The Lawless Land by Boyd and Beth Morrison

The Lawless Land Cover

Publisher: Head of Zeus (Trade Paperback – 31 May 2022)

Series: Standalone/Book One

Length: 474 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Get ready for one of the most thrilling historical adventures of 2022 with the wildly entertaining and deeply captivating medieval fiction novel, The Lawless Land, by the outstanding team of Boyd and Beth Morrison.

Despite my recent focus on other genres, historical fiction in all its forms remains one of my favourite book categories to check out, especially with awesome new novels coming out all the time.  One of the best examples of this is The Lawless Land, which I was lucky enough to receive a copy of a little while ago.  The Lawless Land was a fascinating read that takes some great protagonists on a bold adventure through medieval Europe.  This book was written by Boyd and Beth Morrison, a brother and sister team who have deeply impressed me.  This was a rather interesting combination of writers, as Boyd Morrison is an acclaimed thriller and historical fiction author, and Beth Morrison is the Senior Curator of Manuscripts at the J. Paul Getty Museum and has a PHD in history.  These overachieving siblings really cooked up something special here with their first book, and I loved the outstanding story it contained.

In 1351, Europe is in utter chaos as the Hundred Years’ War rages in France and the Pestilence ravages the countryside, depopulating towns and devastating cities.  These are dark days indeed, and only the desperate and the foolish can be found traversing the roads.  Unfortunately, this includes skilled knight Gerard Fox, whose lands and titles have been taken from him as punishment for a crime against the church, and who is now forced to wander the world by himself, desperate to reclaim his family’s honour.

Journeying towards the castle of Lord Tonbridge, the one man who may be able to prove his innocence, Gerard witnesses a band of armed men waylaying a noblewoman.  Impulsively jumping into action, Gerard saves the women, slaughtering her attackers and forever changing his life.  The young woman, Lady Isabel, is Lord Tonbridge’s betrothed, who has fled from her future husband, taking with her a sacred relic she is sworn to protect.  Forced to abandon his own quest, Gerard agrees to escort Isabel to safety, however, he is unaware of the chaos that is about to be unleashed upon him.

Tonbridge had promised Isabel’s relic to an ambitious Cardinal in Paris, one who is determined to rise to the station of Pope.  Desperate to reclaim the relic and use it to cement his position, the Cardinal and his pawn, Tonbridge, unleash their substantial forces to hunt down Gerard and Isabel.  Fleeing their pursuers, Gerard and Isabel traverse the breadth of England and France to find safe harbour for the relic.  Forced to contend with dangerous foes around every corner, Gerard, Isabel, and their faithful companions will face the worse that medieval Europe has to offer and more.  But worse lies in wait for Gerard, as he bears a dark connection with his pursuers that will ensure they will never stop hunting him.

Wow, now this was a really cool historical fiction novel.  The exceptional writing team behind The Lawless Land have produced an outstanding novel that is extremely exciting, action-packed, and character driven, while also being heavy on the historical detail and accuracy.  This results in an exceptional and epic historical thriller read that I had an absolute blast getting through and which gets a well-deserved five-star rating from me.

The Lawless Land was such a cool read, and I quickly fell in love with its brilliant and exceptional story.  Essentially an adventure thriller set in medieval times, the authors start The Lawless Land off very quickly, showing the protagonist in battle as he saves the damsel in distress, only to end up in even more trouble.  Effectively introducing the key characters early on, you get a real sense of the novels impressive style right at the start, especially with its gritty feel and intense action sequences.  The story soon evolves into a high stakes chase across Europe, as Gerard, Isabel and their companions try to outrace and outwit their opponents to save Isabel’s relic and get revenge for Gerard.  The authors make excellent use of multiple character perspectives here to showcase the chase from both sides, and you get a good look at the various schemes and ploys of the antagonists, as well as the full depths of their villainy.  These amazing and action-packed scenes are expertly interspersed with some flashback chapters that examine the full history and tragedy of the protagonists, especially Gerard, and work to fully establish the enmity between him and the antagonists.  This entire first half of the book is very well written, and the authors’ excellent style will appeal to wide range of readers, not just historical fiction fans, as anyone who enjoys a great adventure or gripping thriller read, can get really engrossed in this excellent story.

This perfectly sets up the second half of this epic novel, which sees the character involved in all manner of carnage and battle as they attempt to win.  I honestly powered through the last 250 pages or so in a day; I was having that much fun reading it.  This second part has everything, including jousting tournaments, prison breaks, desperate chases, elaborate skirmishes, political intrigue, skullduggery and more action than you can shake a stick at.  There is even a full-on judicial duel (think The Last Duel), which was one of the most impressive and gritty fights in the entire book.  There are some intriguing twists, clever reveals, major tragedies, and some outstanding action throughout this entire second half, and it was so much fun to see it all unfold.  I really must highlight the impressive action of The Lawless Land, as all the fights felt particularly realist and very epic, and you can honestly feel every powerful swing and strike of steel on steel.  The authors bring all the established story elements of The Lawless Land together extremely well in the end, and readers will come away satisfied, especially with the fun conclusion and the great ending for the characters.  While this is ostensibly a standalone read, and the authors do wrap up everything really well, there is potential for a sequel at the end, and I for one would not be opposed to seeing more from these characters in the future.

One of the most compelling parts of The Lawless Land was the brilliant dive into the history of medieval Europe.  The writing team clearly did their research when it came to this novel, which is hardly surprising considering the scholarly expertise of one of its authors.  As such, this novel is loaded with impressive and captivating historical detail which isn’t overshadowed by some of the more over-the-top action.  You get a great sense of the how bleak and brutal the continent was at this point in history, with some chilling depictions of plague and pestilence, as well as some intriguing looks at The Hundred Years’ War, including a full flashback chapter to the Battle of Crécy.  The authors spend time exploring a ton of fascinating stuff from this period, including knightly conduct, the power and influence of the church, day to day life for people in cities and the countryside, and so much more.  I particularly loved the scenes set around a tournament in France, where the protagonist engages in a series of jousts.  The sheer amount of detail and realism around these scenes are so very cool, and you can really picture how everything would have looked and felt.  There is also a great examination of medieval manuscripts (again, because of one of the author’s academic focuses), which become a key part of The Lawless Land’s plot, and it was really interesting to examine the significance and process behind them.  All this impressive work around the setting and other historical elements of The Lawless Land really enhanced the overall quality of the book, and I loved how seamlessly it was worked into the epic narrative.

I also must highlight the fantastic characters featured within The Lawless Land, which includes an awesome balance of likeable protagonist and maniacal villains who hunt them.  The story is perfectly split between the two groups, and you get some fun and intense competing views of events throughout the story as a result.  The protagonists are headlined by the awesome character of Gerard Fox, a wandering knight, banished from his family’s lands by the church following a confrontation with one of the antagonists years ago.  Dragged into this conspiracy by accident, Gerard becomes Isabel’s companion and protector, and tries to escort the relic to safety.  A man of action and honour, Gerard is haunted by his past and his many failures, which include watching his brother die in battle, and being tricked into losing everything.  He is also obsessed with discovering the true fate of his mother, and her mysterious disappearance and certain revelations draw him into this conspiracy even further.  A lot of the novel revolves around Gerard’s past, and it was fascinating to see him come to terms with it and try to balance this current quest with his own desires.  Gerard ends up being a pretty awesome protagonist to follow, especially with his martial prowess, unique weaponry, penchant for mischief and trickery (like a certain French fox), and his unbending desire to do the right thing.

Gerard is accompanied by some interesting companions, and the most prominent of these is Lady Isabel.  A noblewoman who was forced into marriage, Isabel seeks to protect her family’s most sacred relic from her betrothed and goes to great length to escape him.  Although she is initially seen as a bit of a damsel in distress, you soon begin to realise that there is a lot more to Isabel than what first appears, as she is an incredibly capable woman with some keen insights and strategies that prove invaluable to her companions.  The authors work some excellent storylines around Isabel in this novel, and you really come to appreciate and enjoy her pluck, courage and intelligence.  There is also a very clever twist about this character revealed in the second half of the book, which was set up extremely well by the authors, including in some flashbacks that both hint at and hide the truth from the reader.  I also should mention the fun supporting characters of Henri and Youssef, two friendly rogues who have substantial history and friendship with Gerard.  Henri and Youssef are excellent additions to the protagonists, and their fun personalities balance well with Gerard and Isabel’s to create a very likeable group of heroes that you become quite attached to, even if that leads to eventual heartbreak for the reader.

I also need to talk about The Lawless Land’s outstanding trio of villains who dog the protagonists’ steps throughout the entire narrative.  This includes the evil Lord Tonbridge, Isabel’s betrothed who she runs away from.  While Tonbridge is mainly hunting them for Isabel’s relic, it also becomes clear that Tonbridge is even more obsessed with righting the perceived slight to his honour and is eager for vengeance.  However, Tonbridge is also partially subservient to villainous French cardinal Molyneux, who has promised him power and a kingship if he succeeds.  Molyneux is particularly despicable, as an ambitious and immoral member of the church who is attempting to become Pope.  Using his influence and the protection of the church for his advantage, Molyneux gains large amount of money and land through unscrupulous means and has some dark history with Gerard’s family, which deeply impacts both his and Gerald’s motivations to confound each other.  The final villain is Molyneux’s vassal and bastard son Basquin, who serves as the protagonist’s main pursuer.  A skilled swordsman and tactician, Basquin is a worthy, if not superior, foe to Gerard, whom he bears a powerful grudge against.  There is some fascinating history behind Basquin that became quite an awesome part of the plot, and it was great to see the intense and captivating confrontations between the two.  The authors take Basquin in some intriguing directions in this book, especially when his own desires clash with that of his abusive father, forcing him to go rogue and enact his own ambitious plan.  All these villains were extremely well written, and it proved highly entertaining to see them go up against Gerard, Isabel and the rest throughout The Lawless Land.  I had such a great time with the characters in this book, and their intense relationships, rivalries and schemes added so much to the power of the novel.

Overall, The Lawless Land was an exceptional and impressive historical fiction read from the great new team of Boyd and Beth Morrison.  These two talented writers came up with something very special with The Lawless Land, and I loved the outstanding and highly addictive narrative contained in this book.  Featuring a ton of epic action, some amazing characters, and some superb historical detail, The Lawless Land was an incredible read that comes very highly recommended by me.

Kagen the Damned by Jonathan Maberry

Kagen the Damned Cover

Publisher: Macmillan Audio (Audiobook – 10 May 2022)

Series: Kagen the Damned – Book One

Length: 20 hours and 53 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

One of my favourite unusual thriller writers, the legendary Jonathan Maberry, enters the world of fantasy in a big way with Kagen the Damned, a dark fantasy masterpiece with a brutal heart to it.

I have made no secret of the fact that I am a huge Jonathan Maberry fan.  I got into Maberry’s writings when I chanced upon a copy of his 10th Joe Ledger novel, Deep Silence, a few years ago, which introduced me to both Maberry’s unique writing and his iconic protagonist, the titular Joe Ledger, a badass action hero who saves the world from crazy and dark science creations.  I deeply enjoyed Deep Silence (it was one of my favourite books of 2018) and quickly moved onto his other Joe Ledger books, diving back to the start of the series with Patient Zero, and then working my way through the rest of the awesome entries, such as The Dragon Factory, Code Zero, Predator One and Dogs of War.  I also kept up with his latest releases, including the two entries in the follow-up Rogue Team International series, Rage (one of my favourite books and audiobooks of 2019) and Relentless (one of my favourite books and audiobooks of 2021), and his standalone novel Ink (one of my favourite books and audiobooks of 2020).  I have been very eager to see what awesome novel Maberry releases in 2022, and, luckily for me, that materialised in the form of Kagen the Damned.

Kagen the Damned is an interesting and unique read from Maberry, as it is his debut foray into the fantasy genre.  While many of his other books have had fantasy elements to them (albeit with a horror edge), this is his first pure fantasy fiction novel, as well as the start of his Kagen the Damned series.  Naturally I was rather curious about how Maberry would transition to a new genre, and while I was a tad disappointed that the Rogue Team International series isn’t getting a new entry any time soon, Kagen the Damned ended up pretty high on my most anticipated reads for 2022 list.  After a few weeks of other books getting in the way, I finally got the chance to listen to Kagen the Damned, and it turned out to be quite an impressive novel.

Kagen Vale was once one of the most trusted and revered fighters in the entire Silver Empire.  A scion of the legendary Vale family, who have served the Silver Empire for generations, Kagen was a beloved member of the royal court and so highly regarded that he was entrusted as the guardian of the Seedlings, the Empresses’ children.  That was until the fateful night when, out drinking and whoring, he was drugged and left for dead.  Awakening in a daze, Kagen found himself in the midst of hell as the capital of Silver Empire, Argentium, was besieged by a foe long thought dead, the dread nation of Hakkia, whose dark magic has once again emerged to blot out the world.

