Death of the Black Widow by James Patterson & J. D. Barker

Death of the Black Widow Cover

Publisher: Century (Trade Paperback – 12 April 2022)

Series: Standalone

Length: 520 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Prepare for one of the trippiest and darkest thrillers of 2022 with Death of the Black Widow, the latest brilliant standalone novel from the all-star team of James Patterson and J. D. Barker.

Few thriller writers out there at the moment are as well-known or prolific as superstar author James Patterson.  Patterson has been absolutely dominating the thriller and crime fiction genre for nearly 30 years and has an incredible catalogue of works to his name, including his best-selling Alex Cross books.  In recent years, Patterson has released a torrent of works, including some solo books and several novels done in collaboration with other talented writers and even a few celebrities.  I personally have loved several of his previous collaborated books, including Lost (co-written with James O. Born) and 2 Sisters Detective Agency (co-written with Candice Fox).  However, one of the more intriguing authors he has teamed up with is acclaimed thriller and horror author J. D. Barker.  Barker, whose work I previously enjoyed on Dracul (co-written with Dacre Stoker), has already produced two intriguing novels with Patterson, The Coast-to-Coast Murders and The Noise.  I have been keen to check out this awesome writing team for a while (The Noise is currently sitting on my shelf waiting for my attention), and when I received a copy of their latest book, Death of the Black Widow, I made sure to read it as soon as possible.

It is a typical night in Detroit until former police officer Walter O’Brien and his comrades call in a bomb threat on a busy night club and use concentrated sniper fire to keep its patrons trapped inside.  When the police arrive on scene, Walter surrenders to them and offers them a simple choice: allow them to kill a single woman hidden within the club, or watch as the entire building is destroyed.  But who is this mysterious woman and what has driven Walter and his friends to such extremes?

The origins of these desperate actions date back decades to when a young Walter O’Brien is called to a murder scene on his very first night for the Detroit PD.  What he uncovers is a terrible and bloody crime scene: a scared and surprisingly alluring young woman has apparently escaped from captivity and skillfully bludgeoned her ruthless captor to death with a lamp.  Attempting to take her to hospital, Walter is shocked when she escapes from his custody, leaving an impression on him that will last a lifetime.

Years later, as a new homicide detective, Walter has a chance encounter with someone he believes to be same women from that fateful night.  Still obsessed with his previous encounter, Walter attempts to track her down, only to find a disturbing pattern between this mysterious and woman and several disturbing and unexplainable murders he is investigating.  But when his case takes an even more unusual twist, Walter finds himself thrust into something far bigger than himself.  A secret government agency is attempting to find this mysterious woman, and soon they and Walter begin to uncover a disturbing trend of murders going back years.  As Walter begins to lose himself more and more to obsession, he becomes determined to be the one to stop any more killings.  But what is he willing to do to stop the deaths once and for all?

Wow, now that was a fun and intense book.  Patterson and Barker have produced something very special with Death of the Black Widow, which was an utterly insane and awesome read.  I was actually a little surprised with how much I enjoyed this clever book, and I think I have very little choice but to give it a full five-star rating.

Now, I must admit that when I started reading Death of the Black Widow, I honestly did not know too much about the book, apart from what was in the synopsis.  From that and the name, I assumed that this was going to be a psychological thriller or a spy thriller.  However, while Death of the Black Widow does have thriller and murder mystery elements to it, and indeed it appears to be a purely crime fiction novel for the first few chapters, it actually turned out to be something entirely more complex.  Within the first 100 pages or so, you begin to realise that the authors are subtly including elements from other genres, and Death of the Black Widow soon starts to take on a distinctive horror vibe, with some incredible brutal killings done under extremely unusual circumstances.  While I was surprised by this, I cannot say that I was disappointed.  Instead, I felt that it was a brilliant move from the authors and one that played particularly well to Barker’s strengths.  This new genre combines well with the books existing thriller/crime fiction framework to create an intense and exhilarating read that is extremely easy to get into and very, very hard to put down.  I personally found myself powering through the last 350+ pages in less than a day, especially once I begun to fully understand just how clever and weird things were about to get.

I was really impressed with how Death of the Black Widow unfolded as a story, especially as Patterson and Barker went out of their way to make this standalone read as enticing and epic as possible.  The book starts in the present day and shows the older protagonist and his compatriots entering the end game of their confrontation with a mysterious woman.  This serves as a great setup to the rest of the story, which jumps back multiple decades to 1986, when Walter and the mysterious woman, known here as Amy Archer, first meet, and the strange and deadly circumstances behind their encounter.  The story then jumps forward several years to 1992, where Walter is investigating several strange murders when he has a chance encounter with someone he believes is Amy.  This results in an intriguing series of chapters where Walter deals with both the investigation and his growing obsession with this girl, before everything blows up terribly and the mystery becomes more convoluted and unusual with each new revelation.  This pattern continues throughout the book, with the story jumping ahead years at a time to show the multiple encounters between Walter and his obsession.  Each time period reveals some intriguing new angles and elements, and you find out new revelations about the woman the protagonist is hunting, resulting in the full truth about her finally being revealed.  The novel also keeps slipping back to the siege occurring in the present, with some new characters trying to uncover what Walter and his team are up to as the protagonists provide them with hints about who they are and what they are after.

I deeply enjoyed that the authors chose to utilise a split timeline for Death of the Black Widow, especially as it works extremely well to tell this outstanding narrative.  The switch between time periods and chronological length of the story really enhances just how mysterious the events of the book are and the powerful, life-altering impact they have on the protagonist.  There are many clever elements to the switches between the periods, and I loved the subtle inclusions in the present timeline that hint at the events in the past that the protagonist was yet to experience, and the full impacts of them.  There are also some fun summaries loaded at the front of each change between the past and the present that represent the protagonist’s notes on the case.  Not only can these be useful to remind the reader where they are, but it helps to highlight just how massive the case gets, especially towards the end of the book, as well as tracking Walter’s growing obsession (especially the last one).  This entire story is loaded up with brilliant reveals and shocking twists, and I was honestly surprised and very thrilled in some of the excellent directions that the authors took the story.  You will honestly have a hard time putting this novel down once you get past the halfway point, especially once the 1992 storyline comes to its shocking end, and the intense revelations and horrific scenes of the next few time periods ensures you will become unerringly trapped as you attempt to find out more about the antagonist and their past.  This entire story of obsession, murder and mystery concludes perfectly in the present, with some truly big moments, as everything comes full circle and twists that have been hidden in plain sight since the start come into the light.  This was such a great story, and I frankly loved every single second I spent reading it.

I cannot finish talking about this book without mentioning the excellent characters it contained.  Death of the Black Widow features an intriguing and unique cast, each of whom brings something fun and compelling to the story.  The most prominent of these is Walter O’Brien, who serves as the central point-of-view character for most of the story.  Thanks to how the book progresses, you get to see the entirety of Walter’s life unfold, from his young days as a rookie cop, all the way up to his present, when an older, dying Walter attempts to bring his great obsession to an end by finally catching the woman who has haunted him for decades.  This ensures you get a brilliant look at this character and it proves absolutely fascinating to see the various stages of his life and the continued impacts of his interactions with the woman he knows as Amy Archer.  One of the best parts of this is that you get to see the growing obsession that Walter builds towards this woman, as meeting her proves to be a defining experience for him.  Despite the fact that his interaction with her are relatively short, each time he meets Amy she changes his life in a different way and he soon becomes quite obsessed with her.  This obsession continues to bloom, even after certain revelations about her and her actions become known, and he is forced to fight his own feelings and observations throughout the entire book, especially once it becomes clear that this obsession is mutual and that Amy is drawn to Walter as well in a twisted romance that is so damn dark.  Watching this usually confident and capable person being haunted by this obsession proves to be powerful and captivating centre to this story, and you really feel for this protagonist as he struggles.  Walter ends up serving a great role as the central protagonist of this story, and I found his entire character arc to be extremely well written and cleverly exposed.

On the other side of the coin is the mysterious woman who serves as the titular Black Widow of the story.  Known to Walter as Amy, this woman serves as a shadowy and enigmatic figure in the book, especially as you have no idea who she truly is for most of it.  To avoid spoilers, I will not go into too much detail about her here, but I will say she was an exquisite and amazing character, and the authors did a remarkable job bringing her to life and fitting her into this remarkable story.  She is easily one of the most distinctive and memorable literary villains I have read for a while, and if they ever make a movie of this book (which they really should), I think a great actor could turn her into something very special.  These two characters, as well as some other great supporting characters (the members of Walter’s team in the present day, as well as some distinctive cops from the past timelines for example), prove to be the beating heart of this incredible story, and it was absolutely fascinating to see how their intriguing lives worked in to the plot of this book.

No doubt it, I was really, really impressed with Death of the Black Widow, which ended up being one of the most exciting and compelling reads of 2022 so far.  The outstanding team of James Patterson and J. D. Barker were absolutely amazing here, producing a clever and intricate thriller, loaded with unique characters, a deep obsession laden storyline and some excellent horror elements.  This was easily one of the most unique and memorable novels I have read in a while, and I loved every single second I was going through it.  A highly recommended read that will appeal to anyone interested in a dark and deadly read, you will not be disappointed with Death of the Black Widow.

Death of the Black Widow Cover 2

Warhammer 40,000: The Bookkeeper’s Skull by Justin D. Hill

The Bookkeeper's Skull Cover

Publisher: Black Library (Audiobook – 18 January 2022)

Series: Warhammer 40,000/Warhammer Horror

Length: 4 hours and 32 minutes

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Get ready to dive back into the crazy and terrifying Warhammer 40,000 universe with the clever and exciting read, The Bookkeeper’s Skull by acclaimed author Justin D. Hill, which serves as a great entry in the Warhammer Horror sub-series.

Despite not being even halfway done yet, 2022 has already produced some epic new entries in the Warhammer 40,000 universe, including Steel Tread by Andy Clark, Reign by Nate Crowley, Day of Ascension by Adrian Tchaikovsky and Krieg by Steve Lyons, just to name a few.  After these awesome reads, there was no way I wasn’t going to check out The Bookkeeper’s Skull, especially when it had such an intriguing name.  The Bookkeeper’s Skull is an awesome book that forms part of a sub-series of Warhammer tie-in fiction known as Warhammer Horror.  This series unsurprisingly presents the reader with horror-based stories in its various universes and has already produced some very cool sounding reads.  The Bookkeeper’s Skull is my first brush with this horror series, and I was very excited to read one, especially as it was written by Justin D. Hill, a fantastic author who has been impressing recently with several great novels, including his Cadia series.  I loved the unique and clever story that Hill came up with for The Bookkeeper’s Skull.

Throughout the Imperium of Man, many planets serve the God Emperor in different ways.  For the agri-world of Potence, its only duty is to meet the iron-firm food quotas levied upon it by Imperial hierarchy, ensuring that the armies of the Imperium are supplied with all the food they need to fight the aliens and the heretics.  The enforcers, implacable lawmen with the ability to deal out death on an arbitrary basis, roam the planet and the farms of Potence, ensuring that the populace and serfs do all there is to produce the appropriate amounts.

Rudgard Howe is a new enforcer recruit who has just reported to duty.  The son of the planet’s chief enforcer, Rudgard faces a deadly future which will eventually force him to kill his older brothers to claim his dying father’s position.  But before he faces his family, he must learn the ropes by journeying out to the farmsteads of the planet and ensuring they can meet their quotas.  Travelling with a veteran enforcer, Rudgard learns the hard truths about life in the Imperium and the necessities of justice in keeping the planet running.  However, no lessons will prepare Rudgard for the horrors awaiting the enforcers at their final destination, the far-flung farmstead of Thorsarbour.

Located out in an ancient and unknown region of the planet, Thorsarbour is a cursed settlement, with its overseers poorly led and its serfs living in terror of the strange presences they claim to feel.  Finding the settlement far behind its quotas, the enforcers attempt to whip the farm into shape, but between the unnatural feeling of the land surrounding Thorsarbour and the dangerous presence of a bloody sanguinary cult amongst the serfs, they have their work cut out for them.  Worse, a series of unexplained and brutal murders are occurring around Thorsarbour, each one accompanied by mysterious strawman placed near the body.  As Rudgard tries to uncover the cause of these mysterious deaths before they destabilise their work, the enforcers begin to discover something unnatural behind them.  Can they discover the culprit before it is too late, or will the horrors of Thorsarbour consume them all?

