Throwback Thursday – First and Only by Dan Abnett

First and Only Cover

Publisher: Black Library (Audiobook – 1999)

Series: Gaunt’s Ghosts – Book One

Length: 10 hours

My rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Welcome back to my Throwback Thursday series, where I republish old reviews, review books I have read before or review older books I have only just had a chance to read.  For this week’s Throwback Thursday, I check out the first entry in the Gaunt’s Ghosts series, First and Only, by Dan Abnett, which proved to be a very impressive Warhammer 40,000 novel.

You only need to look through my recent Throwback Thursdays to see that I have been in a real Warhammer mood lately.  I recently got into the Gotrek and Felix series by William King, and quickly made my way through the first three books, Trollslayer, Skavenslayer and Daemonslayer, all of which were incredibly awesome.  While I have got the fourth book, Dragonslayer, ready and waiting, I decided to take a break from the fantasy Warhammer novels and dive back into the science fiction Warhammer 40,000 universe.  While I only used to play Warhammer Fantasy, I have a great appreciation for the Warhammer 40,000 lore, and I have recently enjoyed two great books in this massive franchise, Deathwatch: Shadowbreaker and Kal Jerico: Sinner’s Bounty.

While there are several intriguing Warhammer 40,000 novels on my radar, I decided to listen to the very first entry in the acclaimed Gaunt’s Ghosts series by Dan Abnett, First and Only.  Abnett is an impressive and prolific author and comic book writer who has done a lot of work across several franchises and companies, including Marvel and DC.  While he has a massive back catalogue, Abnett is best known for his input into the Warhammer extended universe.  Abnett has written an immense number of novels for the franchise, including Warhammer Fantasy books, such as the Malus Darkblade series (on my to-read list).  Most of his work is in the Warhammer 40,000 range, where he has written several major series, including the Eisenhorn and Ravenor series, as well as several major novels in the Horus Heresy extended series.  However, the most iconic of these is the Gaunt’s Ghosts series.

The long-running Gaunt’s Ghosts series follows a regiment of Imperial Guard, the basic foot-soldiers of the Imperium of Man, a major faction in the Warhammer 40,000 universe.  Starting back in 1999 with this novel, the Gaunt’s Ghost series featured 15 individual books, as well as several short stories, and only recently finished in 2019.  The Gaunt’s Ghosts series is one of the most iconic entries in the entire Warhammer 40,000 novel range, and I have heard many positive things about it over the years.  First and Only was one of the first books published by the Black Library, the Games Workshop publishing arm, and is a major feature of their catalogue.  So I felt that I was going to take the plunge and read more Warhammer novels, this would be a pretty good place to start, and boy was I glad that I did.

In the grim darkness of the far future, there is only war….

Throughout the entirety of space, the armies of the Imperium bring the fight to their enemies on every planet, battlefield and hellscape they can find.  One of the most deadly and destructive theatres of war is the massive Sabbat Worlds Crusade, where Imperial forces fight and die to defeat the armies of Chaos and bring an entire sector back into the Emperor’s light.  Many regiments of Imperial Guard have been recruited to battle in this war, but none have a background more steeped in blood and tragedy than the Tanith First and Only.

Formed to serve in the crusades from the once verdant world of Tanith, the first regiment of Tanith Imperial Guards could only watch in horror as their planet was destroyed by the forces of Chaos, with them the only survivors.  Now under the command of Colonel-Commissar Ibram Gaunt, the men of the Tanith First and Only have taken to calling themselves Gaunt’s Ghosts, due to their superior stealth skills and in recognition of the pain they feel at being the only remnants of their planet.

