The Two-Faced Queen by Nick Martell

The Two-Faced Queen Cover

Publisher: Gollancz (Audiobook – 25 March 2021)

Series: The Legacy of the Mercenary Kings – Book Two

Length: 20 hours and 6 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Following his epic 2020 debut, one of the fastest rising stars in fantasy fiction, Nick Martell, returns with the second entry in his The Legacy of the Mercenary Kings series, The Two-Faced Queen.

Last year I was lucky enough to listen to a copy of Martell’s incredible first novel, The Kingdom of LiarsThe Kingdom of Liars was a gripping and impressive fantasy read set in Hollow, a crumbling city surrounded by an army of rebels, which followed the misadventures of the infamous Michael Kingman.  Michael is the scion of the legendary Kingman family, a noble clan of heroes and leaders who have guided Hollow for generations, serving as both supporters to the royal family and a check on their power.  However, the legacy of the Kingman family has been severely tarnished in recent years as Michael’s father was executed for the murder of the heir to the throne.  With their family disenfranchised, Michael grew up as an outcast in his own city, acting out against authority.  This changed when a chance encounter allowed him to investigate who was responsible for his family’s downfall and the death of the prince of Hollow.  While he was eventually able to discover the true murderer, his investigation also resulted in the King’s suicide, which subsequently saw him tried for regicide and sentenced to death.  The end of the book saw him manage to escape his execution, while also setting up several of the storylines for future entries in the series.  I deeply enjoyed the cool story of this first entry in The Legacy of the Mercenary Kings, and The Kingdom of Liars ended up being one of my favourite novels, audiobooks and debuts of 2020.  As a result, The Two-Faced Queen was one of my most anticipated reads of 2021.

Michael Kingman is a dead man walking.  Still accused of killing the King of Hollow, Michael is now under the protection of the Orbus mercenary company, serving as an apprentice under the mysterious mercenary Dark.  However, even with Orbus’s protection, everyone in Hollow still wants to either kill him or use him for their own dark ends.  The deadliest of these is the one person Michael is sworn to protect above all others, the heir to the throne, Princess Serena.  After spending years away, a vengeful Serena has returned to claim her throne and end Michael’s life.  Wielding great power, a lethal attitude and holding the keys to Michael’s heart, nothing will stand in the way of her wrath.

To restore his family’s position, save his home and convince Serena of his innocence, Michael needs to unravel the various conspiracies that have encircled Hollow and uncover the true motivations of the various power players in the city.  However, to succeed, Michael is forced to go up against a magnitude of foes, from the Corrupt Prince, the unhinged Rebel Emperor besieging the city, enraged royal guards, conspiring nobles, a scheming immortal, an insane serial killer, dangerous assassins and his former foster father, the man responsible for all his family’s ills.

But the more Michael attempts to understand Hollow’s hidden past and the dangerous plots surrounding his city, the more it becomes apparent that his is a mere pawn in a very dangerous game.  Immortals, monsters and mercenaries are all present in Hollow, and each of them has their own nefarious designs for Michael and his family.  Can he save everyone he loves before it is too late or has the Kingman family finally breathed its last?  Michael’s rise to become a Mercenary King continues, but who will truly wield power when the dust settles?

Now that was one hell of a sequel!  Martell absolutely crushed this second entry in this outstanding and exceptional fantasy series, producing a five-star novel that is extremely compelling, intense and so damn exciting.  I was absolutely enthralled with this book the moment I started listening to it and I loved every second.  The Two-Faced Queen is easily one of the best books I have read in 2021 and I think that any other fantasy novel coming out this year is going to be extremely hard-pressed to outdo it.

Martell has come up with a pretty incredible and intense narrative for The Two-Faced Queen, one that proves to be extremely addictive and insanely good.  Starting shortly after the events of The Kingdom of Liars, this novel starts fast and hard, with Michael following up on a number of storylines and revelations from the previous novel.  There is already so much going on right from the start of the novel, as the protagonist finds himself surrounded by enemies and conspiracies, both old and new.  While several secrets were revealed at the end of the first novel, there is still so much that Michael needs to understand.  However, as he attempts to learn these additional secrets, he must also try to avoid the deadly attentions of his beloved princess, end the rebellion plaguing the city, restore his family, defy a dangerous immortal, and make up with his betrayed friends.  While this is already a substantial amount of story, Martell keeps adding to it, as Michael also soon encounters a deadly assassin with a contract on him, and a deranged and unnatural serial killer.

While this may seem like too many story elements for one novel, it actually works extremely well, and the reader quickly becomes engrossed in Michael’s various adventures throughout the city.  I loved the inclusion of the serial killer storyline, as not only does it add some fantastic mystery elements, but it also proves to be a gateway to some intriguing world building, revealing more of the dark, immortal forces manipulating events from the shadows.  This storyline also results in several epic action scenes that place the protagonist and his friends in mortal danger from some unusual foes.  I had an outstanding time getting through this complex and well-constructed narrative, especially as every single scene has an intriguing revelation, intense character development or subtle clue to the future of the series.  Several key mysteries and secrets from the first novel are answered, partially or wholly, in this novel, although many more are introduced.  This really helps to keep the reader’s attention focused on The Two-Faced Queen’s plot, and I am not exaggerating when I talk about how addictive the secret-ridden narrative proves to be.  Readers are hammered with large amounts of lore and history in places, so I would recommend reading the first novel in the series, The Kingdom of Liars, before reading this book, although binge-reading this series is hardly a chore.  Overall, The Two-Faced Queen’s narrative is epic story writing at its best, and readers will love this terrific tale.

I absolutely must highlight the awesome and well-developed characters featured within The Two-Faced Queen.  The most prominent is series protagonist Michael Kingman.  Michael is an intriguing and distinctive figure through whose eyes most of the plot unfolds.  I have to admit that Michael was not my most favourite character in the first book, mostly because of his impetuous nature and selfish behaviour at times.  However, it was revealed that the reason for some of his annoying behaviour was due to some magic affecting his memories and personality.  As a result, Michael’s behaviour is substantially changed in The Two-Faced Queen and he comes across as a more considerate figure in this book.  He still has quite a few flashes of recklessness and stubbornness, but many of the rougher edges from the first novel are worn away here.  Still, a lot of people call Michael out for his crap in this book, including his friends and family, and it was great to see him finally heed their words.  There was also some additional exploration of how Michael deals with the legacy of being a Kingman; he is forced to live up to some big expectations.  There is a rather good scene where Michael is exploring the crypt of his ancestors with some of his friends, describing why some of them are famous and others are considered failures because they never achieved anything remarkable but just lived a normal life.  Seeing this, Michael’s friends, both of whom have been some of his greatest critics, start to understand just how much pressure he is under.  I really appreciated the way in which Martell continues to develop his protagonist, and it will be very fascinating to see how Michael’s story continues in the future novels.

Aside from Michael, there is an impressive collection of interesting supporting characters, each of whom have some fascinating storylines, as well as secrets or details from their past which helps to move the story along.  They also have their own motivations and plans to shape Hollow and the rest of the world to their advantage, which results in additional plots and conspiracies that the protagonists have to overcome.  The most prominent supporting character is probably Serena, the titular Two-Faced Queen.  Serena is Michael’s childhood friend and the royal he was sworn to, meaning that he was always destined to be her protector, advisor, and conscience.  However, after the death of her brother and Michael’s family were declared traitors, their relationship effectively ended.  Now returned, Serena is determined to destroy Michael for the apparent murder of her father, even if it leads to her own ruin.  The novel starts up with Michael visiting Serena only to find that she has hand-dug a grave for him, showing her resolve for killing him.  This forces Michael to attempt to change her mind, which is no easy prospect, and results in great calamity.  Naturally, these two characters share thorny romantic feelings for each other, which complicates Michael’s plans to stay alive, as Serena is a major blind spot in his defences.  Their entire joint character arc in this novel is extremely good, and I really appreciated the author’s take on their complex relationship.

Another key character is Dark, Michael’s mercenary master, who, aside from having his own mysterious past and motivations, is the son of Michael’s nemesis, Angelo Shade.  Due to Michael and Dark working together closely, the protagonist learns several of Dark’s secrets, especially those related to his troubled childhood and his encounters with the Heartbreaker serial killer.  While you don’t learn everything about Dark’s past in this novel (Martell is the master of dolling out just enough character detail to keep you interested, while also keeping plenty back for future novels), you do find out quite a lot, and what is revealed is extremely memorable.  Dark has a real dark side to him, no pun intended, and while Michael initially believes that Dark is his ally, he is soon faced with the possibility that he might have placed all his trust in a monster.  This results in a very interesting mentor/student relationship between the two, filled with much conflict and mistrust.  I really enjoyed learning more about Dark in The Two-Faced Queen, and it will be fascinating to see how the rest of his story unfolds in the future.

Other intriguing characters in this novel include Michael’s best friend Trey, who is attempting to forge his own path and take down both the nobles and the rebels, even if this leads him into conflict with Michael.  Trey has a fantastic arc as dangerous antihero in this book, taking control of the city’s criminal element in order to protect its citizens.  While a lot of his hostility towards Michael has ended, Trey and the protagonist still have a strained relationship, although Trey does go out of his way to help his friend.  Despite their friendship, it is clear that there is a major schism between the two planned in the future, which no doubt will result in all manner of pain and regret.  The ruthless immortal Charles Domet is still a firm favourite of mine, and it was fun to see his attempts to manipulate Michael, especially as Michael is now well aware of his true nature.  There are some interesting hints to Domet’s past in this novel, and he is clearly working up to something big.  The ambitious social climber Naomi also returns, although now she is suffering from a bad drug addiction which makes her even more entertaining, especially as she decides to torment Michael through embarrassment.  I also quite liked the expanded use of the chronicler, Symon.  Symon, who is determined to record and analyse every secret of Michael and his family, has taken to stalking them by living at the Kingman family home, and it is always entertaining to see his take on the events occurring before him.  He ends up actually narrating several interludes in The Two-Faced Queen, which are laid out as parts of his in-novel chronicles as part of a very clever and amusing supplement to the main story.  Symon really endeared himself to me in this novel, especially after his insulting descriptions of Michael in his proposed history book, and I deeply appreciated his increased presence.

I honestly could go on and on about the various characters featured within this novel; indeed, I have only just scratched the surface of the support cast in the paragraphs above.  However, it is more than clear that Martell does an excellent job in introducing and developing complex characters, and I loved the detailed and intriguing depictions of them throughout the novel.  Nearly every character featured within The Two-Faced Queen gets at least one big moment, and there are plenty of revelations and compelling backstories that are really cool to uncover.  I will say that you should probably not get too attached to the characters; however, I am very much looking forward to seeing what happens to each of the survivors, especially as Martell has set up some deeply captivating and powerful character arcs around them.

In addition to the fantastic story and amazing character work, Martell has also invested a lot of time in expanding his enthralling fantasy world.  The first entry in The Legacy of the Mercenary Kings did a great job setting up the key elements of Hollow, such as the noble families, the people of the city and the various problems they faced.  This unique setting of a besieged city filled with scheming nobles and set on a world where pieces of a shattered moon fall to the ground was so cool, and The Two-Faced Queen continues to expand on these previous elements, while also adding to the history and geography of the city and its surrounding nations.  Not only do you learn of several outside nations and locations but you also get to see how the key characters of this novel, or their ancestors, have impacted them, as well as the various dangers these realms represent.  However, some of the most substantial world-building revolves around some of the unusual creatures residing in this world, including a range of dangerous and destructive immortal creatures.  In the previous novel we only encountered one immortal (that we knew of), whose plots and schemes were a major part of the book’s plot.  This second novel, in contrast, is loaded with many more immortals, each of whom has their own unique abilities and plans for the world.  Martell introduces the lore around these immortals extremely well, and their various traits and schemes are worked into the plot extremely well.  It sounds like we are going to encounter a whole raft of intriguing and monstrous immortals in the future of this series, and I am very much looking forward to seeing what happens there.  The next book also looks like it will be set in a whole new location, and I will be extremely intrigued to see how that impacts the narrative.

