Queen of Storms by Raymond E. Feist

Queen of Storms Cover

Publisher: Harper Voyager (Hardcover – 14 July 2020)

Series: The Firemane Saga – Book Two

Length: 471 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Legendary fantasy author Raymond E. Feist returns to his new series, The Firemane Saga, with Queen of Storms, an amazing and exciting fantasy novel that takes the reader on some intriguing adventures.

I have long been a fan of Raymond E. Feist and his epic works of fantasy.  His long-running Riftwar Cycle books were amongst some of the first fantasy novels that I ever read and many of them, including the excellent Empire trilogy that he cowrote with Janny Wurts, are still some of my favourite books of all time.  After finalising the Riftwar Cycle back in 2013, Feist released King of Ashes in 2018, which was the first book in The Firemane Saga.  I really enjoyed the fun and compelling new story featured within King of Ashes, and I have been looking forward to seeing how the series continued for a while now.  This second book, Queen of Storms, continues right after the events of King of Ashes and has some intriguing new twists and turns for readers.

In the ancient and magical world of Garn, war is coming to continent of Tembria and its first blow will fall on the trading town of Bernan’s Hill.  Many people call Bernan’s Hill home, but none are more mysterious than the new owners of the town’s inn, Hatushaly and his wife Hava.  Despite their simple outward appearances, Hatu and Hava were born on the secret island of Coaltachin and both serve their continent-spanning criminal and spy network.  A series of mysterious events have been occurring throughout the kingdoms and lands of Tembria, and Hatu and Hava are tasked with observing Bernan’s Hill and reporting anything out of the ordinary.

Having befriended the town’s blacksmith, Declan, Hatu and Hava appear content in their new lives and are they are planning to be officially married during the midsummer festival.  However, even their training and information will not prepare them for the horrors that are about to be visited upon Bernan’s Hill, as a new and mysterious force attacks without warning, plunging the entire continent into war.  Separated from each other, each of these young people embarks on their own adventure.  While Hava attempts to find her lost husband, and Declan sets out to get revenge, Hatu is kidnapped by those who wish him to fulfill his fiery legacy as the secret heir to the kingdom of Ithrace.  His family, the legendary Firemanes, have long been rumoured to contain a spark of magic, and Hatu, as the last remaining Firemane, may hold the key to the survival of magic itself.  As these three young people set out to realise their destinies, they will experience horrors and tragedy as it soon becomes apparent that a whole new threat seeks to destroy all within Tembria.

Queen of Storms was a captivating and fun book which I found myself reading in only a couple of days due to how much I enjoyed it.  Feist has come up with a fantastic and impressive story within this novel, and I liked how it followed a group of excellent characters caught up in the chaos of a mysterious war.  There is all manner of action, adventure, subterfuge, character development and exploration of a new fantasy universe that comes together extremely well into a compelling overall narrative.  Readers should be forewarned that Feist makes some rather bold plot choices throughout this book, with a major event around halfway through the book really altering the course of the story in some interesting and dramatic ways.  I also liked how Queen of Storms served as a great sequel to King of Ashes, and there are a number of amazing reveals and revelations that add to the storylines established in the first book.  For example, the real antagonists of this series are revealed in more detail in this sequel after they were foreshadowed in the previous novel while the reader focused on a different antagonist, who had the potential to be the main villain.  This bait-and-switch came together well in Queen of Storms, and I enjoyed uncovering more about these antagonists and their motives.

Queen of Storms contains a multi-character narrative which follows several key protagonists as they explore this new world from Feist and get involved in the politics and battles of the world.  The majority of the story is told from the perspective of the novel’s three major characters, Hatu, Hava and Declan.  Each of these characters gets some substantial focus throughout the course of this novel, with some interesting storylines.  For the first part of the book their various storylines are very closely intertwined, as all three are based in the town of Bernan’s Hill in various capacities.  However, after the novel’s major event around halfway through, these three characters are separated and each of them embarks on their own exciting and enjoyable adventure.  Hatu’s story is a classic tale of a chosen one finding his destiny, which sees him journey off into the unknown to learn more about his past and his secret abilities.  As Hatu is the most central protagonist, this storyline got a lot of focus, and it was interesting to learn more about his role in the world and about how his life is bonded to the world’s magic.  Declan’s story becomes an interesting one about a young man learning to become a solider to avenge the death of his loved ones.  Declan had some life events occur throughout this book and while it was a little sad to see some of the things he fought for in the first novel go up in smoke, it does serve as a good motivation for his character and it looks like Feist has some interesting plans for him in the future.  Out of the three, I think I ended up enjoying Hava’s storyline the most.  Hava attempts to find out what happened to Hatu and gets captured by slavers.  She ends up using her abilities to free herself and her fellow slaves and becomes a successful ship’s captain, chasing after her husband while also exploring the lands outside the continent of Tembria.  All three of these main character arcs are really enjoyable and together they form a fantastic heart for Queen of Storms, allowing for a rich and powerful narrative.

In addition to these main characters, Feist also utilises several minor point-of-view characters who add in some extra narrative threads to the book.  For example, Donte, Hatu and Hava’s childhood friend who was captured by sea witches in King of Ashes, returns and a small part of the book is dedicated to his attempts to find Hatu and kill him.  You also get several parts of the book told from some of the key players in fight for the continent, such as Baron of Marquensas Daylon Dumarch, the sinister adviser Bernardo Delnocio, as well as a handful of other characters.  Each of these minor point-of-view characters provide their own insights and priorities to the mix and their various storylines and actions add a lot to the narrative and provide some interesting support to the main storylines.  I also liked some of the supporting characters who rounded out the cast of Queen of Storms and several of them proved to be quite enjoyable and likable, even if they have a greater chance of getting killed off.  Overall, Feist continues to write some great characters in this novel, and I look forward to seeing where each of these intriguing protagonists end up next.

The author also did a good job of continuing to expand on the amazing new fantasy world that the series is set in.  While a substantial part of the novel is set around Brenan’s Hill, which was introduced in the prior book, the story eventually starts to examine some other parts of the world.  In particular, several storylines are set around the islands and continents on the other side of the planet, none of which have been explored by any of the point-of-view characters.  These new additions to the story proved to be quite intriguing, especially as the character’s various explorations revealed some shocking truths about the world, as well as some troubling revelations about the series’ main antagonists.  It looks like the next book is set to feature some new areas of the world and should provide some more fascinating expansions down the line, which will no doubt provide some interesting backdrops and settings from the narrative.

While I did really enjoy Queen of Storms, I did find that some of the elements within it might be a little hard to follow if you had not read the first novel in the series.  Feist does do a good job of recapping the major events of the first book throughout the course of the story, but there were a few moments in the story when the significance of certain characters, locations and events were not as highlighted as they could have been, and new readers might get a little lost at this point.  There were even a few points at which I lost track of who a new character was, mainly because of the two-year gap between reading King of Ashes and Queen of Storms.  Still, I was usually able to remember who the character was after some prompting, and it worked out fine.  While this lack of certainty might occasionally impact the flow of the story for new readers, I think they can generally follow without too much difficulty.

Queen of Storms was an outstanding and exciting second entry in this fantastic new series from one of my favourite authors of all time, Raymond E. Feist.  This was an amazing and enjoyable novel, filled with adventure, great characters, and a compelling narrative.  I had an awesome time reading this book and I cannot wait to see how Feist continues The Firemane Saga in the next book.  A must-read for fans of fantasy fiction; this one is really worth checking out.

Queen of Storms Cover 2

The Girl and the Stars by Mark Lawrence

The Girl and the Stars 2

Publisher: Harper Voyager (Trade Paperback – 20 April 2020)

Series: Book of the Ice – Book One

Length: 473 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

From the mind of fantasy and science fiction superstar Mark Lawrence comes The Girl and the Stars, a superb and endlessly fascinating novel which takes the reader on an epic adventure in a unique new setting.

Mark Lawrence is a science fiction and fantasy fiction author who burst onto the scene in 2011 with his debut novel, Prince of Thorns. Since then, he has gone from strength to strength, having written several additional books across four intriguing series, all of which have received a lot of attention and praise. Indeed, when some of his latest novels were released (Grey Sister and Holy Sister in particular), you couldn’t escape reviews of his books even if you tried, as every single review site I followed seem to have some commentary about how much they enjoyed them. Despite seeing all this online praise about his work, I have not actually read any of Lawrence’s previous novels. This is not because his books do not interest me; quite the opposite! I actually consider this inadvertent exclusion of his work to be a major hole in my fantasy/science fiction knowledge. However, I just never seem to be able to fit his books into my reading schedule, even after I featured The Broken Empire series on my Top Ten Series I Want to Get Into list. So when I was lucky enough to receive a copy of Lawrence’s new book, The Girl and the Stars, I thought that I would take the opportunity to finally read something from this author, and I ended up getting really sucked into this cool and clever novel.