Arriving to the palace too late to save anyone, including the Seedlings, Kagen falls into despair at failing his sacred duty and can only watch in horror as the Gods of the Garden, the deities of the Silver Empire, turn their back on him and damning him for all time.  Now with everything and everyone he has ever known lost forever, Kagen the Damned wanders the ruined countryside a broken drunk, dreaming of revenge on the one man responsible for all his ills, the mysterious and feared Witch-king of Hakkia.

However, not everything is as lost as it seems, as shadowy figures across the world being to formulate their plans to repel the Witch-king’s evil.  As two young women embark on a deadly quest to awaken a sleeping, ancient god from beneath the waves, a covenant of resistance attempts to find their own magic to oppose the Witch-king with.  Determining that Kagen may bear the best chance of recovering the tools needed to succeed, they manipulate events to set him on his path to revenge.  However, what price will a doomed man truly pay to get the revenge he so desperately seeks, and will Kagen be ready for the terrible secrets he uncovers along the way?  Only the gods and the damned know for sure!

Well, it is now more apparent than ever that there is no Jonathan Maberry book I will not enjoy to the extreme.  Kagen the Damned is an incredible and very memorable novel from Maberry, who puts the ‘dark’ in dark fantasy, with this barbaric and action-packed journey into hell.  Making use of his trademark style, flair for horror and exceptional character work, Maberry pulls together a deeply addictive and extremely exciting story that I fell in love with very, very quickly.  This was another easy five star read for me, and I loved every single second I spent reading it.

Maberry once again blew me away with an outstanding and high-action narrative, and I quickly got very attached to Kagen the Damned.  This book has an extremely memorable start to it, showing the bloody fall of Argentium from the perspective of Kagen, who awakens from a drunken haze to find a vast army in his supposedly impenetrable city, destroying and killing everything they see.  This was a very compelling and brutal start the novel, and its one that I quite enjoyed, especially as you see just how dangerous the enemies are and the chaos they have unleashed.  Maberry does a great job of setting up multiple key storylines, settings and characters in this early section, and while the focus is primarily on Kagen, you get some interesting insights into other figures that will impact the rest of the book.  The entire first part of the book is very distinctive and really showcases how dark this novel is going to get, especially when it comes to the character of Kagen and the fate of the royal children.  This whole first section ends on a brilliant note, with Kagen left broken and damned, while the once great Silver Empire, which you only saw glimpses of, is destroyed and replaced with a new world order.

Following this epic start, the narrative slows down a little, as Maberry works to set up some alternate storylines and characters, while as taking the time to do some compelling and extended word building.  Set in the direct aftermath of the opening sequence, the story primarily splits into three different streams at this point, with the main one following a despondent Kagen as he traverses the former Silver Empire, lost in grief and drink.  At the same time, two separate storylines tell some great connected narratives, with one following two young women as they journey off into the unknown, while the rest focuses on the Hakkian takeover back in Argentium.  This focus on the Hakkians and their plans, as told by the Witch-king’s advisors, as well as a resistance group, is very awesome, and it was fascinating to see some impressive political intrigue going on behind the scenes as the antagonists work to consolidate power through various methods.  While the rest of the narrative continues in a straight line, the story around Kagen slowly adapts as he meets some new friends and begins his mission of revenge as planned, with some detours.

This leads up to the excellent final part of the book, which I powered through extremely quickly to see how everything ended.  All three major storylines are reaching there climax here, and they start to blend a lot more closely, especially the ones focusing on Kagen and the Hakkians.  Everything leads up to a highly anticipated confrontation that sees Kagen finally face his enemies, and it is just as epic as I was hoping.  There is a ton of action, tragedy, twists and revelations here, as many of the plot elements and storylines come full circle.  I loved the various reveals that happen here, and most have been set up really well throughout the extended course of the narrative.  I really should have seen the identity of the Witch-king coming, but it was the right choice by Maberry, which leaves some big questions open for the future.  Everyone will come away from Kagen the Damned extremely satisfied, as Maberry leaves everyone on a brilliant note, that ensures that readers will definitely come back for more.  This is an outstanding and deeply addictive narrative that is guaranteed to grab your attention early one and refuse to let go.

I really enjoyed how well Kagen the Damned was written, as Maberry brought his unique style to bear to help create an outstanding story.  In many ways, this novel proved to be essentially one of Maberry’s thrillers set in a fantasy universe.  Indeed, there were a lot of similarities in the style, the structure of the chapter, the pacing and even the use of familiar horror elements that I have previously seen and loved in the Joe Ledger books and I think this cool style worked well to tell an intense fantasy narrative.  As such, Kagen the Damned is a swift and well-structured book that pushes the story along at a swift pace, while also taking the time to build up the universe and the multitude of characters.  Maberry utilises a great range of story elements throughout this novel, and the readers are treated with a fantastic blend of action, intrigue, dark, over-the-top moments, horror, despair and humour, as the characters experience all manner of devastating trials and oppositions.

I also have a lot of love for the way that the author sets up the story and showcases the elaborate events that are occurring.  Maberry makes excellent use of a huge number of shorter, focused chapters told from a variety of viewpoints.  These briefer chapters really increase the pace and intensity of the book, and I deeply appreciated how the narrative quickly jumped across the various characters.  The interplay between the three central storylines, which are primarily anchored around Kagen, is extremely good, and I loved seeing the characters react to some of the same events or actions of their fellow cast members.  These storylines are also joined by a series of interludes that show the various impacts that the Hakkian invasion has on the wider world, especially those attuned to magic.  These interludes are usually very fascinating, and they are often used to introduce some minor supporting characters in a fun and unique way.  I loved the complexity that these interludes usually have, and the often self-contained stories are well structured and always feature a distinctive or chilling conclusion.  Maberry uses these interludes cleverly, often inserting them between major or extremely powerful chapters to help relieve tension, or to remind the reader of the wider stakes or events occurring around the main story.  I definitely enjoyed this larger look at the world that Maberry provided through them, and it was an outstanding part of Kagen the Damned’s story.

One of the major highlights of the writing in Kagen the Damned is the intricately described and fast-paced action, which is a major hallmark of Maberry’s writing style.  Maberry has always excelled at writing brutal fight scenes in a way that paints a vivid mental picture for the reader, and this was once again the case for Kagen the Damned.  The many, many action and fight sequences are brought to life in exquisite and bloody detail, and the reader is easily able to imagine every strike and slice as they happen.  This makes the action sequences really pop, and they were a particularly awesome highlight of this great book.  This focus on action and combat was really effective in this fantasy novel, and it was very cool to see Maberry bring his knowledge of combat and the accompanying writing skill to bear on large scale battles between armed and armoured fighters, while magic and gods blow stuff away around them.  There are some really great fight scenes loaded throughout this book, and I loved every skirmish, battle and duel that was featured within it.

While I did really love the action and brutal combat sequences within Kagen the Damned, I probably should add a warning about how dark and gruesome it can get in places.  Maberry’s writing style has always relied on over-the-top violence, cruelty and brutality to a degree, and this was once again the case in Kagen the Damned, which not only featured a ton of killing but also gruesome scenes of torture, corpse desecration and depictions of sexual violence.  While I think that these ultra-violent moments do work to showcase just how dark and savage the new world order is, they are often a bit hard to witness.  I will note that Maberry did take the time to discuss the emotional and social impacts of the various acts of sexual violence in the book, rather than just including them for gratuitous effect.  There are also some great scenes where the protagonist calls out and belittles several characters willing to commit such acts, before delivering his own violent justice, and I think that the author did his best to show have damaging it can be in his own way.  However, readers should probably be aware that these scenes exist, as people might find them to be a bit shocking.

I was also a major fan of the cool new fantasy universe that Maberry cooked up with Kagen the Damned, mainly because it is such a distinctive creation of the author.  Set on a giant continent made up of various nations, this is an impressive and compelling world, filled with a unique history, gods, people and settings.  The author does a great job of swiftly introducing this world and some of the key parts of its history in the early parts of the book, mainly so that readers can be a little more shocked at the early events and full appreciate the destruction and change that the Hakkian nation brings with it.  Maberry is clearly emulating some classic fantasy novels and settings throughout Kagen the Damned, and I loved seeing this bold new world that he has created.  There are some unique and cool elements featured within, and I liked how there are certain shades of grey shown when it comes to the morality and righteousness of the various factions.  Maberry also takes the time to highlight the changes that are coming to the world, thanks to the return of the Hakkian Witch-king, and the slow and steady resurgence of magic and the death of a certain pantheon of gods, are highlighted really well, both in the main story and the interlude chapters.

Perhaps one of the most distinctive features of this new world is the horror elements that Maberry worked into the plot.  I really should not have been surprised at the strong Lovecraftian elements that featured, as the author has used them strongly in some of his previous books.  However, it is even more explicit here in Kagen the Damned, with several notable Elder Gods playing key roles in the plot and even appearing in some epic scenes.  While I am not personally a fan of Lovecraft, I did quite like how Maberry utilised these elements throughout this book, and they gave parts of the book a darker and more eldritch quality that I quite enjoyed.  This, and certain discussions about other worlds and alternate realities, potentially links this series to some of Maberry’s existing works, and it wouldn’t surprise me if there were some form of crossover in the future, although it would have to be handled well.  I had a great time exploring this new fantasy world in Kagen the Damned, and I look forward to seeing what other surprises and dark gods appear in future entries of this series.

I also must highlight the incredible character work featured with Kagen the Damned, as Maberry went all out to create an excellent and unique cast of characters, whom the excellent narrative revolves around.  There are some amazing characters featured within this novel, and the author works hard to feature all of them in some impressive roles.  I had a lot of fun with the huge cast of Kagen the Damned, and there are deep and emotional figures featured here.

The most prominent and intriguing character is the titular Kagen, who takes on the moniker of Kagen the Damned.  Maberry really does a number on his central protagonist early on, as Kagen awakens from a drunken haze to find that everything he cared about and held dear had been lost while he slept.  Despite his best efforts to redeem himself in the battle that follows, he still fails miserably, and manages to escape the conquered capital in a fractured haze.  Broken, dazed and emotionally destroyed, Kagen becomes even more despondent when he sees his gods in the sky turn their back on him due to his failure to maintain his sacred oaths, which convinces him that he is damned.  Naturally, these events leave him severely emotionally damaged, and he spends most of the book trying to come to terms with his failure while also trying to find some way to get revenge on the Witch-king for all he has done.  A large amount of the book is dedicated to Kagen falling into despair, and Maberry presents a realistic depiction of a man who has lost everything and who is barely able to survive, relying heavily on drink and violence to get through his days.  While Kagen is eventually able to throw off much of this despair, it is still lurking within him, and he is often shown living in regret at his failure, even though no one else blames him as much as he does.  Kagen working through these complex feelings of failure results in much of the novels emotional strength, and Kagen serves as a moving and powerful heart for the entire novel.

While I did deeply enjoy this intriguing central character and his rough and emotional journey through this book, it is hard not to notice some similarities between Kagen and another one of Maberry’s protagonists from another series.  Kagen is in many ways a fantasy version of Joe Ledger, with similarities including a propensity for violence, extreme skill with knives (technically short-swords in Kagen’s case), and even a similar sense of humour during some of the lighter moments of the books.  There is also the same high level of mental damage brought on by extreme trauma, with both characters often seeking revenge against the people who wronged them and those they loved.  Despite these similarities, I still really appreciated Kagen as a protagonist, and I felt that some of his additional elements, such as his complex familiar bonds and strong sense of failure, did set him apart in some key ways.  No matter what, Kagen is a pretty awesome character to follow, and I loved seeing him continue to go through all his dark moments to keep going.

Aside from Kagen, there are several other amazing characters featured in this novel, all of whom have some outstanding storylines around them.  Two of the most prominent are Ryssa and Miri, who were in Argentium when the Hakkians invade.  Both junior members of the Silver Empire’s clergy, the two women initially appear to be primarily concerned with surviving the invasion.  However, it soon becomes apparent that Miri, whose knowledge of the gods and creatures of this world are far greater than they should be, has a different agenda.  Taking Ryssa with her on a big journey to a remote island nation, Miri soon engages in a plot to save the world her way.  Ryssa and Miri make up a fun combination that Maberry weaves some interesting storylines around.  While these characters aren’t explored as deeply as Kagen, you still get a great sense of who they are, particularly Ryssa, who is the primary point-of-view character between them.  Their entire storyline is covered in mystery and uncertainty as Ryssa is left in the dark about what is coming her way.  I liked the religious world-building that went into this character storyline, and there are some excellent moments in it loaded with tragedy and despair.  Even with their storyline being mostly separated from the rest of the characters, and it was a little predictable that Maberry would turn them into a lesbian couple, they had a compelling relationship and I felt that they added a lot to the narrative.