One particular bit of world-building that I really enjoyed was the excellent expansions of Martell’s unique magical system.  The main magic of Hollow is known as Fabrication, which allows its users certain control over certain elements or phenomena at the cost of their own memories.  This is a really cool magical system, and Martell uses it to great effect throughout his novels, ensuring that there is all manner of destruction and manipulation throughout the narrative.  The Two-Faced Queen features multiple new Fabrication types, as Martell introduces unique Fabrications throughout the story, including several that even the protagonists have never heard of.  Examples include a particularly dangerous telekinetic Fabrication, which forces everyone to their knees (perfect for its user), while I was also very impressed with the disturbing blood Fabrication that one of the supporting characters pulled out.  In addition, Martell also introduces some different forms of magic from some of the other countries in his fantasy world.  While you only get to see one or two of these new magical abilities, they are still fun to see and they stand as an intriguing counterpoint to the already established magical abilities.  It looks like Martell is setting up some sort of mystery around the origins of all these different powers and it should prove pretty interesting to see how that turns out.

Martell also does an incredible job fitting the downsides of this magical Fabrication into the plot, as several characters experience memory loss, which affects their plans, reactions and relationships.  This is most obvious in Michael; as narrator, he loses several days of his life, resulting in him being unaware of plans he puts into motion or certain secrets that he learnt in these missing days.  Because the reader does not see these missing pieces of time either, this adds an extra amount of mystery and uncertainty into the narrative, as you try to work out both what is being deliberately hidden from Michael and what he has simply forgotten.  These bigger lapses in memory are a fantastic part of The Two-Faced Queen’s narrative, and it helps to make the flow of this book unique and compelling.  However, you also have to appreciate some of the smaller examples of memory loss throughout the book, some of which are quite heartbreaking in nature as the characters forget elements of their friends and families without realising it.  There is one extremely poignant scene in which Michael confesses to forgetting something very important to him, with the reader only then realises that a certain normal-sounding character description was evidence of memory loss all along.  Some of these subtle details are really impressive, and I deeply enjoyed seeing the hurtful side effects of this magical system.

To enjoy this awesome book, I ended up grabbing its audiobook format, mainly because I had such a great time listening to the first novel.  There were actually two audiobook versions of The Two-Faced Queen, and I ended up grabbing the Joe Jameson narrated version.  Jameson is a fantastic audiobook narrator who has previously lent his voice to amazing fantasy novels like King of Assassins by RJ Barker.  I loved his narration for The Kingdom of Liars last year and I was really keen to continue to listen to him in this sequel.  Jameson has a great voice for this complex fantasy read, and you swiftly become enthralled by the way he narrates the events occurring, as well as the fantastic voices he comes up with for his characters.  All the characters are given a unique voice in a variety of different accents, and each of them really helps to capture the character’s emotions and personality perfectly, whether it is the constant confusion and hurt in Michael, the raging anger of Serena, the cold menace of Dark or the calculating and manipulative voice of Charles Domet.  All this voice work is perfect and spot on and I really appreciated the effort that Martell put into this book.  Despite its runtime of 20 hours, I got through this audiobook in no time at all and I honestly wished it was a lot longer by the end.  This was another outstanding audiobook, and this format comes highly recommended to anyone interested in this fantastic novel.

With this epic and captivating second novel, Nick Martell has cemented his position as one of the best new fantasy authors out there.  The Two-Faced Queen was absolutely incredible, and I loved the complex and addictive story, set in a unique fantasy world.  There are just so many cool elements to this awesome novel and it really does not take long for the reader to become hooked on every single mystery, secret and hidden past that Martell features within this great read.  I cannot wait to see what happens next in this series, but it is already perfectly clear that The Legacy of the Mercenary King books are going to be one of the defining fantasy series of the next few years.

The Two-Faced Queen Cover 2

The Bone Shard Daughter by Andrea Stewart

The Bone Shard Daughter Cover

Publisher: Orbit (Trade Paperback – 8 September 2020)

Series: The Drowning Empire – Book One

Length: 439 pages

My rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

From outstanding new fantasy author Andrea Stewart comes The Bone Shard Daughter, the first entry in The Drowning Empire series and one of the best debuts of 2020.

For generations the Sukai Dynasty has ruled the floating islands of the sprawling Phoenix Empire, protecting it from a mysterious force from the past.  In exchange for the Sukai’s protection and governance, each citizen must provide the Emperor with a shard of bone from their head, which can be utilised by the royal family to bring life to magnificent and dangerous magical constructs of flesh and power.  However, as the Emperor’s influence fades, revolution and change is coming to the Phoenix Empire, and the fate of the land lies with a handful of exceptional people.

In the capital, Lin, the Emperor’s daughter, has lost her status as heir after a disease takes her childhood memories from her.  Desperate to gain her father’s respect and her rightful place on the throne, Lin embarks on a dangerous quest to unlock the secrets of her father’s palace and gain the knowledge to master her family’s dangerous bone shard magic.  However, ambition and fear will drive her to attempt the impossible: turning her father’s most powerful constructs against their creator.

Elsewhere, Jovis, a notorious smuggler, is chasing the ghosts of his past as he attempts to find a shadowy ship that took something precious from him.  As he scours the seas of the Empire, he becomes an unlikely hero to the people, saving children from the Emperor’s bone shard tithe and ensuring their safety.  His mission will take him to the island of Nephilanu, where rebels are massing, and the governor’s unruly daughter Phalue finds herself torn between love and duty.  At the same time, a mysterious woman awakens on an isolated island with no memories of her past and a desire to gain freedom.  Each of these people will find the fate of many thrust upon them, and their adventures will shake the Phoenix Empire to its foundation.  But are any of them truly prepared for the consequences of their actions?

The Bone Shard Daughter is a fantastic and clever novel from Andrea Stewart that was one of the most hyped-up fantasy releases of last year.  I have been meaning to read this excellent book for a while now and I finally got the chance to do so a couple of weeks ago.  I am extremely glad that I did as Stewart’s debut novel was an exciting and captivating book that transports the reader to a compelling and unique fantasy setting with all manner of conflicts, magic and terrible secrets.  This was an outstanding debut novel, and I had a great time reading it.

Stewart has come up with a captivating and complex character-driven narrative for her first novel, which sees several young protagonists from various walks of life attempt to survive in this brutal empire while also discovering its dangerous and earth-shattering secrets.  The Bone Shard Daughter contains four separate and distinctive storylines, each of which follows a separate protagonist (or in one case, two linked protagonists), on their own adventure of discovery.  Stewart does a fantastic job of introducing each of these storylines at the start of the novel, with some compelling opening chapters that hook the reader in different ways, whether with descriptions of complex magic, the start of an apparent kidnapping or a frantic attempt to escape from a sinking island.  Once these storylines have their hooks in the reader, Stewart starts to grow each of them throughout the course of the book, with all four of them maintaining a well-balanced pace.  While some of the storylines have a little more prominence than others, they are all really intriguing and exciting in their own right, especially as they have different focuses based on their respective protagonist’s abilities and history.  As the narrative progresses, the separate storylines start to come together as the various protagonists interact with each other, and the reader is gradually treated to a much more cohesive tale.  I felt that these unique storylines fitted together well, and Stewart ensured that they support and strengthen each other, forming a coherent and captivating narrative.  The end result is an excellent tale, filled with conflict, revenge, betrayal and magical chaos.

Stewart sets the narrative around five excellent point-of-view characters, each of whom narrates several chapters within The Bone Shard Daughter.  All five of these fantastic protagonists have their own enjoyable tale to tell, and their varied narratives helped to produce a comprehensive and rich overall narrative.  While each character has their own role to play in the novel, two of these characters in particular, Lin and Jovis, have more prominence then their fellows, especially as their chapters are told in the first person.  Lin is the young daughter of the Emperor of the Phoenix Empire, who has only recently recovered from a peculiar sickness that took away her childhood memories.  Now out of favour with her father, who instead focuses on training her rival, Bayan, Lin uses her skills for climbing, exploring and thievery to steal her father’s keys and gain access to the locked rooms of the palace.  With each key she gains, Lin obtains more information about her past and the secrets behind her family’s powerful bone shard magic.  However, the more information she uncovers, the more she becomes certain that something is wrong, and that her father is no longer fit to be emperor.  I really enjoyed the Lin storyline; not only does it give the reader the most information about this series’ distinctive bone shard magic but there is a substantial amount of intrigue and mystery surrounding Lin’s entire life which I found really fascinating to unravel.  There are some really good twists involved with Lin’s tale, and this was definitely a standout part of The Bone Shard Daughter’s overall story.

The other major character is Jovis, a skilled smuggler, sailor and navigator with a knack for getting into trouble.  Jovis is a fun and entertaining fellow with a heart of gold, who runs afoul of everyone while trying to find his lost love, Emahla, who was taken from him by an unknown ship with blue sails many years before.  While searching for the ship, Jovis finds himself caught up in the wider story when he survives the sinking of an island, managing to rescue a small child and a strange aquatic creature he names Mephi.  Returning the child to its parents, Jovis gains a reputation as a legendary hero, especially as he finds himself gaining unnatural strength and other abilities, and he soon becomes a key figure in the rebellion against the throne.  Due to his likeable personality, the adorable relationship he formed with Mephi, and his action-orientated chapters, Jovis quickly grew to become my favourite character within The Bone Shard Daughter and I deeply enjoyed seeing his adventures unfold.  Jovis proved to be the major bridging character of this novel, as he was the person who encountered many of the other protagonists, bringing their tales together and ensuring that they were all connected.  I also liked how Jovis’s story and points of reference were so different from Lin’s, due to his underprivileged start in life, as he has seen the worst that the Phoenix Empire and the Sukai Dynasty have to offer.  Jovis is also the most insightful and realistic protagonist of the bunch, able to spot the deeper and sinister motivations of some side characters that the other characters miss, and I appreciated how and why he developed these much-needed survival skills.  Overall, Jovis proved to be an exceptional and enjoyable character, and I looked forward to reading his chapters the most while getting through The Bone Shard Daughter.  There are a lot of questions left over when it comes to Jovis’s tale, especially with his relationship to Mephi, and it will be interesting to see how they unfold in future entries in this series.

In addition to the main characters of Lin and Jovis, there was the intriguing couple of Phalue, the Governor of Nephilanu’s daughter, and her girlfriend, Ranami.  Their joint storyline, which is told in the third person, follows the two as they become embroiled in a plot to overthrow Phalue’s corrupt father, with Ranami acting as the idealistic rebel while Phalue reluctantly goes along in the name of love.  This proved to be an excellent and enjoyable narrative that aims to highlight the inequality in the various classes featured throughout the empire and which seeks to explore the rebellion of the group known as the Shardless.  While neither character is featured as heavily as Lin or Jovis, Phalue and Ranami easily have the most interconnected storyline, and together they narrate nearly as many chapters as either of the main two protagonists.  While I quite enjoyed seeing Phalue and Ranami’s chapters unfold, I do have to admit that I wasn’t as invested in their storyline as I was with Lin’s or Jovis’s, as it just was not as interesting.  This was particularly true when Jovis arrives at Nephilanu, and becomes embroiled in their rebellions, as the charismatic smuggler immediately starts to steal focus from Phalue and Ranami.  I also really didn’t buy the relationship between these two as the book progressed, as there were way too many betrayals and lies by the seemingly highly moral Ranami to her girlfriend Phalue, and I am very surprised that they stayed together.  Still, there were some excellent moments in this chapter and it proved really intriguing to see.

The final point-of-view character in this novel is the mysterious Sand, who awakens on an island with no clear memories of who she is or how she arrived there.  Working with the similarly amnesiac inhabitants of her island, Sand attempts to find out something about her past, and swiftly determines that there is something very wrong with her life.  The chapters focusing on Sand and her compatriots, which are also told in the third person, are an intriguing and compelling addition to The Bone Shard Daughter but get the least amount of prominence throughout the book.  Due to the amnesiac nature of the protagonist, these chapters are shaded in mystery and uncertainty, and at first it is very unclear how they fit into the greater story, making them a little hard to get invested in.  However, as the novel progresses and more details are revealed about the island and its inhabitants, the reader swiftly begins to understand just how significant the character of Sand is and what has happened to her.  This was an interesting fourth storyline to this book, and while it was not featured as heavily or appeared to be as significant as the others, it is obviously going to be a major part of the series as a whole and was well set up.  Overall, I was deeply impressed with each of these fantastic characters and their captivating personal storylines, and it proved to be an exceptional and powerful centre to this entire novel.

