness. This really turned out to be a fantastic city to serve as the book’s primary setting, and I really enjoyed the protagonist’s exploration of it as he attempts to find the missing people. There are some really intriguing elements to this city which are worked into the overarching mystery plot extremely well, such as a hostile police force, businesses catering to former magical creatures and gangs of humans trying to cause trouble. All of this is pretty amazing, and I look forward to seeing more adventures and mysteries take place in Sunder City, especially if the author spends time looking at new types of former magical creatures that weren’t featured in this first book.

In addition to the compelling story and outstanding settings, Arnolds rounds out this awesome book with an intriguing central protagonist, Fetch Phillips. Fetch, who also serves as the book’s narrator, is a drunk, depressed and broken man, who is essentially a classic noir PI in a fantasy world. While Fetch can at times be funny or entertaining, mostly due to his sarcastic and confrontational style, his defining characteristics are his overwhelming guilt and despair. This is due to the fact that he is largely responsible for the humans destroying magic, which resulted in so much death and suffering. The full story behind Fletch’s involvement in this atrocity is chronicled in the book through a series of flashbacks which show his origin, the friendships he formed and the events and emotions that led up to his darkest moment. Due to his role in the causing the Coda, and the fact that he betrayed the trust of several friends, Fletch is filled with all manner of self-loathing and must now deal with his complicated emotions towards other humans, who he detests, and the former magical creatures he is compelled to help, most of whom now hate him. Despite all this darkness, there is a little bit of light within Fletch as he struggles against his demons and his past to find redemption and live up to a promise he made. I thought that this portrayal of Fletch was a great part of the book, and I loved the complexity that Arnold has imparted on his protagonist. I also really enjoyed the way that the author showed off the character’s past, centring the flashbacks on the four tattoos he has on his arm, and exploring the meaning behind them. This mixture of the mystery in the present and the look at the events in the character’s past worked really well together, and they help show off an amazing central protagonist who is going to be a fantastic centrepiece for this series going forward.

The Last Smile in Sunder City by Luke Arnold is a superb and highly addictive fantasy mystery that presents the reader with a fantastic and thrilling story. While the book is mostly a clever and enjoyable mystery, its true strengths are the unique and captivating settings and the complicated, well-written protagonist, both of which help to transform this amazing novel into a first-rate read. Thanks to this excellent debut, Arnold has proven that he is a talent to be reckoned with in the fantasy genre, and I am looking forward to seeing what he produces next. The Last Smile in Sunder City comes highly recommended, and I think many people are going to enjoy this exciting new Australian author.

Just Watch Me by Jeff Lindsay

Just Watch Me Cover.jpg

Publisher: Orion (Trade Paperback – 10 December 2019)

Series: Riley Wolfe series – Book One

Length: 358 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

From one of the world’s most popular thriller authors, Jeff Lindsay, comes Just Watch Me, an electrifying heist novel that pits an intriguing new protagonist against impossible odds.

Prepare to meet Riley Wolfe, the world’s greatest thief. Wolfe is a master of disguise, an expert con artist and a true devotee of the ridiculous heist. There is nothing he can’t steal, and he lives to target the super-rich with his capers in order to make them suffer. However, Wolfe is starting to get bored. His last few heists have gone off without a hitch and he is looking for a challenge. But his new target might be truly impossible to steal, even for him.

Wolfe has his eyes on some of the most impressive treasures in the world, the Crown Jewels of Iran, and in particular the Daryayeh-E-Noor, a gigantic pink diamond that is valued beyond compare. With the jewels finally out of Iran and in New York for a tour, Wolfe knows that this is the time to steal them. They have been placed within the most secure gallery in the country, which utilises impenetrable security systems, state-of-the-art alarms and a small army of former special forces soldiers acting as guards. In addition, a regiment of the lethal Iranian Revolutionary Guard are also standing watch, ready to kill anyone who gets too close. With these security measures in place, the jewels appear to be beyond the reach of any potential thieves, no matter how careful or elaborate their plan may be, and anyone who tries is going to end up dead. However, Wolfe is no ordinary thief, and he has come up with a cunning scheme that no one else would have ever thought of. If all his planning succeeds, he will have an opportunity to make off with the jewels. But with all manner of complications in front of him and a determined FBI agent hunting down his past, can even the great Riley Wolfe succeed, or will his most daring heist be his last?

When I first saw that Jeff Lindsay was doing a heist novel, I knew that I was going to have to grab a copy of it. Lindsay is a bestselling thriller author who debuted in 1994 with the novel Tropical Depression. Lindsay is of course best known for his Dexter series, which was adapted into a highly popular television series. While I have not had the pleasure of reading any of Lindsay’s work prior to this book, I did really enjoy the first few seasons of the Dexter television show, so I was really interested in seeing the author’s take on a heist novel. I am really glad that I checked Just Watch Me out as Lindsay has produced a deeply compelling and exceedingly fun novel that not only contains a really cool heist story, but which also features another complex protagonist for the reader to sink their teeth into.

First of all, let’s talk heists. For Just Watch Me, Lindsay came up with a very interesting heist scenario which sees one man try to break into a massively secure gallery guarded by some of the most sophisticated technology in the world, as well as some of the deadliest killers. The story follows Wolfe as he attempts to find some way into the building that everyone agrees in impenetrable, and while he initially encounters major setbacks, he eventually comes up with an audacious plan to get in. This plan is very bold and complicated, and involves a lot of manipulation, disguises, seduction, confidence work, forgeries, doublecrosses and even a couple of well-placed murders. All of this comes together into one fun and exciting conclusion which sees everyone understand the full extent of the plan. Lindsay paces out all the parts of the heist extremely well, and I really enjoyed how the entire thing unfolded, especially as it was a cool, roundabout way to attempt to steal something from a gallery. The heist proves to be an exceptional centre to the whole narrative, and I really enjoyed seeing how this part of the book progressed.