This book is set on the planet Abeth, a dying world that is slowly being frozen over by vast sheets of ice. Despite the cruel and harsh conditions, several human tribes exist out on the ice, scraping a living and managing to survive. However, there is no tolerance of variation or differences out on the ice, and only those people who are whole and normal are considered capable of living their lives out in the cold. For the rest, there is the Pit of the Missing, a vast and gaping black chasm that burrows deep into the ice and the earth from which no one has ever returned.

Every several years, the various tribes living on the ice gather around the Pit, and their children are inspected by the regulators. If a child is normal, they are returned to their parents and allowed to live their lives, but if a child is shown to be different, either because they are weak or they are in the process of developing unique abilities that may cause them to burn out faster on the ice, they are thrown into the Pit in what is considered a mercy killing.

Yaz has always known that she is weaker and not as resilient as the fellow members of her tribe, but she is able to survive thanks to a source of power only she can access. Prepared to be pushed into the Pit, Yaz is instead chosen by the regulators to be taken to their fortress and trained. However, when the regulator pushes her little brother down into the pit, Yaz does not hesitate before diving in after him.

Against all the odds, Yaz survives and finds herself in a strange and wonderful new world under the ice, illuminated the powerful gems, or stars, that provide heat and light deep beneath the surface. As Yaz explores the vast underground labyrinth, she discovers that the other children thrown into the pit over the years have survived and formed their own society. But as Yas searches for her brother, she soon discovers that life underground is not as the utopia it seems. Many dark and terrible things lurk under the ice, determined to claim the bodies and souls of those people it encounters. But Yaz is different; her power seems to affect the star-like gems surrounding her and may prove to be the tool needed to free those people trapped in the darkness. But Yaz’s potential has been noticed, and soon everyone is fighting to get their hands on her power, which can flip the war being fought beneath the surface. Can Yaz save her brother and escape the darkness of the Pit, or is she doomed to be consumed by the conflict?

The Girl and the Stars is a clever and addictive novel from Lawrence that serves as the first entry in his brand new Book of the Ice series. This latest book is set in the same world as the author’s bestselling Book of the Ancestor series and focuses on a new group of protagonists in a unique and compelling setting. Featuring a unique blend of fantasy and science fiction elements, The Girl and the Stars contains an elaborate and epic narrative. Lawrence once again excels at drawing the reader into his novel with the compelling story of a young woman discovering her powers in a strange world. Told with a deeply detailed writing style which forces the reader to absorb and enjoy every word of this epic book, The Girl and the Stars was an incredible novel, and I had an outstanding time reading it.

At the heart of this intriguing book is a compelling and sophisticated adventure story that sees the protagonist encounter all the dangers that live underneath the ice, whilst finding her own inner strength and resolve. This story, which at times reads a bit like a young adult narrative, turns intense rather quickly, as within the first 25 pages the protagonist has already jumped into the unknown to save her brother. What follows is a non-stop thrill ride which sees Yaz encounter a huge raft of crazy characters and strange horrors underneath the ice. The story continues a brisk and exciting pace, as the protagonist jumps from one situation to the next with intriguing plot developments every couple of pages. There are some big set pieces, plenty of daunting opponents, cunning intrigues and manipulations, fun side characters and a fast-paced storyline, all of which come together to produce a really captivating and exciting read, topped off with a shocking cliffhanger of a conclusion. Lawrence sets up a number of intriguing plot points for the future entries in this series, and I am rather curious to see what happens in the next book, and what adventures the protagonist will find herself on next.

The major highlight of this book has to be the incredibly inventive and intricate settings that Lawrence produced. The Girl and the Stars actually has two really cool settings in which the characters find themselves. The first is the wild ice fields of Abeth, a harsh and unforgiving landscape populated by hardy and practical tribes of humans, who are controlled by a wise and manipulative priesthood. Lawrence does an incredible job of introducing the reader to this setting in the first chapter, making it sound like a fun and intriguing location for the book. However, the second chapter sees the protagonist go into the Pit of the Missing, which takes her to a different world under the ice. This new landscape underneath the pit is far more complex and imaginative than the great ice setting at the start of the novel, filled with a huge collection of different landscapes, from icy caverns, fields of fungi, labyrinthine structures, ancient alien cities and areas of darkness. Into these clever locations, Lawrence installs a number of different groups, factions and monsters, which the protagonist needs to understand or avoid if she is going to survive. The sheer number of features and settings proves to be extremely beneficial to the story, as the reader is left wondering what new obstacle or ally the protagonist is going to meet next. I also rather enjoyed how Lawrence blended together fantasy and science fiction elements throughout the course of the book, with the characters tapping into seemingly magical abilities to survive, and with their major opponents appearing to be demons. However, there is a more scientific explanation to these abilities and antagonists that ties into the origins of the planet and its previous inhabitants. There are also a variety of pure science fiction elements, including mechanical monstrosities, sentient cities and ancient technology. All of these elements, whether they appear more fantasy or science fiction based, prove to be really fascinating, and I quite enjoyed seeing how they played into the book. Overall, this was a really unique and memorable setting, and I loved how the author cleverly wove his compelling story throughout it, allowing it to enhance the narrative with its inventive and distinctive elements.

I have to admit that I was initially a little hesitant when it came to reading The Girl and the Stars, mainly because it was connected to Lawrence’s previous series, which I have not read. From what I have heard, the Book of the Ancestor series contains quite an elaborate narrative and setting, and I was worried that my lack of knowledge about the previous books would impact my understanding of the plot of The Girl and the Stars. However, once I dived into this book’s compelling story my fears proved to be rather unfounded, as I had no trouble following the plot or understanding the unique elements. No prior knowledge of any of Lawrence’s previous books is needed, especially as the story follows a brand new protagonist who has no idea of the events of the Book of the Ancestor’s novels, and who herself needs a crash course in the planet’s history, the varied physiology of the humans who inhibit it and other integral plot elements. As a result, this is an extremely accessible book for readers unfamiliar with Lawrence’s work, and, based on my experiences, I would say that it is a good introduction the author’s writing style and wild imagination

That said, I could tell that The Girl and the Stars is also going to be extremely appealing to fans of the Book of the Ancestor’s series, who will no doubt appreciate the similarities this novel has to Lawrence’s previous work, following a young female protagonist who is new to her power through this unique world. While I did not personally understand the significance of them, this book was obviously chock full of references and world-building knowledge that people who are familiar with the previous books are going to really appreciate and find intriguing. I do have to admit that I was bit uncertain about when The Girl and the Stars occurred in relation to the Book of the Ancestors series, and I really have no idea about whether this book is a prequel, sequel or is running concurrently to the previous books. While this did not impact my enjoyment of The Girl and the Stars in any way whatsoever, I did feel that this is something that Lawrence could have made a little clearer for new readers, especially if there are some connections between this series and the previous books is revealed later in the trilogy. Overall, I would definitely recommend this new entry from Lawrence to any science fiction and fantasy fans, whether they are established readers of the author or new readers looking for something interesting to check out.

I also have to spend a little bit of time highlighting the amazing and eye-catching cover my copy of The Girl and the Stars had (see above). While the alternative cover (see below) was also cool, I really loved the cover that my edition had, which was done by artist Jason Chan. Chan, who has done work for several Lawrence’s previous novels, did a fantastic job with this artwork, producing a cover that is striking and which perfectly reflects the unique setting that the book’s protagonist finds herself in. I absolutely loved it the first time I saw it, and this appreciation only grew once I started reading The Girl and the Stars and fully understood what Chan is portraying. This is an excellent bit of artwork, and it is one of my favourite pieces of cover art I have seen so far this year.

The Girl and the Stars is an exceedingly inventive and exceptionally exciting novel that expertly blends together fantasy and science fiction elements to create a widely entertaining and compelling read. I absolutely loved the unique and imaginative setting that Lawrence came up with for this book, and it proved to be a fantastic background to the novel’s enjoyable story. This was easily one of my favourite books from the first half of 2020, and it has become clear to me that I must read more of Lawrence’s books in the future. Highly recommended.

The Girl and the Stars Cover 2

Spaceside by Michael Mammay

Spaceside Cover

Publisher: Harper Voyager (Ebook – 27 August 2019)

Series: Planetside – Book Two

Length: 336 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Last year, Michael Mammay debuted an absolutely incredible book, Planetside, the outstanding science fiction thriller that absolutely blew me (and the planet of Cappa) away with its inventiveness, addictive story and explosive conclusion. Now Mammay attempts to follow up this amazing first novel with a second book in his Planetside series, Spaceside.