Fighting in the latest phase of the crusade, the Ghosts find themselves where the fighting is thickest, using their unique skills and experiences to confound the enemy and bring about impossible victories.  However, the Ghosts are about to discover that not all battles are fought on the field, and not all enemies are in front of them.  A power struggle is brewing in the upper ranks of the Crusade’s high-command, and the Ghosts have fallen right into the middle of it.  Entrusted with a mysterious encrypted data transmission by an old friend, Gaunt soon finds himself targeted by the agents of an ambitious general.  After several devastating attacks, Gaunt is forced to choose a side, especially after he uncovers a deadly secret that could destroy everything his men have fought for.  His mission will lead him to the most dangerous battlefield in the crusade, where the lines between friend and foe have never been blurrier.

Now this was a really incredible and exciting novel.  Abnett has produced an outstanding story in First and Only, and I loved how he perfectly translated the unique feel of the Warhammer 40,000 universe into a captivating narrative.  Featuring some great characters, a dark setting, and a fantastic look at this great franchise, First and Only is a captivating and explosive novel and I had an amazing time getting through it.

Abnett has produced a pretty epic story for First and Only that not only serves as an excellent introduction to the characters and wider narrative but is also full of excitement, intrigue and action.  At its core, First and Only is a tough and gritty military action adventure, that follows the Tanith First and Only through several gory fields of battle.  The narrative is broken up into several distinctive sections, set across three separate planets and one massive spaceship, as well as several shorter scenes and flashback sequences that add context and strengthen character development.  These separate sequences flow together extremely well and form a tight and compelling overarching narrative.  I loved the way in which Abnett combined his fantastic military story with treacherous and thrilling political intrigue, as the protagonists are forced to deal with treachery from their friends and attacks from their own commanders.  The author really does a great job setting up the key plot points at the start of the book, and the entire narrative seamlessly flows on after that.  I was deeply impressed by all the amazing action sequences, and I loved the author’s use of multiple character perspectives to tell a complex and powerful narrative.  The entire narrative comes together extremely well into a big, explosive conclusion.  I really enjoyed some of the great twists that were revealed in the lead-up to the conclusion and I was pleasantly surprised by several fun turns and reveals.  An overall exciting and terrific narrative, I had an absolute blast getting through this awesome novel.

One of the best things about this fun novel is the author’s great use of the dark and gothic Warhammer 40,000 setting.  Abnett obviously has a lot of love for this universe, and he painstakingly recreates it in his novel in all its fantastic and gritty glory.  As a result, the reader is treated to some outstandingly portrayed background settings of destroyed worlds, bombarded warzones, and overpopulated Imperial worlds.  This proves to be really impressive to see, and the author makes sure to use this setting to full effect, enhancing the cool narrative and making it an excellent backing for the various fight scenes.  This attention to detail also comes into play perfectly during the book’s various action sequences, and I felt that Abnett perfectly captured the unique and chaotic feel of a Warhammer 40,000 battle scene.  I have to say that I also deeply appreciated the way in which Abnett introduced the reader to the Warhammer 40,000 universe.  I personally found that very little pre-knowledge of this extended universe is needed to enjoy this book, and while those readers familiar with the game or other Warhammer novels will obviously get a lot more out of First and Only, this is actually a pretty good way to experience Warhammer 40,000 lore for the first time.

Another cool aspect of this novel was the insightful and intriguing focus on the Imperial Guard.  The Imperial Guard are the basic grunts of the Imperial faction and are often overshadowed by the flashier Space Marines in both the tabletop game and the wider extended universe.  As a result, it was cool to see a novel that focuses on a regiment of these troopers and shows them during a deadly and bloody war.  Abnett does an outstanding job capturing this faction in First and Only, diving into the psyche of the common soldier, while also showcasing their tactics, weapons, machines and motivations.  Thanks to the author’s excellent use of multiple character perspectives, you get to see various aspects of the regiment from commander down, and I loved the fascinating combination of perspectives from all the different types of soldiers and specialists.  I also really appreciated the way in which Abnett highlighted different regiments of Imperial Guard throughout the novel, which corresponds with the varied regiments and styles that can be fielded in the tabletop game.  While most of this novel focused on the Tanith First and Only, Abnett also strongly features two other regiments, the Vitrian Dragoons and the Jantine Patricians, who act as allies and rivals to the Ghosts respectfully.  It was extremely interesting to see the variations in mentality, uniforms, and tactics between these regiments, and I really enjoyed the way in which the author highlights their diverse backgrounds and planets.  This ended up being an incredible introduction to the Imperial Guard, and I imagine that quite a few Warhammer 40,000 players gained a new appreciation for this army after reading this novel.