This was a really interesting first dive into the Warhammer Horror series for me and it is one that I am very glad that I undertook.  The Bookkeeper’s Skull is an excellent novel that very quickly grabbed my attention with its clever storytelling and fantastic, fast-paced plot.  Hill manages to do a lot with this story in a very short amount of time as The Bookkeeper’s Skull has a pretty short run time.  Despite this, the reader is quickly and succinctly introduced to the main character and narrator, Rudgard, and the world of Potence, in a great couple of opening chapters, before dropping them right into the horror of Thorsarbour.  Once the narrator arrives then you are quickly struck by the unnatural and freaky nature of the location, as they encounter several of the unusual issues surrounding the farmstead.  Following the initial discovery of a multitude of bodies and death, the protagonists encounter one dangerous situation after another, as they contend with religious fanatics, terrified serfs and overseers, monstrous farm animals, mysterious strawmen, a strange and prophetic girl, and a mysterious force brutally killing off everyone in the compound.  Even with so much happening, the pace of this novel never slackens, and there is a very high death count as everything goes wrong in some very brutal way.  I was pretty hooked on this novel from the very start, and I loved where the story went, even if it did get a little predictable towards the end.  I had a fairly good idea of who was going to live and die from the start, as well as who the killer was likely to be (the title is very suggestive).  I do think that the novel slightly fell apart at the very end, as Hill chooses to leave a little too much mystery behind what sort of force might be ultimately responsible for the events of the book, but this was still an amazing story that I had a lot of fun with.

The Bookkeeper’s Skull turned out to be a pretty good Warhammer 40,000 novel, and I liked how it fit into the wider universe.  This novel is closely related to one of Hill’s other novels, Cadian Honour, which is also set on the world of Potence and features an older version of the protagonist.  I love it when a novel provides an interesting connection to an author’s previous work, especially one that provides some exciting context and personal history, and this was a great example of that.  Despite this, people interested in checking out The Bookkeeper’s Skull don’t need to have any pre-knowledge of Hill’s writing or any other Warhammer 40,000 novels to enjoy this excellent book.  Indeed, this is a fantastic introduction to both Hill’s writing and the wider Warhammer universe and could be an interesting first book to readers curious about either.

I was very impressed with how the author was able to meld horror elements into this Warhammer 40,000 novel to create a unique and impressive story.  Hill did a beautiful job of creating a powerful and creepy atmosphere for this novel right off the bat, especially as the opening chapter features a sinister and freaky toy/companion that the protagonist had as a child (seriously, WTF).  This dark atmosphere only increases as the book continues, especially once the characters arrive at Thorsarbour.  Between the brutal conditions imposed upon the serfs, the unsettling atmosphere, the undercurrent of fear, the crazed religious cult of self-mutilating fanatics, the graphic murders and the haunting presence of several otherworldly characters, you have all the elements you need for a truly impressive and memorable horror tale.  The pacing of the killings is excellent, and the reader finds themselves drawn in by their cruel and bloody nature as the bodies keep dropping in even more elaborate ways.  These killings also work well with the presence of the cult and the appearance of all the strawmen and other agricultural elements, and the book ends up with vibes reminiscent of films like The Wicker Man or Children of the Corn, especially with a pale and potentially psychic child talking about a supernatural figure responsible for the killings.  This ended up being an awesome horror read, and I find myself getting really drawn into the creepy story thanks to some of the freaky elements it contained.

This proved to be a particularly good Warhammer 40,000 novel due to the distinctive setting.  The Bookkeeper’s Skull takes place on a seemingly peaceful agri-world, which gives the reader some intriguing insights into this wider universe.  I loved the cool look at the various archaic ways that this spacefaring civilisation gets food and other resources.  The entire agri-world acts in a mostly feudalistic manner, with practically enslaved serfs doing much of the work on farmsteads.  The blend of gothic science fiction with modern and ancient agriculture elements works really well and it serves as a brilliant background for this darker tale.  Indeed, many of the book’s horror elements are derived from just how bleak and harsh the Imperium of Man truly is and just how badly they treat their own citizens (and they’re the good guys, apparently).  Hill paints some truly shocking pictures of the conditions on this world, including some very gruesome depictions of a rabid self-mutilating cult and some brutal scenes of violence that the enforcers inflict upon the people.  However, the most disturbing part of this world is Gambol, a being who is revealed to be a former criminal who had their arms and legs amputated, his mind modified by technology, and then dressed as a clown to become the protagonist’s childhood toy.  This disturbing figure, equipped with his festering flesh-plugs (shudder!), is sprung on you in the first few pages of the book and really helps to set the horror mood for the reader, as well as just how dark and horrific the Imperium can get (they do this sort of thing to a lot of people).  I loved how grim and dark Hill made this Warhammer story and you really get a sense of just how messed up everything is.

I quite enjoyed the character of Rudgard, who serves as the central protagonist and narrator.  The Bookkeeper’s Skull is told from Rudgard’s point of view in a chronicle format, so you get a real sense of this excellent character both as an experienced enforcer and the young rookie he is in this novel.  This version of Rudgard is a young and inexperienced man who is trying to live up to his family’s legacy, which includes a cruel father, two murderous brothers and an insane mother.  Sent out on routine mission with veteran enforcer Tarrini, Rudgard quickly learns all the terrible truths about his job as he essentially becomes an executioner.  Because of his past and the terrible events of this book, you get to see Rudgard turn into the no-nonsense figure from Hill’s previous novels, and I liked the continued change in his character.  I enjoyed the excellent mentor/mentee relationship he forms with Tarrini, as well as the narrators continued comments attempting or excusing some of his actions.  These considered and compelling notations from the older Rudgard give some interesting context to both the younger and older versions of the character, and it is interesting to see how much he has changed and developed over the years.  While I did think that parts of his backstory were wrapped up a little too quickly, this was still a fantastic examination of a great character and I look forward to seeing more of him in some of Hill’s other works.

I made sure to grab the audiobook version of The Bookkeeper’s Skull, which proved to be an incredible way to enjoy this brilliant novel.  Due to the shorter length of the story, this is a relatively quick audiobook with a rough run time of four and a half hours, which can be powered through extremely quickly.  I found that the audiobook format was highly conducive to the powerful horror mood of the novel and I personally felt that it really enhanced the tension and fear that the story produced.  A lot of the reason why I enjoyed this audiobook was the excellent voice work from narrator Matthew Hunt.  Hunt, who has lent his voice to several Warhammer audio productions in the past, had an excellent voice for this audiobook, and I felt that he captured both the main character and the overall tension of this novel extremely well.  Hunt moved this audiobook along at a swift and compelling pace that really grabs the attention and ensures that you keep listening as events get darker and darker.  Throw in some fantastic and fitting voices (Gambol’s near childlike voice is pretty damn freaky, and I loved the sly and manipulative voice given to the cult leader), and you have an outstanding audiobook that is really worth checking out.

Overall, The Bookkeeper’s Skull by Justin D. Hill is an outstanding and epic Warhammer Horror novel that I had a brilliant time reading.  Hill came up with a clever and captivating story that does an excellent job combining freaky horror elements with the expansive and fun Warhammer 40,000 universe.  I loved my first taste of the Warhammer Horror brand and I look forward to checking out more of it in the future, as well as some more exceptional writing from Hill.

Top Ten Tuesday – My Favourite Horror Novels (Updated – 2021)

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme that currently resides at The Artsy Reader Girl and features bloggers sharing lists on various book topics.  In this latest edition of Top Ten Tuesday, readers get a Halloween Freebie, meaning that they can list whatever topic they want, although a horror or Halloween theme is encouraged.  So, with that in mind, I thought I would take this opportunity to update a previous list where I highlighted my favourite horror novels of all time.

Last year for Halloween I did a list where I looked at my top ten favourite horror novels.  While horror is not my favourite genre, I ended up producing a rather interesting list with some unique entries that I was pretty happy with.  I decided last year that I would come back and update this list every Halloween, especially if I had some new horror novels to add to it.  Well, in the last year, I had the opportunity to check out some excellent and intense horror reads, and I intend to try and find out if they can fit into my list.

To sort out this update, I took a critical look at the previous version of the list and made some hard decisions about whether any of the horror novels I read in the last year might fit in better.  I ended up making some changes to list, with new entries replacing some of the existing books.  While I was sad to see some of the previously featured novels removed, I honestly felt that the new entries are better horror novels.  This resulted in a fun new version of this list, and I am pretty happy with how it turned out.

Honourable Mentions:

Nights of the Living Dead edited by George A. Romero and Jonathan Maberry

Nights of the Living Dead Cover

 

The Final Girl Support Group by Grady Hendrix

The Final Girl Support Group Cover

An interesting read from earlier this year that got a lot of attention, The Final Girl Support Group focused on a group of final girls from alternate versions of classic slasher films who are targeted by a brand-new killer.  While this book is more of a thriller than a horror read, it serves as a clever homage to the slasher genre, and fans of horror fiction will love it’s compelling and reference laden story.

 

Dreadful Company by Vivian Shaw

Dreadful Company Cover

 

Awakened by James S. Murray and Darren Wearmouth

Awakened Cover

Top Ten List (unranked):

Into the Drowning Deep by Mira Grant

Into the Drowning Deep Cover

 

Patient Zero by Jonathan Maberry

Patient Zero Cover

 

The Dark by Jeremy Robinson

The Dark Cover

I had to add this brilliant and compelling horror/science fiction read onto this list.  The Dark is the latest novel from author Jeremy Robinson that focuses on an apparent demonic invasion of Earth.  Filled with gore, monsters and body mutations, The Dark gets pretty gruesome and scary in places, which blends perfectly with the intense action and Robinson’s quirky humour.  An outstanding read, this fantastic horror novel comes highly recommended.

 

The Anomaly by Michael Rutger

The Anomaly Cover

 

Code Zero by Jonathan Maberry

Code Zero Cover

 

Later by Stephen King

Later Cover

Earlier this year I had the chance to read the latest novel from the modern master of horror fiction, the great Stephen King, the utterly compelling Later, which focuses on a young boy who can talk to the recently deceased.  While Later is primarily a character-driven story about a complicated youth’s life, it can get pretty scary in places, especially once the protagonist encounters true evil.  A deeply compelling read with some interesting connections to one of King’s most iconic horror novels, this is an excellent and unique book that is worth reading.

 

Star Wars: Death Troopers by Joe Schreiber

deathtrooperscover

 

Devolution by Max Brooks

Devolution Cover

 

Ink by Jonathan Maberry

Ink Cover

I have already featured several great books from Jonathan Maberry on this list, but there was no way I could exclude one of his latest horror reads, Ink.  While most of the other Maberry novels with horror elements focus either on zombies or Lovecraftian monsters, Ink features a particularly horrendous tale of a depraved being who steals a person’s tattoos and the precious memories associated with them.  Set in one of Maberry’s most iconic settings, Ink had a very disturbing narrative, and I deeply appreciated this unique and book that the author came up with.

 

A People’s History of the Vampire Uprising by Raymond A. Villareal

A History of the Vampire Uprising Cover

 

 

That’s the end of this latest Top Ten Tuesday list.  I think that the new horror novels were great additions to the list, and I like how this latest version turned out.  Each of the above novels, both new inclusions and existing ones, are outstanding reads that come highly recommended to all horror fans.  I look forward to seeing how this list evolves once again this time next year, especially as there are some awesome sounding horror novels, such as Road of Bones by Christopher Golden and Dead Silence by S. A. Barnes, set for release in the next few months.

Waiting on Wednesday – Road of Bones by Christopher Golden

Welcome to my weekly segment, Waiting on Wednesday, where I look at upcoming books that I am planning to order and review in the next few months and which I think I will really enjoy.  I run this segment in conjunction with the Can’t-Wait Wednesday meme that is currently running at Wishful Endings.  Stay tuned to see reviews of these books when I get a copy of them.  For this latest Waiting on Wednesday I check out a fascinating upcoming horror novel from a bestselling author, with Road of Bones by Christopher Golden.