I also had a great deal of fun with the primary Hakkian characters featured in Kagen the Damned.  While they are ostensibly the antagonists of the book, Maberry takes the time to really establish the main four characters and presents them as a lot more complex and even sympathetic in places.  The main Hakkian character is their leader, the Witch-king, a character shrouded in mystery for most of the book.  A previously unknown figure, the Witch-king uses his magic to defeat the entire Silver Empire in a night and then spends the rest of the book trying to set himself up as the legitimate ruler of the land while also advancing the position of his brutal god.  I loved the way that Maberry kept the details about the Witch-king’s past and identity hidden for most of the narrative, although there is some great foreshadowing of his identity scattered throughout the novel.  The Witch-king cuts a fantastic and menacing figure for most of the book, and it was intriguing to see him present himself as a fair and loving ruler, while simultaneously exuding an aura of menace and dark magic.  It was pretty hilarious to see him terrify his key advisors for much of the book, and I loved all the hints about his true objectives.  An overall excellent central antagonist, I look forward to getting more details about him and his history in the rest of the series, especially after the revelations at the end of this book.

The other three key Hakkian characters are the Witch-king’s advisors, the chamberlain Lord Nespar, necromancer Lady Kestral, and newcomer Jakob.  Nespar and Kestral are fantastic characters who spend most of the book administrating the Witch-king’s will, running his empire, hunting for Kagen, and setting up the upcoming coronation of the Witch-king to become emperor.  While they are initially shown to be quite dangerous and evil, mainly due to their role in destroying the Silver Empire and Kestral’s disturbing magic, you eventually see that there is a lot more to them.  In particular, you see that they are actually extremely terrified of the Witch-king and are desperately obeying his will in order to survive.  You actually end up feeling a bit sympathetic for the pair of them, even after you see Kestral tear a corpse apart for a ritual, and I enjoyed the intrigue and politics they got involved with to rule the new empire.  The other character is Jakob, a Silver Empire historian who is drafted into the Witch-king service as his minister for propaganda.  Rechristened as Jakob Ravensmere, he becomes fully compliant in the Hakkian takeover and proves to be a very competent advisor and political mind while also working to rewrite history to increase the legitimacy of the Witch-king.  It was extremely fascinating to see Jakob discussing the control given by those who control history and propaganda, and I really enjoyed his role in the new empire.  It was also fun to see his rather quick slide towards the dark side as he fully embraces the Hakkian lifestyle and even starts to develop a taste for a power.  I always love seeing Maberry’s narrative unfold from the antagonist’s point of view, and this worked out extremely well again in Kagen the Damned.

The final characters I need to highlight are some of the excellent supporting cast surrounding Kagen.  Kagen has two excellent companions who work with him throughout the book, Tuke and Filia.  Tuke is a giant professional thief who recruits Kagen for a job that will help an anti-Hakkian resistance movement.  Tuke serves as the comic relief for much of the book, and I loved the outstanding chemistry he had with Kagen.  The two play off each other extremely well, and their excellent camaraderie and humour were pretty fun to see.  Not only does Tuke have some of the best lines (and the funniest curses) in the book, but he also serves as an emotional sounding board to Kagen, helping him get better after all the tragedy he experienced.  Filia is a strong-willed warrior and former associate of Kagen who finds herself dragged into the chaos around the war and Kagen’s wild adventures.  Filia’s no-nonsense attitude and sarcasm are a great counterpart to the other characters in Kagen the Damned, and I especially liked it when it combined with the humour of Kagen and Tuke.  These characters, and more, really enhanced the overall quality of this impressive narrative, and I loved seeing their powerful storylines unfold in some excellent and enjoyable ways.

There was no way that I was going to check out the new Jonathan Maberry novel in any format other than audiobook.  I have had some outstanding experiences with Maberry’s audiobooks over the years, and all of them have been deeply impressive and extremely enjoyable.  This again proved to be the case with Kagen the Damned, as I had an outstanding time having this dark epic read out to me, especially as it really helped me to absorb all the details of the characters and the impressive new universe.  With a runtime of just under 21 hours, this is a pretty lengthy audiobook to get through, but it is well worth the time investment, especially as it delivers the story in such an awesome way.

Easily the best thing about this audiobook is the outstanding narration from the very, very awesome Ray Porter.  Porter, who is one of my favourite audiobook narrators, who has previously narrated Maberry’s books, as well as contributing his voice to other works like The Apollo Murders and The Sandman audio adaptation.  As such, the moment I heard that Porter was also going to narrate Kagen the Damned, I knew that I had to get this audiobook.  Porter has an amazing ability to move the story along, and his voice is perfect for all the intense action, world-building and intrigue Maberry features in his novels.  I love the way that Porter dives into the various characters featured in the books, with every single person getting their own distinctive voice, while Porter also effortlessly emotes all their emotion to the listener.  This includes a very sinister voice that Porter saves for when the villains are talking or some incredibly dark moments are happening, and having him use variations of this voice to highlight just how brutal a moment is being, is always a great experience.  It also works well when the characters start speaking in the languages associated with the Elder Gods, and the resultant ceremonies and spells are quite spooky to hear in Porter’s voice.

Porter also did a particularly good job at inhabiting the voice of Maberry’s central protagonist, Kagen, and you get a real sense of who he is and the intense pain he is feeling throughout the book.  While the voice Porter uses from Kagen is a little like that of Joe Ledger from Maberry’s other audiobooks (a side effect of Porter ensuring that the main protagonist’s voice matches the tone he uses for basic narration), Porter does add a little more of a growl to it here, which helped to a degree.  This was another incredible performance from Porter, and I am so very glad that they got him back to narrate Maberry’s new series.  I cannot emphasise how outstanding the Kagen the Damned audiobook turned out to be (although I did feature it in my recent best audiobooks from the first half of 2022 list before I’d even finished it), and this is the absolute best way to enjoy Kagen the Damned.

Well, after rabbiting on for nearly seven pages, I think it is exceedingly obvious that I loved Kagen the Damned.  Jonathan Maberry’s latest novel was extremely compelling and deeply exciting, and I was really impressive with the author’s jump to the fantasy genre.  Featuring a clever, complex, and action-packed narrative loaded with destruction, thrilling revenge and some great, damaged characters, Kagen the Damned was an outstanding read and its one that I absolutely flew through.  Kagen the Damned is easily one of the top books of 2022 and this is a favourite new series for me.  I am extremely excited to see where the Kagen the Damned series will go in the future, and the next book, Son of the Poison Rose, is out in a few months’ time, and I cannot wait to get my hands on it.

Throwback Thursday – Warhammer: Broken Honour by Robert Earl

Warhammer - Broken Honour Cover

Publisher: Black Library (Paperback – 22 February 2011)

Series: Warhammer Fantasy

Length: 411 pages

My Rating: 4 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 my latest Throwback Thursday, I look at a cool standalone entry in the Warhammer Fantasy canon with the 2011 novel, Broken Honour by Robert Earl.

Damn it has been fun getting back into Warhammer fiction over the last couple of years, especially as there have been so many amazing and epic recent additions to the franchise.  I have really been having fun with the huge variety of stories associated with these iconic tabletop games, and while I have been mostly focused on the science-fiction based Warhammer 40,000 novels, I have also been dabbling with the Warhammer Fantasy subgenre.  Set in a chaotic and war-ridden world filled with all manner of creatures from classic fantasy, the Warhammer Fantasy novels contain fun and dark adventures, such as the Gotrek and Felix novels (check out my reviews for Trollslayer, Skavenslayer, Daemonslayer, Dragonslayer and Beastslayer).  I was lucky to recently find several cool Warhammer books in a second-hand shop, and I immediately dived into a particularly fun fantasy novel, Broken Honour, written by a new-to-me author, Robert Earl, who had written various other interesting Warhammer novels.  Set before the 2015 destruction of this setting and the start of the Age of Sigma, Broken Honour was a fantastic and entertaining read with a great story to it.

Chaos has once again invaded the realms of man, this time in the Imperial state of Hochland.  The ravenous beastman hordes are emerging from their deep forest lairs to begin their annual raids of the human settlements to destroy, despoil and feast on the people within.  As the armies of Hochland gather to repel them, they find themselves outmatched and outsmarted at every turn.  A powerful and dangerously intelligent beastman lord has risen to command the herd, and his unusual tactics may spell the end for every human living in Hochland.

As the Hochland baron and his advisors attempt to withstand the new threat advancing towards them, they desperately seek out any fighting men they can find.  Sensing opportunity, mercenary Captain Eriksson, a veteran fighter for sale currently only missing a regiment to command, arrives at the capital.  Keen to take advantage of the current chaos, Eriksson buys the freedom of a large group of prisoners to form a new free company.  Promised freedom and pardons for their crimes if they fight, the prisoners form a reluctant and ill-trained regiment, the Gentleman’s Free Company of Hergig, who hope to avoid the brunt of the battle in the back.

However, Eriksson and his troops soon find themselves in the very thick of the fighting, as those above them seek to use his unit to in the very worst ways.  Forced to contend with ravenous monsters, political intrigue, and a villainous lord with everything to lose, Eriksson and the Gentleman’s Free Company of Hergig will need to come together and hone their skills if they are to survive.  Can this band of rogues, thieves and criminals regain their lost honour and find redemption on the battlefield, or will they find only death and destruction as humanities most bestial enemies come to claim them?

Broken Honour was an awesome addition to the Warhammer Fantasy canon that I had an amazing time getting through.  Earl produced an exceedingly exciting and action-packed read that is essentially The Dirty Dozen in the Warhammer Fantasy universe (it is also comparable to the Last Chancers series from Warhammer 40,000).  Obviously, with a plot like that, I knew that I was going to have a lot of fun with this book, and Earl really did not disappoint.  While the narrative is a tad by the numbers, it is a pretty cool military fantasy narrative that is worked well into the Warhammer Fantasy setting.  The entire story flows really well, with the antagonists introduced up front and the protagonist, Eriksson, and his unwilling soldiers brought in quickly after that.  From there you follow the paroled Free Company as they are dragged from one conflict to the next and forced to contend with overwhelming odds.  As such, the book is loaded with a ton of outstanding action and brutal fight sequences that are guaranteed to keep you entertained.  Earl makes excellent use of multiple character perspectives to tell a deep and wide-ranging narrative, and you soon get dragged into several different character arcs, including several surrounding the antagonists.  Not only do you get to see into the heart of the beastman camp, but there are several brilliant sequences told from the perspective of a villainous Hochland noble who is trying to kill the protagonists.  This all ends up being a pretty exciting and fantastic story, and I found myself getting really caught up in the novel, powering through it very quickly.  Everything comes together really well into a great self-contained adventure, although a couple of character arcs didn’t get the conclusions that they deserved, and some storylines are never revisited, despite Earl leaving the story open for a sequel.  Despite that, Broken Honour was an excellent, easy novel to check out, and you are guaranteed to have a great time reading it.

I really liked how well Broken Honour slotted into the established Warhammer Fantasy setting, and this was a great addition to the overall canon.  Earl focuses his narrative around two particularly intriguing factions from the game here, the villainous beastmen and the human armies of the Empire, specifically from the state of Hochland.  I loved the insight into both, especially the beastmen, and the author really brings them to life in exquisite detail.  You can really feel the monstrous power, the Chaos infused evil and the beast-like mentalities contained within these creatures, and they prove to be excellent and brutal antagonists for the entire novel.  At the same time, there are some awesome insights into the soldiers of the Empire, and I loved the various depictions of their battle tactics and the various regiments.  While Earl does dive into these various Warhammer factions throughout Broken Honour, readers don’t need to know too much about them to enjoy the series, as the author does an amazing job introducing them and explaining what they are, and any fan of fantasy or dark fantasy would have a great time with this book.  Indeed, Broken Honour would serve as an excellent introduction to the Warhammer Fantasy canon for those readers unfamiliar with its details, as the story encapsulates the constant struggles and battles that occur within it, as well as the fun and larger-than-life characters it focuses on.  As such, this is a really good and entertaining Warhammer novel that will really appeal to both established fans and potential newcomers.

I really must highlight some of the great characters featured within Broken Honour, as Earl has come up with a wonderful and compelling group of figures to set the story around.  Most of the plot naturally revolves around the members of the Gentleman’s Free Company of Hergig, who are formed to face the threat within it.  Made up of over 120 former criminals, you don’t get to know all the members, but most of the ones who are featured are extremely fun and very memorable.  The leader, Captain Eriksson, proves to be a canny veteran who can manipulate events and his superiors in his favour to field a force in the war and get a lot of money.  Despite his mercenary attitude, Eriksson proves to have a conscious and builds up a fair bit of loyalty to his men, and this character growth really helps endear him to the reader.  Most of the other named Free Company members are a rather interesting and cool.  The drummer boy, Dolf, for example, proves to be an excellent human MacGuffin in the narrative as political plots revolve around his survival.  Other members of the Free Company that stood out to me include the tired veteran Sergeant Alter, the possibly mad former warrior priest Gunter, and the wily quartermaster Porter, whose moneymaking schemes and remarkable survival ability rounds out the character dynamics extremely well.