First and Only features a fantastic collection of characters that serve as the heart and soul of the narrative.  This book follows the adventures of the Gaunt’s Ghosts regiment, and you get to see various members of this squad in action, as well as some antagonist characters.  Abnett ensures that each of the characters featured within the novel have intriguing and well-established backstories and traits, and you quickly understand their motivations.  Much of First and Only’s focus is on the leader of the Ghosts, Colonel-Commissar Ibram Gaunt, who serves as the main protagonist. Gaunt proves to be an excellent and enjoyable main character, who serves as both the regiment’s leader and its inspirational political officer.  Abnett really develops Gaunt’s personality and backstory, and all of the flashbacks focus on his past, setting up his relationship with several of the characters featured in the novel and showing how several rivalries were formed.  Other fascinating and complex characters included Colonel Corbec, who was the main secondary antagonist; Major Rawne, an officer with a hatred for Gaunt who has a pretty traumatic time in this novel; Brin Milo, Gaunt’s adjutant with extreme perception (they are obviously setting up something there); and Colonel Flense, a guardsman from a rival regiment who bears a great grudge against Gaunt.  All these characters, and more, are really fun to follow, but readers are advised not to get too attached, as this is a brutal war story.  I will admit that I initially had a little trouble connecting to several of the characters and I lost track of who the different protagonists were.  However, once I got a further into the story, I grew to know each of the distinctive characters, and I appreciated their fun characteristics and capacities.

As I have tended to do with all Warhammer recently, I grabbed the audiobook version of First and Only.  This proved to be a fantastic decision, as the First and Only audiobook was an excellent and fun production that I was able to power through quickly.  First and Only has a decent run time of 10 hours, and features some amazing voice work from veteran narrator Toby Longworth.  Longworth, who has previously narrated a swathe of Warhammer audiobooks, does an outstanding job with this novel, and he moves the narrative along at a swift and exciting pace.  I love the range of great voices Longworth brings to First and Only, and each character is given a distinctive voice that fits their personality and background perfectly.  There is a certain grim nature to the voices of many of the main characters, which reflects the dark, gothic nature of the Warhammer 40,000 universe.  He also utilises a series of different accents for some of the various Imperial Guard regiments, which helps to distinguish their divergent backgrounds and the influence of their home world.  This amazing narration turns the First and Only audiobook into an absolute treat, and this was an incredible way to enjoy this excellent book.  As Longworth provides the narration for the rest of the Gaunt’s Ghosts audiobooks, I will probably check out the rest of this series in this format, and I already know that I will have an awesome time doing so.

First and Only by Dan Arbnett is an outstanding and fantastic novel that takes the reader on an exciting journey to the heart of the Warhammer 40,000 universe.  Featuring an incredible and epic war story that makes full use of its dark setting and amazing characters, First and Only serves as a captivating first entry in the Gaunt’s Ghost series.  I had a wonderful time listening to this book, and this was one of the best Warhammer tie-in novels I have so far had the pleasure of reading.  This novel comes highly recommended, and I full intend to check out the other entries in this series in the next few years.

First and Only Cover

The Mask of Mirrors by M. A. Carrick

The Mask of Mirrors Cover

Publisher: Orbit (Audiobook – 19 January 2021)

Series: Rook & Rose – Book One

Length: 23 hours and 13 minutes

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Magic and masquerade combine into one of the most creative fantasy releases from the first half of 2021 with The Mask of Mirrors by M. A. Carrick, the first book in the Rook & Rose trilogy.