Road of Bones Cover

Christopher Golden is a compelling author who has been writing interesting horror and fantasy novels since 1994.  His extensive writing career has so far produced a fantastic collection of novels, short stories, and co-written books, across several different genres and series.  In addition to his multiple standalone novels, Golden’s has also written The Hidden Cities series with Tim Lebbon, The Veil series, The Shadow Saga, the Ben Walker series, and some great tie-in novels, including a ton of Buffy the Vampire Slayer books.  Despite this vast assortment of works, I have not had the pleasure of reading any of Golden’s work in the past, although many of them sound pretty cool.  However, I was pretty taken when I saw the synopsis for Golden’s next standalone book, Road of Bones and it is one I am quite keen to check out.

Synopsis:

A stunning supernatural thriller set in Siberia, where a film crew is covering an elusive ghost story about the Kolyma Highway, a road built on top of the bones of prisoners of Stalin’s gulag.

Kolyma Highway, otherwise known as the Road of Bones, is a 1200 mile stretch of Siberian road where winter temperatures can drop as low as sixty degrees below zero. Under Stalin, at least eighty Soviet gulags were built along the route to supply the USSR with a readily available workforce, and over time hundreds of thousands of prisoners died in the midst of their labors. Their bodies were buried where they fell, plowed under the permafrost, underneath the road.

Felix Teigland, or “Teig,” is a documentary producer, and when he learns about the Road of Bones, he realizes he’s stumbled upon untapped potential. Accompanied by his camera operator, Teig hires a local Yakut guide to take them to Oymyakon, the coldest settlement on Earth. Teig is fascinated by the culture along the Road of Bones, and encounters strange characters on the way to the Oymyakon, but when the team arrives, they find the village mysteriously abandoned apart from a mysterious 9-year-old girl. Then, chaos ensues.

A malignant, animistic shaman and the forest spirits he commands pursues them as they flee the abandoned town and barrel across miles of deserted permafrost. As the chase continues along this road paved with the suffering of angry ghosts, what form will the echoes of their anguish take? Teig and the others will have to find the answers if they want to survive the Road of Bones.

I have to say that I really like the sound of this awesome upcoming novel, particularly after reading this bizarre and fantastic synopsis.  Having a couple of documentary makers get chased by a shaman and his ghosts across a Siberian wilderness/gigantic mass grave is a very entertaining and unique premise that has gotten me extremely curious.  I look forward to seeing how this intense sounding novel turns out, and I have a strong feeling that it will be an entertaining and extremely enjoyable read.  Road of Bones currently has a release date of 25 January 2022, and it should be a very fun novel to check out early in the new year.

Waiting on Wednesday – Dead Silence by S. A. Barnes

Welcome to my weekly segment, Waiting on Wednesday, where I look at upcoming books that I am planning to order and review in the next few months and which I think I will really enjoy.  I run this segment in conjunction with the Can’t-Wait Wednesday meme that is currently running at Wishful Endings.  Stay tuned to see reviews of these books when I get a copy of them.  For this week’s Waiting on Wednesday, I look at an awesome upcoming science fiction horror novel that is sure to be an outstanding read, Dead Silence by S. A. Barnes.

Dead Silence Cover

Dead Silence, which is currently set for release on 25 January 2022, is an intense and compelling sounding novel with a killer plot to it.  This will be the first book I have read by S. A. Barnes, who also writes under the pen name Stacey Kade, and I look forward to checking out her writing style.  This upcoming book looks sets to be quite amazing and I will be keen to enjoy out a fun horror/science fiction hybrid.  Dead Silence will be set in the far future and will follow a salvage crew who discovers the fabled remains of a long-lost spaceship out in the black.  Naturally, the abandoned ship will be filled with currently unspecified horrors that will attack the crew and result in a captivating and deadly adventure.  I cannot wait to see what happens on this ship, and I have no doubt that this will be a great novel to check out.

Synopsis:

At the edge of the solar system, no one can hear you scream.

The Aurora, a luxury space-liner destined for a cruise of the solar system, has been missing for twenty years. Among the hundreds of presumed dead were passengers from society’s finest – celebrities, tech giants, influencers. Every last one… vanished.

So when Claire’s crew picks up an emergency signal in deep space, the long-lost Aurora is the last ship they expect to find. The salvage claim could be their best chance at extraordinary wealth, but it might mean missing their transport back home, and nobody can stand another minute out in the darkest corner of the universe – nobody, except Claire.

Once onboard the ship, the crew realizes something is terribly wrong. Unspeakable horrors lurk in every shadow of the massive ship, and soon they each start experiencing violent hallucinations.

Claire must fight to keep her sanity and get her crew back to safety – before they all meet the same ghastly fate as the Aurora passengers.

The Dark by Jeremy Robinson

The Dark Cover

Publisher: Podium Audio (Audiobook – 13 July 2021)

Series: Infinite Timeline

Length: 10 hours and 25 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Prepare for a literal journey into darkness with one of the most unique and insanely entertaining horror novels of 2021, The Dark by Jeremy Robinson.

Jeremy Robinson is a bestselling author of science fiction and horror who has been producing some amazing novels of the last few years.  Since his debut in the early 2000s, Robinson has written a massive number of novels, including several fantastic sounding series, such as his Nemesis Saga, as well as a big collection of compelling standalone novels.  I have been meaning to read some of Robinson’s books for a while, especially as one of his series, the Chess Team novels, are part of a somewhat shared universe with Jonathan Maberry’s Joe Ledger novels.  After seeing several mentions of Chess Team in Maberry’s novels, I got curious and had to have a look at Robinson’s catalogue of work.  I really love the sound of some of Robinson’s books, especially his Chess Team novels, which follow a special forces team at work against mythical threats, and the Nemesis Saga, which presents a new look at the Kaiju genre.  Before diving into these series, I thought it might be good to get an idea of Robinson’s writing style, and so I decided to read his latest standalone novel, The Dark.  I am extremely glad that I decided to check this out, as The Dark ended up being an incredible horror read that I deeply enjoyed.

Miah Gray is a messed up former army soldier, struggling with PTSD and other symptoms after his time in Afghanistan.  Now living with his mother, sister and stepfather in an upscale New Hampshire neighbourhood, Miah spends most of his time being the neighbourhood’s resident weirdo, avoiding his troubles with prescribed cannabis and holding out hopes that his crush, Jen, will notice him.  Managing to convince Jen to get high and watch a meteor shower on his roof one night, Miah thinks that his life is finally turning around.  However, nothing in his wildest dreams could prepare him for what is to come next.

Awakening the next morning, Miah and Jen are shocked to discover that the sun has been blotted out and the entire neighbourhood has been plunged into darkness.  With no communications, limited power, and no working artificial lights, Miah and his family attempt to adjust to the crazy events occurring around them.  All available evidence suggests that an obscure religious doomsday prophecy about three days and three nights of darkness is coming true, with the lore indicating that the only way to survive is to barricade yourself in your home and cover the windows.  Despite the blacked-out sun, Miah is dubious about this being a religious event, until a bright light from the heavens brands his forehead with an old Norse rune and an unholy army of demons invades.

Dark shapes are twisting their way through the neighbourhood, luring people outside and brutally dragging them away to an unknown fate, while even more terrifying figures lurk in the shadow.  Attempting to ride out the storm at home, Miah is forced into action when his parents are taken.  Leading a small group of survivors through the horrors outside, Miah attempts to save who he can while also trying to find a way to rescue those who were taken.  But as Miah and his friends flee through the surrounding demons and devils, a far more dangerous threat is waiting to assail them.  The rune on Miah’s head is starting to change him into something angry and inhuman.  Now forced to resist his own mind, Miah will need to dig deep than ever before if he wants to survive what is coming, even as it drags him straight to the gates of Hell.

Wow, now that was awesome.  When I started this novel, I strongly suspected I was going to love it, especially as it had a fantastic sounding plot, but I was unprepared for how much fun The Dark turned out to be.  Robinson has created an exceptional and dark horror novel that keeps you on the edge of your toes from the very start all the way to the finish.  I had an outstanding time listening to this book and there was no way I could give anything less than a five-star rating.

Robinson has come up with a pretty awesome story for The Dark, and I loved this unique horror tale.  The Dark has a great start to it, and the author manages to do a lot in a very short amount of time, thoroughly introducing the main character, Miah, while also setting up several of the other major supporting characters.  The novel’s big change from normal times to darkness occurs early in the novel, as soon as all groundwork has been established, so the protagonist can run right into the craziness.  It does not take long for events to go sideways, with danger and despair all around as everything goes to hell, literally.  The centre of the novel is extremely entertaining, as the protagonist meets a range of different people hunkering down through the apocalypse and slowly builds up a fun group of survivors.  At the same time, some of the characters, including Miah, are forced to face an inner evil that has been brought on by these dark events.  This internal battle for control and the elements that introduce it are very cleverly established, and it adds a fantastic new edge to the plot, especially as at times it seems like the only point-of-view protagonist is about to irrevocably snap.  All this leads up to an epic conclusion as the protagonist journeys to a very evil place and comes face to face with some startling revelations and immense horrors, as well as some interesting story threads for the future.

I felt that this was an exceptional story, and I deeply enjoyed the outstanding combination of action, horror and comedy that was expertly bundled throughout the novel.  It is rare to find a story that can alternately thrill, traumatise, and entertain in short succession, but The Dark does that in spades.  It was gloriously entertaining and there was honestly not a single moment in this book that failed to keep my attention.  The action sequences are crisp and fantastic, and you get a real sense of the intense violence happening all around the protagonist.  I also really loved the horror feel that this novel had, especially as Robinson is a master of building up tension and suspense.  Readers should be aware that there are a quite a few extremely gory scenes throughout the book, and Robinson does not hold back on the gruesome descriptions.  I liked how the author switched the tone of the novel around two-thirds of the way through, with the horror focus moving away from fear of the unknown to a more extreme and science fiction based narrative.  I did think that the sudden appearance of certain groups in the big finale were a bit coincidental and could have been telegraphed slightly better, but this really did not cut down on my enjoyment of the story, and I was still blown away with the cool action sequences that were featured in this part of the book.  This was a really good standalone horror story, and I was deeply impressed with the exceptional narrative that Robinson featured in this book.

One of the things that I really appreciated about The Dark were the cool monsters and horror elements that Robinson came up with.  The entire concept of the novel revolves around dangerous creatures who come out during an eclipse of the sun that covers the entire setting in darkness, while also wreaking havoc on human technology.  Not only are these monsters pretty freaky and deadly, but Robinson builds up an intriguing mythology around them.  Because the protagonists have no idea what they are facing, the entire phenomenon is attributed to a religious event, especially as there is a coincidental Christian prophecy about three days and three nights of darkness which will purge those who leave their house.  Once the monsters appear, the characters initially identify them as demons, due to their unique look, ability to replicate voices and their dark and disturbing laughter.  I found these attempts by the protagonists to understand what is happening to them to be really fascinating, and it involves some fun looks at mythology and ancient lore.  The character’s understanding of these creatures evolves and changes over time, as there are some new freaky bits of context, and I thought it was pretty cool the way that Robinson was able to adapt these horror elements.  I also must highlight the terrifying setting of Hell, where the protagonists eventually end up.  There are some pretty dark and excessively gruesome aspects to this location, and it was a very fitting location for the big finale.  Overall, I really liked the cool creatures and mythology that Robinson brings to The Dark and it was so much fun to see these monsters tear through a typical suburban neighbourhood.