While I had fun with these protagonists, the best characters within Broken Honour are easily the baddies, with several great antagonist figures really coming together perfectly throughout the book.  The most prominent of these is Beastlord Gulkroth, who leads the beastman armies in the book.  Empowered by dark magics which have enhanced him even further than the rest of his kind, Gulkroth proves to be an intimidating and compelling figure in the novel, especially as his grasp of strategy, tactics and patience are highly unusual amongst his race.  Gulkroth spends the bulk of the novel balancing this newfound intelligence against his bestial nature, and it proves extremely interesting to see both sides of his personality come into conflict, especially as it impacts how his army attacks.  While Gulkroth is a fascinating figure, the best antagonist is Viksberg, a cowardly noble who was the sole human survivor of the first battle in the book thanks to his spinelessness behaviour.  Despite this, he manipulates the situation to make him appear as a hero and gets promoted as a result, killing anyone who knows the truth of his actions.  This eventually forces him to contend with Eriksson’s regiment, as one of them is a witness to his crimes, and he tries to get all of them killed on multiple occasions.  Viksberg’s continued attempts to kill the protagonists through indirect means really adds to the intrigue and enjoyment of the entire novel, and it was exceedingly entertaining to watch his various plots unfold.  Earl really goes out of his way to make Viksberg as despicable as possible, and you end up really disliking the entitled bugger, especially as he gets better characters killed.  You end up rooting against Viksberg in the hope that he’ll get his just deserts, only to be disappointed when he manages to survive to fight another day, which is both frustrating and extremely fun.  These brilliant antagonists, and all the other characters, add so much to the overall plot of Broken Honour, and I really appreciated the work that Earl put into his various characters.

Overall, Broken Honour by Robert Earl was an awesome and deeply entertaining Warhammer novel that I had a delightful time with.  The straightforward story is very exciting and contains some impressive character arcs that unfold to produce a riveting tale, while also providing all the action and bloodshed I could ever want in the iconic Warhammer Fantasy setting.  While I am a little disappointed that Earl didn’t write any additional novels featuring the characters in Broken Honour, I still had an awesome time with this book and it’s a great read for both Warhammer fans and those general fantasy readers.  Highly recommended!

Amongst Our Weapons by Ben Aaronovitch

Amongst our Weapons Cover

Publisher: Orion (Trade Paperback – 12 April 2022)

Series: Rivers of London – Book Nine

Length: 406 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

One of the leading lights in the urban fantasy genre, the exceedingly talented Ben Aaronovitch, returns with the latest epic book in his brilliant Rivers of London series, Amongst our Weapons.

For the last 10 years, the fantasy world has been exceedingly impressed by the fantastic writings of Ben Aaronovitch, who came up with a real winner with his Rivers of London series (also known as the Peter Grant series).  Aaronovitch, who already had some major nerd cred as a writer of two Doctor Who serials, debuted the first book in this series, Rivers of London, back in 2011.  This book told the story of Peter Grant, a young Metropolitan Police officer who is assigned to a specialised branch of the Met that deals with magic and supernatural incidents.  This intriguing debut combined magical elements with a classic police procedural format to create an epic and captivating read.  The author has since expanded this series out to several novels, as well as a range of novellas, short stories, and even a graphic novel series, all of which continue the story of Peter Grant and Aaronovitch’s unique magical world.  I have had a lot of fun over the last few years with this series, and I have greatly enjoyed Aaronovitch’s last two entries, Lies Sleeping and False Value.  Aaronovitch is back with another exceptional read in his ninth Rivers of London novel, Amongst our Weapons, which continues the excellent format and presents the reader with an awesome new mystery.

The London Silver Vaults are a renowned underground market for silverware in the heart of London.  They are highly secured and constantly monitored, so getting away with any sort of crime in the vaults is impossible.  So when a crazed would-be robber is brutally killed in the middle of the vaults with no witnesses or cameras catching the act, the Met are forced to call in their secret weapon, Peter Grant and his fellow detectives from the Special Assessment Unit, better known as the Folly.

Specialising in investigating magical incidents, Peter and his team are quickly able to determine that the death and the murder’s subsequent escape were a result of powerful magic.  Taking the lead on the case, Peter hopes to catch the killer quickly, but are quick to discover that their investigation is about to get far too complicated.  Ancient magics and unknown powers are loose around London, and after discovering a second body, the Folly team begin to investigate the members of a mysterious college cult from Manchester that has been inactive for years.  As more attacks occur, it becomes apparent that members of the cult are being hunted down and that their killer appears to be a vengeful, spear-wielding angel.

Determined to get to the bottom of the killings, Peter dives into the history of the cult and the mysterious artefacts they uncovered.  His investigation will lead him all over England, from the colleges of Manchester all the way to the dismal North.  But even as he begins to uncover the truth behind the killings and the being responsible, does even the full might of the Folly have the power to stop an angel and the deadly magic gifted to her?  Worse, another party has involved themselves in the case, someone that Peter knows far too well.  Can Peter solve this case before it is too late, and how will he deal with the greatest challenge of his life, becoming a father to his two magical twins?

Wow, Aaronovitch continues to massively impress me, bringing together another brilliant and unique urban fantasy read.  Once again bringing together an outstanding story that features distinctive fantasy elements with a clever mystery, Amongst our Weapons was a fantastic read that I had an incredible time reading.  This book was pretty damn awesome and gets a full five-star rating from me.

I had an absolute blast with the story contained within Amongst our Weapons as Aaronovitch has once again cleverly combined complex fantasy elements with a compelling murder mystery investigation, resulting in a deeply entertaining and addictive story.  Aaronovitch starts this latest novel off strong, with the protagonist and his team immediately thrust into an investigation of a man with a mysterious magical hole blown into his chest and no witnesses who saw what happened.  This intriguing start quickly becomes even more enticing, as a second murder is soon discovered, as well as other unusual signs and discoveries at the various crime scenes.  However, the excitement does not end there, as Aaronovitch also fits in an early encounter with the powerful murder, who appears to be an exceedingly deadly angel of vengeance, as well as the sudden reappearance of recurring antagonist Lesley May, Peter’s former partner who now acts as a magical mercenary.  Throw in some great character driven storylines about the protagonist’s family, as his river goddess wife is about to give birth, and you have quite an exceptional start to the novel.  Indeed, once all these elements were set up, I was hopelessly hooked on the story, and it proved extremely hard to put this book down at all.

The rest of the narrative flows on from here extremely strongly, as the characters launch an exhaustive and intense investigation not only into the murders but into the origins of certain magical items and the history of the college cult who appear to be targeted.  This takes the protagonist on a bit of a fieldtrip outside London, exploring Manchester and the North, and introducing the characters to some intriguing new magical elements.  While parts of the story here did get a bit bogged down when it came to exploring some of the more complex new fantasy inclusions, I flew through the second part of the book, especially as it is laced with several brilliant and imaginative confrontations between the protagonist and the book’s various antagonists.  Everything comes together extremely well in the lead-up to the conclusion, which results in a fantastic battle that helps resolve everything perfectly.  I did think that it got a little too metaphysical in places, but I still deeply enjoyed this great conclusion, which should really satisfy every reader, while also setting up some interesting storylines for the future.

Aaronovitch has such a distinctive writing style for the Rivers of London series, which is put to great use throughout Amongst our Weapons.  Like most of the Rivers of London novels, Amongst our Weapons can be read as a standalone read, with Aaronovitch doing a great job of rehashing some of the relevant continued storylines when they become relevant to the ongoing story.  This book features the usual awesome blend of magic, crime fiction and character-led storylines, wrapped up with a great sense of fun and humour, which helps to produce quite an entertaining and captivating read.  I particularly loved how the author makes his novels feel like a police procedural with magic, and this is perfectly on display in Amongst our Weapons, as the protagonists engage in elaborate investigation into several unique deaths.  It is so much fun to watch these magic-wielding protagonists do research, official police investigations, paperwork, evidence collecting and various theorising as they examine both the magical and human sides of the case, and I always love how well these elements can be fit into a seemingly typical murder mystery storyline.  Everything flows extremely well through this novel, and while I think there are some minor pacing issues towards the middle, readers will power through this entire book once they get caught up in the mystery and the magic.

I have always been really impressed with the distinctive and captivating fantasy elements contained within the Rivers of London novels, which prove to be intrinsic and outstanding parts of the book.  Rather than use classic fantasy elements, the magic and unique creatures featured within this series are a lot more abstract with a focus on energy manipulation, creatures from alternate universes and godlike beings who get their powers by being embodiments of important locations.  This really gives the novels a great, unique feel that is brilliantly enhanced by the way that the various characters treat magic in an almost scientific way, especially from a policing perspective, as the protagonists are effectively investigating and monitoring it in London.  This fantastic way of examining magic proves to be quite effective in Amongst our Weapons, as you get to see all manner of theorising, analyses and scientific conclusions drawn up as the protagonists attempt to identify and quantify the new forms of magic they are dealing with, especially when they come face to face with an unknown being of immense power.  This cool magic is also quite stunningly described throughout the novel, and I loved seeing its unique and clever use throughout the various magical confrontation sequences, and there is nothing more awesome than reading about a couple of wizards face off against an apparent angel.  I find all the cool magical elements quite fascinating to explore, and I loved seeing some of the world building that occurred throughout Amongst our Weapons, with some new groups of magical users introduced or referenced throughout.  Aaronovitch actually sets up some intriguing new world-building elements throughout Amongst our Weapons, and I look forward to seeing how this expands in some of the future novels.

Finally, I really must highlight the outstanding characters featured within Amongst our Weapons, who really help to turn this awesome story into something truly special.  This cast is headlined by the book’s main protagonist and point-of-view character, Peter Grant, who I really have a lot of fun with.  Grant is a funny and bold protagonist, who has been really growing since the first novel, not only in personality and responsibility but also in magical talent.  He serves as a brilliant protagonist for Amongst our Weapons, and his dogged and clever investigation of the unusual events moved the story along at a swift and enjoyable pace.  While his police work is a major part of the character, this latest novel also focuses again on his personal life, showing his unique marriage to a river (well, the living embodiment of a river), and the upcoming birth of his likely magical children.  This puts some major responsibility on Peter’s head, which he struggles to deal with, still taking risks with his work.  Watching him obsessively chase after the culprit while also trying to balance the upcoming birth of his children was a great part of the novel, and it really helped to make the reader feel attached to him.  However, I personally loved his outstanding sense of humour throughout this novel, as much of the book’s comedic elements are thanks to this protagonist’s funny statements and clever observations about the outrageous events he is witnessing.

Aside from this excellent and relatable protagonist, Amongst our Weapons features a large and diverse cast of figures, including a combination of new people associated with the case and a huge batch of recurring characters who have been perfectly set up before.  Most of the recurring characters are re-introduced extremely well, and even new readers should be able to follow who is who amongst this unique cast of magic users and professional police officers who work together to solve crimes.  My favourite supporting character is Detective Chief Inspector Thomas Nightingale, head of the Folly and the last official wizard.  A gentlemanly figure who fought in World War II, Nightingale serves as a great mentor as well as a badass magician able to throw down with the worst creatures or dark magic users.  While not featured as heavily here as in previous novels, Nightingale has some great moments throughout Amongst our Weapons, and it was awesome to see him squaring off against the winged antagonist.  Aaronovitch also sets up some interesting storylines for him in this book, and it sounds like he will have a much more altered role in the future.  The other major character I should highlight is Lesley May, who serves as a secondary antagonist throughout this book.  Lesley, who spends most of the book as a mercenary character attempting to undermine the police’s investigation, is a great addition to the plot and I am extremely glad that Aaronovitch brought her back for this novel.  Not only do you get more of the regret-filled interactions with Peter but she serves as a great foil for the protagonists, and it was really fun to see her get involved and attempt to manipulate the situation to her advantage.  All these characters, and many more, are great additions to the fantastic and complex plot of the book, and I deeply enjoyed seeing the fantastic and powerful interactions between them.

The Rivers of London series continues to shine as one of the best and impressive urban fantasy series with Amongst our Weapons.  Ben Aaronovitch is such a talented author, and I deeply enjoyed distinctive and captivating stories he crafts, especially with its outstanding blend of unique fantasy and memorable murder mystery elements.  Amongst our Weapons is one of my favourite books from Aaronovitch I have read so far and it is a highly recommended for all fantasy fans.  If you aren’t exploring the Rivers of London, then you are really missing out!

The Hunger of the Gods by John Gwynne

The Hunger of the Gods Cover

Publisher: Orbit (Audiobook – 14 April 2022)

Series: The Bloodsworn Saga – Book Two

Length: 22 hours and 57 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Extremely talented dark fantasy John Gwynne returns with one of my most anticipated fantasy novels of 2022, The Hunger of the Gods, the epic second entry in The Bloodsworn Saga.

