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.

Guest Review – The Power by Naomi Alderman

After reviewing some of 2019’s most intriguing reads with Pan’s Labyrinth, The Testaments and The Fowl Twins, my amazing editor/wife Alex (editor is the important part there) attempts to muscle in on my Throwback Thursday territory in her latest Guest Review by checking out The Power by Naomi Alderman.

The Power Cover

Publisher: Penguin (Trade Paperback – 27 October 2016)

Series: Stand Alone/Book One

Length: 341 pages

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

I’m on a mission to conquer my habit of buying more books than I can read. I picked up The Power because I recognised Naomi Alderman’s name from one of my favourite apps, Zombies, Run!, for which she is the lead writer. Zombies, Run! is primarily an exercise app, but its best feature is its compelling and immersive narrative about a community of survivors of a zombie apocalypse. So when I stumbled upon a copy of one of Alderman’s books I was immediately keen to check it out. Unfortunately, my reading of it was interrupted and it has been sadly shelved for the last year and a half. When I resolved to tackle my collection of unread books this year, I knew The Power had to be first on the list.

The Power chronicles a world in which young women develop a biological power to create and manipulate electricity. There are four main threads in the story, following a small collection of key characters on their adventures during the first decade of the change. The first is Roxy Monke, the child of an English gangster, who uses her power with devastating effect to build and control a vast criminal empire. Tunde Edo is a young Nigerian man who discovers a passion for photojournalism when he happens to capture video of an early attack using the power. He travels the world documenting the great upheavals and rebellions that the power inspires. Margot Cleary is an American politician, and through her we see how the change affects government. Allie is a young American runaway with perhaps the greatest control over her power of any woman in the world, which she uses to establish herself as a respected and feared cult leader of women. There is also an extensive cast of excellent side characters, including Margot’s daughter Jocelyn, who struggles as a young woman without a fully developed power, and Tatiana Moskalev, the wife of the president of Moldova.

What I always enjoy most about speculative fiction with several narrators is the way that readers get to experience so much of the world that has been created. This is particularly true in The Power, since each of the characters (especially Tunde) is very well travelled, and as a result we get a glimpse of how the power affects societies all over the world, as well as how the world changes over the 10 years covered in the book. We see the initial scepticism of women spontaneously evolving the power to emit and control electricity. We see the fear set in as it becomes clear how dangerous the power can be, both when it is used as an attack against individuals and when women band together to challenge misogynistic and oppressive regimes and governments. We see how cults and societies develop as the status quo is forever changed and the new power imbalance between men and women becomes firmly established. The events that unfold in Moldova are particularly fascinating. All in all, there’s not a dull moment in the whole book, and though it is at times brutally violent it is always deeply compelling.

I really loved the way the narrative is framed as a dramatisation of historical events, in a fashion similar to that of The Handmaid’s Tale and The Testaments. The book begins and ends with correspondence between Neil, who appears to be a budding historian and author, and Naomi, who is surely his mentor or perhaps his publisher. Neil and Naomi speculate on the accuracy of the story, given that they are removed from these events by several hundred years and have only the archaeological record to guide them. I was also very pleased to find chapters interspersed with illustrations and interpretations of artefacts from the time of the change, such as idols, grave sites and internet forum threads. These elements in particular made the archaeologist in me very happy.

The Power is a fantastic exploration of a world suddenly and dramatically shaken to its core. I’m going to have to check out some more of Naomi Alderman’s work, and I’m only sorry I hadn’t read this one sooner.

Nuking the Moon by Vince Houghton

Nuking the Moon Cover

Publisher: Profile Books (Trade Paperback – 3 December 2019)

Series: Stand alone/Book One

Length: 296 pages

My Rating: 4.5 stars out of 5

Have you ever been curious about the craziest top secret plans the world’s top militaries and intelligence agencies ever came up with? Well, wonder no longer as Vince Houghton, curator of the International Spy Museum, presents Nuking the Moon: And Other Intelligence Schemes and Military Plots Best Left on the Drawing Board, a hilarious collection of some of the most over-the-top, insane or ahead-of-their-time military and intelligence ideas that were ever thought up.