I mentioned several times already on my blog how much I loved Planetside last year. Mammay’s first book was a spectacular story that blended a science fiction story about an advanced human military occupying an alien planet with an intriguing thriller around a missing soldier. Planetside was easily one of the best books I read in 2018, and I still cannot get past that epic finale to the story.  As a result, when I found out that Mammay was following it up this year with Spaceside, I knew that I would have to read it, and featured it in both a Waiting on Wednesday post and my Top Ten Most Anticipated July-December 2019 Releases list. I was lucky enough to get an advanced electronic copy of Spaceside from Mammay and the publisher, and it did not take me long to dive in and read this book. I had pretty high expectations, considering how good the first entry in the series was.

In Planetside, veteran soldier Colonel Carl Butler is sent to the planet of Cappa to find a young officer who mysteriously disappeared following a mission against an insurgent group of the local aliens, the Cappans. Butler’s mission quickly revealed a massive conspiracy where elements of the occupying human military had been working with the Cappans to genetically modify humans with Cappan DNA, creating a dangerous hybrid species. After uncovering the existence of these hybrids and the full extent of the technology that had been traded to the Cappans, Butler is forced to make the terrible decision to initiate a major missile strike against Cappa to prevent a huge number of Cappans and hybrids from escaping into the wider galaxy. His actions stop the planned exodus and devastate the planet, killing a huge number of Cappans. Butler is subsequently arrested, frozen and sent back home for court martial, with his fate unrevealed in the last book.

Spaceside begins about two years after the events of Planetside, and reveals that Butler is now the most infamous man in the galaxy. While many view him as a hero, others consider him a genocidal monster. Forced out of the army, Butler now has an easy job as Deputy VP of Corporate Security for Varitech Production Company, a high-tech military company on the planet of Talca Four. In theory he helps protect the company against corporate threats, but in reality his job is to impress clients and utilise his substantial military connections for his bosses’ benefits.

As a result, he is surprised one day when he is called into the CEO’s office and given an actual security assignment. A rival tech company, Omicron Technology, has had a breach in their supposedly unhackable computer systems, and Varitech wants to know how it happened and whether their own systems are vulnerable. With no obvious leads and no-one claiming credit for the hack, Butler reaches out to one of his contacts working at the impacted company. However, shortly after their meeting, Butler’s contact is found dead and Butler is now the police’s prime suspect.

Determined once again to find out the truth no matter what, Butler starts to dig around at Omicron and discovers that they were working on a secret project with links to his time on Cappa. When information arrives from the most unlikely of places, Butler is once again drawn into a massive conspiracy that he is not meant to survive. Can he find a way out of this, or will he be forced to redo his greatest mistake?

Wow, just wow. This was another exceptional book from Mammay, who has once again produced a fantastic science fiction thriller hybrid with some amazing moments in it. I absolutely loved this follow-up to Planetside, which not only contains another addictive story with an amazing protagonist but also serves as an excellent sequel to the first book. I powered through Spaceside extremely quickly and loved every minute I spent glued to my screen. This gets another five out of five stars from me, and I reckon that I will once again be placing Mammay’s latest book on my top reads of the year list.

Just like the previous book in the series, Spaceside, is a compelling thriller set in a great science fiction environment and with some intriguing military thriller and science fiction elements thrown into it. However, in this book, the protagonist is no longer an official investigator for the military but a civilian involved in events that appear to be corporate espionage. This results in an intriguing change of pace from the first book that I quite enjoyed. Butler is much more of an outsider in this book, and his methods of investigating the potential crime and attempting to uncover the conspiracy are a lot more clandestine than before. Mammay takes this thriller based storyline to some interesting places and forces the protagonist to make some surprising alliances in order to survive and get to the bottom of the investigation. While the story is more focused on corporations than the army, there is still a strong military element to the book, as Butler is investigating military technology companies. There is also a strong amount of military action towards the end of the book as Butler once again sees combat against an enemy. Mammay writes some strong military action based sequences in his books, and the reader can almost see the detailed and well-written fight scenes. All of this results in an extremely strong main storyline that leaves open the potential for another intriguing entry into this series.

I was really happy that Mammay continued to follow the adventure of his protagonist from Planetside, Carl Butler. Butler, who serves as the story’s narrator and point-of-view character, is a fantastic protagonist who was one of my favourite parts of the first book. Butler is a blunt and honest old character, whose craggy, veteran solider outlook on life infects his narration of events and helps the reader connect with his story. Just like in Planetside, Butler is reluctantly dragged into the events of this book and goes up against a seemingly superior opponent, who thinks that they know how to manipulate the old soldier. However, Butler is a wily operator who is able to turn the situations to his advantage through his rough charm and experience of dealing with people, especially former military personnel, who assist him with his investigation and help keep him alive. I particularly liked the clever way that he was able to manipulate the situation towards the end of the book by playing on certain character’s weaknesses, military training and humanity, and while his final plan did not have the explosiveness of his actions at the conclusion of Planetside, it was still a great scene. I look forward to seeing what sort of trouble Butler gets up to in any future instalments of this series, as he is a truly enjoyable protagonist.

I felt that Spaceside also did a great job following on from the story established in the first book of the series. I really enjoyed seeing how the author followed through with several of the storylines left open at the end of Planetside, as well as how he explored a number of the consequences of the protagonist’s actions. The main way that this was achieved was by showing the reader how Butler’s life changed following his bombing of Cappa. Because the story is told from Butler’s point of view, we get to see how the guilt from his actions and the events that led up to them has affected his psyche. Despite the tough outer shell he shows most people, Butler is struggling with whether he did the right thing and must now deal with being the most infamous person in the galaxy, receiving glares or praise wherever he goes. These events and inner thoughts impact how he reacts to certain events later in the book, and it is a clever and natural progression for the character.

In addition to the focus on Butler, Mammay makes sure to include several characters from the first book so the reader gets to see how their storylines progressed. Not only does this help bring in a previously established sidekick for Butler, as well as a sassy reporter contact who gives him intel and clues, but it also brings back Butler’s old mentor and friend, General Serata, for a tense scene. Serata was the man who sent Butler to Cappa in the previous book, and in many ways he is responsible for the destruction on Cappa as he knew how his old friend would be forced to act in response to what was going on there. It was great seeing these two characters awkwardly try to discuss the events of the previous book and come to terms with Serata’s manipulation of Butler. All of this makes for a gripping follow-up to the first book, and I really enjoyed seeing how the author addressed some of the events from Planetside.

Spaceside is an incredible second outing from Michael Mammay, who has a truly bright future in the science fiction genre. I once again found myself drawn into the excellent story and fantastic central protagonist of this book, as Mammay does an outstanding job crafting together a clever and addictive narrative that does a spectacular job following on from the author’s amazing debut, Planetside. Spaceside gets a full five stars from me, and I am already looking forward to Mammay’s next enjoyable book.

Quick Review – Texas Hold ‘Em edited by George R. R. Martin

Texas Hold 'Em Cover

Publisher: Harper Voyager (Trade Paperback – 6 November 2019)

Series: Wild Cards series – Book 27

              American Triad trilogy – Book 3

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Texas Hold ’Em is the 27th book in the long-running Wild Cards series, which started in 1987. I read this book late last year but did not get a chance to review it until just now, so I’m just going to do a quick one.

The Wild Cards books make up one of the more interesting book series at the moment. Started by George R. R. Martin and his tabletop game friends (all of whom where fantasy and science fiction writers), this series has since expanded into a massive book franchise that has featured an impressive line-up of authors. There are a huge number of books, and the series is even currently being adapted into a couple of television series on Hulu.

Each of the Wild Cards books is made up of several short, interconnected stories written by a different author, with the entire novel edited together by Martin. Texas Hold ’Em, for example, features the talents of David Anthony Durham, Max Gladstone, Diana Rowland, Caroline Spector, Walton Simons, William F. Wu and the late Victor Milán. Melinda M. Snodgrass, who has contributed to a huge number of the previous Wild Cards books, also assisted in editing this book.

I came into this franchise fairly late and have only read the books which make up the most recent trilogy, The American Triad. I quite enjoyed the first two books in the trilogy, Mississippi Roll and Low Chicago, and was looking forward to the third and final book, Texas Hold ’Em.

Blurb:

In the aftermath of World War II, the Earth’s population was devastated by a terrifying alien virus. Those who survived changed forever. Some, known as jokers, were cursed with bizarre mental and physical mutations; others, granted superhuman abilities, became the lucky few known as aces.

San Antonio, home of the Alamo, is also host to the USA’s top high school jazz competition, and the musicians at Xavier Desmond High are excited to outplay their rivals. But they are also jokers; kids with super abilities and looks that make them stand out. On top of that, well, they are teenagers – prone to mischief, mishaps, and romantic misunderstandings.

Ace Michelle Pond, aka The Amazing Bubbles, thinks that her superhero know-how has prepared her to chaperone the event. But little does she know the true meaning of the saying, ‘Don’t mess with Texas’.

