The Riviera House by Natasha Lester

The Riviera House Cover

Publisher: Hachette Australia (Trade Paperback – 1 September 2021)

Series: Standalone

Length: 452 pages

My Rating: 4.25 out of 5 stars

Bestselling Australian author Natasha Lester returns with a powerful and intense historical drama that presents a multigenerational tale of love, loss, culture, and the horrors of the Nazi occupation of France, in The Riviera House.

Paris, 1939.  With the war about to start and fears of a Nazi invasion becoming more apparent, Éliane Dufort, a young art student who works part time at the Louvre, watches the staff store away the gallery’s most expensive artworks and begin to hide them throughout France.  Determined to survive the upcoming war, the last thing Éliane should have done was fall in love, however when she meets one of her brother’s friends, Xavier, she cannot help herself, and they soon begin a whirlwind romance.  However, with the Nazis right outside of Paris, Xavier leaves for England, breaking her heart.

With Xavier gone and most of her family killed by the Nazis as they tried to flee the city, Éliane vows to fight the invaders by any means necessary.  Her connection to the Louvre lands her a job working for the enemy in the vast warehouse the Nazis are using to store the artwork looted from France.  Working with the legendary Rose Valland, Éliane is tasked with recording every single piece of art that the Germans steal, as well as attempting to discover where they are being sent.  However, Éliane soon gains the unfortunate romantic attention of a powerful Nazi officer, while a returning Xavier, now a treacherous art expert working for Hermann Göring, threatens to destroy her cover.

Many years later, vintage fashion expert Remy Lang travels to the French Riviera and arrives at a beautiful house that was part of a mysterious inheritance from her unknown biological parents.  Hoping to escape from her intense grief at the loss of her husband and child, Remy soon becomes involved with a visiting family living at the neighbouring villa, including charming photographer Adam.  As she attempts to understand her feelings for Adam amidst her sorrow, Remy soon stumbles upon a shocking mystery when she chances upon a catalogue detailing artworks stolen from France during the war, which includes a painting that hung in her bedroom as a child.  Determined to get to the bottom of this mystery, Remy attempts to trace her past and the history of the unexplained painting.  But the story she uncovers is one of great tragedy and shocking revelations that will change everything Remy thought she knew about her past.

This was an outstanding and deeply impressive historical drama from Natasha Lester, who has previously written some great historical dramas, such as The Paris Secret and The French PhotographerThe Riviera House is a particularly compelling and intense novel that perfectly brings two separate timelines together into one moving narrative, while also focusing on two distinctive and complex groups of characters.  This results in a brilliant and moving read that is guaranteed to haunt you long after you finish reading.

Lester tells a deep and captivating tale in this novel that is moving, intense and very addictive to behold.  The author utilises a split timeline throughout The Riviera House, with one storyline set during World War II in Paris, while the other is based in the modern day and takes place in several locations, although primarily in the French Riviera.  The book jumps back and forth between these two timelines, with the speed of transition increasing the closer it gets to the conclusion.  Both storylines contain their own plot, characters, and interesting features, and they come together to form quite an intense overarching narrative.

The first storyline of The Riviera House is the World War II storyline, which follows the character of Éliane Dufort.  Éliane, after suffering several great losses because of the Nazi invasion, becomes embroiled with the French Resistance and soon gets a job working for the Nazis, assisting in their loot warehouse, and helping historical figure Rose Valland create her record of stolen works.  However, the story gets increasingly complicated as the book progresses, with Éliane torn between her remaining family, her love/hate relationship with the traitor Xavier, and her forced relationship with a powerful Nazi member who has fallen for her.  The entire story comes to a head in the closing days of the Nazi occupation, when Éliane is forced to risk everything dear to her, and soon encounters just how tragic the war is and how evil people can be, even those closest to you.

This part of The Riviera House is an amazing bit of historical fiction, exploring the history of the time while also featuring an emotional and moving tale of love, hope and courage.  I really connected with this half of the novel, due to the thrilling and intense story that shows a grim picture of the period and featuring some memorable moments.  The story of Éliane and her family is full of tragedy and suspense, and if you are looking for a happy read than you have come to the wrong place.  While I did see most of the major twists coming, I appreciated how this narrative came together, as well as the clever way it led into The Riviera House’s other timeline.  I also deeply enjoyed the unique historical aspects of this novel, particularly around the Nazis’ systematic looting of French art.  Lester really dove into this part of the war, providing a detailed account how the Germans stole the art, stored it, and eventually shipped it away as the war progressed.  This tale features several real-life historical figures who are worked into the plot extremely well and who add an extra layer of authenticity to the tale.  One of the most interesting historical figures is Rose Valland, the courageous art historian who risked everything to pull together a record of the looted artwork.  Valland, who has inspired characters in films such as The Train or The Monuments Men, was a fascinating character in this novel, and I liked how Lester tied Éliane’s story into that of Valland.  I felt that this examination of the Nazi art theft was both fascinating and cleverly utilised, and it helped to provide some extra power and intensity to the novel.

The other timeline in The Riviera House is based in modern times and follows Remy Lang, a fashion figure who is spending time in the French Riviera, trying to escape her grief over the tragic death of her husband and child, and soon meets some new people who help her move on.  This storyline was more of a pure dramatic tale and focuses on Remy’s grief, her new romance, and the friction brewing between the family she has just met.  I got quite attached to the potent emotional elements featured in this book, especially as Lester really focuses on the lingering impacts of grief, such as the guilt survivors feel when thinking about something new or considering moving on.  Add in quite a compelling mystery element to it, as Remy and her new friend Adam start investigating the connection that Remy had to the other story, such as her long-dead biological parents and several mysterious inheritances.  These connections to the storyline set in the past compliment the protagonist’s current issues and concerns extremely well, and it was really fascinating to see her work out how her life was shaped by the original protagonists many years before.

I ended up really liking both timelines within the novel, although I did prefer the storyline set in World War II due to its interesting historical research, complex characters riven by war, and terrible tragic moments.  I must admit that I am not usually the biggest fan of historical dramas that feature two separate timelines (it really is an overused device in historical dramas).  However, I think that it was utilised extremely well in The Riviera House, and the two separate storylines melded together into a fantastic overarching read.  I loved how Lester was able to provide subtle hints about the fate of the historical protagonists in the contemporary storylines, although the full revelations about them was often hidden and not revealed until later.  I also really appreciated finding out how the events of the World War II story led into the later plot, and the full truth about how everything occurred is not only great to behold in the historical storyline, but it also has some major impacts on the modern-day protagonist.  This really enhanced The Riviera House’s plot and the overall drama of the book, and it helped to produce an excellent overall narrative.