Before we start getting too far into this review, I feel I need to point out that this is actually the first review of a non-fiction book that I have ever featured on this blog. Over the last few years, I have not really read any non-fiction books, mainly because I suffered an overload of them at university. However, the moment I received Nuking the Moon, I knew that really needed to read it. That says a lot about how interesting the content was to me, as it takes a lot for me to actually sit down and read a non-fiction book cover to cover. However, I have always enjoyed reading about some of the weirdest moments in human history, especially as in many cases reality can be so much weirder than fiction. Nuking the Moon certainly sounded like it would be right up my alley, and I am so glad I decided to try it as this book proved to be an amazingly entertaining read with some truly outrageous historical accounts that were a lot of fun to learn about.

In Nuking the Moon, Houghton has written a detailed account about the history of 21 different projects, operations or schemes that were implemented, attempted or researched to some degree by a government, military, intelligence agency or private company. Each of these different projects and operations have their own chapter within this book, which is then broadly broken up into four separate sections, Adventures in the Animal Kingdom, Astonishing Operations, Truly Extraordinary Technology and “Fun” with Nuclear Weapons. The vast majority of these planned operations originated in America and the United Kingdom, and pretty much all of them were researched during the course of either World War II or the Cold War, when bold ideas were encouraged.

The first thing you need to know about Nuking the Moon is that it contains a fantastic and unique range of different historical projects and plans examined within it. There are some really entertaining and intriguing stories from history contained within this book, and while I was vaguely familiar with a few of them, the vast majority were actually completely unknown to me. This speaks not only to the obscure or hidden nature of many of these projects but also to the research ability and knowledge base of the author, which guarantees that the reader is bound to find out something new in this book. There are some truly interesting stories within this book, including the titular plan to nuke the moon, scientists implanting listening devices into trained cats, chickens being housed inside nuclear landmines to keep the electronics from freezing, misinformation campaigns about death rays, satellites containing sun guns, research into creating tidal waves with explosives, ill-advised attempts to disperse cyclones with nuclear bombs and so much more. I found all of these topics to be deeply fascinating and I think many readers will be amazed at some of things that these people came up with.

While I really enjoyed nearly every unique plan contained within this book, there were a few that really stood out for me and ended up being my favourite entries. This includes a particularly fun research project by the Allies into the viability of creating massive battleships out of ice, which I think Houghton did a really good job explaining. Not only is this chapter deeply intriguing, especially as this wild idea apparently had a huge amount of support from the American and English governments, but the author paints a great picture about the work and historical personalities involved. I particularly enjoyed the stories about how Lord Mountbatten, the head of the project, thought that the best way to show off the viability of his project to interested dignitaries was to repeatedly shoot the proposed construction material with a range of different guns.

I was also a big fan of the five separate chapters that detailed some extraordinary plans to utilise animals as weapons or intelligence assets. Two of these entries in particular were deeply fascinating and I really enjoyed learning about them. The first of these was a plan to turn bats into lethal weapons by loading them up with explosives. The reasoning behind this plan is quite dubious, and what is amazing is that it actually made it to testing, with particularly disastrous results. The mental picture that Houghton is able to conjure up while describing these tests is extremely hilarious, and it was an extremely entertaining entry for the front part of the book. The second animal-related project that was a personal highlight was another plan by the Allies to paint foxes with luminous paint and set them lose in front of an army invading Japan. The idea was that the Japanese, whose culture features many stories about foxes being a form of supernatural trickster, would be terrified by the sight of the glowing foxes and flee in terror before the Americans. This is probably one of the stories that Houghton is most scornful of, and it was really entertaining to see him tear into the inherent racism behind this plan. I also particularly liked hearing about the various setbacks involved with plan, as well as the chain of events that led to a horde of luminous foxes being released in the middle of New York. The three above chapters were easily the highpoint of the book for me, and I reckon a lot of people would enjoy learning more about the amazing plans they contained.