Easily one of the best things about The Dark were the complex and impressive characters that the narrative was set around.  The most prominent of these was central protagonist and point-of-view character, Miah, a former soldier who returned from the war even more messed up then before.  Initially a bit of a weirdo loner, Miah soon evolves into a more heroic figure, especially as he takes the lead during the demonic invasion, saving several people he comes across and leading the survivors to either safety or battle.  Miah is a very deep protagonist, and I really enjoyed the impressive and powerful examination of his inner trauma and the mental burdens he carries after his time in the army.  Robinson really tries to make Miah as complex as possible, and he even works some of his own personal experiences with trauma into his protagonist’s psyche.  It was great to see him evolve throughout the course of the book, especially once he has the fate of several other people on his hands, and these events help him grow and overcome his previous experiences.  Miah is also an extremely entertaining protagonist to follow, especially as he has a great sense of humour, is constantly high and initially does not take anything seriously, even when all the lights go out.  This combination results in Miah doing some unusual things, including wearing one of his sister’s skirts for the first third of the novel (it’s weird, but it works).  Most of the book’s humour comes from his flippant narration of the weird events occurring around him, and even once stuff gets really serious, he still has plenty of fun jokes or odd observations about what he encounters.  I loved his outrageous outlook on the world, and I ended up really appreciating Robinson’s fantastic choice of protagonist.

Aside from Miah, Robinson also comes up with some other fantastic characters who go through these apocalyptic events with him.  All these characters are set up extremely well when they are introduced, and Robinson does a great job quickly examining their personalities and expanding on them throughout the course of the book.  There are several fun characters featured throughout The Dark, although my favourite two are probably Bree and Emma, two younger girls who end up part of Miah’s group.  Despite their youth, these two characters are extremely capable and quickly adapt to the weird new world that they live in.  This is in part due to them being branded like Miah, which slowly changes their personalities, turning them into something different.  Both characters react to their branding in different ways, with the eight-year-old Bree more swiftly losing her humanity.  It was pretty fun to see this young kid become more and more bloodthirsty as the novel progresses, and there are some great moments where Miah tries to control her.  It looks likes Robinson has some plans for both Miah and Bree in the future (Demon Dog and Laser Chicken for the win), and I look forward to them turning up again.

While I was checking out some of Robinson’s novels, one of the things that stood out to me was that all his novels have been converted to my favourite format, the audiobook, and that a good proportion of these were narrated by R. C. Bray.  Bray is a very talented and entertaining narrator, whose work I have previously enjoyed in some of Michael Mammay’s science fiction novels, Planetside and Colonyside (the latter being one of the better audiobooks I have listened to so far this year).  After seeing Bray’s name attached to The Dark, there was no way that I was not going to grab it on audiobook, which proved to be a very, very smart decision.

The Dark audiobook has a runtime of just under ten and a half hours, although I found myself absolutely powering through it, especially once I got into the story.  I felt that the audiobook format worked extremely well with The Dark’s first-person perspective, and the audiobook was able to progress at a really quick pace.  Bray really shined as a narrator in The Dark, and I loved the way that he presented the horrifying and intense events occurring around the characters.  Bray does an excellent job voicing the various characters in The Dark, and I particularly liked the way that he dove into voicing central protagonist Miah.  While I was initially a little dubious that Bray, who I have only previously heard voicing tough military characters, would manage with a more immature character like Miah, it ended up working really well.  Bray expertly gets inside the head of the main character voicing, and he quickly portrays Miah in all his doped-up, entertaining glory.  I think that Bray had a lot of fun voicing Miah (despite certain comments that the character makes about fancy audiobook narrators), and he did a great job presenting both the goofy side of the character and his more serious nature.  This ability to dive into Miah’s personality really enhanced the character and the overall story and I really enjoyed all the emotion that Bray threw into him.  I also liked some of the other voices that he did for The Dark, with all the characters ending up with some distinctive and fitting voices, even the younger ones.  This excellent voice work really helps to turn The Dark into an outstanding audiobook production, and I would strongly recommend this format to anyone interested in checking out The Dark.  Also, it has bloopers at the end, which were pretty damn fun.

While The Dark is a standalone novel that can be read with no prior knowledge of Robinson’s other works, it does have interesting connections that I need to mention.  There is a big reveal at the end of the book which ties The Dark together with a previous standalone novel that was a released a couple of years ago.  While I have not read this previous novel, it was a fun connection, and, after deeply enjoying The Dark, it got me in the mood to check out some of Robinson’s other books.  I also looked at Robinson’s website after finishing The Dark and there was a very interesting post about this that has made me appreciate this novel a little more.  Apparently The Dark is an entry in a wider joint universe, known as the Infinite Timeline, which already features several novels that Robinson has released in recent years.  The Dark is part of a sub-series within this universe, and it is linked together with the above-mentioned previous novel and an upcoming novel, Mind Bullet.  This sub-series will continue to become even more linked, eventually leading to another novel, Khaos, before it, and two other sub-series, made up of 11 novels in total, will have a big crossover in the 2023 novel, Singularity.  While this does not impact who can check out The Dark, I think it is pretty awesome that Robinson is attempting to create this massive joint universe, and it has really got me intrigued.  I am now extremely tempted to try and check out the rest of the entries in this joint universe before Singularity is released, and it should be a very interesting couple of years if I do.

Overall, The Dark by Jeremy Robinson was an epic and relentlessly exciting horror novel that I had an incredible time reading.  Thanks to its captivating story, complex characters and unique horror elements, The Dark was an outstanding book and it ended up being one of the most entertaining and compelling audiobooks I have enjoyed all year.  A definite must-read for anyone in the mood for a fun and intense horror novel, The Dark comes highly recommended and gets a full five stars from me.  I think I will end up trying some more of Robinson’s novels in the future, especially in their audiobook format, and I cannot wait to see what other crazy adventures and outrageous events he features in his books.

The Final Girl Support Group by Grady Hendrix

The Final Girl Support Group Cover

Publisher: Penguin Random House Audio (Audiobook – 13 July 2021)

Series: Standalone

Length: 13 hours and 55 minutes

My rating: 4.25 out of 5 stars

Bestselling author Grady Hendrix presents one of the most unique and intriguing novels of 2021, The Final Girl Support Group, a compelling thriller that brilliantly explores the slasher movie genre.

Hendrix is an interesting author and screenwriter whose name I have been hearing a lot in the last couple of years.  The author debuted in 2012 and has gone on to write several fun horror-based novels, including Horrorstör, We Sold Our Souls and The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires.  Each of Hendrix’s previous novels had some fun concepts, and while I have not had the opportunity to check them out myself, I did read some very positive reviews for the previous two novels.  Hendrix’s latest book is The Final Girl Support Group, which caught my eye a few months ago.  What I found was a cool and clever novel that proved to be a compelling and addictive read.

We all know who the final girls are.  They are the only survivors of the vicious horror killers and slasher fiends in the movies, who manage to kill their monsters, avenge their friends, and walk off into a bloody sunset.  However, what happens to these final girls after they survive the worst days of their lives?  How do the final girls move on?

For Lynnette Tarkington, the horror of her defining moment never truly left her.  Twenty-two years since surviving terrible experiences, she is still barely able to leave her apartment, with paranoia and fear forcing her to see unimaginable danger around every corner.  Her only solace is the long-running support group she shares with five other final girls who have gone through their own traumatising events.  Together these women have slowly begun to put their lives back together one way or another, until the fateful day that one of their number fails to show up to group.

It soon becomes clear that their missing member has been murdered, a victim of one of the monsters they all fear.  As the remaining final girls go to ground, Lynnette finds herself under attack by someone who knows all about her and her escape plans.  Forced to improvise outside of her comfort zone, Lynnette discovers proof that other final girls are also being targeted.  When evidence suggests that Lynnette is responsible for some horrendous actions, she goes on the run to find out who is framing her.  Desperate, terrified, and still bearing the scars from all those years ago, Lynnette’s situation looks grim, but her latest monster is about to discover that you never count a final girl out.

As you can probably guess from the awesome plot of this book, The Final Girl Support Group is a very interesting novel that has some excellent elements to it.  Hendrix has come up with a clever narrative for this book, especially as it contains a very fun and compelling take on the classic slasher films.

The Final Girl Support Group has an excellent and deeply entertaining narrative which tells a very unique tale of a plot to kill the survivors of classic horror killers.  Hendrix does a really good job setting up each of the characters and the different world they lived in.  From there the story moves fast, as the protagonist experiences a variety of attacks on herself and her friends from all manner of directions.  The middle of the novel slows down a little and is extremely heavy, really examining the psychology of the protagonist and her friends, while also containing some excellent reveals and dark moments.  This all leads up to a very exciting conclusion, which was extremely intense and reminiscent of the films Hendrix is emulating and honouring.

Despite its roots, this novel was written more like a character-driven psychological thriller rather than a pure horror read, which I think worked extremely well.  The entire novel is loaded up with some cool twists, and the eventual reveal about who is behind the plot is pretty awesome and has some clever set-up behind it.  I loved the author’s inclusion of certain in-universe fictional articles and other inclusions, such as horror movie reviews, listicles and police transcripts, which helped to enrich the universe while also providing some interesting context to the various characters.  While I did have some issues with the middle section of the novel, mostly because of my feelings towards the main character, I felt that the entire narrative came together extremely well, and the outstanding conclusion really enhanced the entire overarching story.  An overall compelling and addictive read.

Easily the best part of this entire novel was the author’s examination of the horror/slasher genre as part of the plot.  Hendrix is obviously a massive fan of the horror genre, which is not too surprising considering he has actually written a couple of horror screenplays, such as the weird and disturbing sounding Satanic Panic, which I’m kind of keen to check out.  This love of horror is very clearly shown throughout The Final Girl Support Group, as this book acts as a major homage to some of the most famous slasher films of the last century.  The five other members of the support group are all strongly inspired by the final girls from Friday the 13th, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Halloween, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Scream.  Each of these characters has a very similar backstory to the characters from these movies, and Hendrix takes the time to describe the events that made them famous, which are near matches to the films, with similar characters, events and sequels.  Even Lynnette’s story, which is shown in the most detail, bears a very strong resemblance to the controversial 1980’s slasher film, Silent Night, Deadly Night and its sequel (a somewhat more obscure film that I had never heard of).

As a result, this novel is chock full of references to these various films, as well as some other horror/slasher entries (there was one that sounded a lot like Leprechaun).  I must admit that I am not the biggest fan of the horror genre, and my knowledge of slasher films is limited, however, even I was able to pick up and appreciate most of the references, which was really cool.  Hendrix does a wonderful job of deconstructing the various films, and it was extremely compelling and fascinating to see the author explore the aftermath of the event, the psychology of the killers, and the concept of crazy film fans.  I deeply appreciated the way that Hendrix structure this unique world where all these slasher movies occurred, and it was very interesting to see stuff like the final girls getting the film rights to their experiences, or the acceptance that a killer will come back in one form or another for a sequel.  The author also explores the negative sides of the slasher genre, such as the fact that they can be rather sexist and exploitative, and that author manages to cleverly tie some of the violence of the novels into the alt-right and men’s rights movements.  I did think that the underlying message that all men are evil was plastered on a little too thickly (having every single male character be an ass was a bit much), but I suppose that was a pretty significant theme of these slasher films.  This examination of the horror and slasher genre was pretty damn amazing, and fans of these movies are going to absolutely love seeing all the subtle references and compelling homages.

While I loved the story and all the amazing slasher film references in The Final Girl Support Group, I did feel that the novel was rather let down by the characters.  I was not the biggest fan of protagonist and point-of-view character, Lynnette, and I am in two minds about how much I liked her.  I did appreciate the author’s depiction of her as extremely paranoid and traumatised, which felt very realistic and deep.  I also enjoyed her survivalist mindset, which reminded me of Jamie Lee Curtis’s character in the 2018 Halloween film.  However, what annoyed me was at how incompetent the character was.  While I understood that the author was building towards the character having a breakthrough and becoming more dependable, I honestly think he really overdid the hopelessness.  Despite all her training and disaster planning, she manages to mess up every single action, interaction, or plan that she engages in, and is constantly outsmarted by the most obvious ploys or traps.  It was so frustrating to see her screw up again and again, and I found myself nearly yelling at the book every time she made a mistake.  Honestly, if Hendrix had dialled back these traits just a little, I probably would have enjoyed this novel a little more.  That being said, I did really appreciate the changes to the characters that did occur, and it was great to see her get some wins eventually.  I also enjoyed some of the twists that Hendrix set up around the character, which proved to be extremely compelling and place new light on her story.