I also quickly wanted to highlight some of the cool and fascinating cultural elements that Lester slipped into her novel, particularly around art and fashion.  I already mentioned how much I enjoyed the interesting and in-depth examination of the Nazis’ looting and the plans to stop them, however, I also appreciated the way in which Lester examined the art itself, as well as the people who were fighting to protect it.  You really get a sense of the beauty and subtlety of the different artworks featured throughout the book, but more than that you also get to explore what makes people passionate for art.  This book contains several characters who appreciated the true value that this art had to themselves and the nation, so much so that they were willing to risk their lives for it.  This forms a major part of the historical storyline’s plot, and I think that Lester did a wonderful job exploring it.  In addition, the contemporary storyline features a compelling examination about the appeals of vintage fashion.  Lester, who has previously explored fashion in some of her past novels (for example, a major part of her previous novel, The Paris Secret, revolves around vintage gowns), did a good job explaining the current obsession with vintage fashion, as well as how people can make money off it.  While I usually care very little about any sort of clothing fashion, Lester’s descriptions proved to be very intriguing, and I found myself appreciating her obvious passion for the subject.  Both these cultural inclusions enhanced the story, especially as they were strongly related to the various protagonist’s motivations and obsessions, and I really appreciated they time that Lester took to feature them.

Overall, I felt that The Riviera House by Natasha Lester was an excellent and well-crafted historical drama with some powerful elements to it.  Lester did a wonderful job of crafting a compelling, multi-period storylines that combined historical and contemporary narratives into a single, moving tale.  I particularly enjoyed the cool focus on the Nazi occupation and art obsession, which resulted in a thrilling and very tragic tale.  The Riviera House is a highly recommended book and a must-read for all fans of historical drama.

Small Acts of Defiance by Michelle Wright

Small Acts of Defiance Cover

Publisher: Allen & Unwin (Trade Paperback – 1 June 2021)

Series: Standalone

Length: 344 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Impressive debuting Australian author Michelle Wright transports the reader back to the horrors and struggles of occupied Paris with the moving historical drama, Small Acts of Defiance.

May 1940.  Following the tragic death of her father, Australian teenager Lucie and her French mother Yvonne are left without any means of supporting themselves in Australia.  Reaching out to the only family they have left, Yvonne’s estranged brother Gerard, Lucie and her mother are convinced to journey back to Yvonne’s home city of Paris to live with Gerard in his apartment.

Despite having reservations about leaving for a Europe rocked by the early stages of war, Lucie is quickly enchanted by the beauty and culture of the city.  However, shortly after their arrival, disaster strikes and the French army suffers a catastrophic defeat, allowing the Nazis to invade France and occupy Paris.  Forced to adapt to the new regime, Lucie and her family attempt to survive as well as they can.

While wishing to remain safe and unnoticed by the Nazis, Lucie is drawn into the conflict when she befriends several people around Paris who resent the German occupation.  Encouraged by their strength and determination, Lucie experiments with using her artistic talents to engage in small acts of defiance against the Nazis and the puppet Vichy French government.  However, when she witnesses the Nazis’ increased attacks against Paris’s Jewish population and the attitudes of her authoritarian uncle, Lucie is drawn even deeper into the fight.  How far will Lucie go to save her new home, and what difference can even a few small acts of defiance truly have?

Small Acts of Defiance was a fantastic and moving novel from a promising new author that did an excellent job highlighting the horrors and troubles of occupied France.  Author Michelle Wright, an Australian who has spent considerable time in Paris, has written an outstanding novel with a story that is both beautiful and devastating, as she tells the intriguing and intense tale of Lucie and her experiences during the war.

Wright has produced a fast-paced and deeply moving narrative for Small Acts of Defiance.  The author swiftly sets the scene for the main characters of Lucie and her mother, who move to Paris right before the invasion while still dealing with the traumatic aftermath of Lucie’s father’s death.  It really does not take long for the historical horror to occur, as Paris is swiftly conquered by the Nazis, although Wright ensures that there is just enough time for Lucie, and the reader, to become enchanted with the city before its occupation.  Following the invasion, you are introduced to several great supporting characters who help Lucie to fully see how evil the Nazis and their French collaborators are, especially as some of her new friends are Jewish.  This centre part of the novel is great, and it was fantastic to see Lucie find her feet while also starting her initial acts of defiance.  However, while all appears mostly right, you know that tragedy is on the horizon, especially as the Jewish characters you become close to slowly have more and more restrictions placed upon them, which can only lead to disaster and despair.  Once the inevitable happens, the story really intensifies, as the protagonist witnesses true horrors and atrocities which slowly costs her some people she is really close to.  Readers will not be prepared for how dark and tragic the book becomes, although you cannot help but keep reading, especially as there is a little bit of hope for some characters.  The conclusion of Small Acts of Defiance is pretty intense and satisfying, especially as the protagonist achieves several great things while there is some good news for the other supporting characters.  This entire narrative very well written, and I loved the dramatic and powerful tale that Wright created here.  There is so much amazing and moving character development, especially around Lucie, which really grounds the novel and helps keeps the readers glued to the pages.  Wright has a real talent for writing hard and dark scenes, and I was utterly enthralled by this powerful story.

I was deeply impressed by the sheer amount of historical detail that Wright put into her debut novel, which is no doubt a side effect of all the time she spent in Paris.  The author covers the entirety of the Nazi occupation, from the French defeat, to the chaos of the invasion and the subsequent control of the city by the Germans.  There are so many interesting details and facets of history contained within the story, and I found myself getting really engrossed in the spectacular portrayal of this key historical location.  Wright spends time focusing on the various attitudes and reactions of the citizens of Paris, which ranged from outrage to acceptance or even outright support of the new regime.  The depictions of the puppet Vichy government and its actions was particularly intriguing, especially as the author examines the reason it had some support from the French.  This is particularly shown by Lucie’s uncle, an authoritarian former solider who respected the military general put in charge of the country, and who felt disenfranchised by the previous free French government.  There was also a lot of focus on the gradual crackdown and eventual deportation of the city’s Jewish population.  Due to the protagonist befriending several Jewish characters, you get to see the various restrictive laws come into effect, and the way that the Jewish population was dehumanised and destroyed one step at a time.  All of these proved to be deeply fascinating, and I loved how Wright was able to work it all into her intense and excellent story.