In addition to the great story and excellent characters, I also really enjoyed the unique and inventive new fantasy world that Stewart created for The Drowning Empire series.  The Phoenix Empire, where the entirety of the series is set, is made up of a range of populated floating islands separated by sprawling oceans.  I quite enjoy novels that feature an oceanic or nautical theme to them, and Stewart features a number of fun sequences aboard or around boats, which here are powered by burning a magical substance to gain speed on the water ways.  I also liked the sequences set within the islands, as there is a particularly cool Asian influence to the people and settlements contained on them and I loved the unique and clever tale that they were able to inspire.  While there are some really cool elements to this setting, such as the vast and complex royal palace where Lin roams, the highlight of this world had to be the magical constructs that are powered by bone shard magic.  Each of these constructs contains a number of bone shards depending on their complexity, which give them intelligence and power, while simultaneously draining the life force out of the person from whom the shard was extracted.  Stewart, through the medium of her curious character Lin, provides a detailed and compelling examination of these constructs and the magical science behind them, and I really appreciated how the author set them up and utilised them throughout the novel.  These were a cool and distinctive part of The Bone Shard Daughter, and I look forward to seeing how Stewart expands on them in later books in her series.

The Bone Shard Daughter by Andrea Stewart is an amazing and incredible fantasy read that serves as the fantastic first entry in the cool new The Drowning Empire series and which really lived up to the hype I was hearing about it.  I had an outstanding time reading this novel and I really got lost in the inventive new fantasy world and the multiple compelling character perspectives.  This book comes highly recommended and I cannot wait to the see what happens in the series next.  The second entry in this series, The Bone Shard Emperor, is currently set for release in November this year, and I think it will end up being one of the top fantasy releases of 2021.

Hollow Empire by Sam Hawke

Hollow Empire Cover 2

Publisher: Bantam Press (Trade Paperback – 1 December 2020)

Series: Poison War – Book Two

Length: 560 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

After a two-year wait, we finally get to see the epic sequel to Australian author Sam Hawke’s impressive debut novel, City of Lies, with her blockbuster new novel, Hollow Empire.

Two years after the siege of the city of Silasta, where the oppressed Darfri minority were manipulated into attacking the capital by an unknown outside force, the city has started to recover.  While the city focuses on rebuilding and reconciliation with their former besiegers, the poison-eating siblings Jovana and Kalina Oromani, secret protectors of the Chancellor, continue their efforts to work out who was truly behind the attack on their city.  However, to their frustration, no-one else in the city shares their concerns; instead they have grown complacent with the returned peace.

But no peace lasts forever, especially as Silastra celebrates the karodee, a grand festival, to which representatives of all the nations surrounding the city state have been invited.  While the focus is on peace and forging ties between nations, the siblings begin to suspect that their unknown enemy is using it as an opportunity to launch a new attack against Silastra.  In order to determine what is happening, Jovana attempts to hunt down a dangerous and deadly killer that only he seems to have noticed, while Kalina navigates the treacherous world of politics and diplomacy as she works to determine which of their neighbours may have been involved in the prior attack on their city.

Working together with the Chancellor Tain and the Darfri mystic Hadrea, the Oromani siblings get closer to finding some of the answers that they desire.  However, both siblings find themselves under attack from all sides as their opponents attempt not only to kill them but to discredit their entire family.  Determined to protect Silasta no matter what, Jovana and Kalina will risk everything to find out the truth, even if the answers are too much for either of them to bear.

Hollow Empire was another awesome novel from fellow Canberran Sam Hawke, which serves as the compelling and enjoyable second entry in her Poison War series, which follows on from her 2018 debut, City of Lies.  I am a big fan of Hawke’s first novel; not only was it one of my favourite books of 2018 but it is also one of my top debuts of all time.  As a result, I have been looking forward to seeing how the story continues for some time now and I was incredibly happy to receive my copy of Hollow Empire several weeks ago.  The wait was definitely worth it, as Hawke has come up with another impressive and clever novel that not only serves as an excellent sequel to City of Lies but which takes the reader on an intrigue laden journey into the heart of an exciting fantasy city filled with great characters.

Hawke has come up with an excellent narrative for this latest novel which takes the protagonists on a wild journey throughout their city and beyond as they attempt to uncover a dangerous conspiracy threatening to destroy everything they love.  Told from alternating perspectives of the two main characters, Jovana and Kalina, Hollow Empire’s story was a clever and exciting thrill-ride of intrigue, lies, politics, crime and treachery, as the protagonists attempt to find out who is targeting them and plotting to destroy their city.  This proved to be a fun and captivating narrative, and I liked how Hollow Empire felt a lot more like a fantasy thriller than the first book, which focused a bit more on the siege of the city.  The protagonists must dig through quite a few layers of lies, hidden history and alternate suspects to find out what is happening in Silasta, and while there was a little less focus on the fun poison aspects that made the first novel such a treat, I really enjoyed how the story unfolded.  Hawke comes up with several great twists and reveals throughout the book, some of which really surprised me, although I was able to guess a couple of key ones.  I did think that the eventual reveal of the ultimate villain of the story was a tad rushed, but it resulted in an intense and fast-paced conclusion to the novel which also opens some intriguing avenues for any future entries in this series.  Readers may benefit from rereading City of Lies in advance of Hollow Empire, especially as there has been a bit of gap between the first and second novels’ releases.  However, for those wanting to jump right in, Hawke did include a fun recap at the start of the book, which sees the protagonists watching a theatrical recreation of the events of City of Lies.  Not only is this a rather entertaining inclusion (mainly due to how Jovana is portrayed) but it also serves as a good summary of some of the book’s key events, and readers should be able to follow through this second book without any trouble, even if they have not had a chance to read City of Lies.  Overall, this was an epic and impressive story, and I really enjoyed seeing how the Poison Wars continued in Hollow Empire.

I really enjoyed some of the cool writing elements that Hawke featured in Hollow Empire which added a lot to my overall enjoyment of the book and its great story.  The most noticeable of this is the use of the split perspectives, with the main protagonists, Jovana and Kalina, each getting alternating chapters shown from their point of view.  These split chapters worked extremely well in City of Lies, and I am really glad that Hawke decided to use them once again in her second book.  While the primary use of these alternate chapters was to show the different angles of investigation that the siblings were following, it does result in some additional benefits to the narrative.  I particularly liked the way in which the author uses the split perspectives to create tension and suspense throughout the novel, such as by one protagonist lacking information that the other character (and the reader) has knowledge of, or by leaving one protagonist’s fate uncertain.  It was also interesting to see the different opinions that the protagonists had on various characters and the specific relationships and friendships that they formed.  I also liked the way in which Hawke placed some intriguing in-universe poison proofing notes before each chapter, which recounted various poisonings that Oromani family has prevented or investigated over the years.  These notes were quite fun to check out and it really helped to highlight the importance the main characters place on protecting the Chancellor and their city from poison attacks.  These clever elements enhanced an already compelling narrative, and I imagine that Hawke will continue to utilise them in some of her future novels.

One of the major highlights of this book was the return to the author’s great fantasy setting that is the city of Silasta and its surrounding countryside.  Silasta is an extremely woke city full of artists, inventors and scholars who believe in equality between genders and acceptance of all sexualities and gender identities (for example, Hawke introduces a non-binary character in Hollow Empire).  While this was a fun city to explore in the first novel, especially as it was besieged for most of the book, I quite like how the author has altered the setting for Hollow Empire.  There is a significant focus on how Silasta has changed since the ending of the siege two years previously, especially on the attempted reconciliation efforts between the somewhat elitist citizens of Silasta and the Darfri, who were previously treated as second-class citizens doing the menial jobs.  While there have been changes to this relationship since the end of the first book, much is still the same and the difficulties in reconciling these two groups becomes a major and intriguing plot point within Hollow Empire.  Hawke also adds in an intriguing crime element to the novel, as several criminal gangs have used the chaos following the siege to build power within the city, peddling new drugs to the populace.  These new elements make for a different city than what the reader has previously seen, and I really liked how Hawke explored the negative elements of the aftermath of the first book and implemented them in Hollow Empire’s narrative, creating a fantastic and intriguing story.

In addition to focusing on the changes to the main city setting, I also really enjoyed the way in which Hawke decided to expand out her fantasy world.  This is mainly done by introducing emissaries from several of the nation’s neighbouring Silasta and bringing them to the city, resulting in the protagonists learning more about their respective histories and cultures, especially as they are convinced that one of them is responsible for the attack against them.  The story also explores the history of Silasta itself, with several storylines exploring how the city came into existence and its hidden past.  The author also worked to expand the magical system present within her universe by examining the spirit magic that was introduced in City of Lies and exploring more of its rules and limitations.  This results in several intriguing scenes, especially when one of the major characters, Hadrea, finds new ways to manipulate her magic.  In addition, some new forms of magic are introduced within the book.  These new magics have an origin in some of the new realms that are further explored in Hollow Empire and included an interesting and deadly form of witchcraft that differs wildly from the magical abilities that the characters utilised in the first book.  Not only are these new and inventive world-building elements quite fun to explore, but their inclusion becomes a key inclusion to the narrative.  All of this results in an enjoyable expanded universe, and it looks like Hawke has plans to introduce further lands and histories in the next Poison Wars book.

Another great part of Hollow Empire is the complexity of the characters, all of whom have evolved in some distinctive and compelling manner since the first novel.  As mentioned above, the main protagonists are the Oromani siblings, Jovana and Kalina, who serve as the book’s point-of-view characters.  Jovana is the Chancellor’s poison proofer, his secretive bodyguard who prepares his food and ensures that everything he eats is poison-free.  However, since the events of City of Lies, Jovan has become a lot more well-known throughout the city due to the role he played during the siege.  This requires him to adjust his role in society, especially as many people are now questioning how he and his family gained such prominence.  Jovan is also a lot more cautious when it comes to the Chancellor’s security after several near misses in the first novel, so that he appears almost paranoid at points throughout Hollow Empire.  This paranoia serves him well as he is forced to fight against an assassin who is using some clever means to attack his family and allies.  Jovan has also entered into a mentoring role within this book as he takes his young niece, Dija, as his new apprentice, teaching her the ways of proofing and ensuring that she has an immunity to toxins by poisoning her himself, in a similar way to how his uncle raised and taught him.  All of these add some intriguing new dynamics to Jovan’s character, and I really enjoyed seeing how he has changed since the first book.  Kalina also proves to be an excellent character throughout Hollow Empire, and I quite enjoyed reading her chapters.  Like her brother, Kalina has become a much more public figure in Silasta, although she is seen more as a hero than a suspicious poisoner like her brother.  Kalina’s chapters mainly focus on her attempts at finding out the truth through diplomacy as she interacts with the foreign delegations visiting the city.  Her investigations are just as dangerous as Jovan’s, and I really enjoyed seeing how her distinctive narrative unfolded, as well as how her character has also evolved, including with a fantastic new romance.  Both protagonists serve as excellent centres for the story and I look forward to seeing how they progress in later books in the series.

Hollow Empire also boasts a raft of fantastic side characters, many of whom have some exceptional arcs throughout the book.  The main two supporting characters are probably Chancellor Tain and Hadrea, both of whom were significant figures in City of Lies.  Like the main protagonists, Tain has also changed a lot since City of Lies, where he was the young and bold ruler thrust into a chaotic position.  Now he is a much more measured and cautious man, especially after narrowly avoiding death by poisoning in the first novel.  Tain continues to be the focus of the protagonist’s advice and protection throughout the novel, and the friendship he has with Jovana and Kalina becomes a major part of the book’s plot, resulting in some dramatic and powerful moments.  Hadrea, the young Speaker whose spirit magic saved the city in the first novel, also gets a lot of focus throughout Hollow Empire and is quite a major character.  In addition to being Jovan’s love interest, Hadrea also serves as the protagonist’s magic expert as they attempt to understand some of the mystical elements attacking them.  Hadrea’s magical power ends up becoming a major story element of Hollow Empire as she attempts to find new ways to use her magic while also chafing under the instruction of her superiors.  It looks like Hawke has some major plans for Hadrea in the future books, and I am curious to see what happens to her next.  These characters, and more, end up adding a lot to the story, and I quite enjoyed the way that Hawke portrayed them.