I also liked the way that Lindsay utilised multiple viewpoints to tell this story. While several chapters are told from the protagonist’s point of view using the first-person perspective, a large amount of the book is actually told from the perspective of the book’s side characters. These side characters include a range of different people, such as Wolfe’s allies, the people he is trying to manipulate, the FBI agent hunting him and even several bystanders who are caught up in the whole heist. All of these different viewpoints help to show off the various angles of the heist, which I felt helped enhance this part of the story. It was also really cool to see how normal people, including police officers, guards, gallery employees and some of his marks, perceive the various disguises he comes up with or the confidence tricks that he is pulling. I loved seeing this outside perspective of Wolfe’s criminal techniques, and it was a great way to portray a large amount of the heist.

While the heist is a really amazing part of this book, one of the most compelling parts of Just Watch Me is actually its protagonist, Riley Wolfe. Lindsay obviously has a lot of experience writing complex and intriguing protagonists for his thrillers, and he has done an amazing job creating another one here in Wolfe. Wolfe is a master thief whose defining characteristic is an overwhelming compulsion to steal from the mega-rich, especially those who obtained their wealth by screwing over the little people in the world. Wolfe is absolutely obsessed with his crusade against the rich due to his experiences as a child, and this obsession forces him to complete his heists no matter the cost. The author spends quite a bit of time exploring Wolfe’s hatred for the rich, and it is quite fascinating to see his internal thoughts on why he is stealing from them. The reader also gets to see some of the events from the character’s childhood which form the basis for this obsession. Ironically enough, the reason we get to learn so much about Wolfe’s childhood is because one of the book’s antagonists, FBI Special Agent Frank Delgado, becomes so obsessed with learning more about him that he briefly leaves the FBI in an attempt to hunt him down (obsession is a key element of several of the book’s main characters). Delgado spends several scenes scouring the country trying to find out Wolfe’s history, which is slowly revealed throughout the course of the book. I really enjoyed that Lindsay included this dive into the character’s past, and I felt that it really complemented the main heist storyline and helped to create a fantastic overall narrative, especially as this investigation into his history, represents the biggest risk to Wolfe’s freedom.

Now, as Wolfe steals from the richest of the rich, it might be easy to assume that he’s a good guy or an anti-hero you can cheer on, but that is really not true. Not only does this protagonist come across as an excessively arrogant person who is high on himself, but he also does a ton of stuff that is totally morally wrong. For example, throughout the course of the book, Wolfe commits several murders, frames people for crimes they did not commit and totally ruins a number of people’s lives. While some of these people probably deserve to suffer at the hands of Wolfe, a bunch really did nothing wrong; they were either born into money, in his way, or merely collateral damage. In one case, he even spends time thinking about how much he respects one of his victims right before he arranges for her to be arrested for art fraud. What’s even worse is that, in many cases, Wolfe doesn’t even realise that he’s done something wrong. While he knows that he maybe should not have committed some of the murders, he totally fails to think of the emotional consequences some of his cons or manipulations will have on the people he is playing. He is even called out about some of his actions towards the end of the book by his only friend; however, he completely fails to see her point of view. Instead he merely thinks that she is overreacting and goes right back to plotting to get into her pants. Stuff like this makes Wolfe a very hard protagonist to like, and even the knowledge that his actions and viewpoint are the result of a messed-up childhood doesn’t really help. It does result in a much more compelling story though, and it was refreshing to follow a morally ambiguous protagonist. I will be interested to see if Lindsay will examine the impacts Wolfe’s actions had on some of the supporting characters in a later book, and I personally would love to see a story where one of his incidental victims attempts to hunt him down to get revenge for their ruined lives.

I have to say that I was also really impressed with all the discussions of art, paintings and other valuables that the author was able to fit into the story. Lindsay obviously did a large amount of research into the subject (his acknowledgements mention an art professor he consulted) and it was interesting to read the various discussions about art and art forgery. I have to admit that I have no real knowledge of or appreciation for art (except comic book art), but I really enjoyed all the discussions about art style and technique that were peppered throughout the novel. Overall, this was a pretty intriguing inclusion in the book, and I found it to be quite fascinating at times.

In conclusion, Just Watch Me is an amazing fast-paced heist thriller that is really worth checking out. Lindsay has come up with not only an awesome scenario that features a fun heist at the centre but also another complex and morally corrupted protagonist whose inner demons and powerful obsessions we get to explore. I really enjoyed this excellent new book from Lindsay, and I am definitely planning to grab any future novels that come out in this series.

Legacy of Ash by Matthew Ward

Legacy of Ash Cover

Publisher: Orbit (Trade Paperback – 5 November 2019)

Series: Legacy trilogy – Book 1

Length: 768 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

From impressive new author Matthew Ward comes Legacy of Ash, a massive and entertaining new fantasy adventure that was amongst one of my favourite debut novels of 2019.

Legacy of Ash is set within the Tressian Republic, a powerful nation controlled by a council of nobles. The Tressian Republic is beset by many dangers, including the constant threat of invasion from the massive Hadari Empire on its border; open rebellion from the nation’s southernmost lands, the Southshires, which have been seeking independence for years; and the machinations of the dark magic-wielding criminal organisation known as the Crowmarket.

When the Hadari Empire invades the Southshires, the political ambitions and old grudges of the Tressian Council results in a muted military response. It falls to Viktor Akadra, the champion of the Tressian Republic, to lead a small force to the Southshires in order to make a stand against the invaders. However, Viktor is the last person the inhabitants of the Southshires want defending them, as years before he brutally put down their last rebellion, which resulted in the death of their beloved Duchess Katya Trelan.