One aspect of this historical detail that I found extremely intriguing was the storyline surrounding the protagonist’s attempts at defying the Nazi and Vichy governments.  Unlike most historical fiction protagonists who fight back with guns, political speeches or brazen heists, the hero of Small Acts of Defiance at first uses art to subtly push back against authority.  This is achieved by drawing pamphlets or subtle symbols of French freedom in the postcards that she sells, small things that could still get her in trouble.  As the war progresses, the protagonist gets involved in other small ways, such as helping to pass information to the Allies or assisting the city’s remaining Jewish population.  I found these small acts of resistance to be a fascinating part of the book’s plot, and it was rather interesting to see the effect that even these minor actions could have on the character’s moral.  It also resulted in some compelling comparison to some of the more radical members of the French Resistance, especially some of Lucie’s friends, who take more drastic actions and face several physical and moral consequences as a result.  While Lucie does become more involved later in the book, I felt that it was really intriguing to see the various small, non-violent ways that French citizens could have helped in the war effort, and I think that it was a fantastic part of this captivating narrative.

Small Acts of Defiance was an incredible debut from Australian author Michelle Wright that does an amazing job capturing the tragedy, division and defiance that occurred during Nazi occupation of Paris.  Featuring a moving and captivating tale that surrounds one girl’s small attempt to help her friends and her new city, Small Acts of Defiance is an outstanding historical drama that comes highly recommended.  I am very intrigued to see what additional novels Wright creates in the future, and I am extremely glad I got the opportunity to read her fantastic first novel.

Assault by Fire by Lt. Col. Hunter Ripley Rawlings IV

Assault by Fire Cover

Publisher: Recorded Books (Audiobook – 29 September 2020)

Series: Tyce Asher – Book One

Length: 10 hours and 11 minutes

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

From the military mind of debuting solo author Lt. Col. Hunter Ripley Rawlings IV comes Assault by Fire, an intense and action-packed novel that sees the Russians invade and take over America.

After losing his leg in the Middle East, Marine officer Tyce Asher believes that his military days are over.  Forced to babysit reserve troopers during exercises, Tyce is suddenly drawn into action when the Russians launch a sudden and unexpected invasion of America from land, sea and air, devastating the nation’s defences and swiftly gaining control of the Government.  With the bulk of the United States forces deployed to the Middle East, it falls to reserve forces, such as the one Tyce commands, to fight back against the invaders.  With minimal supplies, ammo, armoured vehicles or reinforcements, Tyce is forced to lead his combined regiment of Army and Marine reservists into the West Virginian mountains in order to regroup and avoid detection.  Recruiting what civilians, mountain men and veterans he can, Tyce forms an effective fighting force that has the potential to do some damage against the invaders.  Will Tyce’s small army be enough to hold back the tide of Russians, or are these the last days of American independence?

Assault by Fire is an exciting and entertaining novel that places the reader right into the heart of a Russian invasion of America.  This was a really cool novel from Rawlings, who first came into literary prominence last year with Red Metal, a novel he co-wrote with thriller writer Mark Greaney.  I was a major fan of Red Metal, as it was one of my favourite books (and audiobooks) of 2019, and I was keen to see how Rawlings’s first solo novel would turn out.  I ended up having a great time listening to this fantastic novel.  Rawlings has successfully utilised the always-intriguing concept of an invasion or war on American soil and ended up writing quite an enjoyable story around it.  Assault by Fire is the first novel in Rawlings’s Tyce Asher series and after how much I enjoyed the first book I am definitely planning to check out the rest of the series in the future.

This was a pretty good debut from Rawlings, who has come up with an intense and enjoyable modern military thriller novel.  Assault by Fire is a particularly fast-paced novel chock full of memorable and vivid action sequences that are guaranteed to get the readers blood pumping.  Rawlings makes good use of multiple perspectives, including from the point of view of several Russian characters, to tell a rich and clever story about a foreign invasion of the United States.  I loved some of the awesome ideas that Rawlings inserted into the compelling novel, and this ended up being a really fun book to check out.  I do need to point out that there was an occasional lack of consistency throughout the book which was a little distracting at times and some of the characterisations were a little weird or unrealistic.  However, these issues did not take away from the story too much and I think that Rawlings has the potential to improve as an author in the future.  Overall, this was an intriguing and captivating novel that is worth checking out.

I really enjoyed the cool American invasion concept that Rawlings utilises for Assault by Fire.  Russian invasions are something that Rawlings has explored before in Red Metal, with the Russians invading Europe and Africa in that novel while striking at US military targets.  Potential invasions of America have formed the basis of several intriguing novels and movies over the years (Red Dawn probably being the most prominent example) and I felt that Rawlings did an awesome job coming up with his own unique take on this story idea.  Throughout the book, Rawlings presents an interesting scenario where America is only able to be invaded after the majority of its troops are deployed to the Middle East, most nuclear weapons have been disarmed worldwide, and gun control has been introduced in America, taking away everyone’s assault rifles (I’m going to avoid getting into a gun control debate over the last point).  The way in which the Russians invade and manage to take over America is very cool and dramatic, and it was interesting to see how Rawlings, who apparently worked on several scenarios during his time working in the Pentagon, envisioned a potential invasion going down.  The initial invasion sequence is pretty awesome, and features several great scenes of Washington DC falling and other key locations getting hit, much to the surprise of the characters watching it.  Another aspect of this invasion scenario I enjoyed was the way in which the American troops were the ones who lacked resources and support after all their strategic bases and headquarters were destroyed or seized during the initial invasion.  This forced the characters to fight like insurgents and engage in guerrilla warfare, and there were several discussions from some of the veteran soldiers about using the tactics that they themselves had experienced while fighting in the Middle East.  Watching the protagonists adapt to this change of circumstances was rather fascinating, and Rawlings has clearly put some thought into how a war on American soil could actually be fought.  I really enjoyed some of the ideas he came up with for these fights, and I was especially amused by the use of some World War II relics in one major battle scene.  I do kind of wish that Rawlings had expanded the scope of his story to encompass the entirety of America and beyond.  While the events in Virginia and West Virginia were cool, I would have absolutely loved to see how the war was being fought across the entire country, and a story with multiple protagonists across America and outside of it might have been a little more impressive.  Still, I liked the way in which Rawlings explored this concept, and it made for a great story.

The real strength of this novel is the way in which Rawlings imports his substantial military knowledge into the story, creating a ton of amazing action sequences that really make an impression on the reader.  Rawlings clearly knows his stuff, as he provides a ton of details about the various weapons, vehicles, technology and tactics that the soldiers are utilising.  This added detail, as well as the impressive descriptions of how the armaments work and what they can do, really help to make the already cool action sequences even more vivid and you get a real sense of what a modern soldier experiences during battle.  A number of awesome scenes really stick in the mind as a result, from some excellent sniper scenes, a cool pitched battle with some historical technology and some particularly cool combat sequences between armoured vehicles that occurred towards the end of the novel.  Rawlings also ramps up the authenticity of the story by utilising a ton of military jargon and acronyms, so you get a real sense of being in the midst of a tactical discussion by soldiers.  The author also attempts to get into the head of the various soldiers, especially the commander, Tyce Asher, in order to show the doubts, fears and concerns that they experience during combat or while making command decisions.  I felt that all of Rawlings’s military experiences translated across into the novel extremely well, and it really helped to enhance the overall story.