Hollow Empire by Sam Hawke was an impressive and deeply enjoyable novel that serves as an excellent sequel to City of Lies.  Featuring a thrilling and clever main narrative, great characters and an inventive, if damaged, fantasy setting, Hollow Empire was an epic read from start to finish that proves exceedingly hard to put down.  I had a wonderful time reading Hollow Empire and it ended up being one of my favourite books of 2020.  A highly recommended read, I cannot wait to see how the series continues in the future.

The Kingdom of Liars by Nick Martell

The Kingdom of Liars Cover

Publisher: Gollancz (Audiobook – 7 May 2020)

Series: The Legacy of the Mercenary Kings – Book One

Length: 15 hours and 37 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Impressive new fantasy author Nick Martell presents The Kingdom of Liars, an outstanding fantasy novel that is easily one of the top debuts of 2020.

Welcome to The Hollows, the slowly disintegrating capital of once-great kingdom where magic costs memory to used.  Once a shining beacon of culture and nobility, the city is now a shadow of its former self, surrounded by firearm-wielding rebels while petty nobles fight for scraps within and a corrupt prince plots for power.  While the people suffer under the rule of a grieving king, their only hope of survival may lie in the hands of the son of the kingdom’s most despised traitor.

Michael Kingman was only a child when he was branded a traitor for the crimes of his father.  Once the King’s loyal right-hand man, Michael’s father, David Kingman, was convicted and executed for the murder of the King’s nine-year-old son, and his family was cast out into poverty and infamy.  Now, 10 years later, Michael makes a living running petty cons on minor nobility while desperately trying to escape the legacy of his family.  However, after a devastating rebel attack rocks the city and kills someone close to him, Michael is determined to change his destiny.

Accepting employment with an eccentric and powerful noble, Michael is given a chance to re-enter noble society and find evidence that proves that his father was framed for the prince’s murder.  Participating in the Endless Waltz, the social highlight of year, Michael needs to gain influence and supporters in the court in order to gain an invitation into the king’s palace, where he believes the evidence he needs to vindicate his father can be found.  However, nearly everyone in the Endless Waltz has their own agenda and no-one wants to see a traitor’s son succeed.  Can Michael prove his father’s innocence and restore his family’s place in the kingdom, or is he doomed to share his fate and be executed as a traitor?

So, this is a book I have been meaning to read for quite some time.  Despite it coming out in May this year, I only managed to get around to listening to it a couple of weeks ago and I instantly realised I made a mistake in not reading this one sooner as The Kingdom of Liars was an epic and deeply impressive novel that I had an outstanding time listening to.  This was the debut novel from new author Nick Martell, which serves as the first entry in his planned The Legacy of the Mercenary Kings series (which is a cool series name btw).  This amazing novel from Martell contains a deeply captivating and complex story that proved incredibly irresistible to me, especially when you throw in the great characters and inventive new fantasy world that the author came up.  The end result is an exceptional and powerful read that gets a full five-star rating from me.

At the heart of this awesome book is a first-rate story that sees the protagonist, Michael Kingman, attempt to navigate his treacherous city in order to find the truth behind the death of his father.  Martell starts his narrative off with an impressive opening sequence that sees Michael being found guilty of the murder of the king, a charge he does not refute.  The story then backtracks a few weeks and the full story of Michael Kingman and his adventures is revealed to the audience through the first-person narration of Michael in a way that is reminiscent of a historical chronicle and shows how the protagonist goes from street hustling to regicide in a short period of time.  This proved to be an extremely epic tale loaded with conspiracy, political intrigue, lies, deceit and dark magic, as Michael primarily battles through a series of intense social occasions while also attempting to outwit or survive the machinations of jealous royals, betrayed friends, dangerous mercenaries, fickle nobles and scheming rebels.  At the same time, he also has to work out the motivations for the various people he encounters, most of whom have deep secrets or interesting connections to Michael and his family, as well as diving down into the history of The Hollows and the Kingman family.

There is quite a lot going on in this book, and the readers get to witness a series of different storylines and character arcs, all of which are loaded up with surprise twists and intriguing revelations.  All these storylines prove to be quite entertaining and very cleverly written and I had a great time seeing how each of them unwound.  These separate story arcs come together extremely well, and it results in a deeply compelling overall narrative which proved very hard to stop reading.  I loved all the narrative surprises that Martell came up with throughout The Kingdom of Liars and he added in some great twists which did an outstanding job keeping my attention.  While I was able to guess some of the reveals that Martell was telegraphing, several others caught me completely by surprise, which is something I deeply appreciate in a novel.  I was particularly impressed by the eventual reveal of the main antagonist and I thought that the choice of character was a real masterstroke from Martell.  I was immensely annoyed with myself for not picking up on it sooner, especially as I missed an obvious clue.  I cannot emphasise how I much loved this clever narrative, and I look forward to seeing how Martell continues this captivating tale in the future.

Because he serves as the central protagonist and only point-of-view character, most of The Kingdom of Liars is spent examining the character of Michael Kingman.  Michael is a complex and damaged protagonist who finds himself burdened with the legacy of his great family and the deeds of his traitor father.  At the start of the novel, Michael is a rather self-destructive being, who attempts to find redemption from random and pointless acts of heroism and by skimming some cash off the nobles he despises.  However, after a series of personal losses, Michael begins the path to redeeming himself and his family by attempting to prove his father’s innocence and he starts to reconnect with figures from his past, including several he had forgotten.  I quite enjoyed the character of Michael and it proved to be quite fascinating to see his constant internal battle to determine his identity and his place within the world.  Do not get me wrong, at times Michael proved to be a frustrating protagonist to follow due to his stubbornness and anger, but I think this examination of his damaged emotions helped to make him a stronger character who the reader could emphasise with more.  Thanks to the various events and revelations that become apparent to Michael as the story progresses, the protagonists develops substantially throughout The Kingdom of Liars and by the end he is a vastly different character who is placed in an interesting position for the next novel.  I look forward to seeing how Michael’s story continues throughout the rest of The Legacy of the Mercenary Kings series and I am sure it is going to be suitably dramatic and enjoyable.

In addition to the central protagonist, Martell includes an impressive supporting cast of characters who guide, befriend, manipulate, or try to kill Michael throughout the course of the narrative (sometimes they try to do all four at once).  I really enjoyed the various supporting characters that the author included in The Kingdom of Liars, especially as he ensures that each of them has a substantial and compelling backstory that is somehow interwoven with Michael’s past.  It proves to be extremely fascinating to see how each of these characters play into the larger picture of the narrative, especially as everyone has an alternate motive when it comes to dealing with Michael.  While each of the characters is suitably complex, there are a couple I need to particularly highlight.  This includes the other Kingman children, Gwen and Lyon, both of whom have been impacted by their father’s execution in a similar way to Michael, but who both deal with it in alternate ways, either by running from their family’s name or by subtly investigating it through their own means.  These two prove to be a dramatic counterpoint to Michael’s inner struggle about being a Kingman and it was fascinating to see the various, high-tension discussions they have with the protagonist on the subject.

There is also the excellent character of Trey, Michael’s best-friend, who, thanks to a tragic event early in the novel, ends up becoming more of an antagonist due to major feelings of betrayal that emerge between the two.  Trey ends up become a fantastic part of the book’s plot, as Michael is forced to constantly worry about his former friend attempting to kill him, while also attempting to do what is best for Trey’s well-being.  The various sequences with Trey are amongst the most emotional and powerful in the novel, and they add a real dramatic kick to the overall story.  The end of The Kingdom of Liars hints at a dark future for Trey in the rest of the series and I cannot wait to see what he has in store for him.  I also had quite a liking for the mysterious mercenary, Dark, a dangerous and shadowy being who Michael becomes inadvertently entangled with.  Dark is a fun and ultra-powered figure throughout the novel, and he had some great interactions with the protagonist.  However, out of all these characters my favourite is easily Charles Domet, the rich and powerful drunkard with innumerable secrets.  Domet serves as an excellent mentor character for Michael, while also being one of the most entertaining members of the cast.  I loved every scene that Domet appeared in, especially as he had a particularly intriguing backstory.  Each of these characters, and more, added substantially to The Kingdom of Liars, and it will be fascinating to see how each of them evolves in the future.

On top of the outstanding and clever story and the complex characters, Martell also invests in a captivating and highly inventive new fantasy realm, primarily set around the city of The Hollows.  This is a dark and dangerous world, with the major feature being a fractured moon hanging in the sky with occasional pieces falling to world below and causing substantial damage, while also offering cryptic remarks to those people who hold the shards.  The Hollows itself serves as an excellent setting for the novel, thanks to its dangerous politics, oppressed people, besieging rebels and withering monarchy.  Watching the scion of a once powerful house that was renowned as a force for good attempt to navigate the avenues of power throughout The Hollows proves to be extremely compelling and I really enjoyed it.  There are also some intriguing examinations of the city’s history, and each revelation about the past added a new layer to elaborate story that Martell came up with for The Kingdom of Liars.  The author has also come up with an intriguing magical system which allows people to wield substantial power at the cost of their own memories, ensuring that each magic user must work hard to maintain control.  I found this memory factor of this magical system to be very clever and it added a lot of great elements to the overall story, especially as several characters, including the protagonist, experience memory losses throughout the novel, which hinders them, and by extension the reader, from seeing the full picture.  There is also a rather intriguing comparison between magic and firearms throughout the story, as the nobles wield arcane power, while the rebels have guns.  This results in some thrilling sequences and it should be fun to see more elaborate fight scenes in the future.  Overall, this was a deeply enjoyable and compelling new setting and Martell really showed off his creativity in this first novel.  It seems likely that Martell is planning to massively expand this world in the future The Legacy of the Mercenary Kings novels and I am confident there will be some fantastic new inclusions in the future (like who actually fractured the moon).

As I mentioned above, I ended up buying The Kingdom of Liars’ audiobook format rather than grabbing a physical copy of the book.  I am extremely happy that I chose to do this as the audiobook was particularly good and it proved to be a fantastic way to enjoy this awesome novel.  I had an amazing time seeing the cool fantasy world that Martell came up be bought to life in this format and I found myself really getting into the story details as I listened to it.  The Kingdom of Liars audiobook has a relatively substantial run time of 15 hours and 37 minutes, although I found myself powering through it extremely quickly due to how much I enjoyed the story.  The audiobook features the narration of Joe Jameson, who I recently talked about in my review of King of Assassins by R. J. Barker.  Jameson’s narration in The Kingdom of Liars is pretty amazing and he does an incredible job inhabiting the various characters featured within the novel.  I think his voice and narration style really fit the way that this novel was written, and I felt that the point-of-view protagonist really came to life in his hands.  All of this results in a captivating and deeply enjoyable audiobook and this is the format I would recommend to anyone who wishes to check out The Kingdom of Liars.

The Kingdom of Liars is an incredible, compelling, and deeply exciting novel that I had an absolutely wonderful time listening to this year.  Debuting author Nick Martell really outdid himself with this first novel in his The Legacy of the Mercenary Kings series and this superb book comes highly recommended.  I loved everything about this book, including the two different but equally awesome covers that it was released with (see above and below), and I know I am going to have an amazing time following this series in the future.  The next The Legacy of the Mercenary Kings novel, The Two-Faced Queen, is set for release in March next year, and it looks set to be one of the top books of 2021.

The Kingdom of Liars Cover 2

Quick Review – King of Assassins by R. J. Barker

king of assassins cover

Publisher: Hachette Audio (Audiobook – 7 August 2018)

Series: The Wounded Kingdom – Book Three

Length: 17 hours and 17 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

I recently received a copy of R. J. Barker’s latest epic fantasy novel, Call of the Bone Ships, but before I dive into that I figured I would finally review for the third and final novel in Barker’s The Wounded Kingdom trilogy, King of Assassins.