The Mask of Mirrors was a fantastic novel that caught a lot of buzz earlier in the year.  This book was written by M. A. Carrick, the joint pen name of Marie Brennan and Alyc Helms, two established fantasy authors who are teaming together for their first novel.  This debut novel was pretty impressive and the two talented authors ended up producing an exciting and complex fantasy tale that sees a young con artist attempt to change her fate.

Welcome to Nadežra, a city of iniquity and greed that forms the gateway between two warring cultures.  Many people call Nadežra home, although few truly prosper, with only the great noble houses and their supporters gaining any true wealth.  However, one young woman is about to change everything.  Ren is a former street rat of Nadežra who escaped the city years ago to seek her fortune.  Returning after several years, Ren has taken on an entirely new persona: Renata Viraudax, a mysterious and seemingly wealthy noblewoman from the capital, come calling on her long-lost relatives.  Ren hopes to con her way into the once great noble family of House Traementis and use their name and legacy to make her fortune and ensure a comfortable life for herself and her sister.  But as she begins to worm her way into the family, she soon finds that the life of a noble in Nadežra is far more complex than she ever imagined.

Despite their noble standing, House Traementis is in poor shape, and if Ren is going to make money off them, she first needs to ensure their success.  However, a powerful rival family is seeking to destroy House Traementis, and they will do anything in their power to get their way.  Forced to work with criminals and shadows to achieve her goal, Ren will find just how ugly the glittering nobles of Nadežra can be.  Unbeknownst to Ren, a far more insidious presence is lurking within the city, killing children and unleashing corrupt magic for their own goals.  Worse, this evil has a deadly connection to Ren’s past and wants to use her to destroy everything she holds dear.  Can Ren overcome this evil while maintaining her cover, or will the nobility of Nadežra eat her whole?

This was an extremely captivating first outing from this new writing team, and I deeply enjoyed the cool and compelling story that they came up with.  The Mask of Mirrors is a complex tale that expertly combines intriguing and clever fantasy elements with a thrilling confidence trick, as the protagonist attempts to work her way into high society.  Of course, nothing works out that simply, as the protagonist soon finds herself embroiled in all manner of scandals, plots and deadly feuds, producing an excellent story. 

While I did enjoy the overall narrative, the book did start off a little slow and it took me a while to get really excited about it.  I personally only got hooked when the character of the Rook was added in.  The Rook is a mysterious, Zorro-esque (perhaps more Tuxedo Mask than Zorro) character who haunts the streets of Nadežra, fighting oppression and tyranny while thumbing his nose at authority.  Following a great duel sequence, the mystery of the Rook’s identity becomes a major part of the plot, and I found myself really getting into this and the other interesting storylines.  The rest of the novel flows at a fantastic pace, especially after the authors set up so many fascinating and compelling plot points at the start of the book that slowly come to fruition.  There are some amazing moments throughout the novel, and I was really impressed by a particularly tragic moment that occurred around two-thirds of the way through, which was shocking and surprising.  The entire narrative comes together in an excellent conclusion, providing a satisfying and moving ending, while also setting up some excellent moments for the next two entries in the series.  I did think that the novel could maybe have benefited from either finishing at the big moment I mentioned above, or by trimming around 100 pages out of the middle of the book.  Some of the twists at the end of The Mask of Mirrors were also a little predictable, especially around the identity of the antagonists (it literally could not have been anyone else).  However, I think that the eventual reveal about who was under the Rook mask was handled beautifully, and I honestly did not know which direction they were going to go in for much of the plot.  I had a really amazing time getting through this story, and I look forward to seeing how these two talented authors continue it in the next two entries in the series.