In order to defeat the Hadari Empire, Viktor needs to work with the children of Katya Trelan, Josiri and Calenne, both of whom hate and fear him, and who both have different plans to ensure their future freedom. However, as fate, self-interest and the future of the Southshires forces them together, these three must find a common ground if they are to survive. But even if they manage to face the forces of the Hadari Empire, far darker threats are assailing the Tressian Republic from within and they will stop at nothing to achieve their terrible goals.

Ward is an interesting new author who is probably best known for his work with Games Workshop, where he served as a principal architect for the company on many of their properties, including Warhammer, Warhammer 40,000 and their The Lord of the Rings range. However, in recent years he has turned his hand to fantasy writing, creating several novellas and short stories, as well as releasing two ebooks, Shadow of the Raven and Light of the Radiant. Legacy of Ash is Ward’s first printed novel, and it is actually set in the same universe as his previous ebooks. It is also the first book in his planned Legacy trilogy, with the second book in the trilogy, Legacy of Steel, set for release later this year.

Legacy of Ash is an excellent new read which contains an exciting and elaborate story, set in a large and creative new world and featuring a substantial group of point-of-view characters. I have actually been looking forward to Legacy of Ash for a while, as it sounded like one of the more exciting new fantasy books that were set for release in 2019, and I am very glad I got a chance to read and review it. However, readers should probably be aware in advance that this book is nearly 800 pages in length, making it a pretty substantial read, and requiring a significant investment of time in finishing it off. This took me a couple of weeks to read in full, mainly because Legacy of Ash would actually come in at number 12 on my recent Longest Novels That I Have Ever Read list. That being said, Legacy of Ash is well worth the time, as this was an amazing and fascinating new fantasy adventure.

Ward has come up with a large and impressive story for his first book, and there is a lot going on within it. The story actually splits up into two separate locations within the Tressian Republic, with half of it set down in the Southshires and the other half set up in the capital of the Republic, Tressia (with small parts also set in a couple of locations in between or within the Hadari Empire). The parts of the book set down in the Southshires deal with the impending invasion of the Hadari, the repression of the Southshire inhabitants by the Tressian council and the attempts by Viktor to work with both of the Trelan siblings. At the same time, the parts of the book set up in Tressia contains a lot of political intrigue, criminal undertakings, dark magical plans and gambits for control of the nation. Both sets of storylines are a lot of fun, and it was really amazing to see all the various story elements occurring at the same time in the different locations. In addition, these two storylines are strongly related to each other, with events happening in one location impacting characters down in the other part of the Republic. All of these story elements and character arcs come together to form an extremely compelling overarching narrative and I quite enjoyed how Legacy of Ash contained such a wide range of different plot points.

Legacy of Ash is populated with a multiple point-of-view characters from whose eyes we see this whole massive story unfold. The use of all these characters allows for a much richer and expansive story, especially as you get to see every side of all various character’s plots and plans as everyone attempts to come out on top of the events unfolding around them. In addition, nearly all of the point-of-view characters have some incredibly captivating and enjoyable character arcs, many of which reach their full potential within this book. There are such an interesting range of different character based stories going on throughout Legacy of Ash, from the mysterious divine magic that starts to infect the honourable knight Roslava Orova, the machinations and manipulations of Ebigail Kiradin, the chaotic adventures of Crowmarket member Apara Rann and the fun friendship that forms between old opponents Kurkas and Halvor. However, the main elements of character development occur around the book’s three central characters, Viktor Akadra, Josiri Trelan and Calenne Trelan. Due to history, resentments and circumstances, these three characters start the book with fairly distant or hostile relationships to each other. However, these barriers are slowly broken down as the book progresses, and each of these main characters slowly works to come to terms with each other and their own individual issues, such as Viktor’s hidden dark magic, or the expectations or resentments that surround Trelan siblings thanks to their long-dead mother. Overall, this is some fairly impressive character work, and Ward did an excellent job creating a fantastic cast for this novel, each of whom add a whole lot to book’s story.

While I did enjoy how this novel progressed and all the interesting story points and character inclusions that were featured, I do feel it was a perhaps a little too long. In particular, I really think that Ward would have been better off not featuring the book’s final antagonist (a long-dead magical queen), who starts to appear around two thirds of the way through the book. Instead, the author could have perhaps only hinted at her return and shaved off most of the final 100 pages. Not only would this make Legacy of Ash a bit more of a manageable read, but it would have allowed the author to expand on this antagonist’s motivations and history a lot more in the subsequent book, rather than having her introduction be somewhat rushed, like it was in this book. Still, the inclusion of this final antagonist led to some rather intriguing and emotional moments, and it also sets up some potentially fantastic story arcs for one of the main characters in the next book in the series.

I also need to say how impressed with the massive and complex new fantasy landscape that Ward created for his debut series. Ward has come up with a number of unique and enjoyable elements for this fantasy world, which really add a lot to the story. The central location of the Tressian Republic was a lot of fun, as it is filled with all manner of perils, conflicting ideals, fermenting hatreds and a hidden death-worshipping criminal organisation, while also featuring a number of external or divine groups or threats at the same time. I felt that the author did a good job of introducing all of these unique elements throughout the book, and I was never too lost or confused by any of the inclusions.

I also really enjoyed the huge number of battle sequences that took place throughout this harsh fantasy landscape, especially those which were enhanced by the series’ unique fantasy inclusions. For example, one massive sequence featured two armies, one with magical constructs and the other with armoured rhinos, facing off against each other as strange and divine magics rain down chaos all around them. Other scenes include a number of different characters attempting to combat the eldritch-enhanced assassins of the mysterious Crowmarket, often resulting in some really impressive battles. I also liked how Ward utilised the multiple point-of-view characters during some of these longer conflicts, ensuring that the reader got to see both sides of the battle, as well as the various thoughts and fears of the characters involved. All of this ensured that the book was chocked full of intense and exciting fantasy action, which is always a plus in my book.