I found Texas Hold ‘Em to be a fun addition to this fantastic series. However, unlike the other two Wild Cards books that I have read, this one seemed to be a bit more like a young adult fiction novel. This is mainly because many of the short stories focus on teenage characters as they encounter the many ups and downs of San Antonio and the jazz competition. The rest of the stories are a pretty interesting mix of mystery, thriller and other action adventure type stories, as the various adult characters encounter a range of situations, mostly associated with protecting or wrangling their young charges. There were some good stories within this book, and fans of the franchise will appreciate the return of several recurring characters who have appeared in some of the previous books.

The stories in this book are told in a different way to the previous Wild Cards books. Rather than having several short stories told to their full extent and then connected by one split short story that overlaps with each of them, Texas Hold ’Em is instead broken up by a period of several days. Each of the days contains multiple parts of the various short stories, featuring the events of that story that happens on that day. This is a much more fragmented way to tell each story, but the chronological consistency is an interesting narrative choice. The combined short stories do make for quite a good overall narrative, although it does seem a little lower stakes than some of the previous books in the series.

One of the most interesting parts of this book is the examination of prejudice and hatred that infects each of the stories. In this universe, many of the humans who were unaffected by the Wild Card virus discriminate against Jokers and Aces; Jokers because of their disfigurations and Aces because they are afraid of them. This appears to be particularly enhanced down in San Antonio, mainly due to the appearance of the Purity Baptist Church, this universe’s version of everyone’s favourite hate group, the Westboro Baptist Church. The various protests and prejudices of the fiction group against those affected by the Wild Card virus do reflect the Westboro Baptist Church, so it was definitely an accurate depiction, and it was cool to see how they would react when confronted with someone with superpowers. That being said, the writers really needed to come up with a better term than “God’s Weenies” to refer to this group, or least stop repeating it to the degree that they did. Many of the characters in the book also encounter other forms of discrimination aside from the protests occurring outside the event, most of which mirrored discrimination real-life minority groups experience every day. This was a pretty good look at discrimination, and I liked how the various authors attempted to examine this problem by putting it in the context of the Wild Cards universe, especially as it led to some curious scenarios and interesting story moments.

Overall, this was a great new addition to the Wild Cards series. If I’m going to be honest, this was probably my least favourite book in the American Triad trilogy, but I still had fun reading it. I am interested to see what the next book in the Wild Cards universe will be like, and I will be curious to see if the show I mentioned above actually comes into being.

Planetside by Michael Mammay

Planetside Cover.jpg

Publishers: Harper Voyager

                        HarperAudio

Publication Date – 31 July 2018

 

Well, that was an unexpectantly awesome book!  I am usually pretty good at predicting how good a book is going to be by its plot synopsis or my prior knowledge of the author.  When I first heard about Planetside I thought it sounded like an interesting concept from first-time author Michael Mammay.  While I had high hopes for the book, I did somewhat assume that it would just be another solid but enjoyable science fiction mystery.  What I was not expecting, however, was one of the best science fiction books of 2018 that easy achieves a five-star rating from me.

Set in the far future of Earth’s expansion, Planetside follows Colonel Carl Butler, a war hero living out a peaceful semi-retirement on a training base.  However, when his old friend General Serata calls him late at night and drags him all the way to headquarters, he obliges for old times’ sake.  Serata needs him to travel to the planet of Cappa, humanity’s current warzone, where members of a resilient and intelligent alien race known as the Cappans are fighting a gruelling insurgency against the humans attempting to exploit their planet.  Once there, he will head up an investigation into the disappearance of a young lieutenant who went missing after being wounded on the planet.  By all accounts, the wounded lieutenant was successfully evacuated from the surface, but the military hospital claims that he never arrived at their facility.  To makes matters worse, the lieutenant is the son of a high councillor, and the disappearance has become a highly publicised affair.  Despite knowing that there is more to the case than Serata is letting on, Butler agrees to find the missing officer.

Arriving at Cappa Base, the space station hovering over the planet, Butler soon finds that his investigation is going to be a lot harder than he anticipated.  All the soldiers he speaks to have the same rehearsed story, the head of the base’s military hospital flat out refuses to cooperate with him, the head of Special Ops is continuously unable to come off-planet to speak to him, and any witnesses or evidence that could point him in the right direction mysteriously disappears.  It is also damn suspicious that any time he takes a step in the right direction, somebody tries to have him killed.  Under pressure to wrap this investigation up, Butler decides to drop down onto the surface of Cappa, but what he finds down there will change everything.  Forced into an increasingly desperate situation, Butler must find the answers he needs before it is too late.

This is the first book from Michael Mammay, but it was more than enough to make me a dedicated fan of this author.  With a sequel already set to be released in 2019, Planetside is an extraordinary introduction to an amazing new series.  I chose to listen to this book in its audiobook format, read by R. C. Bray, and at 8 hours 38 minutes, this is a fairly quick way to enjoy this fantastic book.

Planetside’s story is based around the protagonist’s investigation into a missing human soldier on an alien planet that has been occupied by the human military.  As Butler arrives at the military base the solider was stationed out of, he begins to realise that there is something much more to the case than what was advertised.  Every single person he speaks to is hiding something, he seems only to uncover more lies, and some shadowy figures are actively trying to sabotage his investigation in any way they can.  Despite all these setbacks, the protagonist persists with his investigation throughout the course of the book and slowly begins to uncover the underlying conspiracy that the soldier’s disappearance is just one small part of.  There is so much about this mystery investigation to enjoy, as the author seamlessly combines the mystery and conspiracy part of this story with the science fiction element, creating a unique and captivating overall narrative.  The full scope of this conspiracy is very impressive, and Mammay’s slow burn reveal of the extent and implications of what Butler uncovers is well done to keep the reader in suspense.  I was intensely intrigued by this multilayered conspiracy, and was left constantly guessing at what the potential solution was.

The book is told from the point of view of its protagonist, Colonel Butler, and Mammay has created an excellent central character for this story that the reader is instantly drawn to and cannot help but like.  The author has done a fantastic job conveying the fact that Butler is a straight-shooting, no-bullshit, wily veteran soldier who has had enough of war and is just looking forward to retirement.  He is an amusing and intriguing choice to investigate the book’s intricate and potentially wide-reaching conspiracy, as he powers through the expected political niceties other investigators may have worried about without any concerns for his future or career.  His years of service also ensure that he has impeccable instincts when it comes to the people he is dealing with and is fully aware of when the other characters are bullshitting him, which occurs frequently throughout this book.  I had fun observing this rough and seemingly uncomplicated old-school soldier get to grips with this elaborate conspiracy and blow through all the careful plans of the book’s antagonists.  The colonel also has a sense of humour, something that the other characters encounter to various degrees of frustration, especially the people he is intentionally pissing off.  I also appreciated the self-deprecating and extremely honest reflections about the situation that Butler presents to the reader, as it made me like him even more.

The military aspects of this book are another amazing part of Planetside, as Mammay has perfectly captured elements of the modern day military and transplanted them into this science fiction storyline.  The majority of the story is set within Cappa Base, and the reader is made to feel like they are in a real military base.  The author also seeks to capture the full minutiae of military life throughout the book, and the reader is given insight into what tasks are undertaken on the base, the main characters experience and the respect he commands of the other soldiers in the story.  While most of the focus is on the investigation, there are a couple of action scenes throughout the book, including an extended battle sequence that see’s the protagonist and his allies engage in a protracted firefight with enemy forces on the planet’s surface.  The author’s use of the first-person perspective is perfect for these battle sequences and the reader is dragged right into the middle of these firefights, really experiencing the action through Mammay’s skilled and descriptive writing.  This battle sequences felt very realistic and had some noticeable similarities to real-life skirmishes in modern day battlefields.  The tactics the humans use during these conflicts on Cappa are highly reminiscent of American forces in the Middle East, although the inclusion of more science fiction appropriate weapons and technology allow for some interesting differences.

While the impressive investigation storyline does a fantastic job holding onto the reader’s interest, and the solution to the entire mystery arc is creative and clever, nothing compares to the book’s epic conclusion.  Without going into too much detail, I thought that the way that Mammay ended this book was just incredible, and is one of the main reasons why I am giving this book a five-star rating.  I also loved how, towards the end of the book, the protagonist becomes fully aware of how everything has to end, and at the same time he starts to understand that his oldest friend had sent him on this mission because he knew exactly how Butler would act upon uncovering the full extent of the conspiracy.  The final scene of the book was just perfect as the protagonist reflects on everything that has happened with one of the book’s side characters.  During this scene there is an excellent use of the end of a subtle countdown that has been occurring throughout the entire book, represented by a depleting number of whisky bottles, as well as an appropriate moment of happiness for Butler as he finally gets to have a whisky in a proper glass, which was just perfect.  As mentioned above, Mammay already has a sequel planned, and I am extremely curious to see where the story goes next.