I ended up grabbing the audiobook version of Assault by Fire, which was narrated by Graham Winton.  The Assault by Fire audiobook has a run time of just over 10 hours, and I was able to get through it in about a week.  Winton did a good job of narrating this fun book, and it was rather cool to hear the events of the book unfold, as the narration helped bring the listener right into the middle of the fighting.  The audiobook ended being a great way to enjoy this book, especially as the story clips along at a swift pace in this format, and I would recommend the audiobook for anyone interested in checking out Assault by Fire.

Assault by Fire by Hunter Ripley Rawlings is an awesome modern military thriller that places the reader right in the midst of a Russian invasion of America.  Featuring an impressively exciting narrative based around a cool story concept, Assault by Fire is a lot of fun, and readers can expect a high-octane, action-packed novel.  This turned out to be a rather fantastic debut from Rawlings, and I look forward to seeing where this series goes in the future.

River of Gold by Anthony Riches

River of Gold Cover

Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton (Hardback – 6 August 2020)

Series: Empire – Book 11

Length: 339 pages

My Rating: 4.25 out of 5 stars

From one of the top authors of Roman historical fiction, Anthony Riches, comes River of Gold, the action-packed and epic 11th entry in his bestselling Empire series.

Aegyptus, 187 AD.  Under the command of Tribune Scaurus, decorated Centurion and former fugitive, Marcus Valerius Aquila, serves with several elite veteran officers, each of whom has displeased the Imperial hierarchy in some way.  These Roman soldiers now find themselves part of an informal troubleshooter unit, destined to die if they should ever fail one of their impossible tasks.  The Roman Empire is once again in danger as a mysterious army advances from the south of Africa, killing a major garrison and conquering a key port city at the southernmost border of the empire.  In order to solve this problem, the Emperor’s corrupt advisor sends Centurion Marcus and his comrades on another dangerous mission.

Arriving in Alexandria, Marcus and his comrades discover a rich province riddled with corruption and with a much reduced military presence.  Taking command of the local legion, Scaurus marches what soldiers he can down to the site of the massacre to find a new grim reality waiting for them.  After centuries of peace, the mysterious kingdom of Kush has once again declared war on Rome, determined to claim what is rightfully theirs from the weakened Romans.  In order to stop them, Scaurus leads his force deep into enemy territory to recapture an abandoned fortress and hold it against impossible odds.  Their mission is borderline suicidal and only has a slim chance of success, but if anyone can pull of this impossible task, it is Marcus and his friends.

This was another fun and exciting historical novel from Riches which proved to be a fantastic new entry in his Empire series.  Riches is a prolific and talented author who has been writing since 2009, when he debuted the first Empire novel, Wounds of Honour.  Since then he has gone to write an additional 10 novels in this series, as well as writing his separate series, The Centurions.  I have previously read a few of Riches’s books, including the first three entries in the Empire series when they were released.  While these first three books were extremely enjoyable Roman historical fiction novels, I missed the chance to read a couple of entries in the series and fell too far behind to catch up.  However, I recently got a copy of this latest book and, as I was in the mood for a visit back to ancient Rome, I tried out River of Gold to see how it would turn out.

This proved to be a good decision on my behalf as River of Gold ended up being a fantastic and compelling read.  Riches sets up an excellent character-driven story that sets a group of unique Roman officers against a dangerous new foe.  The author does a good job setting the story up, allowing those readers unfamiliar with the series or the historical era to easily jump in, and then sets the characters toward their goals.  This results in a captivating narrative that has a good blend of action, character development and cool historical features, as the protagonists embark on a madcap plan to win the war.  This leads to a number of awesome battle scenes, including an extended siege sequence which was a lot of fun to read, and the various characters find themselves in sufficient danger throughout.  The story ends a tad suddenly, although Riches does a good job of setting up the overall conclusion to the main storyline.  This story also felt a bit short, and I think it could have benefited from another 50 pages or so, perhaps extending out the siege sequence and adding in some more action and peril there.  However, this was still an overall excellent narrative which I was able to get through in only a few short days.

Riches spends a good part of River of Gold focusing on the various characters he has introduced and developed over the course of his long-running series, and this proves to be an entertaining group of protagonists.  In order to examine these characters Riches utilises a detailed, in-narrative character introduction near the start of the book, in which a newcomer reads off personnel files about each of the recurring characters.  While this was rather forced and inelegant way to introduce the characters and their history, it does the job and allows the readers to get an idea of who these protagonists are and their various quirks.  I found this particularly useful after having skipped several books in the series, and new readers will definitely appreciate the background.  Most of these characters get some intriguing arcs throughout the book.  For example, Marcus is once again the lead character of the novel as he tends to get the most important missions and ends up in the most danger, including a particularly close look at the Kush and their society.  Marcus is a fairly typical Roman historical fiction protagonist who has gone from raw recruit to hardened veteran throughout the course of the series, and it was interesting to see the various developments that have occurred since the last Empire novel I read.  Tribune Scaurus also gets a fair bit of attention as the leader of the Roman force and the mastermind behind their attack.  Scaurus is a good leader character, providing the rest of the characters with backbone and fortitude, and I liked his rather unique command style that relates to the dangerous political situation he finds himself in.  The other major character arc that I liked revolved around Cotta, the group’s veteran centurion and Marcus’s mentor, who reluctantly returns to Aegyptus for the first time after assassinating a Roman general who sought to rebel against the Emperor.  Cotta’s interesting subplot revolved around him reminiscing about his past mistakes while he attempts to hide his identity from the legion they have taken over, as they suffered as a result of his actions.  All of these recurring characters provided a great base for the story and some major moments that occurred will definitely rock readers, especially those long-term fans of the series.