The Mask of Mirrors contains a fantastic collection of characters who offer up a range of different perspectives and vantage points to tell a massive and complete narrative.  The authors behind this book spent a lot of time building up the various characters, ensuring that they had intriguing and tragic backstories, which leads to some fantastic development throughout the course of the novel and the entire series.  The most prominent character is Ren, a former local who attempts to pull off and ambitious con.  Ren is a confident, talented, haunted figure, who experienced great tragedy at an early age and is still trying to pull herself together.  She is forced to return to the city that she fled from years before to achieve greatness and make money and ends up connecting to her heritage as well as being forced to relive her greatest mistakes and traumas.  I loved the fantastic storylines surrounding Ren, and she proves to be quite a complex character.  Rather than being obsessed with money and dislike of the noble class in Nadežra, Ren grows to care for her marks and works to save them and the entire city when the antagonist makes their move.  Ren proves to be an exceptional central character to follow, especially as she provides the most insight into one of the main magical disciplines featured in the book, and it will be very interesting to see how her storyline continues later in the series, especially after she gains a mask of her own.

Other great characters contained within this novel include ruthless rising crime boss Derossi Vargo, a man with great ambition who is willing to risk anything and anyone to achieve his goal.  Vargo, a seemingly self-made man, proves to be one of the most entertaining and enthralling figures in the entire novel, and I deeply enjoyed seeing him work with Ren while enhancing his own plans.  It looks like Carrick has some major plans for Vargo, and he could be an amazing overarching antagonistic figure.  Another excellent character is Grey Serrado, a police officer and friend of the Traementis who finds himself investigating some of the major activities occurring the city.  Grey is a conflicted and damaged character, constantly torn between his duty as an officer and his heritage.  He goes through some major events throughout this novel and looks set to be a major figure throughout the rest of the series.  I also enjoyed Ren’s adopted siblings Tess and Sedge, who act as fantastic supporting figures to Ren and her plans.  Carrick develops them quite nicely and they prove to be entertaining figures who have a long and caring relationship with Ren.  I also appreciated the focus on the members of House Traementis, the people that Ren is trying to con.  The Traementis are a once great house who have fallen on hard times and are slowly falling into oblivion due to a rumoured curse.  While you initially aren’t too concerned with these characters, due to their status as patsies, the three surviving members swiftly grow on you, enough that you eventually start to judge Ren’s continued attempts to con them.  Finally, I have to say that the masked Rook was a particularly awesome character, and I deeply loved his inclusion in the plot.  It was so much fun trying to figure out who he was, and the authors utilised him to perfection to create an outstanding narrative.

You cannot talk about The Mask of Mirrors without discussing the complex and distinctive setting that is the city of Nadežra.  Nadežra is a sprawling, independent city state resting on a delta, filled with palaces, slums, massive buildings and all manner of different people.  Due to its unique history, Nadežra is home to several distinct ethnic groups, the local Vraszenians underclass and the Liganti upper class.  The two ethnic groups are opposites, and there is substantial friction between them, especially as the Vraszenians feel like second-class citizens in their own historical city.  While most of the novel shows the two groups living mostly in harmony, the lingering tension between the two groups becomes a major plot point as the novel, and I think that the authors did an outstanding job highlighting this and using it as part of the story.  Carrick provides detailed explorations of the different cultures between the two groups, and it was interesting to see how it partially paralleled some real-life political situations.  It was also quite interesting to see that, despite the cultural differences and clashes, Nadežra proves to extremely woke and tolerant when it comes to issues of gender and LGTB+ issues.  Not only are there several prominent female figures within the city but there also several homosexual, nonbinary and transgender characters.  I love the way in which most modern fantasy novels are featuring more and more of these aspects in their settings, and this was a great example of that.  The city of Nadežra proves to be a very magical place, and there is so much detail, backstory and culture contained within that the reader will feel like they are actually walking the streets.