The audiobook version of Planetside is a great way to enjoy this fantastic book, and I had a lot of fun listening to this format.  The audiobook’s narrator, R. C. Bray, manages to capture the gruff and grizzled personality of Butler perfectly, and for most of the book it really sounded like the old colonel was telling you his story.  Bray also does a good job producing distinctive voices for the rest of the characters in book, including several female characters, and the listener is able to distinguish between the various people without too much difficulty.  I also felt that listening to this story really helped bring me into the book’s awesome battle sequences as well as ensuring that I was fully invested in the success of the enjoyable main character.  Overall, I would recommend the audiobook format as an excellent way to enjoy this book, although readers will of course get a lot out of this book if they choose the paperback format.

Michael Mammay’s debut novel, Planetside, is an incredible piece of science fiction and is one of my favourite books of 2018.  Featuring a captivating mystery storyline that places the book’s likeable protagonist in the middle of a massive conspiracy, this book completely grabs the reader’s attention and refuses to let go until its powerful and memorable conclusion.  I cannot recommend this book enough and it is essential reading for all fans of the science fiction genre.  I am very much looking forward to Mammay’s sequel to Planetside, which is already at the top of my must-read list for 2019.

My Rating:

Five Stars

Timeless by R. A. Salvatore

Timeless Cover.jpg

Publisher: Harper Voyager

Publication Date – 4 September 2018

 

From one of fantasy’s most legendary writers, R. A. Salvatore, comes another electrifying adventure of swords and steel, as Salvatore once again presents a thrilling tale of his iconic protagonist, the dark elf Drizzt Do’Urden.

Centuries ago, the city of Menzoberranzan gave birth to a drow whose talents with the blade were unsurpassed by any other practitioner.  This drow’s name was Zaknafein.  Desired by an ambitious noble house and its twisted Matron, Malice, Zaknafein would become a pawn in the battle of intrigue and positioning that have eternally plagued Menzoberranzan.  His only relief from his arduous life was his friendship with the young mercenary Jarlaxle.

Years later, a young Drizzt Do’Urden fled the city and the violent ways of his people.  However, his escape was only capable thanks to the twofold sacrifice of his father, Zaknafein, who not only allowed himself to be sacrificed to the dark goddess Lolth but also willed his resurrected body to its absolute destruction in order to stop its hunt for Drizzt in the catacombs of the Underdark.  Not only was Zaknafein his father; he was also the man responsible for Drizzt’s moral code and, most importantly, the man who taught Drizzt how to fight, turning him into the most skilled sword wielder in all of Faerun.

But now, after years of Drizzt’s adventures on the surface world, something truly amazing has happened: Zaknafein has been returned to life and has found his way to the surface world.  No-one is certain how he has been resurrected or why, but Zaknafein is determined to be reunited with his son, even if he has changed far more than he could ever imagine.

The world has also changed in the last few years.  The Sword Coast is undergoing a period of rare peace.  The dwarves, led by Drizzt’s friend King Bruenor Battlehammer, rule in Gauntlgrym, while the city of Luskan is secretly ruled by Jarlaxle and his mercenary band, Bregan D’aerthe.  With their territories connected by magical gates, Bruenor, Jarlaxle and the halfling community of Bleeding Vines have formed an alliance, ensuring the security of the realm.  However, the ambitious and greedy Lord Neverember, ruler of Neverwinter, is a constant thorn in their side as he plots to steal power from the lands around him.  While usually only a minor nuisance, Neverember has been making deals with a mysterious noble house of Waterdeep and a minor dwarven clan for vast sums of money.  As the allies investigate further, they uncover the start of a destructive demonic conspiracy that could destroy all they have built.  What foul plans are being hatched, and what will happen with Drizzt and Zaknafein find themselves in the middle of a demon stronghold?

R. A. Salvatore is one of the most experienced and enduring authors of fantasy fiction in the world today. Having written more than 60 fantasy books since his 1988 debut, Salvatore has created a number of worlds and characters across his career, from his 12 books in the Corona universe, which includes the 2018 release Child of a Mad God, to his Chronicles of Ynis Aielle trilogy, The Crimson Shadow series, The Cleric Quintet and The Spearwielder’s Tale trilogy. Salvatore is also somewhat infamously known for his foray into Star Wars fiction, with his 1999 release, Vector Prime, which saw the canonical death of Chewbacca in the original expanded universe, a decision that has since been retconned following the Disney acquisition of the franchise.  However, his most iconic and popular books would have to be his long-running series that follows the adventures of the dark elf Drizzt Do’Urden.

The character of Drizzt Do’Urden was first introduced in Salvatore’s debut novel, The Crystal Shard, which is also the first book in The Icewind Dale trilogy.  The Icewind Dale trilogy is set within the Forgotten Realms universe, a large-scale interconnected collection of fantasy books from a range of different authors, all set within the titular Forgotten Realms, a spinoff location of the Dungeons & Dragons roleplaying franchise.  The Icewind Dale trilogy featured a band of powerful characters including Drizzt, the dwarf chieftain Bruenor Battlehammer, the barbarian warrior Wulfgar, the halfling thief Regis and Bruenor’s adopted human daughter, Catti-brie.  While these characters all had their own adventures within this series, it was clear that Salvatore had intended to focus his series on Wulfgar and make him the main protagonist.

However, the character of Drizzt proved to be particularly popular with the fans.  A large amount of this may be a result of the characters anomalous nature, as not only is Drizzt a dark elf living above the surface, but he was one of the few good dark elves in fantasy fiction at that point in time.  The dark elves, also known as the drow, are a race of dark-skinned elves who live in the Underdark, the dark catacombs that lie under the continent of Faerun, in the world of Abeir-Toril.  In the Forgotten Realms universe, dark elves are generally an evil and self-serving race who consider themselves superior to the other races in the Forgotten Realms and often conduct destructive raids against the surface world.  As a result of this popularity, Salvatore chose to focus on Drizzt more and more as his series progressed.  This included establishing the character as one of the greatest practitioners of the sword in the Forgotten Realms, as well as introducing an equally matched adversary, Artemis Entreri.

This focus on Drizzt continued into Salvatore’s second Forgotten Realms series, The Dark Elf trilogy, which was a prequel series to The Icewind Dale trilogy.  The Dark Elf trilogy focused on the birth of Drizzt in the dark elf city of Menzoberranzan, a female-led society dedicated to the worship of the demonic spider god Lolth.  While this is where Drizzt was raised and first learnt how to wield his iconic dual blades, the character of Drizzt never fit in, except with his father Zaknafein, who tried to teach him that the dark elves, especially those dedicated to the worship of Lolth, were evil.  Drizzt would escape Menzoberranzan at the end of the first book in the trilogy, Homeland, and spend the next two books exploring the world outside the city, eventually coming to the surface and finding his home in the Icewind Dale.  Since then, Drizzt and his companions have undergone a number of adventures both above and below the surface of Faerun, with numerous changes impacting these protagonists.  Timeless is the 34th book to feature Drizzt or his companions, and is one of the few ongoing series still being produced in the Forgotten Realms universe.

Timeless is the first book in Salvatore’s new Noname trilogy, and while the series is invariably going to focus on Drizzt, this first book mostly takes a look at the returning Zaknafein.  As a result, the majority of the story is set in the current chronology of Salvatore’s universe and sees Zaknafein attempting to find his place in the new world he has returned to, while also exploring a new threat to the Companions of the Hall (Drizzt and his friends).  There is also a second timeline that is set many years before the events of Homeland and focuses on the early life of Zaknafein.  While both storylines are enjoyable, I found myself drawn more to the prequel storyline, which focused more on the elaborate and exciting intrigues of the drow and how Zaknafein and Jarlaxle became the drow we all came to know and love.  The contemporary storyline is mostly focused on the reuniting of Zaknafein and Drizzt after their many years apart, both in and out of text.  Their emotional reunion forms the heart of this storyline, while Zaknafein’s exploration of this new world he finds himself in is an intriguing part of the book.  A side effect of this is that some of the longstanding characters, such as Wulfgar and Bruenor, have a reduced role in the book.  While I hope they feature more later in this trilogy, I felt the story was able to survive without them.  This book also spends a lot of time setting up the storyline and threats that will form the focus of this new series.  To that end, Salvatore has done an incredible job, creating several intriguing storylines that readers will enjoy following in future books and presenting the protagonists with a number of potential threats for the series.  However, Salvatore has also ensured that the reader will be hit with some severe emotional gut-punches in this first instalment, ensuring that they are dragged into the next book in this trilogy.  I enjoyed going back and forth between these two separate storylines.  Each of these storylines complemented the other one perfectly and highlighted the character of Zaknafein in more detail.