Last year, the fantasy world was aflame with discussion about a certain novel from acclaimed author John Gwynne, best known for his The Faithful and the Fallen series and its sequel Of Blood and Bone trilogy.  While I wasn’t initially intending to check this book out, the sheer amount of positive feedback and reviews convinced me that I was clearly missing out, so I grabbed a copy and ended up being deeply impressed by the elaborate fantasy saga it contained.  That novel was The Shadow of the Gods, a Norse inspired dark fantasy tale that saw three intriguing protagonists explore a deadly new fantasy world wrecked by the last battle of the dead gods, and filled with monsters, warbands and powered humans tainted by the divine ancestors.  I had an exceptional time with this great book, which really met all my expectations and ended up being one of my favourite books and audiobooks of 2021 (it also topped my favourite new-to-me authors list and best covers of 2021 list, it was just that damn awesome).  I deeply enjoyed the fantastic and elaborate tale this novel contained, and I could not wait to see how it would be continued.  As such, when I received a copy of the sequel, The Hunger of the Gods, which featured another awesome fantasy cover and plot synopsis, I immediately started reading it and was once again thrust into world of gods and heroes.

The dread dragon god, Lik-Rifa the soul-stealer, has been released from her ancient tomb and now all of Vigrid lies in peril.  Determined to unleash a new era of blood, death and conquest upon the lands, Lik-Rifa immediately begins to gather around her horde of Tainted warriors, including her own descendants, the dragon-born, terrible monsters and a cult of followers, all slaved to her will.  Hope looks bleak, especially as the warring human kingdoms remain unaware that Lik-Rifa is free and about to unleash fresh horrors upon them.

Amongst this chaos, the deadly Orka continues her hunt for her stolen son, taken by Lik-Rifa’s followers.  Now revealed as the legendary and infamous warrior, the Skullsplitter, Orka will not rest until she has her son and her vengeance, no matter the obstacles.  While Orka continues her quest, her former warband of secretly Tainted warriors, the Bloodsworn, head south, determined to rescue one of their members, while their newest initiate, Varg, continues his attempts to find vengeance for his sister.  Meanwhile, Elvar is forced to fulfil the blood oath she took to rescue another child from the dragonborn, and needs to convince her now leaderless warband, the Battle-Grim, to follow her.

As these brave warriors each take their own steps to destiny, they will all face dangerous challenges and horrendous odds.  Orka will need to come to grips with the wolf lying deep in her heart as she attempts the impossible: defying a god.  Varg and the Bloodsworn will travel to a distant land to achieve their goals, only to meet tragedy and loss.  Elvar finally attempts to claim the responsibility of leadership that she has always desired.  However, despite all their bravery and skill in arms, none of these heroes are going to be capable of fighting Lik-Rifa directly.  Instead, Elvar and her company will attempt a desperate plan, using forbidden magic to bring a dead god to life and bind it to their will.

Wow oh wow, what an incredible and awesome read.  Gwynne continues to showcase why he is one of the best current authors of fantasy fiction with The Hunger of the Gods, which perfectly continues the impressive Bloodsworn Saga in a big way.  Featuring tons of bloody action, impressive new fantasy elements, complex characters, and a powerful and elaborate narrative that is the very definition of epic, The Hunger of the Gods was another five-star read from Gwynne that is easily one of the better books I have read so far this year.

The Hunger of the Gods has an outstanding and impressive story that instantly grabs the reader’s attention and ensures that they are unable to put the book down until the very last page.  This sequel kicks off right after the epic conclusion of The Shadow of the Gods and quickly follows up on all the big revelations and events that occurred there, especially the release of the giant dragon god, Lik-Rifa, who serves as a suitably sinister and epic main antagonist for the series.  Just like the first book, The Hunger of the Gods’ narrative is told from a series of split storylines, each one focused on a specific point-of-view character.  All three character-specific storylines from The Shadow of the Gods are continued here, following Orka, Varg and Elva.  These existing storylines go in some exciting and interesting directions in The Hunger of the Gods, and I loved how the author expanded on the character’s growth and individual journeys from the first novel, while also keeping some of the existing dynamics and elements.  Gwynne also adds in two new point-of-view characters, as antagonists Gudvarr and Biorr, who were good secondary characters from The Shadow of the Gods, get their own intriguing storylines here.  These new character arcs are impressively entertaining, providing great alternate perspectives to deepen the story, while also working into the existing storylines extremely well.  All five storylines go in some great directions throughout the course of the novel, and there are some absolutely brilliant moments, twists and revelations that occur throughout, especially as many of these storylines started to come together more.  I had an excellent time seeing where everything went, and Gwynne really did a great job taking all these character stories in some appropriate directions.  Every single storyline end on an amazing note and the conclusions are guaranteed to drag readers back for the third Bloodsworn novel.

This second book in The Bloodsworn Saga is written pretty damn perfectly as Gwynne continues his magic to produce an addictive and distinctive read.  The Hunger of the Gods retains the excellent tone introduced in the first novel, ensuring that everything comes across as a Norse adventure story set within a unique, dark fantasy realm.  Everything about this book is handled extremely well, from the exceptional pacing, which ensures that you fly through this massive novel, to the intense and brutal action that is installed in every section of the book, guaranteeing that readers get that much needed adrenalin rush.  Gwynne utilises an interesting writing style here that really emphasises repetition and unique dialogue to help to make the story feel more and more like an epic Norse saga.  Just like the preceding novel in The Bloodsworn Saga, I think that The Hunger of the Gods had just the right blend of action, humour, character growth, world building and darker elements to create an excellent and enticing read.  I also have to say that I was quite impressed with how Gwynne was able to avoid middle book syndrome here, as in many ways The Hunger of the Gods was even better than The Shadow of the Gods.  While the story does slow down in places to help build up certain settings or plot elements, there is always something interesting or compelling going on, and I can honestly say that I was not bored at any point in the book.  You could almost read The Hunger of the Gods by itself with no knowledge of the preceding book and still have a brilliant time with it, especially with the detailed synopsis of the prior novel at the start.

The best thing about how this story is written is the exceptional use of multiple character perspectives.  The story perfectly flits between the five separate characters arcs throughout the novel, with a different character being focused on with each new chapter.  Thanks to the inclusions of two new characters, readers of this sequel get to enjoy a much deeper story here, especially as the new characters are associated with some of the series’ antagonists, providing some fantastic new elements.  I think the additional characters worked really well, as while the existing three protagonists are great, their storylines needed to be spaced out more in this sequel.  All five separate character storylines play off each other perfectly as the novel continues, telling an immense narrative that, while connected, still contains a fair bit of individuality as you follow their specific adventure.

I liked finally being able to see some interactions between the various protagonists and I loved seeing these outstanding and well-written characters finally come together in some intense scenes, allowing the reader to see these distinctive characters viewed through the eyes of the other protagonists.  The author had a great sense of which perspectives needed to featured at certain times, and there were some amazing contrasts as certain exciting storylines were played off each other, especially when you were able to see two sides to certain major battles or events.  In addition, this is one of those rare multi-narrative fantasy novels where it is near impossible to choose a favourite storyline or character to follow.  Each of the five storylines offers the reader something different, from a bloody revenge story, to an intriguing look at the book’s main antagonists, and all of them work extremely well in the context of the wider story.  I will say that Orka’s brilliant quest for her son has some amazing action scenes and powerful character moments, while the camaraderie and excellent larger-scale battles of Varg’s storyline ensured that I was excited to hear from this character.  In addition, Gudvarr provides some great political intrigue from the perspective of a true weasel, which was so very fun to watch.  However, I honestly had a great time with every single character, and there was not a moment that their individual stories did not enhance the overall quality of The Hunger of the Gods.

I really must highlight the incredible dark fantasy setting of The Bloodsworn Saga that is expertly used again in The Hunger of the Gods after Gwynne took the time to set it up in the first novel.  The harsh land of Vigrid, with its warring Jarls, terrifying monsters, long-dead gods, glory-seeking warbands and the feared and exploited Tainted, works so well as a background to this epic story and it really helps to expand the bloody adventures featured within.  I loved how Gwynne uses classic Norse elements like shield walls, longboats, weaponry and mindsets, and I still really love seeing this in a fantasy context, especially when combined or used against the monsters and Tainted characters.  This is further enhanced with the continued use of Norse inspired terms and dialogue throughout the novel, and it helps to give this entire series such a distinctive feel (although I kind of wish that he would stop trying to continually make “thought cage” an alternative to a person’s skull).  While the author spends a bit of time continuing these elements from the first book, The Shadow of the Gods also features some brilliant world building as Gwynne provides intriguing enhancements to the existing gods, land and people, which were already extremely intriguing.  There are also some examinations of the neighbouring nation of Iskidan, which was mentioned a few times in the first book.  Iskidan, which has elements of historical China, the Middle East and the Byzantine Empire in its construction, serves as an intriguing counterpoint to Vigrid, and it was fascinating to learn more about it.  I also loved a couple of cool, if freaky new monsters, that were featured in this book, although the flesh burrowing insect monster and the nightmare inducing tongue eaters, are a bit on the gruesome side (readers who don’t like body modifying monsters are warned to stay away).  All these awesome elements are fitted in the book perfectly, and I loved this continued dive into the dark and gruesome world Gwynne has lovingly created.

While the awesome narrative, clever storytelling and dark fantasy setting are amazing parts of the book, I would be extremely remiss if I didn’t highlight the incredible character work that Gwynne did within The Hunger of the Gods.  Just like the first book in The Bloodsworn Saga, The Hunger of the Gods features an impressive and captivating cast of characters, each of whom are expertly featured and who add some fantastic elements to the overall story.  This is particularly true for the wonderful and memorable characters from whose perspective this epic tale unfolds.  Gwynne did an incredible job introducing these excellent characters in the first book, and it was great to see two previous supporting characters promoted up to the central cast.  All five main characters are exceptional and their unique personalities and goals ensure that every chapter is different from the last which helps to produce an awesome and expansive read.

The first of these characters is Orka, an incredibly dangerous warrior who is hunting for her lost son and vengeance for her murdered husband.  Orka is a brilliant and complex figure who is easily one of the most exciting and enjoyable characters in the entire series.  Due to her single-minded determination and bloodlust, pretty much all Orka’s chapters read like a bloody revenge trip that is essentially a dark fantasy version of Taken.  Gwynne continues this excellent trend with Orka in this second novel and it was great to see this implacable warrior travel across this land, killing everyone who gets in her way as she takes big risks.  However, Gwynne adds in some extra elements to Orka’s tale in The Hunger of the Gods, especially following the revelations made at the end of The Shadow of the Gods that Orka is both Tainted and the former leader of the Bloodsworn, the legendary killer known as the Skullsplitter.  Orka actually comes across as a lot more bestial in this second book, especially after the big massacre she created at the end of The Shadow of the Gods that unleashed her inner monster.  As such, there are more scenes of Orka trying to contain her rage and anger, and there were some fantastic and clever portrayals of her inner beast throughout the book.  We also see some of Orka’s guilt and regret as the novel explores how she left the Bloodsworn and the relationships she sacrificed for the sake of her unborn son.  I also quite enjoyed seeing her as a reluctant leader in this novel as she finds herself in charge of a small team of warriors and monsters.  This enhances her sense of guilt and remembrances of her previous time with the Bloodsworn, and it adds some fun drama and even a mentoring arc as continues her work with her young student, Lif.  Orka’s storyline goes in some great directions throughout The Hunger of the Gods, and you will be enthralled with her tale right up until the last line of this book.

I also had a lot of fun with Varg in this book.  Varg, or as his warband knows him, Varg No-Sense, was probably my favourite character in The Shadow of the Gods and he continues to be an excellent part of this sequel.  While he doesn’t develop as much as some of the other characters in The Hunger of the Gods, Varg still remains an enjoyable figure.  Most of the appeal revolves around his friendship and growing sense of acceptance with his fellow Bloodsworn, and I liked seeing him continue to develop as a warrior and a free person, especially as starts to create some meaningful relationships.  Like Orka, a lot of Varg’s personal storyline deals with his desire for vengeance, as well as his issues controlling his Tainted rage, and I liked seeing how this complemented and contrasted with Orka’s experiences.  This is particularly noticeable when it comes to how he deals with loss, something he is not good at, especially when some good friends fall throughout the story.  As a result, there are some great moments for Varg in this novel, and his chapters are filled with some of the funniest supporting characters and best battle sequences.  I did find it interesting that Varg didn’t have the biggest impact on the overall storyline in this novel, even during his own chapters, but Gwynne is clearly planning some big things for him in the future, which I am really looking forward to.