Carrick also comes up with several distinctive forms of magic, which are as diverse and different as the various cultures contained within the city.  There are three major forms of magic shown in the book, although I had to say that I found all three of them to be a little less dramatic than you would expect in a fantasy book.  The first one of these is numinata, which is sort of a combination of geometry and astronomy, often using complex glyphs or geometric patterns.  Numinata is generally used by the Liganti and is considered a more cultured and precise form of magic.  The Vraszenian magic, on the other hand, is based on patterns and dreams, and is mostly shown through the protagonist’s pattern reading, a form of tarot card reading which gives glimpses into the past, the present and the future.  The final form of magic is imbuing, which allows the user to put a little bit of their essence into an item or product to enhance its effect.  All three magics are featured fairly prominently within The Mask of Mirrors and prove to give the novel a unique feel, while also highlighting the cultural and social differences between the ethnic groups.  While I did think that much of the magic was a little undefined in the novel, it becomes a key part of the plot, and it was interesting to see how the combination of magics could create some nightmarish results.  Overall, I deeply enjoyed the extraordinary and detailed setting that Carrick came up for The Mask of Mirrors and I found myself getting really lost in its spectacle and details.  While I would have preferred just a little more info about the universe’s magical rules, I felt that Carrick did a wonderful job pulling this together, and it was a definite highlight of this great book.

I ended up listening to the audiobook version of The Mask of Mirrors, narrated by Nikki Massoud, who has done several interesting audiobooks in the last year.  While this is a pretty long audiobook (at 23 hours and 13 minutes, it is the 17th longest audiobook I have ever listened to) I am actually incredibly glad that I ended up checking out the audiobook format of this book.  The complex narrative and immensely detailed setting really came to life, and I found myself absorbing a whole lot more of the story and the beauty of the background.  However, the real advantage of this format was the outstanding narration by Massoud.  Massoud did an exquisite job portraying the various characters featured within The Mask of Mirrors, capturing each figure perfectly and providing them with an outstanding and wildly fitting voice.  To achieve this, Massoud utilises a wide array of different voices and accents, which really help you differentiate the various characters, and which help to show their nationality or social status.  I was particularly impressed at how Massoud was able to showcase the various personas of the main character, Ren.  This was achieved by seamlessly changing accents depending on which character Ren was playing at the time.  For example, when Ren was with her sister or pretending to be a local, Massoud would use the rougher, more exotic accent that all the Vraszenian characters have.  However, when the character changed back into the persona of Alta Renata, her voice would become a lot more cultured, mimicking the nobility.  This seamless change between the various voices was perfectly done, and I really appreciated the narrator’s determination to capture the separate halves of the character.  This was some truly impressive voice work, and I think that listening to the audiobook format ended up adding to my overall rating for the novel.

The Mask of Mirrors by M. A. Carrick is an outstanding and moving fantasy novel that I had a wonderful time reading.  Featuring an excellent narrative, some complex characters and a detailed and memorable fantasy setting, this debut novel from the writing team of Marie Brennan and Alyc Helms was an immense amount of fun and I really got into this fantastic story.  The Rook & Rose trilogy looks set to a spectacular series and I am quite excited to see how all the books turn out.  The next entry, The Liar’s Knot, is set for release in December, and I look forward to continuing this great series into the New Year.

Blackout by Simon Scarrow

Blackout Cover

Publisher: Headline (Trade Paperback – 30 March 2021)

Series: Standalone/Book One

Length: 424 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

One of the leading authors of historical fiction, Simon Scarrow, breaks new ground in a thrilling and captivating historical murder mystery, Blackout.

Berlin, December 1939.  As the citizens of Berlin worry about a potential upcoming conflict with Britain and France, the Nazi party continues to sink their claws into every aspect of German society.  But as a bleak winter sets in and enforced blackouts plunge the city into darkness, a far more sinister threat begins to stalk the streets of Berlin.