Now, while a lot of the various chapters in this book were absolutely fantastic to read, Nuking the Moon did have a couple of parts to it that did slightly reduce my overall enjoyment of the book. For example, I personally found the Astonishing Operations section of the book to be a little less interesting than the other major parts of the book. Sitting between the chapters that dealt with animals and weird technology, the Astonishing Operations were nowhere near as “astonishing” as some of the other parts of the book. Don’t get me wrong, some of these chapters were pretty interesting, and I did enjoy reading about the various operations, but they seemed to pale in comparison after the truly over-the-top tales told in the other parts of the book. That being said, some of these stories dragged a little, and I also thought that a couple were a bit unnecessary in their inclusion.

I felt that Houghton did an excellent job of fully exploring the various projects and operations that are featured within this book. Each of the chapters within Nuking the Moon contains quite a bit of detail about the history of the entire plan, including who came up with it, who approved it and the various people who were involved (it is actually quite amazing some of the major historical figures who had a hand in these intriguing projects). He then details the entire design process and testing phases of these projects, examining the results, including the surprising successes and disastrous failures that occurred, and then finally looking at why it was cancelled or suspended. There are some interesting historical examinations involved with each chapter, as Houghton attempts to look over all the relevant details associated with the plans or projects. I particularly liked that he examined the historical context around these proposed ideas, and actually tries to explain why the various creators thought that something this unusual or dangerous was actually necessary. I also appreciated that he looked at the impacts or future implications of some of the projects, as well as some of the connections that they have to modern technology. Overall, I think that the author did an incredible job exploring the various topics contained within this book, and I really enjoyed learning about the full extent of these projects and about how far they actually progressed.

I was also a big fan of the sarcastic and humorous writing style that Houghton utilised for most of the book. I really enjoyed this light-hearted and comedic tone, and it was definitely the perfect way to explore such outrageous and eccentric ideas and concepts. Houghton made sure to fill each chapter with a ton of funny jokes and observations, as well as some clever takedowns of parts of, or the entirety of, the plans being discussed, and I had some great laughs as I worked my way through Nuking the Moon. That being said, I do think that the author did get a bit off-topic at times, which had a slight negative impact on the flow of the book. While he does take a sarcastic approach to these ideas, Houghton is not as critical as he could have been; instead in some of the chapters he actually tries to see the concept from its creator’s point of view and explain why they thought it was a good idea. He also makes sure to highlight in the introduction that even though the projects contained within this book may seem ridiculous, if that had actually succeeded, we would consider them to be works of absolute genius. I like this slightly fairer examination of some of these entries, and it was definitely better than reading a book completely filled with negatively.

Nuking the Moon by Vince Houghton is a fun and fascinating non-fiction book that did a wonderful job of capturing, exploring and satirising some of the weirdest attempted plans and operations from the military and intelligence worlds. This is an exceedingly entertaining read which I think will appeal to a wide range of readers, and I would definitely recommend it. I actually hope that Houghton thinks about doing another book detailing some of the other crazy plans, projects and operations (because let’s face it, there are bound to be some other pretty unbelievable and true stories out there), as I for one would really be interested in see what other amazingly bad ideas people have come up with.

Star Wars: Force Collector by Kevin Shinick

ForceCollector-Cover

Publisher: Listening Library (Audiobook – 19 November 2019)

Series: Star Wars

Length: 8 hours and 13 minutes

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

We are less than a week away from the final movie in the main Star Wars saga, The Rise of Skywalker, so it is about time that I got around to reviewing the final Star Wars novel of 2019, Star Wars: Force Collector by Kevin Shinick.

This is a book that I have been looking forward to for some time. Force Collector is a curious Star Wars young adult novel with an intriguing-sounding plot behind it, and it would have ordinarily been on my reading list anyway. However, as it is one of several books being released under the title of Journey to Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (other examples of which include Resistance Reborn), it was one I definitely needed to check out before the movie comes out in a few short days.

This book was written by Kevin Shinick, who is probably best known for his work writing and developing television shows such as Robot Chicken, the 2017 Spider-Man animated show, Mad and Disjointed. In addition, Shinick has also written several comics for DC and Marvel, including Avenging Spider-Man, Superior Carnage and Axis: Hobgoblin. Force Collector is actually Shinick’s debut novel and he has produced a great Star Wars book with a rather interesting concept that provides a clever new viewpoint into the events of the Star Wars films.