Legacy of Ash by Matthew Ward was an extremely well-written and addictive fantasy debut, which I am very glad I made the effort to read cover-to-cover. Full of some excellent characters, a multi-faceted story and an intriguing new fantasy landscape, the first book in the Legacy trilogy was a really great read, and I had a lot of fun getting through it. Ward has a lot of potential as a fantasy author, and I am quite excited to see where this series goes next.

Traitors of Rome by Simon Scarrow

Traitors of Rome Cover

Publisher: Headline (Trade Paperback – 12 November 2019)

Series: Eagles of the Empire – Book 18

Length: 447 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

From one of my favourite historical fiction authors, Simon Scarrow, comes the 18th book in his long-running Eagles of the Empire series, Traitors of Rome, which once again sends his protagonists, Cato and Marco, into another dangerous scenario against Rome’s enemies. This is another of Scarrow’s books I have really been looking forward to, especially after enjoying the previous entry in the series, The Blood of Rome.

In AD 56, Rome and its great eastern rival, Parthia, are on the brink of war. Both the Roman Emperor Nero and Parthia’s king, Vologases, are in need of a great victory to fully secure their rule, and Rome’s territory has already begun to experience raids from a Parthian noble. Into this chaos Tribune Cato and Centurion Marco have been sent. Leading a cohort of Praetorian Guards, Cato and Marco have been assigned to serve under General Corbulo, who has gathered a force of over 20,000 Roman soldiers to fight against the Parthians. Unfortunately, most of the men under his command are badly trained and ill-prepared for battle, and Corbulo is desperate for more time to get them into shape.

To that end, he orders Cato to lead an embassy into Parthia to negotiate a peace treaty with Vologase. This embassy’s purpose is to delay the Parthian offensive long enough for Corbulo to finalise his preparations. Leading a small group of soldiers and accompanied by one of the general’s agents, Cato makes his way into Parthia, beset by raiders and pirates, with an uncertain reception from Vologase and his nobles awaiting him.

At the same time, the small kingdom of Thapsis on the border near Parthia has risen in revolt against Roman rule. Determined to swiftly end the revolt Corbulo leads a force to retake the kingdom with Marco at his side. However, what was initially believed to be an easy victory quickly turns into an arduous campaign as the Romans encounter heavy resistance. Worse, the harsh conditions and the even harsher discipline of Corbulo soon begin to wear on the soldier’s morale and loyalty. As Cato and Marco attempt to succeed in their missions, both officers are beset by unexpected setbacks and suspicious activities. It soon becomes apparent that a Parthian spy has infiltrated the Romans and is sabotaging their efforts and stoking a mutiny amongst the Roman ranks. Can Cato and Marco catch them before it is too late, or will this be their final mission?

This latest book from Scarrow is a fantastic and enjoyable read which features a cool new story with some unique and intriguing elements to it. I really like where Scarrow took the plot in Traitors of Rome, as he utilises two separate but equally enjoyable storylines by splitting up the two protagonists and sending them on separate missions. Both of the storylines are fairly different from each other, with Marco’s storyline being the more classic Roman military operation, while Cato’s storyline features a clandestine operation behind enemy lines with major political and espionage ramifications to it. This makes for a more complex narrative, but I found that the two different storylines worked very well together, and I really enjoyed seeing both of these plots progress. Scarrow does a good job of splitting the book between these two thrilling adventures and both of these storylines are a lot of fun.

I like some of the different elements that Scarrow featured in this fantastic, action-packed story. For example, the Cato plot had a really good team-up between Cato and the mysterious “clerk” Apollonius of Perga, a shrewd and ruthless agent of the general who lives to be mysterious and who Cato does not know if he can trust. Their relationship eventually evolves into grudging mutual respect, especially after they are forced to escape from Parthia in a great part of the book which sees them pursued by the army and other opportunists across the land. The Marco plot is also really intriguing, as it focuses on the difficult campaign to conquer Thapsis and the resultant hardships faced by the Romans when their supply lines are broken. This devolves into a messy situation where the men are fast losing their morale and General Corbulo’s harsh and unjust punishments to maintain military order and discipline start to push them in the direction of a mutiny. How this whole situation breaks down over the course of the campaign is rather fascinating, and of course Marco is caught in the middle of it. These two separate storylines come together in a great way towards the end of the book, and it looks like the series will be going in a new direction for the next book.

As always, Scarrow is a master of writing excellent historical action sequences, and after 18 books his depictions of Roman military combat have gotten pretty darn good. There are a few large-scale battle scenes throughout this book which show off Roman close-combat fighting, and the reader gets to see several other Roman battle strategies put into play. There are also several smaller-scale fights, especially in the Cato storyline, where Cato and his men face off against a more disparate array of opponents, from Parthian patrols to pirates. All of these action sequences are really well written and provide the reader with all their required excitement and thrills.

Overall, Traitors of Rome was another fantastic addition to Scarrow’s outstanding Eagles of the Empire series. Scarrow has produced another intense and exciting adventure story which goes in some cool new directions and once again puts his likeable protagonists in the middle of some major conflicts with their lives on the line. This is still one of my favourite historical fiction series of all time and is probably the best long-running Roman military sagas out there. It does feel like this series is starting to wrap up, especially as Marco gets married in this book and starts talking about retirement; however, this might be some sort of prelude to a great tragedy that keeps him in the army. Still, I am very much looking forward to the next book in the series, and I cannot wait to see where the story goes next.