A young woman has been found brutally murdered near a busy set of train tracks.  The victim is a former famous actress with a powerful husband.  Due to her marital connections, as well as a scandalous past with various high-ranking Nazi figures, including Goebbels, her case has dangerous political implications.  To that end, her case is assigned to Criminal Inspector Horst Schenke of the Kriminalpolizei, the Kripo, one of the few police officers not to join the party.  Due to his apparent disregard for the party and the importance of the victim, Horst is under intense pressure from the head of the Gestapo to solve this case.  However, what begins as an easy murder case swiftly devolves into something far more dangerous when a second body is found, and Horst is forced to face the reality that he is chasing a serial killer.

As the bodies of more young women are discovered, Horst rushes to find a killer before the government attempts to hush up the fact that a killer is loose within their perfect Nazi society.  But with the Gestapo interfering at every step and key suspects protected by the Abwehr, German Military Intelligence, this case proves difficult to solve.  When a survivor is found, Horst thinks this may be the opportunity to find the killer.  However, when the witness is revealed to be Jewish, Horst is forced to find a way to protect her from both the killer and the Gestapo.  Can Horst find the killer before it is too late, or will he discover that disloyalty to the Nazi government is considered a far worse crime?

This was another amazing novel from one of my absolute favourite authors.  Scarrow is best known as a Roman historical fiction author due to his long-running and impressive The Eagles of the Empire series, which I am a particular fan of (see my reviews for The Blood of Rome, Traitors of Rome, and The Emperor’s Exile).  However, Scarrow has also branched out into other historical periods with his Revolution quartet, the standalone novels The Sword and the Scimitar and Hearts of Stone, and a modern crime novel he wrote with his colleague Lee Francis, Playing with Death (which I really need to check out).  His latest book, Blackout, is an interesting change of pace from some of the previous Scarrow novels I have enjoyed, presenting a compelling murder mystery story with the dark historical setting of Nazi Germany.  Blackout, which was unfortunately delayed from last year, proved to be an excellent read, and I loved the complex and powerful story that Scarrow came up with.

Scarrow’s latest book has an outstanding narrative that starts with a Nazi social party scene quickly leading to the brutal murder.  This shocking opening in the dark of a blacked-out Berlin sets the scene for the rest of Blackout perfectly, and lets the reader know that they are in for an intense and dark tale.  The narrative then advances to the next day, with a great introduction to central protagonist Inspector Horst Schenke, who gets to showcase his deductive ability while also covering his personality and feelings about the Nazi government.  Once the case proper begins, Horst and his team are thrust into a lethal hunt for a serial killer, while also having to contend with the vicious politics and intrigue of the Nazi party.  Horst finds himself caught between the Gestapo, German Military Intelligence, and other influential Nazis, each of whom are attempting to manipulate the situation for their own ends.  This blend of mystery and dangerous political intrigue makes for a fantastic read, and I enjoyed the compelling balance that Scarrow produced.  The mystery itself is well crafted, with the author ensuring there is a complex and tangled web to unravel, with several promising suspects.  There are some very cool twists added into the plot, and I quite enjoyed the exciting conclusion and eventual reveal of the killer.  This is also a very effective standalone mystery, which would serve as a great introductory novel if Scarrow ever wanted to revisit this setting and characters in the future.  A series set around this book could go in some interesting directions, and I for one would be quite keen for that.