Set shortly before the events of The Force Awakens, Force Collector revolves around Karr, a teenage boy living on a backwater planet. Karr lives a difficult life; anytime he touches an item that has witnessed an important or traumatic event, he gets a searing headache and blacks out. However, these items also impart onto him a vision of the history associated with it, allowing him to glimpse into the past. While his parents search for a rational explanation for his episodes, Karr’s grandmother knows the real reason for strange visions: he is gifted with the Force.

Attempting to learn how to control his abilities, Karr struggles with his training and hopes to find someone who can teach him in the ways of the Force. However, all the Jedi are long dead, and no-one on his planet knows what happened to them. Determined to learn more, Karr begins to collect historical items which he hopes will allow him to have some vision of the Jedi and learn where to find them. However, the few meagre artefacts he can lay his hands on are unable to provide him with the knowledge he seeks.

When Karr’s grandmother dies and his parents attempt to send him away to a school on the other side of the planet, he finally has enough. Determined to find an actual Jedi to help him, Karr, his droid RZ-7, and his school’s new troublemaker, Maize, steal a First Order ship belonging to Maize’s father and set out on an adventure. Travelling from one planet to the next, Karr and his friends attempt to trace the history of the Jedi. Finding obscure item after obscure item, Karr is eventually able to piece together the events that led to the downfall of the Jedi order and the rise of the Empire. However, the greatest secrets may lay even closer to home than he imagined.

Force Collector is a fun and intriguing novel which provides a unique and clever examination of the events of the Skywalker Saga, and which I am very glad I decided to check out. Featuring a great group of central characters (Karr, Maize and RZ-7) who grow closer as they progress in their adventure, and a rather captivating story, this was an amazing Star Wars read. I particularly liked the idea of a character who could revisit the Star Wars past through the objects he touches, as it allows Shinick to take the reader on a journey through a number of events in the Star Wars canon. Some really interesting bits of Star Wars history are examined through the course of this book, and it features some compelling visits to a number of iconic locations. That being said, this is a rather low-stakes novel, as the protagonists’ great adventure comes across at times like an unusually eventful school excursion (indeed, that is the explanation they give to the people they encounter). As a result, this might not be the best book for people looking for an exciting or action-packed novel (Thrawn: Treason or Master and Apprentice might be a better 2019 Star Wars release for those readers), however, the examination of Star Wars history makes this book an outstanding read for major fans of the franchise.

In order to tell his story, Shinick has filled his novel with all manner of references to the wider Star Wars universe. Not only does the reader get to see a number of visions from the past as part of the protagonists’ quest to find out more about the Jedi, but they also visit a number of familiar locations. These include Jakku (where Rey was living), Utapau (where Obi-Wan killed General Grievous) and even Batuu (the planet where the Galaxy’s Edge theme park area is set, and which has also served as the setting for several books such as the recent release Black Spire), just to name a few. Our protagonists encounter a number of unique individuals or items which witnessed some of the most iconic moments out of the films. For example, at Utapau he discovers the walking stick of the planet’s leader, which reveals the conversation the leader had with Obi-Wan when he landed. On another planet he runs across a pilot who witnessed Obi-Wan cutting the hand off Ponda Baba in the Mos Eisley cantina on Tatooine. There are some really cool and, in some cases, obscure items that Karr touches throughout the story, and the events they showed were really interesting.

In addition, Shinick also focuses on exploring the Star Wars universe just prior to the events of Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens. Force Collector appears to occur just before the start of The Force Awakens, and there are a number of references to the shape of the universe and the plans of the First Order. Shinick also uses this to allow the protagonists to visit and have some fascinating interactions with a couple of characters who appeared in the movie, such as Unkar Plutt or Maz Kanata. The meeting with Maz Kanata in particular was intriguing, and it was cool to see all these characters just before the events of the film rained down hellfire on their locations. In the end, this book contained all manner of references from across the films, the animated television shows and even some of the other books that make up the current Star Wars canon, making this a perfect read for dedicated fans of the franchise.