Other members of the support group include Dani (whose story is like Halloween), Marilyn (Texas Chainsaw Massacre), Julia (Scream), Heather (Nightmare on Elm Street) and Adrienne (Friday the 13th).  Hendrix spends a bit of time exploring these characters, and it was cool to see the exploration of all these classic final girls and the aftermath of their horrors.  I really enjoyed seeing how each of them moved on with their lives after their experiences, with the characters running the gauntlet from inspirational to depressing.  It proved to be extremely captivating to learn more about these characters, and I grew to like several of them, although Heather was pretty annoying (her issues relate to her more psychological experiences, and the character does redeem herself by the end of the book).  I did find myself getting frustrated with each of these characters at times, as they also make some classic horror movie heroine mistakes, such as not performing a double tap (rule one in a horror situation), and being so quick to disbelieve Lynnette, even after all their experiences.  There were also some noticeable issues when it came to portraying the character’s ages.  Despite each of these characters having their traumatic event occur in the 1980’s when there were teenagers, none of them act like middle-aged women, which seemed really odd to me.  However, in the end I was able to overlook some of these flaws, and I ended up enjoying each of the characters’ stories and development.

While I was tempted to grab a copy of The Final Girl Support Group as an ebook for a quick read, I ended up getting the audiobook version, which has a runtime of just under 14 hours and which took me about a week to get through.  One of the more interesting things about this audiobook format is the narrator, Adrienne King, who horror/slasher fans will recognise as the final girl of the original Friday the 13th and who also had a subsequent appearance in Friday the 13th Part 2.  I felt that this was a pretty brilliant choice, not only because King portrayed a final girl but because her own real-life experiences with stalkers mirrors what happens to the characters in this novel.  However, while I did think it was a very fitting choice, I have to admit that I was not amazingly impressed with King’s narration.  She did a good job keeping the novel going at a quick pace and providing some emotion and feeling to the story, but I didn’t like the way she voiced the characters.  There is some variation between some of the final girls, but I honestly found that King’s voice work highlighted some of the character’s annoying tendencies and it never fully drew me in.  Still, this audiobook format is a fine way to enjoy this novel, and it is worth checking out.  I am also sure that Friday the 13th fans will enjoying hearing King’s take on the novel, especially when she describes the various homages to her own film, including the similarities in the deaths between one of the characters and King’s final girl in Friday the 13th Part 2.

The Final Girl Support Group was a fantastic read and is one of the more memorable and inventive novels of 2021.  Grady Hendrix does an outstanding examination of the final girl phenomenon in this novel and manages to craft quite an impressive and enjoyable thriller narrative around it.  While I wasn’t the biggest fan of every aspect of The Final Girl Support Group, it is still a great novel to check out, and horror fans will love the excellent examination of the genre.  I am very glad I decided to check this novel out and I will have to keep an eye out for whatever unusual book Hendrix writes next.

Throwback Thursday – Trollslayer by William King

Trollslayer Cover 2

Publisher: Games Workshop (Audiobook – August 1999)

Series: Gotrek and Felix – Book One

Length: 9 hours and 55 minutes

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5

Welcome back to 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.  In this latest Throwback Thursday article, I review a classic Warhammer Fantasy novel, the iconic Trollslayer by William King.

Over the last year or so, I have started to get back into the exciting and captivating extended universe that surrounds the Warhammer tabletop game franchise.  The Warhammer games are a lot of fun to play, but I have always deeply enjoyed the rich and extensive universe that has formed around it.  This is particularly true when it comes to the extensive literary world that has been created, with a huge collection of unique novels added every year.  I personally have barely scratched the surface of this franchise, having only recently read the exciting Space Marine novel Deathwatch: Shadowbreaker, and the fun crime novel Kal Jerico: Sinner’s Bounty.  For this review, however, I veer away from the science fiction based Warhammer 40,000, and instead look at a book in the Warhammer Fantasy universe.

The Warhammer Fantasy universe is set on a fantasy world where various races and factions fight for power, immortality, dark deities, and a general desire for bloodshed (Blood for the Blood God, Skulls for the Skull Throne!) in both large-scale battles and smaller skirmishes.  I love the fantastic and thrilling world of Warhammer Fantasy, especially as I used to play (my preferred factions were the Empire and the Lizardmen).  While there are many great novels set in this universe, the most recognisable and well-established series are the Gotrek and Felix books.

The Gotrek and Felix novels are some excellent dark fantasy books that follow the titular heroes, Gotrek Gurnisson and Felix Jaeger, as they traverse their world, facing every single monster, demon or villain they can find.  Created by William King, this long-running series has also been authored by fellow writers Nathan Long, Josh Reynolds and David Guymer, the last of whom has just released the latest entry, Gitslayer.  I have always heard good things about this series over the years, and I have previously enjoyed some of the short stories featured online or in the White Dwarf magazine.  As a result, when I had the brainwave to expand my knowledge of the Warhammer canon, this is one of the main series I wanted to check out, and to do so properly, I had to start with the original novel, TrollslayerTrollslayer, which was originally released in 1999, is an interesting novel that features seven original Gotrek and Felix short stories, including Geheimnisnacht, which was originally written as a one-off in 1988.  These seven stories have been bundled together into one continuous narrative, which proves to be an excellent and entertaining fantasy adventure.

Trollslayer Cover

Felix Jaeger, the son of a wealthy merchant and student in the Imperial capital Altdorf, used to live a blameless and dull life until he met the deranged Gotrek Gurnisson.  The son of a wealthy merchant and student in the Imperial capital Altdorf, Felix’s life was changed forever when Gotrek saved his life.  Gotrek is a Slayer, a dwarf who, after committing a terrible crime, has sworn to seek out a glorious death in battle, and who now wanders the world to find a foe worthy of killing him.  After a particularly damaging night of drinking, Felix drunkenly swears to follow him on his adventures to compose an epic ballad about Gotrek’s glorious death.

Bound by his oath, Felix now reluctantly accompanies Gotrek wherever he goes.  Their latest adventures will take them far and wide, as they venture throughout the Empire and beyond, travelling to the notorious holdings of the Border Princes, the mountainous realms of the dwarves and even under the halls of the conquered dwarf city of Karak Eight Peaks.  While they experience many unique discoveries and locations, one thing remains the same: enemies lurk around every corner, and Gotrek and Felix are forced to battle against some of the most dangerous creatures in existence, including orcs, goblins, trolls, the undead, mutants, beastman and more.

However, the most dangerous foe they face may be something far more insidious and unknowable.  The fell powers of Chaos are gathering throughout the land, and Gotrek and Felix seem to constantly become wrapped up in their plots and vile missions.  With danger and deadly foes all around, will Gotrek find the glorious death he seeks, and will Felix be able to survive whatever might foe eventually manages to kill his companion?

Wow, that was a cool novel I really should have read years ago.  Trollslayer was a fantastic and exciting novel that does a great job exploring some of the more dangerous settings in the Warhammer Fantasy world with two amazing characters.  Featuring seven dark and compelling short stories, Trollslayer is an outstanding book, and I had an incredibly fun and entertaining time getting through its audiobook format.  Banded together by some journal entries which bring the separate stories together, Trollslayer has a fantastic joint narrative that presents the reader with a collection of epic adventures.

TrollSlayer-john-gravato-Gotrek-and-Felix-1st-edition-cover

The book begins with the original Gotrek and Felix short story, Geheimnisnacht (Night of Secrets).  The two companions are stuck out in the dangerous forests of the Empire during Geheimnisnacht, an auspicious night of the year.  After nearly being run over by a dark carriage on the road, Gotrek and Felix investigate the actions of a dangerous Chaos coven out in the woods, and find more than they bargained for.  This is a rather entertaining and short entry in Trollslayers that serves as a fun introduction to the main protagonists and their quest.  King does a great job setting up both characters and you soon get a fantastic glimpse into their compelling personalities.  The author presents a very dark story within this first tale, as the heroes discover and fight the true horrors of chaos.  An excellent and intense opening story that will get you pumped up for the rest of the book.

The next entry contained within Trollslayer is called Wolf Riders, which sees Gotrek and Felix at the very edge of the Empire with plans to venture to the fallen dwarf stronghold of Karak Eight Peaks.  After encountering a beautiful young woman, Felix convinces Gotrek to join the doomed expedition of a cursed, banished noble family as they journey to the Border Lands to set up their own settlement.  Hired on as guards, the two heroes are forced to protect the caravan against a ravenous Greenskin horde, who are determined to destroy every one of them.  However, the true threat may lie within the convoy, as it soon becomes clear that someone has their own nefarious plans to kill everyone journeying with them.  Wolf Riders is an incredible second entry in the collection of stories, and it is easily one of the best tales in Trollslayer.  Not only does it reinforce the likeability of the two protagonists, but it also contains its own compelling and impressive narrative.  King manages to achieve a lot in Wolf Riders, introducing a cohort of great characters, showing several intense action sequences, and even presenting a clever and malicious mystery.  The entire narrative comes together extremely well, and readers are soon wrapped up in the compelling tale of redemption and bloodshed, which culminates in a tragic and memorable ending that forever changes one protagonist.

The third story is The Dark Beneath the World, which follows on immediately after Wolf RidersThe Dark Beneath the World sees Gotrek, Felix and some new companions journey into the dwarf stronghold of Karak Eight Peaks, which was infamously conquered by greenskins and Skaven in ages past.  Seeking treasure, holy relics and a glorious battle, the adventurers will face untold horrors in the halls beneath the city.  However, nothing will prepare them for the true dangers of Karak Eight Peaks, as the restless dead are stirring in response to a monstrous presence.  This was another great story that really highlights have exciting and action packed one of these stories can be.  I love how King takes his great characters right into the heart of one of the most iconic and dangerous settings in the entire Warhammer canon, and it proves to be an amazing backdrop to this compelling story.  A brutal hack and slash epic with some very intense moments, this is an excellent and fast-paced addition to Trollslayer that was an extremely thrilling read.

From powerful action to great humour, the next entry is the slightly shorter The Mark of Slaanesh.  This story sees Gotrek and Felix return to the Empire, where they encounter some malicious cultists of the Chaos god Slaanesh in a small town.  Unfortunately for Felix, Gotrek is suffering from amnesia after a blow to the head.  Forced to shepherd a docile Slayer through the town’s many dangers, Felix takes drastic action to bring his friend back to his senses.  The Mark of Slaanesh represents a very intriguing change of pace, with more of a focus on humour, as a weary Felix is forced to contend with a pacifist Dwarf Slayer, an eccentric doctor, and comedic mutants.  There are several extremely funny moments in this short story, which helped to turn The Mark of Slaanesh into one of the most entertaining entries in the entire novel.  I particularly appreciate how King was able to craft together such a despicable central antagonist in quite a short period of time, and it was great to see his implied comeuppance towards the end of the story.

King again rapidly switches gears with the next entry in the book, Blood and Darkness, a grim war story set in the darkest forest in the Empire.  This story sees Gotrek and Felix come across a ravished village within the Drakwald Forest, which has been utterly destroyed by beastmen.  Finding a young survivor, Kat, Gotrek and Felix escort her through the woods to the next village.  However, a vengeful and ambitious champion of Chaos is close behind them, with unholy plans for Kat and anyone else she comes across.  Blood and Darkness is another exceptional entry in the series, which is probably my overall favourite Trollslayer story.  Loaded with action, fantastic new characters and a particularly gruesome premise, Blood and Darkness really stands out from some of the other stories in this book, and I was blown away by how dark King made the narrative.  I really loved the story’s complex antagonist, and the entire plot surrounding Kat comes full circle in a great way.  While it is a tad creepy to see just how young Kat is in this story, especially as Felix apparently falls in love with her in a future novel (she gets aged up like 20 years before this happens, but it is still weird), this was an impressive and powerful story that really showed how complex, powerful and mature a Warhammer story can be.