While The Icewind Dale trilogy and the series that followed it are excellent pieces of fantasy fiction, my favourite Drizzt Do’Urden series has always been The Dark Elf trilogy, which I consider one of the best origin story arcs in all of fantasy fiction.  As a result, I was always going to enjoy any novel tied to this prequel trilogy.  Timeless contains a number of call-backs to this original trilogy and works to provide the reader with some interesting and unexplored backstory for the great character of Zaknafein, including how he became associated with the house of Do’Urden.  It also shows the formation of his distinctive character traits, such as his sense of mercy, his hatred of the female dark elves who enslaved him and his intense rebellion against the drow’s patron goddess, Lolth.  Some of the most emotional parts of this original trilogy revolved around Drizzt and Zaknafein as they attempted to escape from the harsh landscape of Menzoberranzan and Zaknafein’s eventual sacrifices to save his son from Lolth’s evil grasp.  Therefore it was amazing to see the two of them finally reunite after all these years in the most appropriate manner possible: a duel.  Watching Drizzt slowly realise that the person fighting against him is actually his long lost father is incredible and something that I really enjoyed.

It was also a lot of fun to see the earlier days of one of my favourite characters, Jarlaxle.  Jarlaxle is a flamboyant and deceptively cunning drow mercenary who is one of the most compelling characters in Salvatore’s books.  The character was first introduced in the second book of The Dark Elf trilogy, Exile, and quickly revealed himself to be a very memorable character.  Salvatore utilised him in a number of his follow-up series, and even gave him his own trilogy with Artemis Entreri.  I was therefore very happy to see him in both timelines of Timeless, as it provides the reader with some great entertainment as well as answering some interesting questions, like how he came up with his distinctive look.  His bromance with Zaknafein was another fun part of both storylines, and I liked seeing the previous connection these two great characters had with each other.  Overall, fans of Salvatore’s preceding books, especially The Dark Elf trilogy will love Timeless and become engrossed in seeing one of the most impactful characters in Drizzt’s life return after more than 20 years and 30 books.

As you would expect from a novel about Drizzt Do’Urden and Zaknafein, two of the most pumped-up sword users in all of fantasy fiction, there is an absolute ton of action and swordplay in this book.  Throughout the course of Timeless, the father and son duo engage in a number of exciting battles and extravagant duels as they face off against a variety of different foes in both of the book’s timelines.  There is so much going on in this book for readers to enjoy, from battles against demonic foes to Zaknafein and Jarlaxle taking on the most devious of drow opponents they can find in the prequel timeline.  The halfling Regis, who is generally one of the most entertaining characters in Salvatore’s books, also has an amazing sequence as he infiltrates a hidden vault, using a combination of alchemy, daring do and the well-honed thieves’ instincts and skills he has been displaying since The Crystal Shard.  Jarlaxle also steals any fight scene he is involved with, using his various magical devices and hidden weapons to cause all manner of chaos against his opponents, resulting in some of the most entertaining parts of the books.

However, easily the best action sequences have to be the duels between Drizzt and Zaknafein.  These two blade masters are generally regarded as the two best fighters in all of the Forgotten Realms and have not faced each other since the early 1990s.  As a result, Salvatore presents several highly detailed duels between the father and son.  These duels are written in incredible detail and Salvatore does a fantastic job highlighting the speed, intensity and skill that these two combatants have as they battle against each other in scenes which hark back to their original amazing duels in Homeland.  Ultimately, Salvatore is once again able to capture the magic that these two combatants had in their original appearances and their fights take on a completely new edge with the emotional intensity of these characters’ reunion.

Salvatore has once again provided his readers with an exhilarating adventure that pits the monsters and villains of the Forgotten Realms against your favourite fantasy heroes.  This is definitely a book that will have the most impact for existing fans of Salvatore’s Forgotten Realms novels, and as such I really enjoyed Timeless.  While newer readers may have a little trouble following the plot after 34 books worth of backstory (39 if you include The Cleric Quintet), Salvatore’s writing will ensure they get an electrifying adventure that will encourage them to look back at the original books in this series.  An outstanding fantasy adventure from one of the best writers in the business, this is fantastic read that is well worth checking out.

My Rating:

Four and a half stars

 

 

Awakened by James S. Murray and Darren Wearmouth

Awakened Cover.jpg

Publisher: Harper Voyager

Publication Date – 26 June 2018

 

First-time author James Murray, of Impractical Jokers fame, teams up with veteran science fiction writer Darren Wearmouth to bring you the fast-paced, action-packed horror extravaganza, Awakened.

It is the unveiling of New York’s newest subway line, one of the most ambitious underground construction programs in the world.  The new express line will travel through a series of new tunnels that are now connecting the various suburbs previously separated by the Hudson River.  At the centre of this new expansion is the Visitor’s Pavilion, a gleaming state-of-the-art control centre and shopping hub situated beneath the Hudson.

The first run of the new system has been set up as a massive event, featuring the press, civic dignitaries, New York City’s mayor and even the president of the United States.  However, when the train rolls into the Visitor’s Pavilion it is not the triumphant occurrence that the waiting crowd was expecting; instead it is a scene of carnage.  The train that arrives is deserted, with all the passengers missing.  Not only that, but ragged holes have been made in the side of the carriages and the floors are covered in blood.

As the crowd panics and attempts to flee what appears to be a massive terrorist attack, an explosion rocks the tunnels and methane starts to flood the entire subway system.  As the tunnels begin to fill with gas and the slightest spark could result in another explosion, those trapped in the Visitor’s Pavilion soon discover that a far more dangerous threat is stalking them.  Something has been living under New York and the construction of the new tunnels has woken it up.  As this new threat starts to pick off both the trapped crowd and the rescuers attempting to reach them, it falls to New York’s mayor Tom Cafferty, NYPD SWAT member Sarah Bowcut and subway technician Diego Munoz to discover what is down in the dark with them.  The more they dig, the more they realise that they are dealing with something far more dangerous than they could possibly imagine, and that a sinister conspiracy has been keeping it hidden from the rest of the world.

This bold new book is the result of a collaboration between comedian James “Murr” Murray and Darren Wearmouth, a science fiction and horror writer with a number of joint novels already under his belt.  The idea for Awakened was originally developed by Murray some years ago, and represents the first novel in a new series that the two authors have been working on, with two future additions already planned for 2019 and 2020.

Awakened is a captivating adventure, science fiction and horror hybrid that goes straight for the reader’s imagination whilst throwing their action centres into overdrive.  This is one of the fastest-paced novels of 2018, as the book’s characters are forced to be quick and decisive in order to escape death.  There are ton of great sequences as the characters encounter the various dangers converging on them and must work on a range of elaborate and desperate escape and rescue attempts.  Murray and Wearmouth are able to weld together some exciting scenarios around this concept, and readers will enjoy watching the characters adapting to the problems they encounter, such as methane in the tunnels stopping them from using guns or flames to defend themselves.  In addition to these excellent action sequences, Awakened contains some truly creepy scenes that will really appeal to horror aficionados.  The characters are assailed with a range of strange sightings, noises from the darkness and the disturbing voices of children crying for help from just outside the character’s line of sight.  This pulse-pounding content is absolutely fantastic and ideal for those who love a startling adventure.

Murray and Wearmouth have also created an intriguing monster to attack the protagonists in the subway tunnel.  Without giving too much away, Awakened’s monstrous element is unique and plays into humanity’s fear of the dark and the creatures that could reside there.  The nature of the threat is revealed at just the right time, as the authors waited until the audience would be sufficiently engrossed in the book.  The eventual full reveal is one of the most memorable parts of the book, as it contains some great reactions from the characters encountering them, whilst at the same time rewarding the reader’s curiosity in a big way.  The authors work to ensure that their audience’s imagination and curiosity is continuously piqued throughout the entire story.  There is also a complex and fascinating conspiracy element that is woven into this part of the book which is intriguing to discover and unravel.  It is definitely a notable part of the story, and it looks like it will be major part of the next books in series.

The authors make significant use of multiple perspectives and viewpoints throughout Awakened.  This type of storytelling often works well for these large-scale horror novels, and this book is no exception.  This breakdown of point-of-view characters allows the reader a much larger picture of what is going on, especially as the various viewpoints tie together into one massive, high-powered story.  It is fun watching the actions of one group of people impact the decisions or choices of another group of people who are located in a different part of the book’s sprawling, underground setting.  This also allows the reader to see smaller scenarios that add to the whole story, such as one fantastic sequence which sees someone attempt to rescue the passengers only to meet their doom.  Despite it being this character’s only scene, his death affects the rest of the characters and there are multiple viewings of his corpse throughout the book to spook those who had no idea of his fate.

It is also worth noting that Murray and Wearmouth have made several homages to other works of horror within Awakened.  I was particularly drawn to several noticeable references and parallels throughout the book to Jurassic Park.  For example, there is a great reference early in the book involving the phrase “no expense had been spared” being used when discussing the celebrity written audio elements of the initial ride.  In addition, some of the characters actually compare their situation to Jurassic Park, which I found to be amusing.  These are a fun element to watch out for, and readers will enjoy noticing these throughout the book, while at the same time, appreciating that they do not overwhelm Awakened’s central horror based theme.