One of the most intriguing things that I liked about the story was its examination of how the characters in the wider Star Wars universe during this period perceived the Jedi and the events of the Skywalker Saga. Shinick makes it clear quite early on in the book that, during the period that novel was set, most of the galaxy saw the Jedi as a myth and barely anyone knows that much about them anymore. Even the protagonists, Karr and Maize, both of whom consider themselves somewhat more knowledgeable on the subject that most people, barely have any idea of what they were capable of or why they were destroyed. The various theories and histories of the Jedi that are postulated at the start of the novel are so obviously wrong to anyone who has seen the movies that it is quite a jarring experience. I found it deeply fascinating to see how it only took a generation or so for the legend of the Jedi to be degraded, and it explains why characters like Finn and Rey in The Force Awakens barely knew anything about them. The subsequent search for the truth is also interesting, and I liked how the characters attempted to piece together the events of the film. This search was hampered by the fact that the information they received was a random selection of events that were not in any chronological order. This ensures that they get a confused picture of all the events of the Skywalker saga, which they need to try and piece together to fully understand the lessons of the past. All of this was a really cool and unique take on the events of the films, and it was fun trip down memory lane.

While I really enjoyed all the cool references to the rest of the Star Wars franchise, I struggled to see how this book will actually tie into the events of the upcoming The Rise of Skywalker film, despite that being one of the major advertised features of the book. While this book did spend a bit of time expanding on the overall universe around the current trilogy of Star Wars films, there was nothing specific about The Rise of Skywalker in it. While this did not massively impact my enjoyment of the novel, I kept waiting for the story to kick off in another direction, perhaps after some of the galaxy-altering events that were shown in The Force Awakens took place, or feature a more major character from the films. It never did, and I very much doubt that the main character in this book is going to show up in the new movie (although I could be mistaken). The main connection I could find in this novel was the confirmation that a certain character is at the heart of all the major events of the Skywalker Saga, so much so that only touching an item of theirs was enough to make Karr understand all of the events of the films completely. This is something I believe that the Star Wars creative team wishes to reinforce, as the trailers and rumours indicate big things are happening to this character in the final movie, which will help signal the fact that the Skywalker Saga is truly over. There is also a mention of Karr holding onto a couple of certain Jedi items in case they will be needed in the future, but again I doubt this is going to feature in The Rise of Skywalker. As a result, while Force Collector serves more as an interesting recap for some of the prior Star Wars events, don’t expect any major revelations about the upcoming film.

Rather than grab a physical copy of this book, I ended up listening to the Force Collector audiobook, which was narrated by Euan Morton. Running at just over eight hours in length, this is a pretty short audiobook that most people should be able to get through rather quickly. As usual, I had a lot of fun listening to this Star Wars audiobook, as it featured all of the classic Star Wars music and sound effects, which really help to make the franchise’s audiobook formats so unique. Narrator Euan Morton is an old hand at narrating Star Wars audiobooks; I recently enjoyed his narration of Tarkin, for example. He does another fantastic job with the narration in Force Collector, coming up with a number of unique and distinctive voices for the characters who only appear in this novel, while also doing great impressions of characters who previously appeared in the film. I was particularly impressed with the realistically teenage voices he was able to come up with for Karr and Maize, and I also like how he did not really recycle any of the voices he used in the previous Star Wars audiobook of his I heard. All of this results in another outstanding audiobook adaption of a Star Wars novel, and it is easily one of my favourite franchises to check out in this format.

Star Wars: Force Collector by Kevin Shinick is a fantastic book that features a captivating and unique story, which is richly layered in references to the prior movies and other pieces of Star Wars fiction. While it does not contain an obvious connection to the upcoming The Rise of Skywalker film, it is still a really interesting and exciting novel that is worth checking out, especially as it provides a compelling recap of some of the previous films in the franchise. Aimed towards a younger audience, Force Collector will be easily enjoyed by all Star Wars fans, especially those who are familiar with the expanded fiction. However, even those readers who have seen the films will be able to appreciate the story in this book. An overall great read, this book is a lot of fun and is an excellent piece of Star Wars fiction.