While the recurring characters are good, I really have to highlight some of the new characters that Riches created for this novel, one of whom in particular outshines the rest.  This new character is Demetrius, a Christian who accompanies the army down south as part of his holy mission.  Demetrius is a complex and enjoyable character mainly due to his past as a vicious Christian-hunting Roman soldier.  After a series of brutalities, Demetrius sought redemption by joining the Christian cult, and now he fights against the invaders, believing that this fight is a holy war.  Riches focuses a good amount of the plot on Demetrius, and he proves to be a captivating and central figure, offering words of wisdom and defending his newfound Christian beliefs.  I found the author’s portrayal of this character to be really intriguing and I liked the close relationship he formed with some of the recurring characters, especially Marcus, despite that fact that none of them are Christians.  The other new character I liked was Ptolemy, an Imperial secretary and scribe assigned to the group, who provides them with relevant information and history to assist with their mission.  Ptolemy is essentially a walking piece of exposition, and a large amount of the book’s historical information is revealed thanks to him.  Despite this, he was a rather entertaining character, mainly due to the odd-couple friendship he formed with Dubnus.  The two characters are pretty much opposites in every way and end up bickering on a number of subjects, while also building up a mutual respect for each other.  This fun discourse between the two resulted in some great moments throughout the book and he was an interesting addition to the plot.

In addition to the fun story and great range of characters, Riches also invests a significant amount of time and effort in bringing the historical aspects of this novel to life.  The author has obviously done some serious research on the subject of Roman military history as he does a wonderful job showcasing various elements of the Roman legions and soldiers to life, including gear, unit makeup and tactics.  This also translates incredibly across into the various combat scenes throughout the novel, as you get a real feel for how a Roman solider would have felt in combat, especially at the Centurion level, although Riches mostly focuses on unique fight situations in this book.  The book also contains a number of detailed descriptions of the historical landscapes that the protagonists traverse through, such as Alexandria and the rest of historical Egypt.  This proved to be quite a fascinating inclusion in the story and I always enjoy seeing an author’s depiction of historical settings.  However, the most fascinating part of this novel has to be the inclusion of the ancient African Kingdom of Kush, with whom our protagonists face off against.  The Kushites were a powerful and advanced civilization, who, until recently, have been somewhat overlooked by historians and archaeologists.  Riches does an incredible job working them into his novel and setting them up as a rival kingdom to Rome.  Not only does he feature a number of detailed depictions of their culture and military make up during the events of the book, but he also spends time exploring the history of Kush, including their origins as a civilization, their prior history throughout Aegyptus and their conflicts with the Romans.  This was easily one of the most interesting and compelling elements of River of Gold, and I really appreciated Riches’s inclusion of such a unique historical adversary.  Indeed, all of the historical inclusions in this book are excellent, and I had an amazing time exploring them as the story progressed.

River of Gold by Anthony Riches is a captivating and enjoyable novel that takes the reader on a fascinating and action-packed journey through history.  Riches does an excellent job continuing his bestselling Empire series, and I had a great time getting through his exciting story, loaded with great characters and an impressive historical background.  All of this results in an amazing historical fiction novel that is well worth checking out, whether you are a fan of this long-running series or a general historical fiction fan looking for a fun adventure story.

The Gates of Athens by Conn Iggulden

The Gates of Athens Cover

Publisher: Michael Joseph (Trade Paperback – 4 August 2020)

Series: Athenian – Book One

Length: 443 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

One of the top authors of historical fiction in the world today, Conn Iggulden, returns with an exciting and deeply impressive novel that chronicles the chaotic formative years of the birthplace of democracy in The Gates of Athens.

In 490 BC, Darius, King of Persia, rules a vast and powerful empire of millions.  None dare oppose him except the city states of Greece who openly defy him and refuse his demands to bow to his authority.  Determined to conquer them, Darius leads a powerful fleet across the sea towards the city of Athens.  However, the people of Athens are unlike any opponent that Darius has faced before.  Having only recently overthrown their own tyrants, they will never again bow down to a single man, no matter the cost.

As Darius’s army lands near the city on the plains of Marathon he finds a host of Athenian hoplites waiting for him ready to defend their home.  This fierce battle will set of a series of events that will not only change the life of everyone in Greece but also serve as the defining moment for several citizens of Athens, including the charismatic and scheming Themistocles, the clever and honest Aristides and the mighty warrior Xanthippus, father of Pericles.

As these leaders of Athens battle for the future of their city the choices they make will have far reaching impacts as, years later, another king of Persia, Xerxes, will lead an immense invasion of Greece in order to satisfy his father’s honour.  However, despite his vast armies and navies, Xerxes will face surprising opposition as a small force of determined Greeks decides to hold against him on both land and at sea at a place called Thermopylae.  Will the bravery of few be enough to save many or will freedom and democracy be crushed before it can truly begin?

Well damn, now that was an epic book.  I have been saying for a while that I thought that The Gates of Athens was going to be one of the best historical fiction books of 2020.  Well, just like the oracle of Delphi when she prophesised the fate of Leonidas, it turns out that I was right, as this new novel turned out to be an exceptional historical tale that proved extremely hard to stop reading.  Mind you, the awesomeness of this prediction is rather tempered by the fact that this was a historical fiction book written by Conn Iggulden, so it was a bit of a given that it was going to be damn good novel.  I am a major fan of Iggulden, having read several of his prior books including entries in both his incredible Emperor and War of the Roses series, as well as his standalone novel, The Falcon of Sparta.  This latest book from Iggulden serves as the first entry in his Athenian series, which is set to be a fantastic series over the next couple of years.

The Gates of Athens contains an extremely impressive and sprawling historical storyline that showcases and recreates some of the early defining moments of ancient Athens.  The story starts off with the battle of Marathon and then explores the aftermath of the war and its many consequences.  This results in a great multi-character narrative which shows how the various decisions of the protagonists impacted the events of the second half of the book, which is set several years later and examines the battle of Thermopylae.  Iggulden utilises a number of different character perspectives throughout the course of the plot, allowing the reader a larger view of the events occurring, while also providing some alternate viewpoints about the same events.  While there is an obvious focus on the major battles against the Persians, The Gates of Athens has a lot of different elements to it and at many points this awesome novel changes focus to examine political intrigue, social struggles, personal relationships and intense character development.  Iggulden does an outstanding job writing all of these different elements and it really comes together into an amazing overarching historical narrative.

In addition to The Gates of Athens’s fantastic story I also have to highlight the book’s detailed and intriguing historical setting.  As the title suggests, The Gates of Athens is primarily set within the ancient city of Athens, and Iggulden has done an incredible job bringing this iconic historical location to life.  The author spends significant time examining several different aspects of the city.  This includes an in-depth look at its history, its recently introduced democratic political structure, its military defences, its economic status and its layout, and an exploration of the day-to-day lives of its citizens.  Iggulden also attempts to dive into the mindset of the people of Athens, showing their collective feelings and opinions, including the immense pride that they had in being a unique and unprecedented society that extols the values of democracy and freedom (you know, except for all the slaves).  All of this comes together into a rich tapestry of culture and society that acts as a love letter to ancient Athens and everything it represented.  All of this proves to be an excellent setting for the story, and I really appreciated the lengths that Iggulden went to in order to show the reader what being an Athenian was all about.