The Bone Ships by R. J. Barker

The Bone Ships Cover

Publisher: Hachette Audio (Audiobook – 24 September 2019)

Series: The Tide Child – Book One

Length: 17 hours and 2 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

From one of the brightest new stars in fantasy fiction, R. J. Barker, comes The Bone Ships, a remarkable and extremely captivating new adventure that can be described as Gaunt’s Ghosts meets Moby Dick in an incredibly inventive new fantasy world.

Barker has been making some serious waves in the fantasy genre over the last couple of years, ever since bursting onto the scene in 2017 with his debut novel, Age of Assassins, which started The Wounded Kingdom trilogy. He quickly followed this up in 2018, when he released the second and third books in this trilogy, Blood of Assassins and King of Assassins. I absolutely loved all three books in this trilogy, although I haven’t yet reviewed King of Assassins. Spoiler: it does get five out of five stars from me and recently made my Top Ten pre-2019 Books list.

As a result, I was very excited earlier in the year when I found out that Barker was writing a whole new series. The Bone Ships is the first book in The Tide Child series, and it has been pretty high up on my to-read list for a while, as I have featured it on both my Top Ten Most Anticipated July-December 2019 Releases and my Top Ten Books I Would Like to Read by the End of 2019 lists. I ended up listening to the audiobook version of The Bone Ships, narrated by Jude Owusu, and what I found was an excellent and inventive fantasy read that might just be one of my favourite books of 2019.

For generations the rival nations of the Hundred Isles and the Gaunt Islands have been fighting each other for dominance of the vast oceans that make up their world. In order to fight this bitter conflict, great ships of war were constructed using the bones of the giant sea dragons, the arakeesian, as only these boneships could withstand the rigours of battle and all the horrors the seas contain. However, years of warfare and shipbuilding has taken a terrible toll, as the arakeesian are now all extinct, and both sides’ supplies of dragon bone are nearing their end.

Of all the remaining boneships in the Hundred Isles fleet, none are considered lower than a black ship. Black ships are ships of the dead, where every crewmember aboard has been condemned to die in shame, unless they can redeem themselves through some great act of bravery. However, the crew of the black ship Tide Child have no intention of performing any acts of bravery, and they and their shipwife, Joron Twiner, are content to drink themselves into oblivion—that is, until the arrival of “Lucky” Meas Gillbryn.

Meas is one of the most respected and feared commanders in all the Hundred Isles, but she has recently been disgraced and banished to Tide Child. Quickly taking control of the ship from Joron, Meas works to turn Tide Child and its crew around and make it into an efficient and proud crew of sailors, because they have a dangerous mission to undertake. The first sea dragon in a generation has been spotted, and whichever side hunts it down and claims its bones will gain a distinct advantage in the war. However, Meas has a different plan in mind, and sets out to protect the dragon from all who want it. Facing off against rival ships, raiders, pirates and treachery from within, can the crew of Tide Child survive to become the stuff of legend, or will their death sentence finally be carried out?

Well damn! Now that was a pretty awesome read! This latest offering from Barker was a superb and elaborate tale of redemption, adversity, camaraderie and adventure on the high seas. Not only is it based on an inventive premise and an elaborate new fantasy world but it contains a first-rate and compelling story that I absolutely loved. This is an absolutely fantastic story which is paced out extremely well and, after the necessary introductions, quickly turns into an addictive yarn with a number of clever elements to it. The end result is a powerful and enjoyable tale which is a wonderful self-contained story but which also sets up some intriguing storylines for any future instalments of this new series.

At the heart of The Bone Ships is an excellent story of camaraderie, respect and selfish people coming together to be part of something bigger. The main setting for the book, the boneship Tide Child, is completely crewed by condemned men and women, most of whom have given up on any form of redemption and are more concerned with petty crime and getting drunk. However, when Meas enters the picture, she quickly turns them into an efficient crew and reignites their pride as sailors and soldiers for their nation. This evolves into a really good redemption arc, as the entire crew really starts to come together as a close-knit team and are eventually given a task which could make them all heroes. The vast majority of the crew subsequently rise to the challenge, so much so that their usually hard-as-nails and determined shipwife is at one point willing to sacrifice everything to save them. This is a pretty fun and amazing part of the story, and it helps that Barker spends time introducing a number of key members of the crew and building them up as likeable characters. There are quite a few fantastic and enjoyable characters scattered throughout the story, and their inclusion really helps the reader grow to care about the people on the ship.

The best character relationship in the book can be seen between the two main characters, Joron Twiner and Meas. Joron is book’s point-of-view character and starts the story off as a drunken, apathetic wreck. Upon losing the position of shipwife to Meas, he expects to be placed at the bottom of the ship’s pecking order, but Meas keeps him on as her deckkeeper (first mate), despite her evident low opinion of him. Throughout the course of the book, these two characters grow closer and eventually become something closer to friends, while at the same time they both show considerable growth as characters. Meas spends a lot of time mentoring Joron, and he slowly moves on from his personal despair to become a respected and capable officer on the ship. Moreover, Joron slowly begins to lose the resentment he holds for Meas for taking his position as shipwife, and starts to really respect her, and see why she is a better commander of the ship. At the same time, Joron also starts to better understand what drives Meas, and why she is so determined to succeed in her mission. The two make for a wonderful partnership, and I think that Barker did a particularly fantastic job with the character of Meas, and I loved his portrayal of her as a rough, tough captain with a secret heart of gold.