Elvar, also has a great storyline in The Hunger of the Gods, and I honestly think that out of all the characters, she has the most development in this book.  Due to where her story from The Shadow of the Gods ended up (dragon gods rising and all), I was extremely excited to see more from Elvar in this novel, and it really did not disappoint as she immediately gets into action, resurrecting gods and bending them to her will.  Quite a lot of major plot elements occur through Elvar’s eyes, and she proves to be an excellent focus for all these key storylines.  I liked how Elvar grew up quite a lot in this sequel, especially after the traumatic betrayals of the previous book, and she ends up with a very different mindset throughout this sequel, especially when it comes to leadership and her need for fame.  Watching her grow and take control of the Battle-Grim is a compelling part of this novel, and it was awesome to see her come to terms with her new responsibilities.  It was also great to see how a lot of Elvar’s story comes full circle in this novel, especially when it comes to her personal history and family, and her final chapters in this novel are some of the best in the book.  I am once again extremely keen to see how Elvar’s story continues in the rest of the series, and Gwynne has left her in an incredible spot for the future.

Like I mentioned above, I was really impressed with Gwynne’s decision to start utilising two additional point-of-view characters in The Hunger of the Gods, and it really helped to turn this sequel into a much more detailed and compelling read.  Part of the reason this works so well is that these two additional characters are both complex and excellent characters, and their chapters act as a great continuation of some of the minor storylines from the first book.  The first of these characters is Biorr, former member of the Battle-Grim who was revealed to be a spy planted by Lik-Rifa’s followers and who ended up betraying and killing the Battle-Grim’s leader.  While it would be easy to hate Biorr for his actions, he becomes quite a sympathetic character.  Not only does he spend most of the book feeling intense guilt for his actions, but he also paints a pretty grim picture of his previous life as a slave, showcasing the hardships he and his fellow Tainted have suffered.  As such, you can understand many of his reasons for why he is helping Lik-Rifa, especially as she is promising a new world order for people like him.  Despite this he is still quite conflicted, and he acts as a more moderate antagonist.  This changes towards the end of the book, especially after he meets a certain divine being, and he starts to become a bit colder and more determined to support Lik-Rifa.  Despite being one of the least action-packed storylines in the novel, Biorr’s chapters were an excellent and entertaining part of the novel.  I particularly enjoyed the intriguing alternate views they gave of the main group of antagonists, making them seem more reasonable and complex, and the inclusion of Biorr greatly enhanced the entire narrative for the best.

The other new point-of-view character is Gudvarr, the conceited lordling who hunted Orka in the last book and was a particularly annoying antagonist.  I must admit that I was initially surprised that out of all the great supporting characters, Gudvarr was the one who was upgraded to main cast.  However, it soon became apparent why he was used, as Gwynne had some real fun turning him into one of the entertainingly despicable characters in the entire novel.  Gudvarr is the absolute epitome of arrogance, petty cruelty and cowardice throughout this book, and it is near impossible to have any respect for him, as he lies, brownnoses and attempt anything to gain power and reputation, often with disastrous results.  Gwynne goes out of his way to make him seem as conceited and cowardly as possible throughout the novel, mainly through his inner monologue, where he constantly hides all his insults and most cowardly thoughts to avoid getting into trouble with actual warrior.  He is such a little arseling in this novel, and you can’t help but hate him, especially as he has the devil’s luck and frustratingly manages to wiggle out of every single disaster he finds himself in.  Despite this, or perhaps because of it, I grew to really enjoy Gudvarr’s chapters as everything he did was hilarious in a sneaky and spiteful way, and it is just so damn entertaining to see him get pushed around then overcome more powerful and confident characters.  The Gudvarr chapters also provide some fantastic insight into another group of antagonists, loaded with political intrigue and deceit from one of the main courts of Vigrid.  I had an absolute blast following Gudvarr throughout the novel, and the way that his storyline in this novel comes to an end is just so perfect and really showcases what an absolute cowardly snake he is.  I cannot wait to see him get his eventual just deserts (or maybe he’ll be the only survivor), and he ended up being on of my surprisingly favourites in The Hunger of the Gods.

Aside from these main five characters, The Hunger of the Gods is filled with a massive raft of supporting characters, with a distinctive cast associated with each of the point-of-view storylines.  Gwynne handles these supporting characters beautifully; despite the cast list going on for six pages, you get to know all of them and fully appreciate everything they bring to the story.  Most of these characters support their respective storylines incredibly well and many of the characters either stand on their own as distinctive figures or have some brilliant interactions with the main characters.  Many of my favourites were members of the Bloodsworn band, with the hilarious and witty Svik being the best example of this with his tall tales, love of cheese, and calming attitude towards Varg, while an additional storyline about his connection to Orka adding some intriguing depth to his character.  You really get to enjoy many of the key Bloodsworn members, although this does mean you become way too emotionally strained when they get hurt or killed.  I also really grew to enjoy returning character Lif in this book as he continues to grow as a warrior through Orka’s tutelage.  Watching him develop is a great part of the Orka chapters, and he proves to be an excellent foil to the brutal main character.  I loved the deeper look at many of the series’ main antagonists throughout The Hunger of Gods, especially with the two new character perspectives, and it was great to see a different side to their plans and motivations.  The multiple resurrected or freed god characters proved to be an excellent addition to this second novel, with the main characters brought into their renewed war one way or another.  These gods really changed the entire story, and it was fascinating to see their interactions with the main characters, as well impact they have on everyone’s psyches.  These great characters, and many more, all added a ton to the story, and I loved how their various arcs and storylines came together.  It will be fascinating to see if anybody else becomes a point-of-view protagonists in the future (my money is on Lif), and I can’t wait to see what happens to these brilliant characters in the future.

While I was lucky enough to receive a physical copy of The Hunger of the Gods, I ended up listening to the audiobook version of it instead, which was an extremely awesome experience.  With a runtime of just under 23 hours, this is a pretty lengthy audiobook (the 19th longest audiobook I’ve ever listened to) and requires a substantial investment of time.  However, this is more than worth it as hearing this epic tale read out to you is a brilliant experience.  Not only does it ensure that you become deeply trapped in the elaborate story and are able to absorb all the great detail, but it also fits with the book’s inherit theme of an oral saga.  One of the best features of this audiobook is impressive narrator Colin Mace, a man with a ton experience narrating elaborate fantasy and science fiction audiobooks (such as The Black Hawks by David Wragg).  Mace has a commanding and powerful voice that really fits the theme of this universe and perfectly conveys all the violence, grim settings and powerful elements of the dark fantasy world.  He does a particularly good job with the character voices as well, as every character has a distinctive tone that fits their personality and actions extremely well.  I loved some of the great voices that he comes up with, including deep-voiced warriors, snivelling cowards, strange creatures, ethereal gods and more, and it helped to turn The Hunger of the Gods audiobook into quite an experience.  As such, I would strongly recommend this audiobook format as the way to enjoy The Hunger of the Gods, and I fully intend to check out the rest of this series on audiobook when it comes out.

John Gwynne continues to dominate the fantasy genre with his incredible Bloodsworn Saga.  The amazing second entry, The Hunger of the Gods, is another exceptional read that takes you on a wild and deadly adventure through Gwynne’s impressively put together dark fantasy world.  Containing an epic and powerful story, chock full of action, Norse fantasy elements and impressive characters, The Hunger of the Gods was one of the best reads of 2022 so far and I had an outstanding time reading it.  In some ways The Hunger of the Gods ended up being a better novel than the first entry in the series and is an absolute must read for all fantasy fans.

Throwback Thursday: Star Wars: Darth Plagueis by James Luceno

Star Wars - Darth Plagueis Cover

Publisher: Random House Audio (Audiobook – 10 January 2012)

Series: Star Wars Legends

Length: 14 hours and 45 minutes

My Rating: 4.75 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.  In my latest Throwback Thursday I look at one of the more interesting novels from the Star Wars Legends universe, Darth Plagueis by James Luceno.

With Star Wars day on the horizon, I have decided to go back and check out some of the key books in the now defunct Star Wars Legends universe.  While no longer canon, there are still some amazing books in the Legends range, including some that will no doubt serve as an inspiration for some future shows or movies.  I have already enjoyed several Legends books, such as Maul: Lockdown, Scoundrels and Death Troopers, but there are still more epic reads that I really want to check out.  Probably the one I was most interested in reading was the epic Darth Plagueis by James Luceno.  Luceno, who also wrote the fantastic novel Tarkin in the current Disney canon, is a very talented author, and I was very excited in checking out his take on the elusive and mysterious Darth Plagueis.

“Did you ever hear the tragedy of Darth Plagueis the Wise?”

Throughout the long and bloody history of the Republic, many Sith lords have risen to threaten the peace and order maintained by their hated rivals, the Jedi.  While some have put complex and deadly plans into effect, few have reached the pinnacle of power, influence or mastery of the Dark Side of the Force as the mysterious Darth Plagueis, whose malign guidance shaped the galaxy in terrible ways and introduced a great darkness.

Upon killing his master and obtaining all the power he ever desired, Darth Plagueis set out to continue his order’s greatest goal: destroying the Jedi and claiming the Republic as his own.  Using his position as a powerful member of the Banking Clan, Darth Plagueis worked to manipulate the Republic into chaos and slowly lead the Jedi to a war they had no hope of winning.  However, even a Sith as powerful as Darth Plagueis is unable to do everything on his own, and he soon seeks out a powerful Force user to take on as his apprentice, a talented politician from Naboo known only as Palpatine.

Renaming Palpatine Darth Sidious, Plagueis begins manipulating events to ensure that his apprentice becomes a major power in the Senate, planning to elevate him to the role of Supreme Chancellor while also destroying those opponents who threaten their plans.  However, despite the importance of their plan, Plagueis’s main desire is not the defeat of the Jedi but of a far older enemy, death itself.  Diving into the mysteries of the Force, Plagueis will explore avenues of power not seen for millennia as he attempts to become the immortal master of the galaxy.  But his obsession with endless life could yet be his greatest undoing.

Wow, Luceno did not disappoint with this fantastic Star Wars novel.  Darth Plagueis is an impressive and captivating read that perfectly tells the story of a particularly elusive figure.  Bringing in some heavy Star Wars elements from the extended lore, Luceno has crafted a brilliant character-driven story that I had an extraordinary time listening to.

Luceno has come up with an interesting story for the Darth Plagueis novel that achieves several goals at once.  Not only does it tell the complete story of this legendary Sith Lord but it provides some interesting context for other pieces of Star Wars fiction, while also containing a powerful story of intrigue, betrayal and darkness.  Set over a period of roughly 35 years and told from the perspectives of Darth Plagueis and Darth Sidious (with a few scenes seen from other characters, like Darth Maul), this brilliant novel does an excellent job of exploring the primary characters while also showing their malicious actions across various theatres of the Star Wars universe.  While the novel starts off a little slow, you soon become engrossed in the story as you encounter multiple layers of manipulation and politics as Plagueis attempts to control the galaxy and make his major plans.  The story is broken into three distinct periods, the first showing some of Plagueis’s early movements as a Sith Master and his initial meeting and recruitment of Sidious.  The second part of the book, set 20 years before the events of The Phantom Menace, showcases Sidious as he becomes established as a Senator as Plagueis contends with some dangerous opponents and plots as he sets up the earliest stages of his master plan.  The final third of the novel is set in the lead-up/during the events of The Phantom Menace, where you see many of the storylines come together, as well as the final chapters of the relationship between Plagueis and Sidious.

I had a really great time with this compelling story, and it is one that I feel will appeal to a lot of Star Wars fans.  While I was a little surprised at the suddenness of some of the time skips, I felt that all three major parts of the novel were really good, and I loved how well they flowed together to create one coherent and fantastic read.  The three separate time periods allow for a massive story, while also featuring some of the key moments of the main character’s lives.  Featuring a ton of intriguing and heavy bits of Star Wars lore, parts of the story do drag a little in places, especially as there is a little less action than your typical Star Wars novel.  However, I found all the politics, machinations and expansions of the Star Wars lore to be extremely fascinating, and there is a brilliant story hidden in there.  The story is also not completely bereft of action, and there are some pretty cool fight sequences scattered throughout the book, including some that show off Plagueis’s full, terrifying abilities.  This story had an excellent tone and pace to it, and I feel that everything came together extremely well and I was pretty enraptured by every damn moment of it.