The penultimate story in Trollslayer is The Mutant Master, which again switches pace and has a more humorous tilt to it.  After being attacked on the road by a swarm of mutants, the protagonists arrive at a struggling village and soon discover that the mutants are being controlled by a sorcerer in a nearby tower.  Betrayed by the villagers, Gotrek and Felix find themselves as prisoners and soon must deal with an insidious sorcerer who shares a history with Felix.  This was another great short story that places the protagonists into a uniquely dangerous position.  King includes some excellent humour in this novel, especially in the scene where Felix and the sorcerer have a very entertaining encounter, which proves that everyone, even dark sorcerers, fall to pieces when encountering former classmates.  While much of this story is dedicated to humour, the author fits in a particularly dark moment towards the end of the novel, which pushes one protagonist further than ever.  Another awesome and memorable story, I powered through this one extremely quickly.

The final entry in this book is the intense Ulric’s ChildrenUlric’s Children sees Felix trudging through a snowed-in forest, attempting to escape the cold and the wolves.  When they hear the sounds of a fight up ahead, Felix gets separated from Gotrek, and ends up getting captured by a dangerous group of soldiers.  The soldier’s leaders end up being revealed as cultists of the Chaos god Tzeentch, who are desperate to capture a mysterious family living nearby, who have strange powers and strengths.  Caught up in their conflict, Felix soon finds himself trapped in a manor house with two very different monsters and must try to overcome the powers of Chaos that threaten to consume him.  This was another fantastic story that serves as a great conclusion to the entire novel.  While I think that Ulric’s Children was one of the weaker stories in Trollslayer, it was still a compelling and thrilling tale which readers will enjoy.  I loved the inclusion of werewolves in this novel and it was fun to see Felix attempt to overcome a dangerous foe without Gotrek’s determined backup.  With some intriguing foes and an exciting story, this is a fun and fantastic entry in the book which will leave readers wanting more Gotrek and Felix in the future.

King really has loaded Trollslayer with an amazing range of different stories that highlight the gritty adventures of two memorable and loveable characters.  I had a great time getting through each of the short stories contained within this novel, and I think that the author did a good job combining seven shorter stories together into one cohesive tale.  I love how each of the stories has some impressive action set pieces, and readers are given an in-depth look at the true dangers and darkness that inhabits the Warhammer world.  King has also ensured that each tale contains a compelling blend of humour, dramatic character development and dark fantasy elements, all of which produce an outstanding overall narrative.  It was also very cool to see just how dark and gruesome King could make his narratives, and quite a few elements of this book closely bordered the horror genre.  Since the stories were originally published in instalments, readers are in for some repetition, especially as King rehashes Gotrek and Felix’s origin in every entry, and you also get quick summaries of their prior adventures.  While this and other pieces of repetition (for example, Gotrek runs his finger over his axe blade in every tale) can be a bit annoying at times, I personally thought it was a small price to pay for such an awesome and epic book.

One of the most impressive things about Trollslayer is the complex and distinctive characters.  Naturally, the main characters are series protagonists Gotrek Gurnisson and Felix Jaeger, both of whom prove to be really fantastic and exciting characters.  King has come up with an exceptional pairing in these two characters, and I absolutely love the combination of a doomed dwarf Slayer and a disgraced human with a penchant for poetry.

As the primary narrator of the separate stories in this book, Felix gets a great deal of attention, and you really get to grips with his superb character throughout the book.  I loved the depiction of a former arrogant dandy who finds himself in a situation well over his head, and Felix has a “fun” time facing off against all sorts of monsters in this book.  While most of the novel depicts him as a bit of a coward, Felix does manage to achieve some major heroics and you cannot help but sympathise with the terrible situations he finds himself in.  While the use of multiple short stories does tend to backslide Felix’s character at times (he reverts to a coward at the start of each story), I did enjoy seeing some of the excellent development that occurs around Felix.  Not only does he grow more confident in his own abilities, but he also becomes harder with each adventure, especially as he experiences tragedy and despair around every corner.  It was actually hard to see how some of the more tragic events of the book affected him, but I really appreciated the amazing character work that King worked around him.

The titular Trollslayer, Gotrek Gurnisson, is one of the most beloved figures in Warhammer Fantasy lore, and a magnificent character who I really enjoyed.  Much of Gotrek’s past is shrouded in mystery, and all you really know is that he is a mighty warrior who previously committed some great crime that still haunts him to this day.  Determined to find a glorious death, Gotrek willingly walks into the most dangerous of places, but always survives, much to his displeasure (even doomed dwarves are far too stubborn and proud to simply let an enemy kill them).  King mostly paints Gotrek as a crude, rude and bloodthirsty being, which is a lot of fun to see.  However, there is so much more to Gotrek than killing and fighting, and you see several glimpses of his true inner self in this book, especially when he thinks about the past.  I loved how King keeps Gotrek as a mostly enigmatic figure, mostly by not showing any of the story from his point of view, and the reader is never quite sure what he is thinking or planning.  All of this results in an excellent and memorable protagonist, and I am deeply intrigued to see what sort of adventures he has in the future, as well as any revelations about his past.

Aside from Gotrek and Felix, Trollslayer contains a range of interesting and compelling characters, several of whom act as point-of-view figures at various parts of the book.  King does a really good job of introducing and utilising so many unique figures throughout his various stories, and it is simply amazing how well he can develop and establish his character in such a short amount of time.  Even though you only see some characters for a few pages, you quickly become quite invested in their stories, which is the sign of a really good author.  However, readers are advised not to get too attached to anyone, as most of the side characters will come to a gruesome and tragic end.  Still, these supporting characters are really fun, and I look forward to seeing what unique figures are introduced in future Gotrek and Felix books.

Trollslayer also features the dark and well-established background setting of the Warhammer Fantasy world, with the protagonists adventuring through many iconic locations.  King makes excellent use of this fantastic background throughout his story, and I loved seeing all the cool locations, interesting factions and dangerous monsters contained within the story.  This actually serves as a really good introduction to the Warhammer Fantasy world, and readers unfamiliar with the various aspects of Warhammer will learn a lot here.  King can really craft together some dark and dangerous locations with his writing, and I love how spooking and claustrophobic some of his settings felt, especially the ancient dwarven catacombs and the haunted, monster infested forests.  I also loved the sheer range of different creatures and races featured within Trollslayer, as the author includes as many foes as possible.  It was extremely awesome to see Gotrek and Felix cut their way through various greenskins, monsters, and servants of Chaos, and there is something for all fantasy fans within this book.  I am extremely keen to see what other monsters and races are utilised in the future novels, and I am sure they will be pretty amazing.

I ended up listening to the Trollslayer audiobook format, which was an outstanding way to experience the awesome adventures contained within this book.  With a decent run time of just under 10 hours, I powered through this audiobook in a matter of days, especially once I got caught up in the fantastic depictions of intense action and dark creatures.  I was also really drawn in by the impressive narration of Jonathan Keeble, who has lent his voice to all the Gotrek and Felix audiobooks, as well as several other Warhammer projects and some of my favourite historical fiction novels, such as the Eagle of the Empire series.  Keeble has an epic voice, and the sheer passion that he brings to Trollslayer is immediately obvious, especially during the action scenes, where his excited voice captures the intensity and movement of the fights.  I also felt that Keeble did an exceptional job bringing all of the characters to life in an impressive way.  I particularly loved the gruff voice that he used for Gotrek, which fit the doomed dwarf warrior perfectly, and he also does a really good job voicing the often terrified Felix.  I also found some of the voices that he used for the supporting characters to be really fun and fitting, and I had a lot of love for a couple of the crazed sorcerers/alchemists they encounter, which were quite amusing.  All of this helps to turn the Trollslayer audiobook into an outstanding experience, and I think that this will be the format I check out the future Gotrek and Felix novels out in.  I might also have to consider listening to some historical fiction novels on audiobook in the future, especially as I know that Keeble will do a wonderful job narrating them.

Trollslayer by William King is an exceptional and clever Warhammer Fantasy novel that showcases the exciting and powerful adventures of the iconic Gotrek and Felix.  Serving as the main introduction to these two iconic heroes, Trollslayer contains seven outstanding and wildly entertaining short stories with some fantastic and wacky plots.  Readers who check out Trollslayer are in for a heck of a lot of fun and will swiftly become fans of this great duo and their outrageous adventures.  A highly recommended read, I suddenly have some major plans to check out more Gotrek and Felix novels in the future.

Later by Stephen King

Later Cover

Publisher: Simon and Schuster Audio (Audiobook – 2 March 2021)

Series: Standalone

Length: 6 hours and 32 minutes

My Rating: 4.75 out of 5 stars

Since I started this blog, one major author that I have neglected is the master of horror fiction, Stephen King.  King needs absolutely no introduction, with a decades-long career of amazing horror novels, thrillers and heartfelt pieces of fiction, most of which have been turned into iconic films and television shows.  Despite this, I haven’t read many of King’s novels before, aside from Cell and the novel he co-wrote with his son, Owen King, Sleeping Beauties.  Honestly, I have only started getting into horror novels in the last couple of years (it is still not my favourite genre TBH) and I have completely failed to make time to check out some of King’s more recent releases.  However, his latest novel, Later, caught my eye and I decided that it would be a good opportunity to expand my Stephen King knowledge.

Jamie Conklin is a young boy with a very unusual problem: he can see and talk to the spirits of the recently deceased.  The son of a struggling single mother, Tia, Jamie just wants to have a normal childhood.  However, as his ability becomes more apparent, his mother cautions him to hide his strange gift, worried that people will abuse his talents, especially as the dead have no choice but to truthfully answer any questions that Jamie asks of them.

Content to keep his secret to himself, Jamie attempts to live like a normal New York City kid during the late 2000s.  However, when his mother pressures him to use his abilities to help save her failing publishing business, it places him in the crosshairs of his mother’s lover, corrupt police detective Liz Dutton.  Liz, desperate for recognition from her bosses, draws Jamie into the hunt for a killer’s final surprise, which only his dead spirit can reveal.  However, not all secrets are easily taken from the dead, and soon Jamie must contend with a terrible force determined to torment him from beyond.  Can Jamie survive what is coming for him, or will it drag him into insanity?

This was an extremely cool novel that makes we really want to go out and read some more Stephen King books.  Later is a fantastic read which combines multiple genres together to create an exciting and fast-paced narrative loaded up with some real heart and memorable characters.  I had an absolute blast reading this clever novel, and thanks to its shorter length and captivating narrative, I powered through it in a very quickly.

I deeply enjoyed the cool and complex story that King came up with for Later, which proved to be a powerful and intriguing character-driven tale that moved across the genres.  Told in a first-person chronicle format by an older version of the main protagonist, Later details the childhood of Jamie Conklin and his early experiences of talking to the dead.  Weaving in anecdotes of his childhood and depictions of his early life with his mother, the story quickly and effectively sets up how Jamie discovered he had his powers, and some of the most significant times that he saw and talked to the spirits of the departed.  This proves to be a fascinating coming-of-age story that showcases how this unique talent twisted and altered the course of Jamie’s life and took him into some dark places.  The author does a fantastic job capturing the style of a young man recounting major events from his childhood, and I very much appreciated the mixture of childlike innocence with cynical reflections.

While this chronicle of a child’s life forms an effective and powerful centre to this entire narrative, this is also a horror story, as Jamie is traumatised by several of the spirits he encounters, especially as King provides some harrowing descriptions of mutilated ghosts and bodies.  These horror elements get even stronger and spookier when Jamie encounters a truly evil spirit who starts to haunt him.  Several of the scenes featuring this being are pretty terrifying, and I liked how King strongly highlights the dark side of Jamie’s power.

The author also works in some intriguing crime fiction elements as well, as the protagonist get wrapped up in a murder investigation and the dangerous schemes of a police officer.  The crime fiction features are pretty thrilling, and l appreciated the consideration of how Jamie’s powers could be abused.  I liked this unique blend of genres, and it ended up creating a very compelling and powerful story, which King sets out at an incredibly fast rate.  King sets the story up perfectly, and I found myself really getting pulled in as the narrative set off, thanks to its unique tone and intriguing selection of supporting characters.  The entire narrative goes in some very interesting directions and I liked how interconnected all the events that the narrator is recounting fit together into a clever and moving tale of discovery and redemption.  All of this comes together into an exciting and scary finale as the narrator comes face-to-face with several of the monsters in his life, and I think that King came up with a very satisfying and clever ending for the book, which has potential for a sequel.  I did think that the final big reveal of the book was extremely unnecessary, but it was a particularly typical Stephen King twist, so I should not have been so surprised.  Overall, this was an exceptional narrative that I cannot hype up enough.