Awakened is a fantastic horror read that really amps up the adventure and action, leaving the reader excited for more.  With a sinister monstrous element and an enjoyable narrative containing an elaborate conspiracy-laden storyline, this collaboration between Murray and Wearmouth is a roaring success and readers should be eager to see what this duo cooks up next.

My Rating:

Four stars

Low Chicago Edited by George R. R. Martin

Low Chicago Cover.jpg

Publisher: Harper Voyager

Publication Date – 12 June 2018

 

From of eight of the world’s leading science fiction and fantasy writers comes the latest addition to the superhero-filled Wild Cards universe, edited by fantasy legend George R. R. Martin.

Wild Cards is one of the more interesting series currently running in the world today due to its distinctive anthology format and the unusual way the series came into existence.  The stories that would eventually form the Wild Cards books were originally written as part of a lengthy Superworld role-playing game campaign that had Martin as gamemaster.  Martin and the other players, all of whom were science fiction writers, created elaborate backstories for the campaign and characters, which were eventually incorporated into the first book in the series, a dark and gritty superhero based anthology also called Wild Cards.  The following entries in the series, despite routinely changing authors, tended to follow the same format as the original book by combining together a series of short stories into a connected narrative.  Low Chicago is the 25th Wild Cards book to be released since the 1987 debut, with two other entries due to be published later in 2018.

The Wild Cards books are set in an alternative universe where an alien virus, known as the Wild Card virus, was released in 1946 above New York City.  This virus affected thousands throughout the planet, killing most of the people it came into contact with and altering the DNA of the survivors.  The vast majority of the infected who remained alive were mutated physically and are now referred to as Jokers.  However, a small percentage gained superhuman abilities and powers and are referred to as Aces.  The stories that followed have been set between 1946 and a time period that usually corresponds to the book’s real world publication date.

In Low Chicago, Martin continues to serve as editor.  The book includes input from two long-running Wild Cards contributors, John J. Miller and Melinda M. Snodgrass, who authored stories in the original Wild Cards.  There is also input from previous contributors Paul Cornell, Marko Kloos, Mary Anne Mohanraj and Kevin Andrew Murphy, as well as newcomers to the series, Saladin Ahmed and Christopher Rowe.

Low Chicago starts in 2017, where a high-stakes poker game has been set up in the city’s famous Palmer House Hotel by a prominent mafia boss.  Each of the seven players has a one million dollar buy-in, and is allowed to bring two attendants including bodyguards.  However, all hell breaks loose when a mysterious assailant targets one of the players, causing the other players and attendants, many of whom are powerful Aces, to unleash their abilities throughout the room.  In the middle of the chaos one of the bodyguards unleashes his own mysterious power and accidently scatters everyone in the room back in time.

Now with history changing outside the hotel, it falls to John Nighthawk and the Sleeper, Croyd Crenson, to travel back to various points of Chicago’s past and find the people trapped there before the present unravels.  But among those who have been sent back are some of the world’s most dangerous criminals, who have decided to change time for their own benefit.  Stuck throughout key points of Chicago’s history, can the time travellers be recovered before the present is permanently altered?

Like many of the books in the franchise, Low Chicago is an anthology featuring several short stories that have been combined together into one overarching and interconnected narrative.  Each of the short stories is unique and features one or more of the characters sent back in time, or inhabitants of the timeline they encounter.  Whilst these short stories all have the same starting plot point, they all have different focuses thanks to that story’s specific characters or time periods.  As a result there are several varied stories, each with their own unique features.  For example, the story Stripes, by Markos Kloos, features a fantastic narrative about the half-human, half-tiger character Khan being trapped in Chicago in 1929 and getting involved in the events surrounding the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre.  Not only is the narrative about an obviously powered individual attempting to influence such an iconic moment in a mob war fun and exciting, but Kloos also includes some significant and heartfelt ethical and emotional decisions that really make you feel for the character of Khan.  At the same time, the story Meathooks on Ice is a complex and emotional story from Saladin Ahmed that focuses on a young and troubled Ace, Meathooks, as he attempts to find redemption and his place in the world back in prehistoric times.

In addition to the overarching time travel plot feature, each of these short stories is also connected together by the characters of John Nighthawk and Croyd Crenson, who could be considered the book’s main protagonists.  Nighthawk and Crenson either appear in the stories themselves or later interact with a story’s central character in order to resolve the specific storyline.  Nighthawk and Crenson are also the main characters of the book’s central storyline, A Long Night at the Palmer House, written by one of the founding authors of Wild Cards, John J. Miller.  This central storyline, told from the viewpoint of John Nighthawk, a character created by Miller in a previous book, is broken up into 11 parts and spread between Low Chicago’s other stories.  The first part of this storyline features the initial poker game and shows the events leading up to the other characters being sent back in time, while the reminder of this storyline focuses on the protagonists’ attempts to find them.  Large portions of this storyline directly tie into Low Chicago’s other short stories, but there are also some sections where they hunt down characters not featured in any of the other short stories.  Miller has included some great scenes in this central storyline, and they get particularly compelling when they encounter the results of the other characters meddling in time and they have to discuss the ethical implications of resetting the timeline.  One particularly outstanding example of this is a sequence that requires the characters to navigate through and fix up a messed up dystopia caused by one of the runaway Aces.

Despite the different authors and the varied content of Low Chicago’s stories, many of the entries complement each other and fit together really well as a result.  Nearly all of the stories contain links to the Wild Cards universe, make full use of Chicago’s rich history, have a comparable dark humour, feature intense action sequences, tell the story in the third person from point of view characters, and have a very similar pace.  There is however, one story that doesn’t follow this trend.  A Bit of a Dinosaur, by Paul Cornell, stands out from the rest of the entries in Low Chicago, as it breaks from third person narration that the other authors utilised, and is instead written in the first person.  Cornell capitalises on this by ramping up the humour in the story and making it a little lighter in tone than the other stories in the book.  The first line of A Bit of a Dinosaur, “I think it’s important to say, immediately, that I am no way responsible for the extinction of the dinosaurs” really sets the tone for this whole short story and it only gets better from there.

One of the most enjoyable parts of Low Chicago is the rich history of the book’s titular city, Chicago.  Throughout all of the short stories, the reader is transported to various periods of Chicago’s history in order to witness several of the most significant events in the city’s past.  These include The Great Chicago Fire of 1871, the Black Sox scandal of 1919, the opening of the first Playboy Club, the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, the disastrous 1968 Democratic National Convention and the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition.  All of the authors take significant pains to explore the significance of these events and the impact they had on Chicago and the rest of America.  The reader is given a crash course in the history of these proceedings, and also experiences the author’s interpretation of several key historical figures.  Many of these events occurred before the 1946 release of the Wild Card virus which removed the Wild Cards universe storyline from real world history, and it is fun to watch these events get altered due to the inclusion of several super-powered beings.  It is also extremely fascinating to see the various authors’ interpretations of the historical occurrences that happened after 1946, as they occur in a world where superpowers and mutations are rampant.  As a result, the authors have provided some inventive and captivating alterations that will prove to be highly enjoyable for the reader.

Fans of the Wild Cards universe will also love the deep connections that Low Chicago’s stories have with the rest of the franchise.  In addition to some interesting and complex new characters, Low Chicago features a huge range of characters who originated in the previous Wild Cards books.  There is a deep focus on the history of many of these characters and the readers get to see them placed in a range of unique and compelling situations.  In addition, the authors make full use of the overarching time travel storyline as they visit a range of characters who were killed off in previous books or whose main adventures occurred in storylines set many years before 2017.  Long-time fans of this series will love the inclusion of or nods to these early characters, especially as several have significant roles in the narrative.

Readers unfamiliar with this series may be slightly overwhelmed at the start of the book, but all of the authors contributing to Low Chicago do an amazing job of providing the relevant exposition and explanation for all the characters and the overall history of the Wild Cards universe.  Indeed, Low Chicago might be a perfect book for first time readers of the Wild Cards franchise, as the huge range of characters and the focus on time travel provides the reader with a huge amount of backstory and history that the previous books did not need to contain.

Low Chicago is an outstanding new release that is a sensational and memorable inclusion to one of the best science fiction series currently on the market.  It makes incredible use of its distinctive anthology format and the overarching time travel storyline throughout Chicago’s history that is an inspired and marvellous in its execution.  Low Chicago really stands out from the rest of the books in the Wild Cards franchise and readers will not be disappointed by this latest offering.

My Rating:

Four and a half stars

King of Ashes by Raymond E. Feist

King of Ashes Cover

Publisher: Harper Voyager

Australian Publication Date – 5 April 2018

World Publication Date – 8 May 2018

 

For over 30 years, one of the most reliable cornerstones of fantasy fiction has been the books of Raymond E. Feist.  Starting with the 1982 fantasy classic, Magician, Feist has produced 30 books, all set in the worlds of Midkemia and Kelewan, as part of his long running Riftwar CycleKing of Ashes is the first book Feist has written since he ended the Riftwar Cycle in 2013.  It is also the start of The Firemane Saga, a new series which is set in a completely different universe to the Riftwar Cycle and introduces the reader to an exciting new story.