While all the character elements I mention above are pretty spectacular, to my mind, one of the most striking and enjoyable things about The Bone Ships is the excellent nautical elements that the author was able to work into the story. I have to say that I was very impressed that Barker, whose previous series was set entirely on land, was able to come up with a detailed and exciting story set mostly aboard a ship, especially as he was utilising these elements for the first time in this book. The author installs a huge amount of nautical detail into his story, and the depictions of life and work aboard a ship of war was pretty amazing, so much so that at times, the reader feels like they are actually aboard this ship. I felt that Barker did an amazing job of combining these cool nautical details with the new fantasy elements he introduced in this book to produce a truly unique adventure on the high seas. I also loved all the shipboard action and combat that occurred throughout the course of the book. There were some really elaborate battles set throughout the story, from an attack on the Tide Child from a flotilla of smaller boats, to a wide-ranging battle between opposing groups of larger ships. The utilisation of unique tactics and fantasy elements, such as powerful crossbows, wind magic and the fact that they are fighting above a giant sea dragon, make for some truly thrilling and exciting battle sequences, which were an absolute treat to read. I am so glad that Barker decided to set this story on the open seas, as it made for truly amazing novel.

One of the other things that I liked about The Bone Ships was the excellent new dark fantasy world that Barker created for this new series. Barker has a real talent for this, as seen in The Wounded Kingdom trilogy, and he did it again for this latest book, where the reader is given a fascinating glimpse into a large, ocean dominated world, with all manner of unique fantasy elements in it. This new world is a harsh and deadly place, filled with a huge number of deadly sea beasts that can kill a man in a number of gruesome ways. Into this, Barker also introduces a fun new ship-based culture, complete with a matriarchal society, an intriguing religion and enslaved wind-controlling bird-people. In addition, the two nations that are showcased in this first book are locked in a massive, generations-old conflict, which has completely consumed their societies. I felt that the author did a good job of introducing all the elements of his new world to the reader in a timely and complete manner, and there was never any deficit of knowledge that reduces the reader’s enjoyment of the book. There are so many tiny details that Barker installs in this world, such as the use of paint for good luck, the rarity of metals (island nations, not much room for mines) and the gender bending of ship names and titles (ships are thought of as male, while the captain is called shipwife, no matter their actual gender). All of this, as well as the cool new fantasy elements that Barker comes up with for the story, such as the giant sea-dragons whose bones are used for shipbuilding (what a concept!), make for an exceedingly fascinating background for this fun story.

As I mentioned above, I chose to listen to the audiobook version The Bone Ships, narrated by the talented Jude Owusu. It ran for just over 17 hours in length, which I was able to power through extremely quickly, especially once the story really got going. I have to say that I was really glad that I decided to utilise the audiobook format, as I felt that it helped me visualise all the cool action and excitement that was occurring aboard Tide Child. In addition, I always find that the audiobook format helps me appreciate all the details of a story’s universe, and this was definitely true for The Bone Ships, as I was really able to dive in and fully experience the great new fantasy world in all its glory.

I also have to say how impressed I was with Jude Owusu’s excellent narration of this audiobook. Owusu has a fantastic voice, which I felt really fit into the nautical theme of the entire book. He also comes up with some very distinctive and fitting voices for the various characters that feature within the book, which I felt helped bring out many of these characters personalities. I was particularly impressed with the harsh and commanding voice that he utilised for Meas, and the various sequences where she was barking out orders and threats aboard the ship were a real treat to listen to, as it perfectly encapsulated the shipwife. Other standout characters that Owusu brought to life include Mevans, who the narrator gifted with an exceedingly cheerful voice which fit his personality perfectly, and the mysterious Gullaime, whose narration contained a certain birdy quality to. I also have to commend the real and obvious enthusiasm that Owusu brought to the role. I have always found that enthusiastic narrators can make an audiobook truly come to life, and Owusu was a really good example of this. Not only did his voice contain some noticeable excitement when he narrated the various action sequences throughout the book, but he really got into voicing elements of the story, such as the various shanty-like rhymes that Barker installed throughout the story, or the various nautical response of the crew. The way that he shouted out “Ey” (the sailor’s way of saying yes) multiple times throughout the book was a lot of fun, and I could feel the infectious enthusiasm of the crew while he did this. The sheer passion and vocal skill that Owusu puts into this audiobook is just fantastic, and I cannot recommend this format enough, as it was an amazing way to enjoy this epic book.

The Bone Ships by R. J. Barker is an absolutely outstanding read that I cannot recommend enough. Barker is quickly becoming one of the most impressive new fantasy authors out there, and he honestly gets better with every book he writes. The Bone Ships had so many cool elements to it, and any readers who check it out will be quickly hooked by its captivating story and bold adventure. I cannot wait to see where Barker will take this story next, and I would strongly encourage any reader looking for their next amazing fantasy tale, to check out this great new book. Also, how awesome is the cover for this book!!

Starsight by Brandon Sanderson

Starsight Cover 2.jpg

Publisher: Gollancz (Trade Paperback – 26 November 2019)

Series: Skyward – Book 2

Length: 461 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

From one of the best authors of fantasy and science fiction in the world today, Brandon Sanderson, comes Starsight, an outstanding and addictive young adult science fiction read which continues the wildly entertaining adventures of a young starfighter years in the future.

Starsight is the second book in the Skyward series and follows on from the 2018 release of the same name. Skyward was a fantastic young adult science fiction book that told a compelling tale of bravery, determination and camaraderie in humanity’s distant future. Skyward was an amazing read, and it was easily one of my favourite books of 2018. As a result, I have been looking forward to Starsight for a while now, and it was one of my most anticipated releases for the second part of this year.

The Skyward series is set on the planet of Detritus, a desolate world that houses a population of humans in the caverns beneath the surface. The humans on Detritus are the remnants of a once great intergalactic human civilisation that has been destroyed in a war with a superior alien civilisation. Forced into hiding within the planet for hundreds of years, humanity eventually returned to the surface utilising scavenged starfighters to escape and build a military outpost to fight back against the alien ships who continue to harass the planet.