Barker is a talented fantasy author who has been absolutely killing it over the last couple of years, creating several outstanding fantasy novels since his 2017 debut, Age of Assassins.  I was lucky enough to receive Age of Assassins, which is also the first book in The Wounded Kingdom series, when it first came out and had a fantastic time reading it.  I also really enjoyed the sequel, Blood of Assassins, which continued the excellent storylines from the first book in epic fashion.  I was quite keen to read the third book, King of Assassins, when it first came out, but I did not get a chance to read it back in 2018, which I had deep regrets about.  I did  manage to read it late last year, but I then completely failed to review it, even after I enjoyed Barker’s new novel, The Bone Ships.  So it is high time I got off my ass and pulled something together for it, especially as King of Assassins was a particularly amazing novel that gets a full five-star rating from me.

Synopsis:

The King is dead, long live the King….

Many years of peace have passed in Maniyadoc, years of relative calm for the assassin Girton Club-Foot. Even the Forgetting Plague, which ravaged the rest of the kingdoms, seemed to pass them by. But now Rufra ap Vthyr eyes the vacant High-King’s throne and will take his court to the capital, a rat’s nest of intrigue and murder, where every enemy he has ever made will gather and the endgame of 20 years of politics and murder will be played out in his bid to become the King of all Kings.

Friends become enemies, enemies become friends and the god of death, Xus the Unseen, stands closer than ever – casting his shadow over everything most dear to Girton.

One of the things that I really enjoy about Barker is the way in which he significantly improves as an author with every single book that he writes.  King of Assassins is a particularly great example of this, as the author does an impressive job expanding and enhancing his already amazing series in this novel, presenting the reader with an incredible story that makes excellent use of its dark setting and exceptional characters.  The result is an awesome and deeply captivating read that was easily my favourite book in the entire trilogy, which is saying a bit considering how good the first two entries were.

At the centre of this novel is an outstanding dark fantasy narrative which sees the assassin, Girton Club-Foot, accompany his lord, Rufra ap Vthyr, into the dangerous capital of the broken and war-ravished kingdom this series is set in.  This results in Girton and his companions stuck in the middle of a dark and crumbling citadel, surrounded by nearly every enemy and manipulator that they have encountered throughout the course of the series, as well as several new ones who pop up in this book.  As Rufra attempts to politic his way into becoming High-King, Girton navigates his way through the many dangers of the citadel, attempting to uncover the hidden motives and plans of his enemies.  Unsurprisingly, nearly every other player gathered in the citadel has plans to either kill Girton and Rufra or manipulate them for their own advantage.  As a result, King of Assassins quickly turns into an intense and exciting narrative, as the characters must unravel every plot and conspiracy in the fortress to find out everyone working against them and what their ultimate goals are.  These leads to several amazing storylines and impressive reveals throughout the course of the book, as Girton desperately attempts to save his friends while also protecting his darkest secret.  All of this comes together in an amazing conclusion which will not only satisfy fans of the series but which also delivers some clever and surprising twists that will leave the reader breathless.

There is a bit of a significant time skip between the events of this book and the preceding Blood of Assassins, which Barker works into the story very well, allowing for some subsequent changes in relationships and the simmering of old grudges.  The author also spends a substantial amount of time wrapping up some of the storylines and character arcs from the previous novels in the series, which really helped to give the novel a sense of completeness while also resulting in some big moments for the various characters.  I also really must highlight the dark, foreboding setting in which the characters find themselves in.  Not only has Barker created a great location for treachery, betrayal, and bloodshed, but he installed an extremely dark and oppressive atmosphere into it that the reader can taste as they read/listen to the book.  The sense of dread and despair that washes over the reader as they have the castle and its people described to them really enhances the story and ensures that they are eagerly waiting for the protagonists to prevail and rid the world of darkness.  All in all, this was an extremely well-written and utterly compelling narrative, and readers will quickly find themselves enthralled within it.

Among the main things I liked about King of Assassins were the impressive characters, most of whom have appeared in some of the previous novels in The Wounded Kingdom trilogy.  Barker has done an awesome job of developing each of these characters throughout the course of the series, and in this final book they all reach the conclusion of their individual or joint arcs.  While this does result in a bit of heartbreak and betrayal for some characters, one or two are quite nice, and I think those readers who have read the earlier entries in the series will be quite satisfied by where each character ends up.  The focus of the book is naturally on the point-of-view character Girton, who has gone through a lot throughout the course of the series.  Girton continues to battle his demons in this book, including his hidden and dangerous magical ability, and he must come to terms with several betrayals and old wounds from the previous books.  A major focus of the series has been the friendship between Girton and Rufra, as their lives have become inexorably bound together.  While their friendship had some ups in downs in the past, by the start of this book relationship has become a lot more strained due to differences in opinions about certain events.  Despite this the two constantly attempt to reconcile throughout the course of the novel, often unsuccessfully, but the power and complexity of their friendship is a key cornerstone of the book’s plot.  However, their joint character arc has a major twist into it near the end of the book, and the devastated feelings that result make for quite an epic and heartfelt conclusion to their narrative.  I also quite liked how the character of Aydor was featured in this book.  Aydor was one of the main antagonists of the first novel who eventually morphed into a reluctant ally in the second book.  However, in King of Assassins, after the time-skip he has become one of Girton’s closest friends and confidants.  I loved this gradual and excellent change in personality for Aydor, especially as he becomes one the nicest and warmest people in the entire novel and it was fantastic to see his relationship with Girton change throughout the series.  I ended up really loving all the amazing character arcs that concluded in King of Assassins and each of them added a strong, emotionally rich pillar to the overall narrative.

I ended up listening to King of Assassins on audiobook, and I would wholeheartedly recommend this format to anyone interested in checking out this excellent fantasy novel.  The King of Assassins audiobook is narrated by the talented Joe Jameson and has a run time of 17 hours and 17 minutes.  I had an amazing time listening to this audiobook, not only because the format helped me dive into the narrative but because of Jameson’s impressive narration.  Jameson did a fantastic job bringing the various characters to life in this book and his voice works extremely well for the first-person narration that Barker uses for his novels.  I personally found that Jameson’s narration helped to enhance the dark atmosphere that the author created with his writing and this made for an outstanding listen.  At just over 17 hours in length, this is a somewhat more substantial audiobook listen, but I found myself getting through it in an extremely short amount of time as it proved very hard to turn off.  This is an overall awesome audiobook and an excellent way to enjoy this great novel.

King of Assassins by R. J. Barker is an exceptional and captivating novel which takes the reader on an exciting and addictive ride.  This is an extremely well-written and impressive book that serves as an excellent conclusion to the fantastic The Wounded Kingdom trilogy.  This was honestly one of the better fantasy novels of 2018 and this review is a long-time coming.  King of Assassins is an outstanding book, and I am looking forward to checking out Barker’s latest novel, Call of the Bone Ships, in the next week or so.

The Tower of Fools by Andrzej Sapkowski

The Tower of Fools Cover

Publisher: Gollancz (Trade Paperback – 27 October 2020)

English Translation by David French

Series: Hussite trilogy – Book One

Length: 549 pages

My Rating: 4.25 out of 5 stars

From legendary Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski comes the first English translation of his 2002 release, The Tower of Fools, an intriguing and exciting fantasy/historical fiction hybrid novel that takes the reader on a weird and entertaining adventure.

1425, Silesia (South Western Poland and parts of Czechia).  War is brewing as the Catholic Church fights against the Hussites in a brutal religious struggle.  As the entire region begins to degenerate into conflict and chaos, a young doctor and amateur magician, Reinmar of Bielau, known as Reynevan, finds himself in all manner of trouble when he is caught in bed with the beautiful wife of a knight.

As Reynevan makes his escape, a member of the knight’s family, the powerful Stercza clan, is unintentionally killed, and the rest of the Stercza’s swear vengeance upon him.  Worse, Reynevan’s forays into magic have made him a target of the inquisition, who wish to have an extended and unpleasant chat about his arcane hobbies.  With a massive price on his head, Reynevan is forced to flee into the wilderness to survive as bounty hunters scour the countryside trying to find him.

Calling upon old friends, Reynevan looks for anyway to escape from his pursuers while also attempting to ‘rescue’ the knight’s beautiful wife.  Teaming up with an odd group of comrades, Reynevan makes his way throughout Silesia while attempting to outfox his pursuers.  However, his adventures have inadvertently placed him in the middle of a dangerous conspiracy, one that could change the entire fabric of the region and which threatens everyone he loves.  As Reynevan attempts to work out just what he has become involved with, his path leads him to the infamous Tower of Fools, an asylum for the insane and the heretical.  Can Reynevan escape the danger he finds himself in, or will his adventures cost him his life and his mind?

The Tower of Fools is a compelling and unique novel from veteran author Andrzej Sapkowski, who is best known for his iconic The Witcher novels.  This novel is the first entry in Sapkowski’s Hussite trilogy, which is the main series he has authored outside of The Witcher books.  The Tower of Fools was originally released back in 2002 under the original title Narrenturm, and while it has previously been translated into several other European languages, this version represents the first English translation of the book.  The translation of The Tower of Fools was done by David French, who has previously translated several Witcher novels, and no doubt we can expect the next two novels in the series (previously published in 2004 and 2006) to be translated and released in the coming years.  While I really enjoyed The Witcher television series, I must admit that I am not too familiar with Sapkowski’s writing, having so far only read the 2018 translation of The Witcher standalone novel Season of Storms.  However, due to the inevitable interest that was going to surround The Tower of Fools, I was quite keen to check out this book, and I ended up really enjoying it due to its captivating narrative, outrageous characters and excellent use of some distinctive historical fiction elements.

This novel from Sapkowski contains a fantastic and enjoyable narrative that proves surprisingly hard to put down at times.  The author has done a fantastic job blending together interesting historical fiction and fantasy elements that come together to create a distinctive adventure story.  The Tower of Fools is mostly told from the perspective of its central character, Reynevan, although several other perspectives are occasionally used throughout the novel.  What I liked about this book was the fact that it was a fast-paced, event-laden narrative that showered the reader with all manner of action and intrigue.  Reynevan and his companions essentially run into a different dangerous obstacle, major historical event or dastardly opponent every chapter, which they are forced to overcome or escape from in short order.  This ensures that the reader is constantly on their feet as they are never certain what new trouble or adventure lies on the horizon.  In addition, there is also a subtle line of intrigue that sees a sinister conspiracy begin to unfold around the protagonist as he finds himself in the midst of a series of murders and political manoeuvrings.  While this seems like a lot of elements for one book, it comes together surprisingly well into a cohesive and exhilarating narrative that I quite enjoyed, and which serves as an impressive start to the entire Hussite trilogy.  There are a lot of fun elements to this book, and I particularly want to point out the rather entertaining introductions that occur at the start of each chapter, giving the reader a humorous heads-up of what is to come throughout the series.  I did find it interesting that the titular Tower of Fools, which is referenced strongly throughout the official synopsis for this book, does not show up until really late in the book and is only a setting for a relatively short period.  While this book does contain several great and dark scenes in this location, this novel might have been more interesting if more of the story was featured in this asylum.  Still, I had an awesome time getting through The Tower of Fool’s cool story, and it was an absolute thrill ride from start to finish.

One of the major things that I liked about The Tower of Fools is the way in which Sapkowski complimented his entertaining narrative with a huge selection of distinctive characters.  This includes the main protagonist of the novel, Reynevan, the foolhardy student doctor and magician who serves as the main point-of-view character.  While he is the driving force for most of The Tower of Fools’ narrative, I actually found Reynevan to be a little annoying, especially as his impulsive nature, which is mostly driven by unrealistic ideas of heroism and romance, continues to get him into trouble.  This becomes especially annoying when his stupid decisions endanger his friends, whose determination to point out Reynevan’s mistakes help to make them more likeable.  Despite being a typical foolish young male protagonist, Reynevan does grow on you a bit as the book progresses and it proves hard not to relate to some of his impulses at time.  While his actions did occasionally exasperate me, I really did enjoy him as a character, and his keen insights and fun antics ensure that the reader has a great time following him throughout the course of the novel.