Another fantastic part of this book was the compelling people that the author set the complex story around.  All the major characters in this novel are real-life historical figures who had a significant hand in the history of Athens, including Xanthippus, Aristides and Themistocles.  Each of these three people are extremely fascinating individuals who achieved many great things, and Iggulden does a fantastic job exploring some of the major events that occurred to them during the years that The Gates of Athens was set, including the roles they played in battles and political gambits, their impact on the city and their various rises and falls in fortunes.  I had an amazing time seeing each of their individual stories unfold.  I particularly enjoyed the way that Iggulden portrayed each of these characters, showing Themistocles (a person Iggulden praises very heavily in his Historical Notes sections) as a self-made political climber with limitless ambition, Aristides as a relentless honest person, and Xanthippus as a honourable but hot-headed individual.  Each of these main characters engage in various political battles against each other, adding significant drama and intrigue to the story, although it proved to be rather heartening to see them come together for the good of Athens and its people at various points in the book.

I also have to highlight the use of Xerxes, King of Persia, who acts as the book’s main antagonist.  Iggulden spends a good amount of time exploring this fascinating figure and examines his various motivations for invading Greece in the way that he did.  Xerxes serves as intriguing counterpoint view to the major Greek characters, and I liked this more grounded portrayal of him as a man who has inherited unlimited power and does not quite know what to do when he encounters Greeks who refuse to bow down before him.  Overall, Iggulden did an outstanding job with each of these characters, and I also really appreciated how he started setting up several other secondary characters, such as Pericles, who will probably be the protagonists of future books.

This book also has plenty for those readers who love some historical action as The Gates of Athens contains a number of major battle sequences, which showcases the fights between the Greeks and the Persians, including the battle at Marathon, and the conflicts that took place around Thermopylae.  These battle sequences are written extremely well and provide excellent and detailed reconstructions of how these battles are played out.  Iggulden has obviously done his research when it comes to these ancient battles, as each of them are chocked full of historical detail, providing the reader with immense amounts of information.  I really liked all the tactics, equipment, disposition and manoeuvres that featured and the actions of various participants during each of these fights, all of which really helps to paint a picture for the reader.  While the various land battles are very impressive, including great depiction of the Spartans’ stand against the Persians at Thermopylae (with a historically accurate number of combatants), I really have to highlight the fights that occur at sea.  As this is a book about Athens there is a major focus on the Athenian navy and their allies and the combat that they saw at Thermopylae.  Iggulden really dives into all the aspects around these naval battles, including showing all the preparation and training that the Greek sailors did before the invasion, as well as the various tactics and naval combat techniques that were developed.  The eventual fight against the Persian armada is really impressive with some amazing action sequences that show the rival fleets against each other.  These depictions of ancient combat and classic battles were extremely awesome, and they were a key part of why I had such a great time reading this book.

The Gates of Athens by Conn Iggulden is an impressive and expansive piece of historical fiction that proved to be a fantastic book to get lost in.  Iggulden once again shows why he is one of the most talented writers of historical fiction in the world today with this outstanding epic that combines masterful storytelling with compelling historical elements, great characters and some exciting action sequences.  This is easily one of the best historical fiction books of 2020 and it gets a full five-star rating from me.

Star Wars: Queen’s Peril by E. K. Johnston

Queen's Peril Cover

Publisher: Random House Audio (Audiobook – 2 June 2020)

Series: Star Wars

Length: 6 hours and 10 minutes

My Rating: 3.75 out of 5 stars

Prepare to dive back into a galaxy far, far away, as bestselling young adult author E. K. Johnston presents the very first Star Wars novel of 2020, Star Wars: Queen’s Peril.

Padmé Naberrie has always wanted to serve the people of her home planet of Naboo, and she knows that the best way to do that is to become Queen. Entering the competitive election, the 14-year-old politician is elected as ruler of Naboo. Casting aside her real identity for the protection of herself and her family, Padmé takes on a new name, Amidala, and moves into the royal palace, determined to bring change to Naboo. However, even a ruler as brilliant and diplomatic as Padmé is unable to do everything by herself, and she finds out that she is going to need help.

In order to keep her safe and to assist her with her needs, Padmé is introduced to a group of talented young women who will serve as her handmaidens. Acting as her assistants, confidantes, bodyguards and decoys, each of her handmaidens brings something different to the group, and it is up to Padmé to turn them into an effective team. Together, Padmé and her new friends seem capable of dealing with any challenge that may impact them.

However, there is a dark plot at work within the Republic, and its mastermind has Naboo in their sights. Soon Naboo is invaded by the armies of the Trade Federation, who seek to capture Queen Amidala and force her to sign away the planet. Forced to flee in disguise, Padmé sets out to reclaim her home and will do anything to free her planet. While Jedi, soldiers and a young chosen one may rally to their cause, the fate of Naboo ultimately rests on the shoulders of a young queen and her loyal handmaidens.

Queen’s Peril is an intriguing and enjoyable new addition to the Star Wars canon from bestselling author E. K. Johnston. I have been rather enjoying some of Johnston’s recent Star Wars releases, and I had a fun time reading her 2016 novel, Ahsoka, as well as last year’s fantastic release, Queen’s Shadow. Queen’s Peril is the first of several Star Wars books being released in 2020 (although some have been delayed), and I have been looking forward to seeing how this book turns out. This new novel acts as a prequel to Queen’s Shadow and is set both before and during the events of the first Star Wars prequel film, The Phantom Menace. This ended up being a fun and interesting read that explores some unique parts of Star Wars lore.

This latest Star Wars novel contains an intriguing tale that starts from the moment that Padmé is elected queen and takes on the Amidala persona. The first two thirds of this book follow the early days of Amidala’s reign, introducing Padmé and her handmaidens and showing how they became such a tight-knit team. There are a number of great moments during this first part of the story, and it was interesting to see the origin of a number of elements of the Amidala character that are shown in The Phantom Menace, such as her voice, the establishment of the decoy system, and a huge range of other compelling features. There are also several scenes that are dedicated to exploring why the Trade Federation decided to target Naboo and what the origins of their conflict were. I really enjoyed the first two thirds of this book, and I feel that the final third kind of let it down a little. The last part of the book focuses on the invasion of Naboo and follows the events of The Phantom Menace. While it was cool to see some different perspectives on the events of the film, this part of the book felt rather rushed, as the narrative jumped between a number of sequences from the movie in rather quick succession. Despite the problems with the ending, this was still a rather compelling story, and I did enjoy Johnston’s additions to the Star Wars universe.