Throwback Thursday – Star Wars (2015) Volume 1: Skywalker Strikes by Jason Aaron and John Cassaday

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Publisher: Marvel Comics

Publication Date: 6 October 2015

Length: 160 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Reviewed as part of my Throwback Thursday series, where I republish old reviews, review books I have read before or review older books I have only just had a chance to read.

I think it is fair to say that I have been in a real Star Wars mood lately. Maybe it is because of the imminent release of the final movie in the Skywalker Saga, Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, or perhaps it is because The Mandalorian is such an awesome TV show. Whatever the reason, I have been reading and reviewing quite a few Star Wars books and comics lately. For example, I am currently listening to Star Wars: Force Collector, I reviewed Tarkin last week and I recently read and reviewed Resistance Reborn and Vader: Dark Vision. As a result, I thought that this week would be a good time to do a Throwback Thursday on the first volume of the 2015 Star Wars comic book series, Skywalker Strikes, which did an outstanding job of introducing an extremely exciting ongoing comic series.

The Star Wars comic book series was started in 2015 and follows the adventures of the protagonists of the original Star Wars trilogy. Set shortly after the events of A New Hope, this series attempts to fill in the three years between the first film and The Empire Strikes Back. The Star Wars comics originally ran concurrently with the Darth Vader (2015) comic series until that series ended, and then proceeded to run alongside the Doctor Aphra comics. The Star Wars series ran for 75 issues and has only recently concluded. A sequel series with the same name is set to begin in early 2020, which will follow the events between The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi.

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Volume One of Star Wars begins shortly after the destruction of the Death Star. With the Empire in turmoil following the destruction of such a major weapon, Rebel Alliance members Luke Skywalker, Leia Organa, Han Solo, Chewbacca, C-3PO and R2-D2 use the chaos to infiltrate a key Imperial weapons factory. While they are able to destabilise the factory’s reactor core and free its slave labour force, the Rebels are unprepared for the unexpected arrival of Darth Vader.

Attempting to complete their mission while also trying to kill Vader, the Rebels find themselves hopelessly outmatched by the Dark Lord of the Sith, who is determined to capture the Rebel who blew up the Death Star. Not even Luke, with his newly discovered Jedi abilities, is able to stand up to Vader, and the Rebels barely manage to escape with their lives.

Frustrated by his failures against Vader, Luke decides to take a leave of absence from the Rebel Alliance and returns to Tatooine to contemplate his future. Travelling to the house where Obi-Wan Kenobi lived in exile for years, Luke hopes to find something that will guide him. Instead he finds himself walking into a trap, as the bounty hunter Boba Fett is lying in wait. At the same time, Leia talks Han into a scouting mission for the Rebels, but their simple mission soon attracts the wrong sort of attention. Who is the mysterious woman hunting Han, and why is claiming to be his wife?

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Skywalker Strikes, which is made up of Issues #1-6 of the Star Wars series, contains an outstanding story, fantastic artwork and some of the most insane Star Wars action sequences that you will ever see. The team of Jason Aaron and John Cassaday, have done an amazing job on this comic, and this first volume does a wonderful job starting off this long-running series. While all the issues in this volume are connected together pretty well, I would say that there is a distinctive break between Issues #1-3 and Issues #4-6. Issues #1-3 focuses solely on the protagonist’s attack on the weapon facility, while the last three issues feature some more independent adventures from some of the series’ various characters, as each of them is searching for something.

The sequence contained within Issues #1-3 is just incredible, and it is easily my favourite part of the entire series. What starts as a fun infiltration of an Imperial facility quickly devolves into utter chaos as Darth Vader enters the mix. What then follows is nearly three whole issues of action, explosions, fantastic first meetings and all manner of destruction as the Rebels desperately attempt to escape the factory. While all the characters involved in this part of the comic are really good, I have to say that Vader steals the show as the indestructible villain. This was actually one of the first pieces of fiction in the new Disney Star Wars canon that shows off how amazing Vader could truly be, and it is pretty darn awesome. Pretty much from the first instance he appears, he shows off the full extent of his powers by throwing stormtroopers in front of a sneak attack from Chewbacca, and then by starting to crush an AT-AT with the force. He then subsequently survives a full-on blast from the AT-AT’s cannons and hacks it to pieces with his lightsaber. He also cuts through a bunch of escaping slaves and shows his intense displeasure to his subordinates in a number of destructive ways, including twisting a stormtrooper’s head 180 degrees with the force (to be fair, he did catch sight of Vader without his helmet) and choking a Star Destroyer captain from an insane distance. I can also not be the only person who cracked up at Vader very quickly destroying an Imperial Officer moments after he said “Lord Vader will have my….” (spoilers, he was going to say head, and Vader really did). All of this destruction and action was essentially pure awesome, and I loved every second of it.