In addition to Reynevan, the main two side characters of The Tower of Fools are the fun duo of Scharley and Samson, two very different men who become Reynevan’s travelling companions.  Both of these characters are extremely entertaining in their own right, and Sapkowski weaves some great narrative threads around them.  Scharley is a crude, belligerent and surprisingly dangerous priest who leaves his imprisonment in a monastery to assist Reynevan.  Scharley serves as the main voice of reason and caution for much of the book and proves to be an interesting counterpoint to the youthful and impulsive Reynevan, whom he often has to threaten with violence in an attempt to get him to do the logical or sane course of action.  Their other companion is Samson, a giant of a man with an intense intelligence, who may or may not be possessed by a demon.  Samson is a really fun addition to the group, and I really enjoyed him as a character thanks to his unique demeanour and characterisation.  These two companions are quite intriguing in their own way and it was a lot of fun to see them interact with Reynevan and the other characters they come across.  This book also contains a multitude of extra characters, many of whom have their own intriguing storyline or character trait.  While many of these characters are entertaining and interesting additions to the plot, I think that Sapkowski might have slightly overdone it with the side characters.  While I did my best, there were honestly way too many supporting cast members to keep track of at times, especially as a lot of characters appeared or reappeared out of nowhere with very little explanation.  Still, this chaotic use of characters fits in very well with The Tower of Fool’s event-laden narrative, and it did not have too severe an impact on my enjoyment of the book.  The more distinctive characters proved to be quite entertaining and I had a good time seeing where some of their arcs ended up.

Sapkowski also makes impressive use of some cool historical fiction elements to tell his unique story.  The Tower of Fools is set in the early 15th century in an area of the world that is experiencing a lot of turmoil, Silesia.  Much of the book’s plot revolves around the major conflict of the period between the Catholic Church and the Hussites, a religious offshoot that was declared heretical and which the Church launched several Crusades against.  This proves to be a fascinating background to the main story, and Sapkowski features a lot of interesting Eastern European historical inclusions throughout his book.  This includes a range of references to key elements of regional history and politics that were quite intriguing, as well as the use of several major historical figures in varying roles, including some cameos from people like Gutenberg and Copernicus.  The author does a pretty good job of explaining these historical elements to the reader, although I did have to do some independent research to answer a few questions and fill in a few gaps.  A lot of this was due to my somewhat lacking knowledge of Eastern European medieval history, and those readers with a little more appreciation for the location will no doubt follow along a little better.  I did think that The Tower of Fools contains a rather excellent depiction of the landscape and the people that would have existed during this bleak period.  The various bits of intrigue, plots and war that occur throughout the book really fit into Sapkowski’s impressive and dark, setting, and it definitely helped to enhance part of the book’s story.  This was also the perfect setting for the various magical elements that occurred throughout the book, as their darker aesthetic matched the location to a tee, especially as there are a number of scenes set out in the dangerous and monster-filled woods.  All of this makes for a great setting, and I had an excellent time seeing this historical setting be put to amazing use throughout The Tower of Fools.

The Tower of Fools by Andrzej Sapkowski is an enjoyable and fun novel that takes the reader on an epic adventure back to a dark version of historical Eastern Europe.  Filled with some great characters, intriguing historical features and a fantastic story, The Tower of Fools turned out to be quite a captivating read.  I look forward to seeing how the rest of the Hussite trilogy unfolds and I imagine I will be in for an exciting ride.  The Tower of Fools comes highly recommended and it should prove to be an excellent read to any fans of Andrzej Sapkowski and The Witcher novels.

A Deadly Education by Naomi Novik

9781529100860

Publisher: Del Rey (Trade Paperback – 29 September 2020)

Series: The Scholomance – Lesson One

Length: 323 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

One of the most popular authors of fantasy fiction, Naomi Novik, returns with another awesome and fun read, A Deadly Education, an entertaining alternative to the classic magical school novels.

Naomi Novik is a talented author was has been writing some intriguing and fun fantasy novels since 2006, when she released the first novel in her Temeraire series, His Majesty’s Dragon (also released as Temeraire), an intriguing fantasy based alternate history series that presents a re-imagined account of the Napoleonic War fought with dragons.  I have been meaning to check out the Temeraire books for a while now, but so far the only one of Novik’s novels that I have had the chance to read was the 2018 release, Spinning SilverSpinning Silver was a clever book that contained an interesting and compelling new take on the classic fairy tale Rumpelstiltskin.  I quite enjoyed Spinning Silver and I have been keeping an eye out for anything new from Novik for a while.  When I heard that Novik had new book coming out this year, I was quite excited, especially when I saw the cool concept that Novik was using as a basis for her story.

A Deadly Education, which forms the first book in Novik’s planned Scholomance series, is set in the Scholomance, the world’s premiere magic school.  But this is not your typical magical school!  Instead, the Scholomance is one of the most dangerous and deadly places on the planet.  There are no teachers, all the classes have a dark twist to them, and the halls are packed full of monsters, known as maleficaria, or mals, who are determined to eat each and every one of the students before they can escape.  Students must survive in there for years, learning what magic they can from the school’s unique learning devices and forming what alliances they can before they graduate, a gruelling process which sees the graduating class run through a gauntlet of the most dangerous mals in existence.  Few students survive their time in the Scholomance, especially if they do not have any friends, which is going to be a real problem for Galadriel “El” Higgens.

El is the school outcast.  Considered weird and naturally unfriendly, she seems a likely candidate to die when her year finally graduates.  However, El is hiding a massive secret: she has an unnatural affinity for extremely destructive spells and has the magical potential to level the school and everything in it, students and monsters included.  Desperate to keep control of her abilities and not succumb to her dark temptations to drain the student body of their magic and lay waste to everything she encounters, El seeks to find people who she can rely on.  And then Orion Lake bursts into her life, literally.

Orion is the school darling.  The scion of a powerful family whose magic allows him to destroy and absorb the powers of any maleficaria he encounters, Orion is worshiped in the school, especially as he has made it his mission to save as many students as possible.  But his attempted heroics have thrown a spanner in El’s carefully laid plans to survive graduation.  Now forced to accept Orion’s constant protection and company, El forms a new plan to gain allies, and even starts to make a few precious friends.  However, something even more sinister is afoot in the Scholomance.  More mals than usual are invading the school, and some surprisingly powerful creatures are finding a way in for the first time.  As Orion jumps blindly into danger, El attempts to help, determined to protect her best chance of survival.  But can she save herself and Orion with killing the rest of the students, or will a dark prophecy about her future finally come true?

A Deadly Education is an exceptional and outstanding novel from Novik that provides the reader with an exciting and deeply enjoyable fantasy story set within a unique and captivating magical school.  This proved to be an extremely fast-paced narrative that quickly sets the scene for the entire story and then sets the protagonist on a dangerous course as she tries to navigate a series of new trials and hazards within an already dangerous location.  Novik spins quite an impressive tale within this book, and I found myself hooked from the very beginning.  I loved the combination of magical learning (I’m a sucker for a good magical school story), dangerous action, the intrigue of the students’ intense jockeying for position and alliances, as well as the character growth that occurred throughout the course of the book.  All of these excellent story elements came together into one exceptional narrative that readers will quickly find themselves addicted to.  If I had one complaint about the story it would be that the ending was a little weak, with the big finale that was being built up for most of the story being resolved rather quickly, although I did like the build-up and its underlying causes.  Still, I did really enjoy where the story went, and all the details and story aspects in this book set the rest of the series up well.  Overall, I had an amazing time reading this book, and I actually managed to power through it in around a day, due to how much I liked it.  This was a truly impressive novel from Novik and I am extremely glad that I got the chance to read it.

This novel features an interesting range of different characters.  The book primarily revolves around the point-of-view character, El, and male lead, Orion Lake.  I personally really enjoyed the main protagonist, El (short for Galadriel, a fun and apt reference to The Lord of the Rings), the snarky, short-tempered and bitter character from through eyes we see the entire story unfold.  El proves to be an excellent narrator for A Deadly Education, and I liked her sarcastic and pessimistic view on the events occurring and the people she encounters, which results in most of the book’s fun humour.  El also has a lot of emotional and personal baggage weighing her down, which is very intriguing to unravel, especially as it stops her from getting close to people and gives her a vast independent streak in a location where individuals are killed off rather easily.  The most significant of these are her vast destructive powers and her ability to suck the magic and life from all those around her.  El is essentially a nuclear bomb who has the potential to destroy the entire school and spends the vast majority of the book trying to hide this fact from people.  This requires a careful balancing act from El as she attempts more mundane ways at building up her mana (exercise, knitting and so forth), while also battling the school’s attempts to cater to her affinity by providing her with destructive spells and school projects with evil potential, rather than the simpler tasks she desires.  I really appreciated this part of El’s character, and I found it fascinating to see her efforts to manage her power, especially in deadly situations.  In addition, El also has some major trust and social issues due to her childhood, as not only was El’s father killed in the school by one of the monsters but his family and the other major magical enclaves turned their back on her and her mother, due to El’s destructive potential.  This makes her hostile towards the various members of the elitist enclaves in the Scholomance, which finds her quite isolated throughout the book.  El also has a rather dark vibe to her that makes the people she encounters quite uncomfortable, and as a result she has trouble making friends.  Novik does an amazing job exploring this character throughout the novel, and El experiences some substantial development as a result.  It was great to see her grow as a person, especially as you come to really like the character, and I enjoyed seeing her finally make some much need connections and friendships.

The other major character in the novel was Orion Lake.  Orion is a powerful magical user who excels at killing mals and absorbing their energy.  At the start of the book, Orion is shown to be a typical noble hero fantasy character who is beloved by the school and appears to have a substantial following of friends and supporters.  However, Orion finds himself drawn to El, mainly due to the fact that El berates him and actually calls him out on his actions.  This results in an intriguing character dissection on Orion, as El discovers that Orion feels trapped in his role as a hero and he dislikes all the attention being levelled at him, as everyone treats him as a heroic being rather than a normal person.  I found Orion a bit flat at times, but he proved to be an entertaining addition to the narrative, and I enjoyed seeing his interactions with El, mostly because El levels all manner of hostilities towards him and he just shrugs it off, much to her frustration.

Easily the best part of A Deadly Education is the unique and impressive setting that Novik has spun together for her narrative.  Ever since my earliest days of fantasy fandom I have really enjoyed the magical school setting, and I still like seeing them in my fantasy novels, especially when they have the fun twists that the Scholomance does.  Novik did an incredible job coming up with this dark fantasy school, and I love the exceptionally creative and dangerous location that eventuated.  Every single detail of this magical school was really cool, from the teacherless classes, the somewhat sinister learning techniques which challenge the students in unique ways, the dangers that haunt the student body, the distinctive monsters that stalk the halls, and the overall layout and history of the facility.  All of this helps to create an excellent and memorable setting for the story, and I loved seeing this darker take on a typical fantasy school such as Hogwarts.  I especially liked all the imaginative ways in which the students are forced to navigate and survive the various trials and dangers they encounter as they attempt to survive and prepare for the deadly graduation that is about to occur.  I felt that Novik did an exceptional job introducing the myriad unique details of her new fantasy world to the reader, and at no point did I feel lost or confused about the elements that were key to the narrative.  I had an incredible time getting lost in this new fantasy universe and I cannot wait to see what secrets and new elements get developed in the future entries in the series.

It is very important to note that A Deadly Education is one of those books that will appeal to an extremely wide range of readers.  Due to its content and its focus on teenage characters, A Deadly Education has a lot of elements that mark it as a young adult novel, and many younger readers will have a great time reading it.  I personally think that this will be an awesome novel for teenage fantasy fans, and it is a book I think I would have really enjoyed as a younger reader.  However, A Deadly Education is not explicitly being marketed as a young adult fiction novel, and there is a lot in this book for older readers to enjoy.  Fantasy fans of all ages will no doubt really appreciate the fun take on the magical school storyline and many readers, especially those who grew up on the Harry Potter novels, will have a blast seeing this more deadly and brutal British magical academy.

A Deadly Education is an exciting and impressive novel from Naomi Novik that proved to be quite an outstanding read.  This excellent fantasy book is incredibly easy to enjoy and contains a clever and amazing take on the classic magical school storyline.  A highly recommended read; you are going to fall in love with this awesome book.

Harrow the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir

Publisher: Recorded Books (Audiobook – 4 August 2020)

Series: The Locked Tomb – Book Two

Length: 19 hours and 51 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Sensational author Tamsyn Muir follows up her incredible 2019 debut with another epic, complex and infinitely entertaining hybrid novel, Harrow the Ninth.