In Skyward, the reader is introduced to Spensa Nightshade, a young woman determined to become a pilot in the Defiant Defence Force (DDF), the military organisation that fights the alien invaders. While talented, Spensa faced opposition to being accepted into the military due to an apparent act of cowardice by her father years before. Despite the odds, Spensa was accepted in the DDF and was trained to become a skilled pilot, fighting in a number of actions against the enemy, while also trying to find out what actually happened to her father. Along the way, Spensa discovered an ancient but advanced human ship that had crash-landed on Detritus. Upon repairing the ship, Spensa discovered it had an AI installed in its computers, which she called M-Bot. After stopping an extremely destructive alien attack with the help of M-Bot, Spensa was compelled to fly through Detritus’s atmosphere, where she made several startling discoveries, the first of which was that Spensa and her family are powerful cytonics, beings with mental powers who are capable of traversing vast distances through space with their ability. The second discovery she made was that the aliens attacking Detritus were not simply mindless aggressors determined to wipe out humanity; instead they are members of an interstellar conglomeration called the Superiority, who are attempting to contain humanity within the planet. The Superiority hold a great fear of humans, who they see as an extremely dangerous and violent species, and Detritus is actually a prison planet/wildlife preserve where humans can live without disrupting the rest of the galaxy. Unfortunately, the actions of the DDF in reclaiming the surface and utilising spaceships have forced the Superiority to reconsider their approach, and they are now working to kill all the humans.

Usually this is the part of the review where I would give a brief plot synopsis of the new book and then go into an analysis of what I liked about it. However, this is going to prove a little hard to do without revealing some spoilers. While I don’t typically avoid talking about plot points that occur around 50-100 pages into book (I don’t particularly consider something happening that early to be a spoiler), I am a little more wary with Starsight. This is mainly because the plot of the book features some immediate substantial changes from the story that appeared in Skyward, none of which are really hinted at in any of the official online plot synopsis or book blurbs. As I am publishing this review a week before Starsight’s official release date, I think it is best that I put up a spoiler alert below, before I start going into the book in any real detail.

For those readers who do not want to risk any spoilers, I will say now that Starsight is an incredible book that I really, really enjoyed. Sanderson tells a wildly entertaining and highly addictive story that features some memorable characters, high-stakes events, some of the best science fiction action I have ever read and a ton of inventive world building. I honestly think that this is one of the best releases of 2019, and it easily gets a full five-star rating from me (if only I could go higher). I would highly recommend this book to anyone interested in an epic science fiction read, and if you loved Skyward, you are going to love this book.

Anyway, if you are not interested in learning any more details about this book’s plot or characters (which I do explore to a substantial degree), I would suggest you stop reading now, as everything below this paragraph has a spoiler alert in effect.

 

SPOILER ALERT:

 

Starsight is set a few months after the events of Skyward, and humanity has been busy. Thanks to Spensa and Skyward Flight, as well as the advanced technology contained with M-Bot, the DDF has managed to capture several of the planet’s ancient orbiting defensive platforms, which have allowed them to push the Superiority forces out of Detritus’s obit. However, despite these successes, humanity is still trapped on Detritus, and the eventual Superiority mass retaliation will likely wipe out everyone on the planet. Their only chance at survival is to flee from Detritus and find a new planet to make their home, somewhere the Superiority cannot find them. However, the only way to do this is with some form of hyperdrive, which humanity lacks access to, and Spensa’s cytonic teleportation abilities are too restrictive for mass use.

The crash-landing of an unknown alien spacecraft on Detritus may provide the solution that will ensure humanity’s survival. The pilot of this craft is a member of a non-Superiority species who has been invited for diplomatic reasons to enlist in a new Superiority fighter squadron, and she is able to pass on the cytonic coordinates to the squadron’s base to Spensa. Disguised with M-Bot’s holographic technology, Spensa travels to the Superiority space city, Starsight, in order to infiltrate the Superiority military and find and steal a working hyperdrive.

Joining the new Superiority squadron, Spensa discovers that she and her fellow recruits are being trained to fight the delvers, titanic inter-dimensional beings that dwell in the nowhere, who are capable of devastating planets if they are drawn into our dimension by an over-use of cytonic ability. But as Spensa attempts to complete her mission, she finds herself caught amidst the politics of the various Superiority races, many of whom wish for the complete and utter destruction of her people. Can Spensa navigate the strange new world she finds herself in, or will her actions result in the destruction of all she knows?

As you can see from the above synopsis, Starsight goes in some very interesting and unpredictable directions. I personally loved all of these new story elements, and the idea of Spensa having to infiltrate a mostly unknown alien society was a really clever and intriguing central plot idea that I think worked extremely well. The subsequent narrative is a fantastic blend of different story elements, which includes some great new characters, settings and plot directions, as well as some of the best parts of Skyward. For example, not only do you get to see a whole new take on the excellent space fighter training plot point that made the first book so amazing, but you also get a science fiction spy thriller story filled with all manner of political intrigue. This was a fantastic book to get into, and Sanderson has made sure that the plot is accessible to readers who did not get a chance to check out Skyward last year. However, I would strongly recommend reading Skyward first, not only because it will give you a better idea of the characters and certain plot elements, but because it is such an awesome book in its own right.

One of my favourite things about the first book in the Skyward series was the excellent group of characters that Sanderson focused on, including Spensa, M-Bot and the members of Skyward Flight. Throughout Skyward the reader got to know and care for these characters, and it was actually a little bit distressing when bad things happened to them. Skyward continues to look at several of the characters from the first book, although readers who grew attached to Skyward Flight might be a tad disappointed as Sanderson shifts the focus away from them and introduces the reader to a whole new group of alien characters.