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In addition to all the action in this part of the book, there are also some major moments in Star Wars history that fans of the franchise are really going to enjoy. For the one thing, it actually has the first face-to-face confrontation between Luke and Darth Vader. This scene is handled extremely well. Luke, still believing that Vader is the one responsible for the death of his father, jumps at the chance to get revenge. However, as Luke runs towards Vader’s location full of confidence, he hears the disembodied voice of Obi-Wan Kenobi telling him to run. This is advice that Luke really should have taken; Vader, after berating Luke for his obvious lack of skill with the lightsaber, rather easily disarms him. While getting ready to kill Luke, Vader notices that the lightsaber he has taken off him is the very one he used to wield as Anakin Skywalker, which obviously raises some issues within him. As events at the factory spiral out of control, Luke is able to evade Vader, who starts to grow slightly more impressed by his skills. As Luke makes his escape, Vader realises that he is not only the pilot that destroyed the Death Star but also Kenobi’s last great hope. Still not fully realising the identity of the boy he just encountered, Vader rather vindictively promises to corrupt him to his purposes. All of these events are pretty incredible moments in Star Wars history, and I think that the creative team did an outstanding job introducing them in this new canon. The initial face-to-face showdown between the main protagonist and villain of the original Star Wars trilogy is a pretty significant moment, and I really loved how it was shown. The hints at the hidden history between the two are great, and the initial realisations from Vader that there is more to Luke than he realises are fantastic. I also liked how the creative team showed Luke as having no real skill with the lightsaber or the force. Considering that he only had about an hour of training with Kenobi, it really isn’t that surprising that he has no lightsaber abilities, so this is a pretty clever and realistic inclusion, especially as a good part of the following Star Wars comic series deals with some of the earliest days of his training. While these events are probably not the most significant to occur in this volume (more on that later), they are incredibly intriguing and any fan of the Star Wars franchise is going to love it.

The last three issues of Skywalker Strikes are also very entertaining, though less action-packed, since the creative team has opted instead for storytelling and showing off the state of the Empire and Rebel Alliance. While a despairing Luke sets off to find answers, Han and Leia set off to find potential locations for a new Rebel base, while Vader has a meeting with Jabba the Hut. There are some really interesting aspects to this part of the story, from the growing hopelessness in Luke as he begins to realise how far he is from becoming a Jedi, to Vader’s sudden obsession with capturing Luke, to the growing hints of romance between Han and Leia, disguised at this point as antagonism. However, I would say that it’s the newcomers to the comic series, Boba Fett and Sana Solo, that are some of the best parts of the last three issues of the volume. Fett, who has long been a fan favourite despite his complete underutilisation in the movies, shines as the badass bounty hunter as he scours Tatooine for Luke, eventually finding out all about him through some very violent means. This leads to a pretty fun showdown between Boba and Luke, as Boba ambushes him at Kenobi’s house and easily incapacitates him and R2-D2 with his cool array of weapons and tactics. It is only thanks to Luke’s first close-combat use of the force that he is able to escape, as he successfully blocks a blaster bolt while blinded (a nice homage to the training sequence from A New Hope) and moves an item with his mind. All of this was a pretty entertaining showdown, and I loved seeing Fett in action for once. We also have the mysterious Sana Solo, who has a pretty fantastic takedown of some Rodian thugs with a great piece of technology and a ruthless demeanour. She is later able to track down Han and Leia, absolutely terrifying Han before dropping one of the biggest bombshells of the book: that she is Han’s wife. While this is not explored in any great detail in this volume, it is an excellent introduction for this great character, who goes on to become a fairly major figure in the current Star Wars canon. As a result of all of this, the second half of the volume holds up pretty well to the action-packed first half, and there are plenty of major scenes, including the very big ending.