Tamsyn Muir burst onto the writing scene with a real vengeance last year with her debut novel, Gideon the Ninth, the first book in The Locked Tomb series.  Gideon the Ninth was an extremely clever and compelling novel that followed a group of spacefaring necromancers who were summoned to the house of their Emperor and god, and given an opportunity to learn from him and become Lyctors, immortal beings with immense necromantic power who are considered to be living saints.  What they instead found was a haunted manor filled with secrets, weird experiments and mysterious hints at the past.  The protagonist of this first novel was the titular Gideon, a smart assed, foul mouthed lesbian swordswoman who was reluctantly serving the necromantic lady of the Ninth House, Harrowhark Nonagesimus.  I absolutely loved Gideon the Ninth and it was easily one of my favourite debuts of 2019.  As a result, I was rather intrigued when I heard about its sequel, Harrow the Ninth (which, as you can see above, featured another intense and beautiful cover by the talented Tommy Arnold) and I eagerly grabbed an audiobook copy of it when it came out.  I have to say that I am extremely glad that I decided to do so as Harrow the Ninth turned out to be a truly outstanding book and I had an incredible time reading it.

Harrow the Ninth is set shortly after the dramatic conclusion to Gideon the Ninth and switches the focus of the novel over to Harrowhark, who has succeeded in becoming a Lyctor at great personal cost.  Now alone, mentally scarred and more powerful than ever, Harrow finds herself in the personal care of the Emperor of the Nine Houses, who is determined to use his new Lyctor in a deadly war against an ancient and powerful terror, a Resurrection Beast, the insane and vengeful ghost of a murdered planet.

Travelling to the Mithraeum, the Emperor’s isolated sanctum, Harrow finds herself trapped aboard a desolate space station with her god and her fellow Lyctors.  Each of her companions on the station has their own agenda and motive for being there, and all of them are seeking to use Harrow for their own ends.  Worse, as Harrow attempts to learn the full extent of her new powers and abilities, it becomes apparent that something has gone wrong with her transition to Lyctorhood.  Her body keeps failing her, her swordcraft is shoddy, her blade makes her nauseous and her mind keeps presenting her with impossible scenarios.

As the Resurrection Beast comes ever closer to the Mithraeum, Harrow desperately attempts to understand everything that is happening to her and learn how to survive the oncoming attack.  However, she finds herself distracted with the machinations and plots of her untrustworthy rival and the attitudes of her three ancient tutors, especially as at least one of them is trying to kill her.  Can Harrow unwrap all of the dark secrets that lie hidden on the Mithraeum before it is too late, or will the entire Empire fall into ruin before them?

Well damn, now that was a truly enjoyable and incredible read.  Harrow the Ninth is a complex, clever, entertaining and exceptionally well written novel that does an awesome job following on from Muir’s impressive first novel.  I had an absolutely amazing time reading this fantastic book, which I think in many ways is somewhat stronger than Gideon the Ninth.  Not only does Harrow the Ninth have a deeply captivating story that successfully utilises elements from a range of different genres, but it also features some memorable and compelling characters, excellent universe building and a magical system that really stands out thanks to its descriptive necromantic powers.  Harrow the Ninth also serves as a marvellous follow-up to Gideon the Ninth, continuing the clever story from the first book with the same distinctive tone and writing style, while also featuring an intriguing reimagining of prior events.  All of these makes for an epic read which gets a full five-star rating from me.

At the heart of this amazing novel is an intense and multilayered narrative that presents a compelling tale of love, tragedy, treachery and self-discovery.  The story is actually split into several distinct sections, with the main storyline focusing on Harrow after her transformation to Lyctorhood as she spends time in the Mithraeum with the Emperor and the other Lyctors.  This part of the book expertly jumps back and forth through time and is an extremely entertaining part of the book, detailing Harrow’s education under the Emperor and the other Lyctors and her attempts to survive the various internal politics, plots and personal chaos.  The other major part of the story shows a curious alternate version of the events of Gideon the Ninth, shown from Harrow’s point of view, made distinctive due to the complete lack of Gideon, who appears to be erased out of existence.  This alternate version of the prior book is a really intriguing part of Harrow the Ninth’s story, and while I was initially a little confused about why it was included and where Gideon had disappeared to, it proved to be an extremely clever and compelling part of the book, especially when everything becomes fully revealed.  Due to this reimagining of already existing narrative, as well as the continued references to the events of the first book, readers interested in checking out Harrow the Ninth really do need to have read Gideon the Ninth first, as the story gets a little confusing and significantly less impactful without this established knowledge.

These separate storylines complement each other is exceedingly cleverly.  This novel does start off a tad slow, but this is mainly because Muir is re-establishing the narrative from the previous book and loading up the front end of the story with hints and foreshadowing about the multitude or revelations that come throughout the course of the plot.  A lot of big events and reveals occur towards the end of Harrow the Ninth, including a few reveals that were hinted at in the previous novel, and I felt that the author set all of these up perfectly.  This results in an extremely epic conclusion to the novel and I was really impressed by how it all turned out.  This novel contains a unique blend of genres, as Harrow the Ninth features elements from the fantasy, science fiction, psychological thriller and murder mystery genres.  All of these disparate features work together extremely well in the story and it helps to produce a distinctive and entertaining narrative, especially as Muir adds on a rather good comedic edge.  The end result is a fascinating and exceedingly captivating overarching narrative, and I had an outstanding time getting pleasantly blindsided by the inventive twists and turns.

This excellent and unique story is expertly supported by a distinctive writing style that I felt did an amazing job enhancing the narrative.  Perhaps one of the most noticeable elements is the clever narration that accompanies the story.  While Harrow is the point of view character for most of the novel, she is not actually the one narrating the story.  Instead Harrow’s actions, emotions and thoughts are identified, summarised, and relayed back to Harrow by an unidentified second person narrator.  Naturally, this proved to be an interesting and unusual way to tell this story, although it works well in the context of the overall narrative, even if it takes a little to get used to.  This narrative format plays into certain character reveals and plot points of the novel and it makes a lot of sense once you get further into the book, with the style itself actually being a hint about what is happening with Harrow.  This narration style changes at a certain point towards the end of the book in accordance with certain plot developments and the subsequent deviation is clever and reminiscent of past events.  I also really must highlight the author’s extremely descriptive form of story writing, as every event, person or location is described in overly vivid detail.  Not only did this ensure that the reader got the full breadth of certain magical action and developments but it also helped to enhance the overall gothic feel of the book and ensure that reader was able to easily imagine the various locations the protagonist found themself in.  This really helped the story to shine and I have a lot of love for how Muir was able to work story elements into this style.

In addition to the great story that Muir has come up with for this book, Harrow the Ninth also boasts an impressive array of amazing characters.  The central protagonist is the titular Harrow, who takes over from Gideon as the main character after the first book.  Harrow is a vastly different character to Gideon as she has a much more subdued personality, less self-esteem, and a more restrained, subtler sense of humour.  Due to Gideon’s somewhat biased narration in the first novel Harrow was mostly viewed as an extremely arrogant, confident, and brilliant person, and this is how Harrow attempts to act throughout most of the novel.  However, certain vulnerabilities in Harrow’s character that were previously explored in Gideon the Ninth once again come to the fore in this second novel.  Harrow was already an extremely complex individual, having been birthed by dark magic, ended up being responsible for the death of her own parents and having an interesting love interest.  However, following her alteration into Lyctorhood, Harrow is a much more damaged person due to the absorption of her cavalier.  Harrow’s already fractured psyche is made even worse throughout the course of the book, as she sees all manner of things that are not there and has some very different ideas of the past or how she perceives the world.  In addition, Harrow bears an immense amount of guilt on her shoulders as a result of various events in her past and the many deaths on her conscience.  Harrow needs to work through all these issues throughout the course of the story if she has a chance to survive, and this becomes a major and dramatic part of the story that was really intriguing to explore.  I had an amazing time seeing the story primarily through Harrow’s eyes and it was a refreshing and compelling change of pace from the first book.

Harrow the Ninth also focuses on a great collection of supporting characters who add some intrigue and drama to the story.  Perhaps the most distinctive side characters in this novel are the five beings that Harrow finds herself trapped with aboard the Mithraeum, the Emperor of the Nine Houses and his four other Lyctors.  This is an extremely fascinating collection of people and much of the story revolves around Harrow’s unique interactions with them as each of them attempts to teach her, manipulate her or kill her at various points within the book.  These characters are really entertaining and distinctive, from the seemingly kind, patient, and infinitely calm Emperor, to the three ancient Lyctors, the cool and confident Augustine, the exceedingly self-involved Mercymorn and the ultra-focused and lethal Ortus.  In addition, we see the return of the manipulative Ianthe, who became a Lyctor at the same time as Harrow and who forms a very distinctive relationship with her throughout the course of the book.  I really enjoyed the complex interactions and relationships that forms between all of these characters (including some wild relationships between various participants), with the Emperor acting as the father figure, the three existing Lyctors portrayed as older siblings who have a complicated power dynamic with each other, while Ianthe and Harrow are the younger sisters learning the ropes from the others.

I also have to highlight the inclusion of several other characters who previously appeared in Gideon the Ninth.  It was rather intriguing to see many of these characters return, especially as most of them died or appeared to die in the prior novel.  Muir does a fantastic job working them into the fabric of this novel, such as by featuring some of them in the alternate version of the events of the first book, changing their roles and impacts on the story as a result.  I particularly enjoyed the extended role of Ortus, cavalier of the Ninth House.  Ortus, not to be confused with the Lyctor mentioned above (although the names are actually a clever clue to a big reveal), died early on in the events of Gideon the Ninth.  But in this book the dour Ortus serves as a fantastic yet reluctant companion to Harrow, with surprising hidden depths and an entertaining obsession with gloomy epic poems and verse.  He is also essentially the complete opposite to Gideon, resulting in a very different dynamic between necromancer and cavalier then we saw in the prior book.  Overall, I have to say that I was exceedingly impressed with the characters featured within this amazing novel.  Each of these complex and memorable characters added a heck of a lot to the story and it was deeply fascinating to see each of their storylines unravel and come to their compelling conclusions.

One of the major elements of this series that I love so much is the weird and wonderful necromantic magical system complements the science fiction of the book.  Pretty much all of the main characters in this book are powerful necromancers, specialising in a different form or style of necromantic magic.  All of this magic is extremely cool, and it was really awesome seeing it utilised in fight sequences and other scenes throughout the book.  Most of the magical elements revolve around Harrow’s bone magic, as she creates skeleton and bone constructs, manipulates her own bones to either enhance herself or detach them to make weapons or other creations, as well as elements of biological alteration.  Muir does an outstanding job explaining the full range of different powers that Harrow has, and there are some amazing scenes where the young necromancer does some really inventive and clever things with her bones.  There is one sequence in particular that sticks in the mind, and I’ll certainly remember it when eating soup in the future. 

In addition to Harrow’s abilities, Muir also showcases the creative and impactful abilities and magical powers that some of the other characters have.  These various abilities are all biological or spiritual in nature, and it was quite fun to see what the different necromancers can do, especially when they go up against Harrow’s bone magic.  All these magic scenes feature some rather vivid imagery and descriptions from Muir as she tries to show the full biological manipulations that are occurring, which really help to make these scenes pop.  The author also does a truly fascinating deep dive into the origins and mechanics of her unique magical system.  A lot of these new magical elements are explained to protagonist in some detail from one of her teachers, so the reader is able to understand these elements really well, and a lot of the lessons and explanations of magic have major impacts on the story down the line.  This proved to be an extremely interesting and enjoyable part of the book and I have a lot of love for Muir’s creativity when it comes to her version of necromantic magic.

I also have a lot of love for the distinctive gothic settings that Muir has imagined up for this series.  Each of the central story locations are filled up with all manner of dark and macabre trappings and features, which the author does a fantastic job bringing to life with her descriptive writing.  This includes the dreary and dark Mithraeum, a vast and mostly abandoned space station where most of the story takes place, as well as an alternate version of the First House that appeared in Gideon the Ninth.  All of these locations are described in great detail and each of these fun and distinctive settings helps to present a darker vibe to story and helps makes this series more unique and memorable as a result.  Harrow the Ninth also contains some rather captivating and inventive universe building expansions as the author attempts to introduce new things into her universe.  All of these extensions to this universe are really clever, playing into the story really well and I loved learning more about this fun fictional setting which does so much to enhance the story. 