Star Wars - Darth Plagueis Cover 2

This was a really good Star Wars novel, and it is one that will appeal to a wide range of fans, especially those who enjoyed the Legends range.  While Darth Plagueis is technically no longer canon, Luceno really went out of his way to connect it to the wider Star Wars canon, which is something I really appreciated about this book.  In many ways, Darth Plagueis serves as the ultimate companion to the prequel films as Luceno attempted to fill in some plot holes and unexplained bits of the movies, by exploring the entirety of the Sith’s rise to power.  Bringing in a ton of obscure lore, you get an unparalleled view of how Plagueis and Sidious manipulated events in the Legends canon to lead to the events of the films, and this really helps to fill in some gaps.  Luceno also includes multiple moments from The Phantom Menace film throughout the story, and it was pretty fascinating to see why parts of the antagonist’s plot came together like they did, as well as some excellent alternate views of certain key scenes.  I also deeply enjoyed how Darth Plagueis tied into a ton of other pieces of Star Wars Legends fiction, including books, comics and games.  Multiple prior novels are mentioned or connected to this novel in some way, and I felt that Luceno did a really good job of inserting elements from the already massive extended universe into his book and connecting the stories together and giving all of them more context and interest.  All these connections helped to create a novel that is particularly compelling and intriguing to dedicated Star Wars fans, who will love seeing the events of this book unfold.  While those fans who have only seen the movies will probably be able to enjoy this book easily enough (with only some minor confusion to some of the more obscure parts of the lore), this is a novel best enjoyed by readers who have checked out some other Star Wars Legends books and will appreciate how it fits into that wider version of the canon.

I did like a lot of the universe-building that Luceno did in this novel, as the author explored some fascinating parts of the Legends universe.  Not only does the reader get to experience a lot of obscure elements of Star Wars lore, including aliens, technology, locations and other cool things, but this also serves as one of the most impressive looks at the Sith and the Dark Side of the Force.  Due to the deep examinations of the Sith and its history by Plagueis, as well as other elements contained in the training of Palpatine, the reader is flooded with knowledge about these Dark Side users and their ways, which proves to be quite intriguing.  I had a brilliant time learning more about these deep elements of lore, especially as the characters talk about practicalities as well as history.  The difference between various forms of the Dark Side are very cool, as you see some comparisons between Plagueis’s more scientific based usage of the Force and the Dark Side sorcery preferred by Sidious.  I also found the characters’ own description and assessment of the Sith and the Force to be surprisingly deep, as the characters see themselves as more of a necessary force there to save the galaxy and the Republic from the Jedi.  Darth Plagueis also contains some fantastic detail about the history of the planet Naboo, which I also found really fascinating.  Darth Plagueis goes out of its way to explore the history of the planet and the reasons why it became a political and economic factor in the Republic in the lead-up to The Phantom Menace, and I loved seeing the political strife and manipulation that led to this initial war, as well as the rise of characters like Palpatine and Amidala.  These brilliant pieces of lore are so much fun to learn about, and I had an incredible time finding out more about the Sith in this canon.

Of course, one of the best bits of the lore that Luceno examines in this novel is the role that Darth Plagueis had in the Star Wars universe.  First mentioned in that iconic monologue in Revenge of the Sith, Plagueis remained a mostly shadowy and unknown figure until the release of this book, which serves as the ultimate guide to the character and his history.  Luceno, who at this point had been planning a Darth Plagueis story for years, does a brilliant job of telling the full story of this great character, and you get an outstanding focus on his entire life, especially his time as a Sith Master.  Plagueis, a Muun also known as Hego Damask, is portrayed as a thoughtful, powerful and manipulative being with a surprising nobility and dignity to him.  Fitted with an intriguing backstory and motivations, you see him grow into an extremely powerful Sith Lord throughout the course of the book, and it was fascinating to see all his plans and machinations.   The most significant part of the character’s motivations is his hunt for immortality through the force.  As such, you get a fantastic look at his obsessive experiments and research, as he tries to uncover this ultimate secret.  I felt that Luceno did an incredible job of working this mysterious character into the wider Star Wars canon.  There are some great moments throughout this book that show this shadowy figure manipulating key events from the shadows to bring about the events of the prequel films.  I particularly loved how Luceno fit Plagueis into some scenes from The Phantom Menace, and it is very fun to imagine him watching these moments from just outside camera shot.  This really was an incredible examination and exploration of this character, and I had so much fun finally finding out who Darth Plagueis was and how he was connected to the wider story.  Despite this story no longer being canon, this novel is really the only guide to Darth Plagueis, and it wouldn’t surprise me if it is used as the primary source material for anyone wanting to introduce him in a future film or television series.

While this book does tell the story of Darth Plagueis, in many ways it is just as much about Palpatine as it provides readers with an outstanding look at his early history.  Essentially set during the time he was Darth Plagueis’s apprentice, you get some amazing insights into who Palpatine is and how he turned to the Dark Side of the Force.  Portrayed as manipulative and insidious since birth, you get to see Palpatine at his most evil and dangerous as he learns about the Force and the Sith.  I loved how you get to see various stages of Palpatine’s early life, from his teenage years where he first learns about his powers, to his middle age where he becomes a young ambitious senator and apprentice, to his time as an experienced manipulator and Force user just before coming Supreme Chancellor.  I had a brilliant time seeing Palpatine grow as both a Sith and a politician throughout this book, and you get some fantastic views of his early interactions with key players in the Star Wars canon.  I also deeply enjoyed seeing his intriguing dynamic with Darth Plagueis.  In pretty much all his other appearances, Star Wars fans only ever see the confident and controlling Palpatine who has no-one above him.  However, in Darth Plagueis, you see a somewhat more subservient Palpatine who is forced to bow to the will of one more powerful.  Watching working under another is an interesting change of pace, although some reveals towards the end of the book (and in some other novels, such as Maul: Lockdown), show that he is never as loyal as Plagueis believes.  This truly was an outstanding depiction of Palpatine and it was so awesome to see more about our favourite soon-to-be emperor.

Aside from Plagueis and Palpatine, the Darth Plagueis novel is loaded with a ton of interesting supporting characters, many of whom had roles in the films, animated series or other pieces of Legends fiction.  These intriguing characters help to create the novel’s rich tapestry of politics, intrigue and betrayals, and all of them served some fantastic roles in the book.  I particularly enjoyed seeing the inclusion of other Sith characters like Count Dooku and Darth Maul, especially as this novel serves as a bit of an origin story for both, as you see Palpatine obtaining and training Maul as well as Plagueis and Palpatine manipulating Dooku to leave the Jedi.  I also enjoyed the intriguing look at Plagueis’s own master, Darth Tenebrous, whose brief role showed a whole other aspect to the Sith as he had his own distinctive style.  I did think that the crowd of supporting figures with their own story elements slowed the pace of the novel down a little in the middle of the book, but I ended up having a brilliant time enjoying the story set around the awesome main characters.

Unsurprisingly, I chose to listen to Darth Plagueis on audiobook rather than seeking out a physical copy of this excellent novel.  I naturally had a very fun time listening to this version of the book, which not only featured a brilliant narrator but also made excellent use of the typical Star Wars audiobook production elements.  Darth Plagueis is loaded with cool sound effects and awesome Star Wars music, all of which add to the ambiance of the story in various ways.  I particularly liked the use of John Williams’s iconic scores throughout this audiobook, which did a great job of enhancing several scenes and increasing their emotional impact.  This was particularly true for some of the darker moments in the book, as some of the music associated with the Sith, the Dark Side and death/destruction, are blasted at full volume during some key moments, such as Palpatine discovering his destructive abilities for the first time, or during a couple of massacres.  This awesome music was so cool to hear during these scenes, and you really got an increased sense of the powerful emotions and dark deeds that were going on.

I also deeply enjoyed the epic narration, as this fantastic audiobook features the vocal talents of actor Daniel Davis (whom audiences of taste will recognise as Niles from The Nanny).  Davis gives a powerful and commanding performance here, bringing some major gravitas to the role and the characters.  His voice work for the titular character, Darth Plagueis, is really good, and you get a fantastic sense of the character’s power and wisdom as the novel continues.  Davis also does a brilliant job of voicing multiple characters and species from the Star Wars films, sounding quite close to their original actors.  I loved the voice work for Palpatine, capturing much of the villain’s iconic voice, while also giving it a youthful tilt for the earlier parts of the book.  Other characters, such as Count Dooku and Darth Maul, are also expertly portrayed here, and I particularly liked Davis’s take on Christopher Lee’s amazing voice.  This outstanding voice work, combined with the sound effects and music, helped to turn this into an exceptional listen that I deeply enjoyed.  With a run time just under 15 hours, this is a descent sized Star Wars audiobook, but listeners can power through it in no time at all.  This format comes highly recommended and you will have an outstanding time listening to the Darth Plagueis audiobook.

Overall, Darth Plagueis is an impressive and addictive Star Wars Legends novel that I had an incredible time reading.  James Luceno really excels at telling complex narratives that examine character origins, and Darth Plagueis did a wonderful and comprehensive job of expanding on a mostly unknown figure.  I loved learning everything about this awesome Star Wars figure, and Luceno wove an outstanding tale of intrigue and power around him and his apprentice.  An absolute must read for all fans of the Star Wars extended universe, I cannot wait until they finally introduce this complex figure into the current canon.

Star Wars - Darth Plagueis Cover 3

It Ends in Fire by Andrew Shvarts

It Ends in Fire Cover 2

Publisher: Jimmy Patterson Books (Hardcover – 9 November 2021)

Series: Standalone/Book One

Length: 369 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

After wowing the world with his debut trilogy, impressive young adult fantasy author Andrew Shvarts return with a fantastic and entertaining read that cleverly parodies the classic magical school fantasy setting with It Ends in Fire.

Shvarts is a great author whose work I have been rather enjoying over the last couple of years.  Shvarts debuted back in 2017 with his Royal Bastards trilogy, which followed a group of illegitimate children as they found themselves caught up in the conspiracies and plots of their dangerous parents.  Made up of Royal Bastards, City of Bastards (which has an extremely explosive ending), and War of the Bastards (one of my favourite books of 2019), this was an awesome trilogy, and it has made me very keen to read more of Shvarts’s books.  As a result, when I heard that Shvarts had a new novel coming out, one set in one of my favourite settings, a magical school, I knew I had to grab it.  I have been waiting for It Ends in Fire for a while, and I was quite excited when I received a copy the other day.

Prepare to visit the Republic, a land of magic, deceit and corrupted power, where the Wizards rule and the non-magical people, the Humbles, are brutally oppressed.  At the heart of the Republic is Blackwater Academy, the most prestigious school of magic in the land, where the elite Wizards are trained and forged into scheming, power-hungry sadists.  Blackwell Academy has survived for centuries and remains a great power in the Republic, but nobody is prepared for the arrival of its latest student.

As a child, Alka Chelrazi watched as her parents were brutally murdered by a powerful Wizard, and she has since sworn vengeance.  Taken in by a rebel group, Alka has grown into their most lethal weapon thanks to her own magical abilities and has spent her life training to do the impossible: infiltrate Blackwell.  Taking the identity of a dead Wizard unknown to anyone, Alka is tasked with entering the school, learning all its secrets, and burning it to the ground from the inside.

Determined to carry out her duty to the very end, Alka attempts to find her bearings and learn everything she can.  However, Blackwell is unlike any other school in the Republic, its lessons are lethal, the rivalries are fierce, and some students will do anything to succeed, even kill their classmates.  To complete her mission, Alka will need to use every skill and trick at her disposal to recruit allies, take out her rivals and help a motley crew of outcasts to win the Academy’s Great Game.  However, with dangerous politics, power-hungry rivals, suspicious professors, and an evil headmaster all arrayed against it, can Alka succeed in bringing down the Academy, or will the fires of her revolution be snuffed out before it can begin?

This was an awesome and compelling new book from Shvarts, who has produced another deeply entertaining and intense read.  It Ends in Fire has a powerful and captivating narrative that not only contains a great story about revenge and finding oneself, but which also parodies certain magical school stories.  I had a great time reading this novel, and I became quite addicted to it as it went along.

It Ends in Fire has a brilliant and exciting narrative that moves at a fast pace and ensures that the reader is never bored.  Shvarts starts the story off with a bang, introducing the protagonists and point-of-view narrator, Alka, and showing her initial steps in infiltrating the academy.  The start quickly showcases some of the lead characters, the stakes of her mission, and the new and somewhat familiar setting of Blackwell Academy, as well as the surrounding Republic.  At the same time, Shvarts includes a series of framing chapters that are set in the protagonist’s past, showcasing her motivations, her many personal tragedies and the training she undertook for her infiltration.  From there the story quickly progresses into a compelling arc around the character’s darker magical school experience, while also building up her personal history.  There are some fun magical lessons, budding rivalries and caste systems woven into the narrative, and it was intriguing to see this ultimate outsider attempt to get into the flow of this elite school.  The crux of the narrative revolves around three magical contents that the various school houses compete in for glory and reputation (as well access to the Republic Senate, which interests Alka).  These competitions are pretty awesome, and serve as the major story highlights, much in the same way as the Quidditch matches and the Triwizard Tournament in the Harry Potter novels.  I particularly enjoyed the first and third one, and it was pretty fun to see the protagonist engage in some heavy cheating to pull it off.