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While I did really like the second part of this volume, the best way to appreciate it fully is if you understand its connection to the Darth Vader (2015) series of comics. The Darth Vader series was launched right on the heels of the Star Wars comics and it is actually set in the aftermath of the first three issues of this volume. In the first issue of this concurrent comic, it is shown that Vader has actually started going rogue on the Emperor and is making his own deals with Jabba the Hutt, before the formal discussion he has with Jabba in Issue #4 of the Star Wars series. This actually clears up the somewhat cryptic discussion he has with Jabba later in the issue, where they talk about the bounty hunters he has hired, and also shows the point where he actually tasked Boba Fett with finding Luke. While none of this is absolutely vital when it comes to fully understanding the plot of Skywalker Strikes, it is interesting to see that some of the referenced events occurred in another series. However, the main reason why readers should try to understand the connection between this comic and the Darth Vader series is in the epic conclusion both of them share, where Vader learns the last name of the boy he has been hunting. Both Issue #6 of Star Wars and Darth Vader were actually released on the same day, so readers of both series were able to see this scene at the same time. The two scenes are shown in a slightly different light in each series. It is expanded a bit more in the Darth Vader series, as it plays into the feelings of resentment towards the Emperor that have been building in Vader through the series. However, I quite liked the simpler version in Issue #6 of Star Wars, as the slow-boiling rage and anger within Vader is pretty obvious, as he takes a whole page to fully react, cracking the glass on a Star Destroyer and simply whispering, “Skywalker”. As a result of this connection, the Star Wars and Darth Vader series complement each other extremely well, and I would strongly recommend reading both pretty close together. However, no matter which series you read, the sequence showing the moment where Vader realises that his son is still alive and a Jedi is pretty darn epic and really memorable.

It could be argued that splitting this volume into two separate storylines was an interesting choice from the book’s creative team. I imagine that six issues focused on the attack on the Imperial weapons factory would have been pretty epic (just imagine how much more destruction Vader could have wrought). However, I personally think they did the right thing by splitting the story and showcasing the aftermath of this action. This way you not only get the intense action of the first few stories but you also get to see the consequences of the mission, and all the implications this has for the wider Star Wars universe. In addition, there is also quite an intriguing set up for several key moments in the upcoming series as a whole, a whole new fight between Luke and another iconic Star Wars character in Boba Fett, and some amazing connections with a sister series. I really liked how the story of the entire volume came together, and I think it was an outstanding way to start this excellent series.

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I have to say that I was also really impressed with the awesome artwork that was featured in this first volume. The artwork was drawn by John Cassaday, and featured Laura Martin as the colourist. It is pretty amazing the way that Cassaday was able to capture the faces of the core original trilogy cast members with his artwork. Luke, Leia and Han all look really good to my eye in this volume, and the artist has also done some great renditions of other existing characters, such as Vader, Boba Fett and Jabba the Hutt. In addition, I really enjoyed all of the marvellous and exhilarating action sequences that they artistic team portrayed throughout the volume. These action scenes, especially the ones featuring Vader at the start of the book are just incredible, and I really loved seeing all the fantastic and creative violence. In addition to all the action, there are a number of scenes where the artwork helps to enhance the emotions and hidden meaning of a scene, and I will always love the way that they portrayed the closing moments of this volume. This was some first-rate Star Wars comic book art that is really worth checking out.

As you can see from the above review, I really loved this first volume of the Star Wars (2015) comic book series. The amazing creative team behind this first volume did a fantastic job with the first six issues that make up Skywalker Strikes, producing an extraordinary story which is complimented by a connection to another series and some exceptional artwork. This volume is a fantastic introduction to the flagship comic book series of the Star Wars franchise, and it comes highly recommended. No great knowledge of the expanded Star Wars canon is required to enjoy it, and indeed this may prove to be an effective gateway to the greater Star Wars universe. This gets a full five stars from me, and I am so very glad I decided to check out the Star Wars comic book series this year.

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.