Later is a standalone novel from King which features a whole new group of characters.  As a result, it is very accessible to a wide range of readers, even for those people who have not previously enjoyed any of King’s novels.  I personally found it really easy to get into this cool story, even with my limited knowledge of the author’s prior works, and it honestly does not take long to get hooked on his clever and unique story.  This is also quite a good book for established fans.  Not only does it contain a lot of elements of a classic Stephen King novel, such as a young protagonist on a journey of self-discovery who ends up losing their innocence, but there are also some intriguing connections to some of King’s most iconic works.  One horror inclusion in the novel appeared to be a version of a creature from a previous book, and I think that King readers will really appreciate the clever references he chucks in.  Due to all this, I feel that Later is a perfect book for any curious readers, no matter their experiences with King’s works, and this may end up being the novel that draws new readers into this compelling master author’s web.  I personally will make a bit more of an effort to read more of King’s works in the future, and I already have my eye on his next novel, which is coming out later this year.  I also kind of hope that we see more of the characters at some point, especially as King did such a great job setting them up in this novel, while also leaving their overall story very open-ended.

I quite enjoyed the relatively modern setting that King utilised as a backdrop to his plot.  With the protagonist chronicling his tale in his 20s, presumably in the present day, most of his childhood took place in the late 2000s and early 2010s.  This is a pretty interesting departure from some of King’s more recognisable novels that explore the childhoods of their protagonists, such as It and Stand by Me, all of which make excellent use of their 1950s or 1980s settings (I liked the awesome 1980s nostalgia you got in the latest It film, for example).  Instead, King loads up Later with a ton of references to 2000s culture and movies, and I had a fun time remembering some of the things that the protagonist experienced as a child.  King, through the medium of his protagonist, also cleverly mentions The Sixth Sense right off the bat, ensuring readers that this story is “not like that movie with Bruce Willis”, which I thought was very entertaining, and also quite true.  The Great Recession also becomes a key plot point of the novel, and it was interesting to see how King was able to utilise it as a major motivator for various character actions.  I also liked how the story was set in New York City, rather than the small-town American locations King’s books are known for.  The author uses this city-based location to great effect throughout the novel, painting a fantastic picture of New York life, especially through the eyes of his young protagonist.  Jamie ends up visiting various parts of the city throughout the events of Later, including several communities on the outskirts of New York, and I enjoyed this great use of location.

I also have to highlight the multiple jokes about novelists and publishers that King features throughout Later, mainly due to Jamie being born into a publishing family.  You have to imagine that King had a lot of fun coming up with all the great jokes and comedic insights into Jamie and his mother’s experiences with writers, and it ended up being a really fun addition to the plot.  I had a particularly good laugh about the descriptions of a certain series of trashy historical romance/adventure novels that Tia’s struggling publishing company relies on, and I loved how King explored it throughout this entertaining narrative, as well as cleverly featuring a mock-up cover of one of these fictional novels released as a bonus dust jacket for Later.  This extra dust jacket (see below), was drawn by the same cover artist who did Later’s hardcover, and I enjoyed the similar styles and the excellent tongue-in-cheek testimonial from King, praising this book within a book.  Fun little inclusions like this really helped to push Later up to another level, and I liked how the humour from the publishing jokes contrasted nicely with the dark horror and crime fiction elements.

The Secret of Roanoke Cover

While I probably would have enjoyed reading a physical copy of Later, I instead chose to enjoy this fun novel in its audiobook format, which ended up being a fantastic choice.  This audiobook has an extremely quick run time of just over six and a half hours.  This shorter length was one of the main reasons I decided to listen to Later, and I was able to get through it in a day or two, although a lot of that was down to how awesome the story was.  This was an impressively fast-paced audiobook, and I really felt that this format worked well with the first-person chronicle style the author utilised, as it felt like the protagonist was the one vocalising the story to you.  Later was narrated by actor Seth Numrich, and it is one of the first audiobooks he has lent his voice to.  I really enjoyed Numrich’s work on this audiobook; not only did he do an amazing top capturing Later’s unique tone, but he also provided a range of great voices for the characters featured within the novel.  His main voice, which represented the narrating protagonist, really encapsulated the innocence and pain of the character as he tells the story of his strange childhood, and it helped draw me to the protagonist.  The rest of his voices were pretty good, although I thought the voice he used for female detective Liz Dutton sounded a little like John Leguizamo, which is probably not what he was going for.  Overall, though, this was an exceptional audiobook, and I would strongly recommend it to those who want to check out Later.  I also hope that Numrich considers narrating more audiobooks in the future as he displayed some real talent here and was an absolute treat to listen to.

Later is an outstanding and impressive novel from the legendary Stephen King, who creates a unique and powerful tale of life, death and coming to terms with both.  Featuring an intriguing narrative that blends together clever horror and crime inclusions with a powerful coming of age story, Later is a truly memorable novel that is extremely easy to fall in love with.  I had an exceptional time reading this book and it is a must read for all fans of King’s work and anyone who has ever been curious about his writing.

Later Cover 2

Throwback Thursday: Usagi Yojimbo: Volume 11: Seasons by Stan Sakai

Usagi Yojimbo Seasons

Publisher: Dark Horse Books (Paperback – 1999)

Series: Usagi Yojimbo – Book 11

Length: 198 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.

It has been a while since I have done a Usagi Yojimbo Throwback Thursday, but after doing a Waiting on Wednesday for the next upcoming volume in this epic series, Homecoming, I was in a Usagi mood and decided to write something extra.  As a result, I check out the 11th Usagi Yojimbo volume by the legendary Stan Sakai, Seasons.

Seasons is a fantastic and spectacular entry in the series that presents the reader with a series of great Usagi Yojimbo adventures that follow the rabbit ronin Miyamoto Usagi as he traverses his version of feudal Japan during the various seasons of the year.  This is a key entry in the series as it sets up a number of storylines for the next several volumes while also introducing some great new characters.  Needless to say, I had an incredible time reading this volume of the series and I have a lot of love for a number of the stories contained within it.  Seasons contains issues #7-12 of the Dark Horse Comics run on the Usagi Yojimbo series, as well as stories taken from the Usagi Yojimbo Colour Special.  This results in 11 separate stories throughout the volume, made up of single-issue entries and a couple of shorter tales, all of which contain an impressive and deeply enjoyable story with beautiful artwork.

USagi #7

The first story featured within Seasons is The Withered Field, an epic story of samurai honour and the warrior’s way.  In this story, Usagi is visiting a famed fencing school with the hope of challenging some of its instructors to test his skill.  However, before he can issue his challenge, all of the school’s instructors are beaten by another ronin, Nakamura Koji, a skilled swordsman who demands a fight with the school’s master.  As he waits for his challenge, Usagi befriends him and discovers that he was once a famed sword master himself, who began the warrior’s pilgrimage after suffering a humiliating defeat at the hands of a mysterious and unconventional swordsman.  Now determined to find this swordsman and rechallenge him, Nakamura Koji shows great interest in Usagi, especially when they must content with treachery from the fencing school.

The Withered Field is an outstanding story that serves as a compelling and powerful start to this volume.  I really enjoyed the amazing narrative that examined honour and martial prowess, with Usagi encountering a famed warrior who is even better than he is.  This great story does an excellent job of introducing the character of Nakamura Koji, who becomes a major figure in some of the future volumes in this series and who has an interesting connection to Usagi and his past.  The entire storyline around the two ronin facing off against the fencing school is extremely cool and action packed, and it appears to take a lot of influence from the second entry in the iconic 1950s Samurai film trilogy (which follows the adventures of Miyamoto Musashi, the historical samurai who serves as an inspiration for Usagi), Duel of Ichijoji Temple, with the students attempting to stop the wandering ronin from defeating their master.  There are amazing action sequences throughout this story, with Usagi and Nakamura Koji engaging in several awesome duels.  I particularly loved the opening sequence where Koji goes through the pre-fight forms before facing off in his sparring match against a fencing school instructor.  The eventual reveal that the samurai who defeated Koji when he was younger was Usagi’s mentor, Katsuichi, comes as little surprise, but it sets up an amazing story later in the series which makes this great story a must read for fans of Usagi Yojimbo.

Seasons’ second story is the thrilling but haunting A Promise in the Snow, which sees Usagi travelling through a snowy mountain pass during the height of winter.  As he trudges along, he comes across bandits attacking an innocent merchant and his servants.  Intervening, Usagi is able to slay all the bandits, but not before they severely wound the merchant.  Usagi finds the merchant’s young daughter and promises to save her father, carrying him back to his village.  However, the mountain passes are treacherous, and Usagi must contend with harsh weather, a pack of hungry wild tokage lizards and a dangerous avalanche.  But no matter what the mountain throws at him, nothing will prepare Usagi for the great shock awaiting him at the end of his journey. 

Usagi #8

This is a great entry in this volume that features a desperate struggle for survival in a dangerous location.  Sakai came up with an epic story for A Promise in the Snow, and I really love seeing Usagi power through great trials and tribulations to keep his promise to a young girl.  There are some beautifully drawn scenes throughout this story, and Sakai does a fantastic job bringing the snowy landscape to life in all its wondrous, deadly glory.  I also loved the way in which Sakai’s drawings highlighted Usagi’s struggles to get through the tough terrain; you can see him get more and more weary with each obstacle he encounters.  This story has a fantastic ending that is reminiscent of a lot of classic ghost tales, and looking back you see that Sakai set this twist up brilliantly, with tons of little clues.  Overall, this was an exceptional story which is a true highlight of this volume.

Next up with have the action-packed, intriguing story, The Conspiracy of Eight.  In this entry, Usagi is visiting the temple of his friend, priest Sanshobo, when an injured samurai wearing the crest of the notorious Lord Hikiji arrives at the gate.  The samurai bears a dangerous letter that names eight conspirators who are plotting against the Shogun.  As Usagi and Sanshobo debate what to do with the information, a large force of ronin arrives at the temple, determined to claim the injured samurai and kill all witnesses. 

This is another fantastic entry in Seasons that once again sees Usagi drawn into a major conspiracy impacting the realm.  There are a lot of cool elements to this story, such as Usagi and Sanshobo being forced to mount a defence of the temple from a dangerous siege.  This is a great, fast-paced story, and I really liked the unique battle scenes, especially the monks with staffs facing off against sword-wielding bandits.  Many of the plot elements contained within this tale come into play in several later Usagi Yojimbo stories, including one featured later in this volume, and I think Sakai did an exceptional job introducing them in The Conspiracy of Eight.  I also liked seeing the return of Sanshobo, the wise and noble priest and former samurai general.  Sanshobo serves as a good foil to Usagi’s more impulsive nature, cautioning him about acting in the affairs of great lords and counselling him that his proposed actions could lead to the death of many people.  While mainly a figure of wisdom, Sanshobo also serves as a great leader, utilising his experiences as a general to defend his temple and keep his monks alive.  The Conspiracy of Eight ends up being a very solid and enjoyable entry in this volume and I very much enjoyed seeing Sakai solidify a great new side character.

Usagi #9

Right after The Conspiracy of Eight comes another intriguing story that is primarily set within Sanshobo’s temple, Snakes and Blossoms.  In this entry, Usagi tells two short tales to Sanshobo: one that describes a crazy misadventure he had, and another that describes some important lessons from his past.  This two shorter tales work as sub-stories to Snakes and Blossoms and ensures that it is a distinctive entry in Seasons.  The first of the shorter tales is titled Hebi, which is set shortly after the events of the final story in Volume 7: Gen’s Story and sees Usagi and Gen once again lost following one of Gen’s shortcuts.  As the two ronin wander the unused paths, Gen saves Usagi from a wild snake that attempts to kill him.  However, Gen’s heroic actions has unexpected consequences when the two travellers are confronted by a mysterious nun at an abandoned temple later that night.  This was a rather cool horror story that exemplifies the sort of weird situations that Usagi can find himself in.  I loved the way in which Sakai plays Usagi and Gen off each other, and there are some very humorous interactions between this oddball pairing.  There is also some really insane artwork in this short story, and I loved the fantastic and scary sight of a giant snake emerging from its disguise to try and kill the protagonists. 