I found that the audiobook format of Harrow the Ninth proved to be an excellent way to enjoy this amazing novel.  With a run length of just under 20 hours the Harrow the Ninth audiobook does require a bit of a commitment to get through it, although I felt that it was really worth the time investment.  I do have to admit that it took me a little while to finish this audiobook, especially at the start.  However, I absolutely flew through the second half of the novel once I became extremely invested in the story, and I managed to knock out the final six hours in rather short succession.  I have to highlight the fantastic narrator for this audiobook, Moria Quirk, who does an outstanding job telling the story and bringing the various characters to life.  I felt that Quirk utilised perfect voices for each of the main characters and you get a real sense of each character’s personalities and emotions from this vocal work, from the calm, composed tones of the Emperor to the exceedingly petulant voice of the Lyctor Mercymorn.  This excellent voice work really added a lot to this audiobook. I really think that Harrow the Ninth translates well into the audiobook format, and listening to it really added to my enjoyment of this second novel, especially as I absorbed a lot more of the detail and gothic atmosphere through the narration.

Harrow the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir was an epic and exceptional piece of fiction that I deeply enjoyed, and which comes highly recommended.  Not only did Muir present an impressive follow-up to her amazing debut novel, Gideon the Ninth, but she was able to turn out a complex and beautifully written sequel that proved extremely hard to stop listening to.  Powerful, cleverly written and just generally outrageous, Harrow the Ninth is an outstanding read and you have no discovered Tamysn Muir and her fantastic pieces of literature, you are really missing out. 

Throwback Thursday – Promise of Blood by Brian McClellan

Promise of Blood Cover.jpg

Publishers: Orbit

                        Hachette Audio

Publication Date – 16 April 2013

 

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.

One of the saddest realities of being a bibliophile is that no matter how hard you try or how much spare time you have, no one can read every great book that comes out every year.  I am no exception to this rule, as for years I was mainly focused on the historical fiction genre.  While this is a fantastic genre to focus on, it did mean that I missed out on many of the biggest science fiction and fantasy releases for the last several years.  Ever since I expanded my attention to a range of other genres, I have been seeking out and reading a number of different fantasy or science fiction books and series, many of which I have or will review on my blog and on Goodreads.  One of the series that I have heard constantly praised by friends, fantasy fans and other book reviewers is The Powder Mage trilogy by Brian McClellan.  Nearly every fantasy reviewer and their dog has read and said good things about these books and, as a result, The Powder Mage trilogy has long been at the top of my to-read list.  So when I was recently able to fit the first book in the trilogy, Promise of Blood, into my reading schedule, I thought I would try it out and see if it lived up to everyone’s hype.

The Powder Mage trilogy are the debut novels of fantasy author Brian McClellan, and are a flintlock fantasy series, which is a modern fantasy sub-genre that features pre-industrialisation civilisations who utilise flintlock firearms with fantasy elements.  The Powder Mage trilogy started in 2013 with Promise of Blood, which the author followed up with a new book in 2014 and 2015.  Following the success of his initial trilogy, McClellan introduced a second trilogy, the Gods of Blood and Powder trilogy, which is set 10 years after the events of The Powder Mage trilogy.  This second trilogy is still ongoing, with the third and final book set to be released in November of this year.  In addition to these two main trilogies, McClellan has also written a number of novellas and short stories set in the same universe as his main books, which expand on his fantasy world.

McClellan has created a new and captivating fantasy world in order to contain the stories in his two main trilogies.  The Powder Mage trilogy is primarily set in the nation of Adro, one of nine nations that were founded thousands of years ago by the god Kresimir, which are together known as The Nine.  By the start of the first novel, Promise of Blood, the nations of The Nine have reached a level of technology equivalent to Europe’s pre-industrial revolution period, with flintlock firearms in heavy use.  Magic is also common in this world, with the nations of The Nine containing three separate levels of magical ability.  These include the privileged, extremely powerful sorcerers who can wield a range of devastating elemental abilities; the marked, lesser mages with more specific gifts; and the knacked, who have one specific magical talent, like a perfect memory or not needing to sleep.  The privileged of The Nine are generally organised into sorcery cabals, with the most powerful organised into a Royal Cabal loyal to the King of their nation.

Promise of Blood starts with Field Marshal Tamas, the highest-ranked military officer of Adro, leading a bloody coup against his country’s corrupt king and nobility.  During the coup, Tamas and his powder mages, marked whose abilities are powered by gunpowder, assassinate every member of Adro’s Royal Cabal.  However, every member of the Royal Cabal said one thing before they died, “You can’t break Kresimir’s Promise”.  In order to find out the meaning of these mysterious words, Tamas hires former police inspector Adamat to investigate.  While Adamat sets out to uncover meaning behind these mysterious final words, Tamas begins the difficult process bringing order to his country.  However, it soon becomes apparent that staging the coup was the easiest part of his endeavour.

Tamas’s coup provokes a war with the Kez, one of Adro’s rival nations in The Nine, whose previous attempts to control Adro’s king, led to Tamas overthrowing him.  As Tamas deals with assassins, Royalists, deposed nobles and Kez magicians, it soon becomes apparent that someone on Tama’s council has betrayed him.  Brought in by Tamas to investigate who betrayed him, Adamat finds his loyalties tested when mysterious figures target him and his family.  At the same time, Tama’s estranged son, Taniel Two-Shot, embarks on a hunt for a surprisingly powerful member of the Royal Cabal who escaped Tamas’s powder mages.

Both Adamat and Taniel’s missions reveal dark secrets about the formation of their country.  With dark omens in the sky and ancient legends come to life, can Tamas and his forces stop the destruction of Adro, or will the mysterious forces arrayed against them succeed in their mission to summon forth an ancient power?

To be honest, even before I heard about this trilogy from other book lovers and reviewers, I thought the synopsis was pretty cool and the idea of gunpowder-wielding mages was an interesting concept.  I listened to the audiobook format of Promise of Blood, narrated by Christian Rodska, which goes for a lengthy 19 hours.  Now the question is; did this book live up to the hype?  The answer is yes.  I loved this book, I thought it was massively creative, filled with incredible action, had some complex, if mostly male, characters and made use of some excellent fantasy elements.

I really enjoyed the story within this book and I thought it was an amazing combination of intrigue, action and fantasy storytelling.  I liked the idea of starting the book just as a successful coup had taken place and the focus on the immediate aftermath of such a significant event.  The story is essentially broken into three main parts.  About a third of the book is told from Adamat’s point of view and really focuses on the intrigue elements of the story.  Adamat at first investigates “Kresimir’s Promise”, which is a fairly interesting part of the book, as it dives into the history of the country, and quickly reveals that shadowy forces are at play behind the scenes.  This initial investigation only lasts for a short part of the book, before Adamat is drawn into the larger investigation about the traitor in Tamas’s council.  This is a very well done investigation part of the book as the reader is presented with five suspects, each of whom is hiding several secrets and many of which have suspicious employees.  In addition, Adamat has to deal with a mysterious figure who is blackmailing him, and who keeps the identity of his employer secret.  These multiple layers of intrigue and lies ensures that the reader is looking in several different directions and have a much harder time guessing who these antagonists are.

Another third of the book is told from Taniel’s point of view, and follows him as he first hunts down a powerful privileged, and then finds himself stuck in the middle of a large battle for the survival of Adro.  While there are quite a lot of reveals about some of the book’s underlying fantasy elements in this part of the book, the main focus is on the action, as Taniel and his allies fight a number of opponents, and Taniel reveals while he is known as Two-Shot.  There is some interesting character work in this section as Taniel works through his feelings for his father, finds himself having to choose between obeying orders and the life of his best friend, and him coming to terms with his weird relationship with the powerful female character, Ka-poel.

The final main part of the book is told from the point-of-view of Tamas himself, and deals with the fallout from his coup and the multitude of issues he has to deal with in the aftermath.  The parts of the book focusing on Tamas are the most important chapters within Promise of Blood, as they bridge the other two sections of the book due to Taniel and Adamat not really interacting too much during the book.  The Tamas chapters have the best balance of Promise of Bloods’ excellent combination of fantasy elements, intrigue and action.  Throughout these chapters, Tamas is constantly forced to deal with the political infighting and betrayals occurring all around him, while also being targeted by assassination or capture by his various enemies.  Tamas also encounters a number of hints about the true nature of the fantasy events impacting Adro, including from a bizarre chef, and I loved the layers of intrigue that surrounded something most of the characters believed was a myth.  I really liked Tamas as a character, and I found him to be an intriguing combination of a calm, tactical genius and an absolute rage monster.  Despite alienating most of the people around him, especially Taniel, deep down Tamas is a good man who has been forced to make the hard decisions no-one else will.  However, when enraged he is an absolute terror to behold, especially to someone who has crossed his friends or family, and during these scenes of anger he gives several of the best lines, such as the one that appears on the cover:  “The age of kings is dead, and I have killed it”.  He is an absolutely great character and a fantastic focus for this trilogy.

In addition to these three main characters, a small portion of the book is narrated by female character Nila.  Nila’s character really is not explored too much in Promise of Blood, although she is given a good introduction, and I understand she will become a much bigger character in the next books in the trilogy.  On top of the main characters, there are several excellent side characters who really make this book extra awesome.  This includes Tamas’s bodyguard, Olem, a sarcastic and funny man who acts as Tamas’s moral compass for much of the book, and who also has certain ideas about people shooting his dog.  There is also Sousmith, Adamat’s bodyguard, a former boxer who acts as a fun foil to Adamat’s detective character.  While several characters at the Mountain Watch are also enjoyable, you have to love Ka-poel, the mute, witch who serves as Taniel’s spotter.  She has some crazy magic to her, and I have a vague feeling (without knowing anything about the plot of the future books) that she is some sort of young god or something.  I liked the way that Ka-poel was able to express everything, despite being a completely non-verbal character, although the implied romance between her and Taniel was a tad weird, especially as it started the moment he realised she was older than she looked.

The world building in this book is extremely impressive and it serves as an outstanding introduction to the key elements of the series’s universe.  While the other magical and fantasy elements of this book are pretty awesome, I especially loved the powder mages, and their magic is easily the best part of the book.  The powder mages have a unique blend of abilities, all of which are powered by eating or snorting gunpowder.  Consuming the powder gives them focus, enhanced perception, great strength and stamina.  In addition, they have control over gunpowder, igniting at will, and using their abilities to manipulate bullets in flight.  Each of the characters have different abilities on top of that.  Tamas can ricochet bullets around a room; Taniel can fire bullets further than anyone else, as well as firing two bullets at once; while another powder mage, Vlora, can ignite powder from a distance.  These characters in battle are absolutely fantastic, and I love it when these characters, especially Tamas, fully unleash their abilities.  The fight scenes between the powder mages and the privileged were exceptionally amazing, and I loved the contrast between the more traditional fantasy magic of the privileged and McClellan’s more unique powder magic.  That being said, when the privileged unleash their abilities they can be much more destructive, and some of their fights are pretty impressive.

I had a wonderful time listening to the audiobook format of Promise of Blood, and I thought that it was a spectacular way to enjoy this amazing story.  The action sequences, especially when the magic and bullets are flying, really come to life when narrated, and audiobooks always help me absorb complex new fantasy worlds such as the one in this series.  Rodska’s narration is really well done, and I found that he really captured the essence of the characters.  I especially thought he got the gruff and powerful voice of Tamas down perfectly, and it was an extremely realistic personification of the character’s voice.  I really hope that Rodska does the narration for the other books in McClellan’s series, and I would easily recommend the audiobook format of Promise of Blood to anyone interested in this series.

Overall, I really loved Promise of Blood and I found that it lived up to its substantial hype.  It’s easily a five-star novel in my eyes.  I loved this book so much that I am planning to listen to the remaining books in The Powder Mage trilogy as soon as I can, and I will probably also try and listen to the first two books in the Gods of Blood and Powder before the final book comes out in November.  McClellan is a fantasy genius, and anybody who loves action and explosions should invest the time to read this book.

My Rating:

Five Stars