The continent of Garn was once home to five kingdoms, the greatest of which was the Kingdom of Ithrace.  Ruled by the red-haired Firemanes, Ithrace was known for its culture and creativity.  However, following a great betrayal, Ithrace was destroyed and its king executed.  In order to avoid any retribution, the power-hungry King of Sandura ordered the deaths of every member of the Ithrace royal family, and not even their legendary affinity for fire could save them.

Now, 17 years later, war is returning to Garn.  Ancient pacts of peace are failing, and the four kingdoms are out of balance.  As the kingdoms and the independent baronies prepare for a new conflict, rumours of a hidden heir to Ithrace’s throne begin to surface.

In the previously peaceful Covenant Lands, Declan, a young and talented blacksmith, is forced to flee slavers raiding his village.  Carrying the rare knowledge of crafting the legendary jewel-steel, Declan flees to the Barony of Marquensas, where he hopes to create a new life for himself.

Meanwhile, in the feared and hidden island nation of Coaltachin, three youths, Donte, Hava and Hatu, are being trained in the way of the Quelli Nascosti assassins, learning how to spy, steal and kill.  All three of the young agents are eager to explore the world outside of their island home, but they quickly find themselves under attack.  The mysterious group of assailants seem to have been trained in a similar way to the assassins of Coaltachin.  Whoever these attackers are, they are unafraid of the young assassins and have a particular interest in capturing Hatu, an orphan with red hair and a fiery temper.  As events transpire, these young people find themselves in the heart of events that will transform Garn forever.

Feist delivers a fantastic and absorbing read that once again illustrates why he is one of the preeminent writers of fantasy fiction in the world today.  His latest book is a classic fantasy tale set within another unique and memorable universe and is one of the most thrilling and addictive releases so far this year.

King of Ashes is the first book in a brand new trilogy that has definite potential to expand out into another long-running series.  As a result, Feist presented this book as a set up for the rest of the series, rather than a stand-alone book.  Substantial time was spent establishing the characters, world and overall story, and introducing elements to be further explored in future instalments of the series.  While some questions are answered towards the end of the book, a number of mysteries still remain.  King of Ashes proved very hard to put down—an impressive feat, considering it was 545 pages long in the hardcover edition.

Feist has done a lot of work building up this new fantasy location, producing some amazing settings and locations.  The characters venture to large cities, small towns, fortified keeps, grasslands, forests and various islands.  There are also several scenes set on the ocean, which allow for some intricate sequences involving ships and naval combat.  It also appears that, despite how far many of the characters travel, they have only just brushed the surface of the continent mapped out in the front of the book.  This area of land appears to be less than half of the entire continent of Garn, which indicates wider adventures in future books.  There were also some brief mentions of other continents existing on this new world, which may be a possible indication of plans to expand this series past its initial trilogy.

While Feist introduces a number of new kingdoms and peoples throughout his story, many readers will really enjoy his inclusion of the Quelli Nascosti assassins on the island nation of Coaltachin.  In the story, the nation of Coaltachin, also known as the Invisible Nation, is ruled by the Quelli Nascosti assassins, who work throughout the continent as assassins, spies and informants.  Feist spends a significant amount of time focusing on this group of assassins, displaying various aspects of their society, operations, influence throughout Garn and varied training techniques.  As a result, they are the most fleshed-out group of characters within King of Ashes and are a definite highlight of the book.  Readers will really enjoy the significant focus Feist puts on this group, as this results in a number of high-intensity scenes with covert activities and exciting action.

Feist tells most of the story through three prominent characters, Declan, Hava and Hatu.  All three of these characters have fascinating and unique accounts to follow, although all of them could be considered to be coming-of-age stories.  Hava and Hatu are both members of the Quelli Nascosti, and it is through their eyes that we see most of the secretive nation and their actions.  Hatu is involved in action throughout the continent, encountering mysterious foes and discovering his hidden destiny, while Hava’s story focuses on more specialised training and a secret side mission.  Declan’s story is a classic fantasy story of a young man trying to find his way in life while overcoming destructive elements.  There are some more classic fight scenes in this storyline, and some very detailed descriptions of blacksmithing.  Each of these storylines is extremely enjoyable to read and provides different insights into this exhilarating new fantasy universe.

King of Ashes is the latest book from fantasy legend Raymond E. Feist and represents an outstanding start to a fantastic new series.  Featuring multiple coming-of-age stories, this is a pure fantasy tale set within an intriguing and detailed new universe.  This is mandatory reading for fans of Feist’s previous work and comes highly recommended for all fans of the fantasy genre.  I cannot wait for the next book in this series.

My Rating:

Five Stars

Scales of Empire by Kylie Chan

Scales of Empire Cover

Publisher: Harper Voyager

Publication Date – 19 February 2018

 

Can humanity survive the arrival of an alien dragon with an offer of love?  Find out in this curious novel about first contact with aliens from bestselling Australian author Kylie Chan.

In the near future, Earth’s ecosystem is failing and humanity’s only hope for survival lies in escaping our solar system and finding viable new planets to colonise.  Corporal Jian Choumali has been chosen to accompany one of the huge generation ships that is preparing to journey to a distant planet.  However, the launch is interrupted by the arrival of a giant alien spaceship above Earth that will change humanity forever.

The ship is piloted by an alien known as a dragon, which bears a striking resemblance to the beasts of legend.  Dragons are the ruling members of a vast technologically and culturally advanced empire made up of numerous alien races.  The Dragon emissary, Shiumo, brings offers of peace, love and advanced technology to humanity as she introduces Earth to a wider universe.

Jian and her commander, Richard Alto, are chosen to be the first delegates to meet with Shiumo, and they soon become her guides to Earth.  Shiumo becomes a sensation overnight, providing humanity with longer lives, faster-than-light travel and a solution to Earth’s failing ecosystem.

However, the more Jian gets to know Shiumo, the more it becomes apparent that the Dragons may not be as benevolent as they seem.  What price will humanity really have to pay to join the Empire, and what role will the Dragons’ cat-like enemies play in the future of Earth?

Scales of Empire is the first book in the intriguing Dragon Empire trilogy, written by Australian author Kylie Chan.  This is Chan’s first voyage into science fiction, having previously written the Chinese mythology inspired Xuan Wu series.

Scales of Empire has a number of cool features that make it an amusing and thought-provoking science fiction novel.  Chan has constructed a first contact story that explores how humanity could potentially interact with an advanced alien race.  Chan provides a series of fascinating postulations about what human products would prove desirable to an alien species, what humanity could use in our defence against potential alien threats, and what our place would be among a vast interstellar empire.  The Dragons are the stars of this book, as Chan has imbued them with several distinctive abilities and personality quirks.  There is also a fun origin story to explain the similarities between the alien Dragons and the Earth dragons of myth and legend.  Having the other main alien race also resemble an Earth species, in this case cats, is a little over the top very unrealistic.  However, the behaviour of this other species acts as a good foil to the apparently benevolent and socially advanced Dragons.

Science fiction aficionados will also appreciate Chan’s descriptions and theories about what would be required for humans to reach and colonise other inhabitable planets in the galaxy.  Chan spends some of the early parts of the book highlighting her theories about how humans in the near future would achieve this.  Her descriptions of large ships that would require ten generations of its crew to live in space before they even reached the planet is fascinating, as are her suggestions about the ideal initial crewmembers; not a lot of other writers would suggest that colonisation ships should have large crews mostly made up of bisexual women with good genetic diversity.  In addition, there is also some intriguing discussion about the colonisation of other planets, and several chapters are dedicated to the training and initial colonisation of a planet, which many readers will find enticing.

While these science fiction aspects of the book are good reasons to try Scales of Empire, one of the most compelling and memorable aspect of this book is the constant examination of whether the Dragons are as benevolent as they seem, or if they have their own secret agenda.  This becomes a central focus of the story as the human characters analyse all of the Dragons’ actions while coming up with countermoves and their own attempts at manipulation.  There are many twists and turns, and at points it becomes hard to tell whether the Dragons or the humans come off as the worst species during these interactions.  This results in a really compelling narrative which serves as a superb central focus for the book and will keep you hooked until the final reveal.

The new book from Kylie Chan is an intriguing start to a promising science fiction trilogy.  Examining humanity’s potential first contact with an alien species, Chan asks the question: between an alien species with its own agenda and mistrustful and calculating humans, who is the greater evil?  This is a brilliant bit of fiction that provides a distinctive and in-depth discussion and is definitely worth exploring.

My Rating:
Three and a half stars

to

Four stars