While on the surface this book appears to be purely about Padmé, Queen’s Peril is actually about a number of different characters who made Padmé’s role as Queen Amidala possible. Padmé is naturally one of the main characters of the book, but all five of her handmaidens are just as important to the story. Johnston previously introduced each of these handmaidens in Queen’s Shadow, and briefly explored their unique skills and what they brought to the group. She does this again in Queen’s Peril, although this is done in greater detail, as this book shows each character’s history and how each of them became a handmaiden. Each of the handmaidens is given a distinctive personality, and all five get a number of scenes told from their point-of-view. I really enjoyed learning more about these characters, and it was great to see them come together as a group and work towards ensuring that Padmé was protected and an effective queen. While each of the characters are explored in some detailed, the biggest focus is on Sabé, Padmé’s first handmaiden and her main decoy (played by Keira Knightly in the film). The author spends time showing the unique relationship between Sabé and Padmé, and it was captivating to see the trust between them grow. Because she was so heavily focused on in the movie, Padmé does not get a lot of scenes in the last third of the book, so quite a bit this part of the story is told from the perspective of all the handmaidens. It was rather interesting to see how each of these characters went during the course of the film, and it was particularly cool to see some scenes with Sabé as she pretended to be the Queen.

In addition to Padmé and her handmaidens, Queen’s Peril also featured point-of-view chapters or scenes from pretty much all the key characters from The Phantom Menace film. The use of all these extra characters was an interesting choice from Johnston, and I liked how it expanded the story and showed some fresh perspectives and backstory for several major Star Wars protagonists. Most of these appearances are rather brief, with characters like Anakin, Obi-Wan Kenobi and Qui-Gon Jinn only getting a few minor scenes. However, other characters do get some extended sequences, especially Captain Panaka, the head of Amidala’s palace guards. Several chapters are told from Panaka’s perspective, and he becomes quite a key character within the book, mainly because he is the person who finds and recruits all of the handmaidens. Panaka is a major driving force of the plot, and it was interesting to see his role expanded from the films, especially as you get more insight into why he is so dedicated to the Queen. I also really liked how the book features several sequences told from the perspective of Senator Palpatine/Darth Sidious. These scenes were fun, as they showed a lot of Palpatine’s earliest manipulations, including how he was able to organise the invasion of Naboo. Overall, I rather appreciated how the author utilised all the characters within Queen’s Peril, and watching their development and interactions proved to be quite compelling.

Like the author’s other Star Wars novels, Queen’s Peril is intended for a young adult audience, and Johnston does a fantastic job tailoring it towards younger readers. This book has a lot of great young adult moments to it, especially as it focuses on a group of teen girls working together to outsmart a variety of adults and then eventually save their entire planet from an invasion. Queen’s Peril has some fantastic portrayals of these teen protagonists, and there are a number of sequences which show them stepping up or dealing with complicated issues that younger female readers will appreciate. While it is intended for younger readers, Queen’s Peril, like most young adult Star Wars novels, is also very accessible to all readers who are major fans of the franchise, and it is easy for older readers to get into and enjoy the plot of the book and its intriguing new additions to the Star Wars lore.

I did have a minor complaint about the release order of the books in Johnston’s series about Padmé. While I enjoyed both Queen’s Peril and Queen’s Shadow, I really do think that it was an odd decision to release Queen’s Shadow first, and then release a prequel novel a year later. It would have been better to release Queen’s Peril first to introduce the various handmaidens and help build up the emotional connection between them and Padmé, making their use and inclusion in Queen’s Shadow a bit more impactful. It might also have made a bit more sense to have Queen’s Peril only focus on events before The Phantom Menace, have another book focus exclusively on what was happening with the handmaidens and Padmé during the course of the film (which would have ensured that Queen’s Peril did not feel as rushed as it did towards the end), and then release Queen’s Shadow. While I am sure that there is some reason why the order for these books was a bit off, probably at the publisher level, I think they could have planned this out a little better.

I ended up grabbing the audiobook version of Queen’s Peril, and I had a great time listening to this book. Queen’s Peril has a short run time of just over six hours, so it is rather easy to get through this book quickly. Like all Star Wars audiobooks, this version of Queen’s Peril was a real auditory treat, due to the excellent use of the iconic Star Wars sound effects and scores from the movies, which are used to enhance each of the scenes. While it was great to once again hear all the fantastic music and intriguing background noises, Queen’s Peril’s greatest strength as an audiobook comes from its fantastic narrator, Catherine Taber. Taber is the actress who voiced Padmé in The Clones Wars animated television show, and, short of getting Natalie Portman in, is the perfect person to narrate a novel about the character. Taber also narrated the previous Johnston book about Padmé, Queen’s Shadow (indeed all of Johnston’s Star Wars books have featured the character’s voice actor as a narrator for their audiobook), and it was great to see her return. She naturally does a perfect voice for the character of Padmé, as well as for the handmaidens, who had similar speaking patterns due to their role as decoys. There are some great vocal scenes between these characters, especially when they are trying to perfect the Amidala voice, and they go through several variations throughout the book. In addition, because Queen’s Peril features nearly every major character from The Phantom Menace, Taber also had to voice several different people who were brought to life by some amazing actors in the original film. I felt that Taber did a fantastic job as imitating some of these voices, and it proved to be a real showcase for her skills as a voice actor. Overall, I had an amazing time listening to this audiobook, and I would strongly recommend this format to anyone interested in checking out Queen’s Peril.

Star Wars: Queen’s Peril is an intriguing and exciting new young adult Star Wars release from E. K. Johnson that acts as a sequel to her previous awesome novel, Queen’s Shadow. Johnston comes up with another compelling story that explores the early life of Padmé/Queen Amidala and her loyal handmaidens. While it does have some flaws, it is a very good book, and it should prove to be a fun read for established fans of the franchise and younger readers who are interested in breaking into the expanded universe. I had an amazing time listening to this book and I look forward to seeing what sort of Star Wars story Johnston produces next.

We are the Dead by Mike Shackle

We are the Dead Cover

Publisher: Orion (Audiobook – 8 August 2019)

Series: The Last War – Book One

Length: 18 hours and 6 minutes

My Rating: 4.75 out of 5 stars

Honour, loyalty, service and death! I finally get around to checking out one of last year’s hottest fantasy debuts with this review of We Are the Dead by Mike Shackle.

Generations ago, the nation of Jia was protected by powerful mages who wielded amazing magic that could shape the world around it. But when the magic faded, the people turned to the Shulka, their revered warrior caste, who held back the barbaric northern Egril tribes with their tactics, superior weapons and skills in combat. For hundreds of years the Shulka have successfully defeated the Egril raids, but their many victories have led to complacency.