Easily the most captivating and fascinating part of this novel is the amazing historical setting that Scarrow used as the backdrop to his amazing mystery.  While several great mystery series have used World War II Germany as a setting before (the Bernie Gunther series by the late, great Philip Kerr comes to mind), I think that Blackout was a particularly good example of how it could be done, with Scarrow making sure that it really enhanced this already incredible story.  Scarrow skilfully works several fantastic and intriguing elements of this iconic setting into his narrative.  This includes the blacked-out winter streets and train lines of 1939 Berlin, which serve to hide the killer’s actions and ensures an easy hunting ground.  I also appreciated the air of worry and uncertainty that inhabited many of the characters as they are constantly left wondering if their country is heading towards a bigger war with Britain and France, not knowing of their government’s master plan.  There is also a certain amount of nationalism, patriotism and casual racism/anti-Semitism on the streets, which is a confronting and concerning aspect that the protagonist has to deal with.  There is also a fascinating focus on the way in which the Nazis infested all aspects of the German government and administration, particularly the police.  Inspector Horst is constantly butting heads with other members of the police force who were only promoted due to their party allegiances, rather than any skill or ability, which impacts the protagonists to successfully investigate his crime.  Add in the compelling depictions of German politics and Nazi interference that I mentioned before, and you have a very impactful and distinctive setting, which really helped to turn this crime novel into something very special.

Scarrow has a knack for creating some interesting and likeable characters, and this is certainly true for Blackout.  Inspector Horst is a fantastic protagonist, a former famous race car driver who experienced a traumatic crash several years ago.  He has since reworked himself as a talented police investigator and a rare man of honour in troubled times.  There is a lot to like about Horst, including his brilliant investigative skills, his courage in the face of danger, and his complete disregard for the Nazi leadership.  As one of the few senior police officers who has not joined the Nazi party, Horst is a bit of a black sheep amongst the ranks of his organisation, especially as he barely contains his disdain for the Nazis and what they are doing to his country.  This invariably leads him into a whole mess of trouble, which sees him in the crosshairs of the Gestapo and other Nazi figures, who seek to use his neutrality and skill for their own advantages.  I had a lot of fun following Horst throughout this novel, and it was great to see how a non-Nazi supporter would survive amongst the authoritarian ranks of German police in this period.  There are several great storylines surrounding this character, including about the trauma he is experiencing from his crash, as well as guilt at his failure to save the people closest to him.  I really enjoyed this character in Blackout, and it seems likely that Scarrow would have some very compelling storylines in place for this character if he ever revisited this series.

Aside from Horst, there are several other compelling side characters in this novel, which include a mixture of fictional characters and real historical figures.  One of the better characters is Ruth, the only apparent survivor of one of the serial killer’s attacks.  Ruth is a feisty and combative character, made so by her position as one of the few Jewish people still remaining in Berlin.  Despite being threatened by the entire German apparatus as well as a serial killer, Ruth remains strong throughout the book and is a very inspirational character to follow.  I also quite enjoyed the character of Liebwitz, a Gestapo agent assigned to Horst’s unit to spy on him and report back to the Gestapo commander.  However, Liebwitz proves to be a rather unusual Gestapo agent, more concerned with facts and analysis, rather than Nazi internal politics, and it was fascinating to see an honest and non-sociopathic member of the Gestapo.  While there is a lot of mistrust for Liebwitz in the beginning, he soon becomes a major part of the investigation, and Scarrow sets up some very interesting storylines for him.  Finally, I also quite enjoyed the killer of the story.  Several sequences in Blackout are shown from his point of view, although his identity is kept hidden towards the end of the book.  Scarrow paints an interesting picture of this killer’s mental state, and it was interesting to see his motivations run parallel to the goals of the Nazi party, which he uses to justify some of his actions, and indeed his actions are something that the Nazi leadership might approve of.  I felt that the author did a good job setting this antagonist up throughout the novel, and I rather liked the twist surrounding their eventual reveal.

Simon Scarrow continues to show why he is one of the leading authors of historical fiction with the outstanding and captivating historical murder mystery, Blackout.  Breaking into a whole new historical period and setting, Scarrow produces a fantastic and powerful murder investigation which makes amazing use of its complex characters and detailed historical setting.  Featuring all manner of twists, political intrigue and devious Nazi characters, Blackout was a compelling and intriguing read that comes highly recommended.  I cannot wait to get my next hit of Scarrow, and luckily I don’t have to be patient for long as the next Eagles of the Empire book, The Honour of Rome, is out in a few months time.

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.