This all leads up to a big and brutal finale, where the protagonist finally gets to unleash her true personality on her foes, and which potentially sets up some interesting directions for any resultant series in the future.  There is a great blend of character development, world building, magical adventure, intrigue and personal betrayal throughout this story, and I ended up getting really stuck into this brilliant narrative.  I pretty much read the last 200 pages in a single day, especially as it contained two of the competitions and a fantastic duel, and I really loved how everything came together.  It Ends in Fire turned out to be fairly self-contained and feels a lot like a standalone read.  That being said, it has some potential to be a larger series, and I would be interested to see where it goes, especially as there are some outstanding storylines to explore.  Like Shvarts’s previous novels, It Ends in Fire is aimed towards a young adult audience with its teenage protagonist and supporting characters.  Due to some more mature elements, this novel is probably best suited towards an older teenage audience, who will no doubt appreciate the author’s realistic take on teenage education.  This novel will also hold a lot of appeal to adult fantasy fans, especially those who grew up on Harry Potter, as this novel acts in many ways like a clever and fun parody of these classic novels.  An overall excellent story with some fun twists and major memorable moments.

I must say that I was also incredibly impressed with the new fantasy setting that Shvarts came up with for It Ends in Fire.  This new fantasy world is a brilliant and complex collection of nations brought together by an oppressive magical regime ruled by powerful Wizards who control the non-magical people, the Humbles.  The author does a great job setting up this cool new world, and I loved the examination of a magical regime and the unique cultural and social circumstances that would evolve in such a regime.  I particularly enjoyed the fun examination of the Republic’s politics, especially when it came to the impacts of the protagonist’s actions within Blackwater Academy.  It was also very compelling to see the clever hierarchies that see even some Wizards oppressed or disenfranchised, ensuring that the situation is even more complex than the protagonist, who was raised by rebellious Humbles who hate all Wizards, initially believed.  This proves fertile ground for the main narrative that follows Alka attempting to take the system down from the inside, and it was a solid background to the narrative.  I also really appreciated the cool new magical system that Shvarts came up with for his new novel.  In It Ends in Fire, Wizards cast spells by entering a time-dilated field known as the Null, where they carve glyphs into the air with Loci (magical wands) to unleash elemental spells.  This is an awesome magical system, which allows for some amazing and complex duals and battles.  The slow-motion aspect of the Null ensures that there is some clever strategy involved, as well as some intense explanation from the protagonist, and I deeply enjoyed some of the fun an epic clashes that occurred.

In addition to the cool magic and fun overarching setting, I also must highlight Blackwater Academy, which serves as a dark mirror to other magical schools that have been featured in fantasy novels and media.  In many ways, Blackwater Academy is a twisted version of Hogwarts; an elite magic school, with houses, elaborate classes and competitions.  Shvarts does an amazing job of working altered versions of these classic magic school elements into his own setting, and pretty much every scene has something reminiscent of these established school settings.  However, all these elements are twisted and converted into something far darker and more adult.  The teachers are crueller, the rich rival kills with impunity, the lessons are more deadly, and the headmaster is essentially Dumbledore (a highly respected wizard who turned down political leadership to be a teacher), except evil and self-serving.  I really liked how Shvarts included these elements in his novels, and it was a lot of fun to not only spot the similarities but also see how the author had twisted them into something different (for example, the protagonist is chucked into the universe’s version of Hufflepuff, and then turns them into a strong team).  This resulted in a fantastic and compelling setting that is both familiar and rather distinct at the same time.

While there are a lot of similarities to Hogwarts and other classic magical schools, Blackwater Academy also has some truly unique features, which also enhance how awesome it is as a primary setting.  The near murderous rivalries between the houses added some excellent conflict to the narrative, and I found the Humble village located next to the school to be a great inclusion, especially as all the inhabitants are absolutely terrified of their Wizard clientele.  I also really loved the unique challenges that the students had to compete in throughout the year into order to win the Great Game.  While the inclusion of a three-event competition is somewhat familiar, the challenges themselves are special, and Shvarts obviously had a lot of fun coming up with something new for the young Wizards to compete in.  This entire clever setting and compelling magical system help to transform It Ends in Fire into an incredible read, and I hope that Shvarts will explore it more in the future.

I also need to quickly highlight the great characters within this novel.  It Ends in Fire features a fantastic and entertaining cast whose unique stories add a lot of depth and drama to this brilliant tale.  The most prominent of these is protagonist and narrator Alka, a rebel and wizard who infiltrates the Blackwater Academy with dreams of destroying it and everyone in it.  Alka is a complex and intriguing figure who must overcome a lot of emotional turmoil in this novel while also encountering conflicts, revelations and disturbing truths about the nature of evil.  Shvarts did an awesome job setting Alka up throughout this novel, and I appreciated the way in which elements of her past life are blended into the primary story.  Alka’s unique history and experience with Wizard culture ensures that she is the perfect narrator, ensuring that the reader learns about many parts of the world’s unique aspects through her constant questioning and research.  I also appreciated the complex romantic relationships that form between her and two other characters, especially as both are sweet and moving in their own ways, while also naturalising Alka’s bisexuality.  The rest of the characters in It Ends in Fire are also set up pretty well, and I liked the cool blend of arrogant rich wizards, bitter Humbles and lower-tiered Wizards who struggle in life nearly as much as the Humbles.  Shvarts utilised a wonderfully eclectic group of supporting characters throughout this novel, and I enjoyed some of the friendships and rivalries that formed, as well as the similarities that some characters have to notable Harry Potter characters.  The author introduces some interesting storylines and character development arcs around them, and you end up getting attached to their survival alongside Alka.  It will be interesting to see if Shvarts will continue to explore them in the future, and I hope he does, as I would love to see what happens to them next.

With his latest novel, It Ends in Fire, Andrew Shvarts continues to dominate the young adult fantasy genre with a complex and powerful read.  It Ends in Fire has a brilliant and entertaining narrative that takes a rebellious soul into the heart of enemy territory, an evil and twisted magical school.  I loved how Shvarts cleverly subverted a classic fantasy setting with his fantastic narrative and world building, and the resulting story is loaded with magical action, amazing character develop, and multiple fun, high-concept sequences.  It Ends in Fire is a highly recommended young adult fantasy novel and you will have a wonderful and amazing time reading it.

The Colonial’s Son by Peter Watt

The Colonial's Son Cover

Publisher: Macmillan (Trade Paperback – 26 October 2021)

Series: Colonial’s Son – Book One

Length: 367 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

One of Australia’s best historical fiction authors, Peter Watt, returns with The Colonial’s Son, the first book in a new series that follows on from his exceptional Colonial trilogy.

Peter Watt is a fun and talented author whose work I have been deeply enjoying over the last few years.  Watt specialises in historical fiction novels with a focus on Australian characters and has so far written three great series.  This includes his long-running Frontier series, which followed two rival Australian families throughout the generations as they got involved in some of the defining moments of Australian history (check out my reviews for While the Moon Burns and From the Stars Above).  He also wrote the fantastic Colonial trilogy that followed an Australian blacksmith who joined the British army as an officer during the mid-19th century.  This was an amazing and action-packed historical series, and featured three great books, The Queen’s Colonial, The Queen’s Tiger and The Queen’s Captain.  Watt’s most recent novel, The Colonial’s Son, is a direct sequel to the Colonial series, set several years after the conclusion of The Queen’s Captain.

Sydney, 1875.  After leaving the army and returning to Australia, former British army captain, Ian Steele, better known by the moniker his troops gave him, the Colonial, has settled down and started a successful business empire.  Now the father of three children, Ian is hoping for a quiet life, but is still facing several problems, including the fact that his oldest son, Josiah Steele, is determined to follow in his footsteps and join the British army as an officer.

When an old friend from his army days requests his help, Ian takes Josiah to Queensland to visit the notorious goldfields near the Palmer River.  There, Josiah gets his first taste for action as he and his father find themselves beset by bushrangers, hostile Indigenous tribes and warring Chinese criminal organisations.  Despite experiencing the terrors and tragedies of combat, Josiah is more determined than ever to join the army and travels to England to enrol in a prestigious military academy.  However, rather than gaining a formal training, he is immediately drafted into England’s latest war as a junior officer.

Travelling to Afghanistan, Josiah and his men engage in a series of bloody battles to hold onto the dangerous land for the empire.  Gaining the attention of his commanders, Josiah is chosen for a different sort of mission and sent to the newly united Germany where an old friend may hold the answer to the future of British/German relations.  Back in Australia, Ian Steele finds himself fighting a new enemy, one whose insidious ways could bring down everything he has struggled to build.  Can Ian survive this latest threat, especially when it drives him to do the unthinkable, and will Josiah be able to live up to the impossible military legacy of the Colonial?

This was another exciting and very enjoyable novel from Watt, who has proven himself one of the best authors of Australian historical adventure novels.  The Colonial’s Son is an amazing sequel to Watt’s prior series, and I really enjoyed seeing all the characters, both new and those from the prior series, engage in this latest series of adventures.  I ended up getting through this entire novel in one day, and I had a wonderful time reading it.

This latest novel has a very Watt narrative to it, utilising his typical style of multiple character perspectives to tell a compelling overarching tale of adventure and intrigue.  The Colonial’s Son primarily follows new protagonist Josiah and previous protagonist Ian as they find themselves in all manner of dangerous situations, together and separately.  This includes facing dangers and criminal conspiracies out in the goldfields, deep personal attacks in Sydney, or the various battles and political intrigues Josiah encounters once he joins the army.  At the same time, multiple other perspectives from side characters are utilised to enrich the narrative, with everyone from villains, love interests and friends adding to the story.  Watt tells a very interesting tale in this novel, combining a coming-of-age tale with the dynastic style of his previous Frontier books, and I really appreciated the way in which the author continues several storylines from the previous trilogy.  The combination of military action, criminal activity and intrigue makes for quite a fun narrative and The Colonial’s Son proves to be extremely addictive and easy to read.  I loved the many intense fight sequences featured throughout this novel, and Watt has a real flair for bringing brutal battles to life.  While fans of the Colonial trilogy will probably get a bit more out of this book due to the connected storylines, The Colonial’s Son is very accessible to new readers.

Just like he has done with all his prior novels, Watt makes sure that The Colonial’s Son features a range of intriguing and dangerous historical locations serving as fun backdrops to this awesome story.  There is a bit of a time skip between this novel and the previous Colonial trilogy, which opened up some different wars and settings for Watt to explore.  I particularly enjoyed the scenes set in the goldfields of North Queensland, a particularly grim and unforgiving bush setting full of fun antagonists.  The second half of the novel contains several other historical locales, all of which are shown in quick succession.  This includes Victorian London, Afghanistan, Germany and even Africa, all of which are the setting for some form of conflict.  The scenes set in Afghanistan during the British occupation of this land are very interesting, especially when you consider contemporary events, and there are some noticeable similarities between the historical conflict and more recent battles.  There is also a very fascinating look at Germany, which in 1875 had only just recently been unified into a single country with a more militaristic outlook.  Watt also ensures that The Colonial’s Son contains several hints about future conflicts that the protagonist may find himself involved in.  For example, the inclusion of several prominent Chinese characters in the first half of the novel will probably result the characters getting involved in the Boxer Rebellion, which would be pretty fascinating.  Overall, there are some great historical settings in this novel, and I cannot wait to see what conflicts the characters venture into next.

Watt makes sure to feature a ton of intriguing and memorable characters throughout The Colonial’s Son, each of whom adds some interesting details to the story.  This latest novel contains a great combination of new characters and protagonists from the Colonial series.  I rather enjoyed this cool mixture of characters, especially as you get to see new protagonists develop, while also learning the fate of the surviving characters from the original trilogy.  I particularly appreciated seeing more of original protagonist Ian Steele, and it was fun to see what happened to him after all his adventures in the Colonial books.  I was honestly surprised how much of a focus Ian got in this new trilogy, but I wasn’t complaining too much as I had gotten invested in his development in the original trilogy.  New protagonist Josiah also proved to be a great addition to the plot, even if there are a lot of similarities between him and the younger version of his father from the previous trilogy.  It was kind of fun to see history repeat itself, and I like the interesting developments that occur around Josiah attempting to live up to the legacy of his father, while also making all the same mistakes he did.  There were some other fun new characters featured in this book, including a charismatic young man of Chinese descent on the road to becoming a revolutionary and a young German countess who Josiah befriends.  I also appreciated some of the compelling and unlikable antagonists featured in the novel, as Watt has a real talent for writing scummy villains for the reader to root against.  I deeply enjoyed getting to know this new batch of characters, and I look forward to seeing what happens to all these excellent figures, both new and existing, in the future books.

With his latest novel, The Colonial’s Son, Peter Watt continues to highlight just why he is the leading author of Australian historical adventures.  Featuring an incredibly fun and action-packed plot, The Colonial’s Son does not slow down throughout its entire length, and readers are treated non-stop battles and intrigue.  I loved how this latest novel continued the cool storylines from Watt’s Colonial series, and I cannot wait to see what battles and character developments occur throughout the rest of this series.

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.