Spensa is still the main point-of-view character for this second book and serves as a fantastic central protagonist. In many ways, Spensa is still the same impatient and reckless pilot that was such to see in the first book. However, it soon becomes obvious that the experiences, relationships and life lessons that she has faced since joining the DDF have tempered her in many ways, especially as she has to deal with the intense responsibility of being her people’s greatest hope for survival. I really enjoyed watching Spensa as she was forced to assimilate into the alien cultures on Starsight, and it was interesting to see how she reacted when she realised not everyone there is as evil as she believed. The opinions and support she gives to her alien friends result in some emotional moments, and it was really heart-warming to see how far she has progressed since the last book.

While Spensa is a great central protagonist, to my mind the best character in the entire book is still her sentient ship, M-Bot. M-Bot is the snarky and hilarious artificial intelligence that Spensa discovered crashed on Detritus, and together they form an efficient and enjoyable team. M-Bot honestly has all the best lines in the book, and nearly every interaction with Spensa results in some excellent jokes or banter. Despite the humour, M-Bot is a pretty complicated character, especially as in this book he is attempting to work out the full limits of his consciousness and code. He is continuously attempting to prove that he is actually alive, and these attempts result in safeguards in his system attempting to shut him down. I really enjoyed the way that Sanderson continues to utilise M-Bot. Even though he is a ship, he is still a fantastic and highly enjoyable character to focus on and we even get a reason for his mushroom obsession in this book.

Spensa’s new flight of Superiority comrades features an eclectic bunch of aliens, each with their own quirks and unique personalities. These include a figment called Vapour, who is essentially a sentient smell that can take control of ships and pilot them. Vapour is the ultimate spy and requires Spensa to be constantly on her toes. There is also the dione draft, Morriumur. Dione are a race of non-violent aliens high up in the Superiority hierarchy, who have a unique breeding system that combines the parents into one new being. This is a process that can take several goes, as the family of the newly bred dione may choose to reform a young dione so that they have an ideal personality. Morriumur is a draft, spending the first few months of their life testing out their personality to see if they are an ideal member of the species. Morriumur, who has slightly more violent tendencies than most of their species, is trying to prove that they belong as a starfighter, but the combined expectations of their family and the inner thoughts that they are not worthy, are a constant hindrance to them as a pilot.

While both of the above characters are pretty cool, and Sanderson spends a good amount of time exploring them, two members of Spensa’s new flight really stood out. The first of these is Brade, a human from another prison world who has been recruited as a cytonic enforcer by one of the book’s central antagonists. Brade, after being taken from her parents as a child, has essentially been brainwashed all her life to consider humans as evil and inferior, and this has a major damaging effect on her psyche. The interactions between her and Spensa throughout the book are quite fascinating, and she proved to be one of the most complex characters in this book. My favourite new character, however, had to be Hesho, who is totally not king of the kitsen. The kitsen are a race of tiny gerbil-like aliens who have recently converted from a monarchy to a democracy in an attempt to become a Superiority race. Hesho leads a group of around 50 kitsen who pilot one heavily armed fighter in Spensa’s squadron like it’s a capital ship. Hesho and the kitsen are really hilarious characters, mainly because Hesho is attempting to convince the Superiority that he is no longer ruling his people as a king, and instead the kitsen have embraced democracy. Unfortunately, despite Hesho insisting he is no longer a monarch in every interaction he has, his people continue to worship him, which kind of undercuts this message. I also found the similarities in the personalities between the kitsen and the Spensa we first encountered in Skyward to be very amusing, as the kitsen attempt to compensate for their size with extreme confidence and boasting like Spensa used to (for example, the first ship we see the kitsen flying is called Big Enough to Kill You).

All of the above characters are great, and I really loved the way that I was once again drawn into their various personalities and histories. It was a bit of a shame not to see too much of the characters I liked so much from the first book (although we do get an idea of what various members of Skyward Flight are up to), but I think the new characters that Sanderson introduced more than made up for it.

In addition to the fantastic character work, one of the other best features of Starsight is the epic and fast-paced action sequences that punctuate much of the book. Just like in Skyward, Sanderson presents a huge number of different scenes where Spensa is fighting or training in a fighter. The sheer amount of detail that goes into these various action sequences is pretty amazing, and I was able to picture all the flying and manoeuvres perfectly. The author comes up with a number of clever new scenarios in this book, including the fancy flying and combat required to fight a delver, or having Spensa fly in the type of craft she has been fighting against for her entire military career. All of the action in this book is first-rate, and I can guarantee that you will get lost in some of the incredible action sequences.

I have always been impressed by the elaborate worlds that Sanderson can create for his stories. Whether it is the vast fantasy world that he came up with for The Stormlight Archive, the supervillain dominated alternate version of Earth that appeared in The Reckoners trilogy, or the fantastic science fiction planet of Detritus that was the main setting for Skyward, Sanderson always delivers complex and intricate settings for his story, complete with huge amounts of backstory. In Starsight, Sanderson once again produces a huge and detailed new setting for his outstanding story. The alien civilisation that is living on Starsight is very impressive, and I love all the different alien races that he has come up with for this story. Many of the aliens have some very complex and fascinating history, a great deal of which featured in the story. I really look forward to seeing how Sanderson expands this universe even further in the final book in the trilogy, and I cannot wait to see what new aliens or civilisations he comes up with.

As you can see from this rather lengthy review, there is a lot to love about this book. Sanderson does an impressive job of combining the intriguing new story direction, the amazing characters, intense action and fascinating new setting into one concise narrative, and the end result is a perfect book. While Starsight is being marketed as a young adult book, and indeed it would prove appropriate for most young readers, it is really a novel that can be enjoyed by any reader of any age. I cannot recommend this book enough, and I am eagerly awaiting the next book in this series (which seems to be 2021 at this point, so far away!).

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.