The other short story contained within Snakes and Blossoms is the cute tale, The Courage of the PlumThe Courage of the Plum takes place during Usagi’s childhood when he is training with his master, Katsuichi.  As the two walk through the snow, Katsuichi attempts to teach his student the various hidden aspects of nature around them, including the trees, each of which can represent human virtues.  The young Usagi is particularly intrigued by Katsuichi’s description of the humble plum tree as brave, and Katsuichi schools Usagi on how this smaller tree can be braver than the mightiest of oaks.  I always enjoy the depictions of Usagi’s unorthodox training under Katsuichi, as the student and teacher have a very amusing dynamic, and The Courage of the Plum turned out to be a delightful shorter entry with some intriguing philosophical discussion and some lovely drawings of the winter landscape.  Overall, Hebi and The Courage of Plum make for a fantastic combination of tales and I quite enjoyed seeing these two unique, short stories come together.

Up next in Seasons is an amazing shorter entry, Return to Adachi Plain, which sees Usagi journey back to the site of his greatest defeat, Adachi Plain, the battlefield where his lord Mifune (named after actor Toshiro Mifune, who starred in multiple classic samurai films that Sakai references in his works, including as Miyamoto Musashi in the Samurai trilogy), was killed in front of him.  Flashing back to tragic events that started his wandering lifestyle, Usagi remembers the battle in greater detail and the reader sees not only the role he played in saving the head of his lord from mutilation but also the first time he came directly in conflict with the villainous Lord Hikiji. 

Usagi #10

Return to Adachi Plain is a fantastic entry in this series as it is essentially one big war sequence, showing Usagi amid a violent battle from his past.  This story expands on the war sequence that was shown in Volume 2: Samurai, and it was really cool to see more of this battle, especially the combat scene between Usagi and Hikiji, which serves as the origin for Usagi’s distinctive forehead scar.  A fantastic shorter story that provides greater depth to Usagi’s role in this major defeat, this battle sequence was later reused in colour in Volume 34: Bunraku and Other Stories, and the events disclosed within is likely to come up in the upcoming Volume 35: Homecoming.

The next story in this volume is a relatively short entry called The CrossingThe Crossing is set aboard a small passenger ship where a group of rowdy peasants sing and dance to a fun folk song on deck.  However, during the climax of the performance, one of the peasants accidently bumps into an arrogant samurai who takes offence and moves to kill the transgressor, until a fellow passenger intervenes.  Unfortunately for everyone involved, the Good Samaritan isn’t Usagi; instead it is the demon spearman Jei. 

This is a captivating darker story that once again highlights just how dangerous and deranged Jei, one of the best antagonists in the entire Usagi Yojimbo series, is.  Sakai has written an extremely clever tale here that does a wonderful job showcasing Jei’s compelling nature as both a defender of the innocent and a raging psychopath who views nearly everyone as evil in form or another.  It’s fantastic watching the expressions on the peasants’ faces turn from relief to absolute terror as they slowly realise just how crazy Jei is, and you have to love that entertaining ending with the unsuspecting dock worker.  The Crossing serves as an excellent follow-up to several other shorter Jei stories that appeared in recent volumes, including The Nature of the Viper (which appeared in Volume 9: Daisho) and Black Soul (which appeared in Volume 10: The Brink of Life and Death), and this ends up being an impressive and compelling filler story in this volume.

Usagi #11

The shorter entries keep on coming! The Patience of the Spider introduces a new compelling character, General Ikeda.  Ikeda is a famed warrior and general who led a revolt against the Geishu Clan years ago (when the clan was ruled by the father of Usagi’s friend Lord Noriyuki).  When his revolt fails and his army is vanquished, Ikeda and two of his retainers flee to an abandoned farm and determine that their next course of action is to hide and wait.  Using a patient web-building spider as inspiration, Ikeda and his comrades show fortitude and restraint by disguising themselves as peasants and farming the land as they wait for the opportune moment.  However, as the years pass and Ikeda gains a family and faces the many harsh trials and dangers that await a peasant farmer, he begins to see the world differently, until the once notorious general is a completely new person, one with very different desires and dreams.

The Patience of the Spider is an outstanding example of how Sakai can quickly build up an intriguing and powerful character and ensure that the reader is utterly transfixed by their tale.  While this entry is relatively short, it is very impactful and may be one of the best stories in Seasons.  The tale of General Ikeda, as he faces the many different hardships of peasant life, including drought, bandits, floods and great personal loss, while also experiencing great joy and community, is extremely well written.  It proves to be extremely captivating to see this resolute man slowly change his nature as life overcomes him.  This also proves to be an excellent introduction to the character of Ikeda, who will go on to have a substantial role in the two big Grasscutter storylines, and his amazing character arc has an exceptional start here.  A very impressive and powerful tale, The Patience of the Spider is an amazing character-driven narrative from Sakai that is an absolute treat to read.

The next story featured in Seasons is the curious tale, The Lord of the Owls, which sees Usagi encounter a strange fellow traveller.  As Usagi stops at an inn, he witnesses a group of ruffians follow after a mysterious hooded samurai walking the road with the intention of robbing him.  Following them, Usagi witnesses the figure quickly kill the bandits after first startling him with his hypnotic and powerful gaze.  This man is eventually introduced as Oyama Tadanori, the mysterious Lord of the Owls, who reputedly can see the future and who claims that his destiny is intertwined with Usagi. 

Usagi #12

This was an interesting story that presents the reader with a lot of curious and unanswered questions.  While the main story is rather good, especially when it comes to the fate of the greedy bandits, the reader is left extremely mystified by the Lord of the Owls and his powers of prediction.  This entry opens up a rather fascinating storyline that is still not complete; despite an appearance in a later comic, Usagi is still waiting to uncover more about this figure and their combined destiny.  While I am hopeful that this story will pay off somewhere down the line, but in the meantime this particular entry has some great action sequences, a fun new character and some stunning landscape shots, which makes it really worth checking out. 

Up next with have a clever story, The First Tenet, which deals with the machination and inside politics of the Neko Ninja clan.  In this entry, Kagemaru, the second in command of the Neko Ninja, makes a move to betray his commander, Chizu, by reporting some of her recent personal missions to Lord Hebi, Lord Hikiji’s chief advisor.  Hebi, who is enraged by the news that Chizu is moving the Neko Ninja against the interests of Lord Hikiji, considers supporting Kagemura but is reluctant, especially as “deceit is the first tenet of the ninja”.  However, Kagemaru has subtle ways of getting what he wants, and soon Hebi finds himself in a dangerous situation that will change the future of the Neko Ninja forever. 

The First Tenet is a great story that masterfully shows of the duplicitous internal politics of the Neko Ninja and the supporters of Lord Hikiji.  The storyline started here will eventually have some interesting implications for major side character Chizu, and Sakai does a fantastic job setting it up.  I loved all the plotting and subterfuge that appears in this story, and it proves to be a fun and clever read.  I also love the massive battle scene that occurs in the middle of the tale, and it was particularly cool to see Lord Hebi, a massive snake, finally get into a fight.  Hebi is a terrifying figure to behold in combat, and it is worth reading this story just to see that.  An excellent and exciting addition to Seasons, I really enjoyed The First Tenet, especially as it leads to a lot of outstanding ninja storylines down the road.

Usagi Colour Special - Green Persimmon

Seasons’ penultimate story is The Obakeneko of the Geishu Clan, a chilling supernatural tale that sees Usagi and his companions face off against a malignant spirit.  As Usagi draws closer to the lands of his friends in the Geishu Clan, he stops outside a ruined mansion where he suddenly recalls the last time he was there.  Flashing back to shortly after the events of Volume 4: The Dragon Bellow Conspiracy, Usagi, Gen and Tomoe are travelling back to Geishu lands and attempt to seek shelter at a beautiful mansion.  The mansion belongs to the Lady Takagi, a mysterious woman who provides them with rooms and food and seems quite happy for the company.  However, as the night continues, Tomoe grows suspicious with their host and attempts to investigate, eventually revealing that Lady Takagi is a demon who is determined to kill and eat her guests. 

This was a very fast-paced and exciting tale that provides an awesome horror edge to the stories contained with Seasons.  I love it when Sakai features iconic Japanese supernatural monsters in his tale as they always prove to be outstanding and fearsome opponents for the protagonists.  The monster featured within The Obakeneko of the Geishu Clan is no exception, and I loved the freaky tale based around her and the desperate fight for survival that Usagi and his friends are forced to undertake.  While Sakai mostly focuses on the horror aspects of this story, I liked how he included a few humorous moments, such as including a great reference to Sakai’s prior comic, Groo the Wanderer: “did I err?”, as well as the funny concluding moment that sees Usagi fleeing in terror from a couple of woodcutters.  This was a really fantastic supernatural tale and it is always cool to see Sakai’s amazing depictions of these inventive Japanese monsters.

The final story in this excellent volume is the intense and action-packed Green Persimmon.  In this story Usagi, who is on his way to the Geishu lands, comes across a dying Geishu retainer who entrusts Usagi with delivering a mysterious package to his lord.  Opening the package reveals a simple and seemingly unremarkable ceramic green persimmon.  However, moments after receiving the persimmon, Usagi is attacked by a band of armed samurai who are desperate to reclaim it at all costs.  Managing to defeat his attackers, Usagi continues along the rough and windy coast road to the Geishu lands, but he encounters even more men determined to reclaim the persimmon and is soon forced to fight for his life as his attackers employ ruthless means to kill him.

Usagi-Yojimbo-Book-11-Seasons-Print-

Green Persimmon is an awesome and fantastic story that I deeply enjoyed, and which holds a great deal of significance for me.  This was actually the first Usagi Yojimbo story that I ever read, as a colour version of this story appeared in a magazine aimed at younger teens down here in Australia when I was a lot younger.  This story really stuck with me over the years due to the exciting story and cool action sequences, and it was one of the main reasons (along with Usagi’s appearances in the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoons) that I decided to check out the Usagi Yojimbo comics in later life.  Needless to say, I am still very impressed with Green Persimmon years later; it is an enjoyable and memorable story to end this 11th volume.  I love the fluid combat sequences in this issue, including Usagi throwing the persimmon into the air and killing all his opponents before deftly catching it, and there are also some great banter scenes between Usagi and his attackers.  I also enjoyed the epic scene where Usagi finds himself trapped within a field of flame thanks to a flurry of fire arrows around him.  Not only is it cool that Usagi successfully survives by utilising the lessons of the legend of Prince Yamato Takeru and the Grass-Cutting Sword (the full events of which are drawn by Sakai in the next volume), but when he emerges from the ground covered in soot and dirt, he looks particularly demonic and enraged as he faces his opponents, making for an epic and amazing scene.  All of this is set to a fantastically drawn background of the rugged coastal landscape, which proves to be a fantastic setting for the various combat scenes.  If I had to offer any criticism about this story, it would be that the conclusion and reveal of the purpose of the ceramic persimmon did not really go anywhere and there were no mentions of this victory over series antagonist, Lord Hikiji, ever again.  However, I still really love this entry as Green Persimmon has so many cool and impressive elements to it and it is a great end note for this volume.

Seasons is another fantastic and incredible comic by Stan Sakai that sees Usagi engage in some captivating and intriguing adventures.  Featuring a cool mixture of different Usagi Yojimbo tales, Seasons is an amazing entry in the series.  I absolutely love a lot of the stories contained within this volume, which are once again anchored by outstanding character and breathtaking artwork.  This volume gets a full five-star rating from me and comes highly recommended.  On a side note, I am very glad that I decided to do another Usagi Yojimbo comic in a Throwback Thursday article as I have a lot of fun reviewing them.  I might have to skip ahead a volume for my next Throwback Thursday, as I cannot find my copy of Volume 12, Grasscutter.  However, I will either find it or get a new copy soon, as Grasscutter is too major a storyline to miss.  I hope you enjoy the review and make sure to check out some of the other reviews I have done of this epic and amazing series.