During the latest raiding season, the Shulka are surprised when an organised and well-armed force marches upon them. Supported by demons and magic, the like of which has not been seen in an age, the Egril swiftly defeat the Shulka armies and conquer all of Jia in days. Their conquest is quick and brutal, and few are spared the bloody wrath of the Egril and their monsters. Those who do survive are forced in servitude and must worship the Egril’s terrible god or else suffer the consequences.

Now, six months after the invasion began, the country appears beaten, but there are always some heroes who are ready to fight back. In the capital city, Tinnstra, the disgraced, cowardly daughter of Jia’s greatest Shulka general finds herself drawn into a plot to save the royal family and soon finds the fate of the entire Kingdom resting in her hands. Elsewhere, a crippled Shulka warrior and his wheelchair-bound son attempts to lead an organised rebellion, but he soon finds that his greatest assets may be a young terrorist and a widowed mother who is trying to provide for her son. Can this unusual group of damaged heroes turn the tide against an all-powerful army or is it already too late to save their country from the control of a dark death god?

We Are the Dead is an intricate and impressive dark fantasy debut from talented new author Mike Shackle, which forms the first book in his The Last War series. This fantastic book came out last year, and it was one of the books I most regret not getting a chance to read in 2019, especially after I saw some of the very positive reviews being written about it. I really have been meaning to check this novel out for a while now, so I went out and grabbed the audiobook format of We Are the Dead a few weeks ago and started listening to it. I am extremely glad that I ended up reading this book, as I fell in love with this novel and its compelling character-driven story.

This novel contains an outstanding and exciting narrative that follows five unique and intriguing characters across eight days of rebellion and bloodshed in a conquered nation. We Are the Dead’s story starts off big; after a quick introduction to the world and a couple of the characters, everything soon blows apart as a destructive full-scale invasion occurs. The story than jumps forward six months and explores how the world has changed, and what has happened to the central group of characters. What follows is five intriguing and exciting separate storylines, each told from the perspective of a different character involved in various parts of the first major attempt from the Shulka resistance movement to strike back and restore their country. Each of these five storylines starts off by examining the unique adventures and experiences of that character and showing how they are brought into the latest round of fight. Each of the storylines starts off exclusively focusing on one point-of-view character, but they quickly start to connect as the plot of the book unfolds. All five separate storylines eventually come together exceedingly well into one extremely enjoyable and action-packed narrative that proves hard to put down. I really liked the way that all storylines all joined together, and it was fantastic to see the quicker narrative jumps between the various characters at the end of the book. I also enjoyed how the main story focused on eight days of conflict and adventure, with the various character arcs running concurrently with each other, as this allowed for a tight, powerful narrative. The various characters go through a lot of big and life-changing moments in the span of these eight days and there are some major cliff-hangers and surprising deaths that leave the reader in wild suspense. All of this makes for some great reading, and you will be on the edge of your seat for the entirety of this book.

Shackle chooses to tell his exciting story through the eyes of five separate point-of-view characters, all of whom have their own viewpoint and adventures within We are the Dead. Each of these characters have a fascinating character arcs, especially as most of the characters grow through adversity as they experience the horrors of war and learn the necessities of sacrifice, duty and loyalty.

The character who got the most focus within this novel was Tinnstra, the daughter of a legendary Shulka warrior who has a lot of high expectations weighing on her shoulders. Despite her heritage and her skill with a blade, Tinnstra starts the book dropping out of the Shulka academy, because she is a blatant and obvious coward. Managing to flee from the invasion, Tinnstra attempts to forge a new life for herself in the conquered capital, but eventually finds herself in the midst of the Shulka rebellion, with a particularly important package that could change the course of the war. At the start of this book, I really did not like Tinnstra, mainly because every second sentence in her chapters involved her pathetically doubting herself or calling herself a coward. Thankfully, this led to a rather good storyline about finding one’s courage and stepping up in a big way, and she eventually came across as a real badass with some fantastic and enjoyable chapters towards the end of the book.

Another great character is Jax, a former Shulka general who, after losing his arm during the initial invasion, becomes a determined resistance leader with his wheelchair-bound son. Jax is probably the most consistent protagonist throughout most of the book, serving as a steady and wise figure who is forced to face the reality of failing his country. Jax is an extremely likeable character, which makes it really hard for the reader when he goes through some incredibly dark moments that have the potential to break him.

Next up we have Dren, a teen terrorist who, after witnessing his family dying during the invasion, becomes a rabid killer, brutally attempting to take out any Egrils (or Skulls, as they are known, due to their distinctive helmets), not matter the collateral damage. Dren is a pretty unlikeable kid at the start of the book due to his overwhelming anger towards the Egrils, any Jian who associates with them and the Shulka resistance, who he hates just as much as the Egrils due to the way that they treated the peasants before the invasion and because of their failure in stopping the slaughter. However, as the book progresses, the reader gets more and more invested in Dren’s compelling story, especially when he starts spending time with Jax. Jax is a terrific mentor figure for Dren, who eventually learns the error of his ways and starts to take more responsibility for himself and the band of child terrorists he has recruited.

The final Jian character who the book focuses on is Yas, a single mother who attempts to earn a living working as a maid for the invaders. Yas is recruited as a spy by the Skulka resistance and ends up becoming more and more involved in their plots and schemes. Yas’s storyline is another fantastic arc, and there are some interesting similarities to Tinnstra’s arc, in that she finds her courage to fight back and do what is right. However, Yas’s story is more tied into the love of her family and her son, and how she wants a better world for her child to grow up in.

In addition to Jian characters, Shackle also tells a portion of the book from the perspective of Darus, an Egril Chosen, an officer who has been granted a magical ability by their powerful leader. Darus is a psychotic torturer with severe sister issues, who delights in causing pain and torment and who is determined to win glory and power. Darus’s powers are ironically that of healing, meaning that he is essentially an immortal antagonist who can also heal people that he comes into contact with. He uses this power throughout the book to heal his victims, bringing them back from the brink of death, so that he can torture them again and again in order to break their spirits. As you can probably guess, Darus is a rather reprehensible and unredeemable character, but one who offers an intriguing counterpoint to the protagonists. It is always cool to see something from the villain’s point of view, and I felt that Darus was a perfect antagonist for this dark and twisted novel.

All five of these characters proved to be extremely interesting to follow, and I really liked where all of their arcs went. Shackle does an impressive job making their portrayals and emotions seem realistic, and you can almost feel the fear, anger and hatred that several of the characters exude. I appreciated how none of the protagonists were perfect heroes, and most of them are victims or products of the war and the circumstances they find themselves in. I found it rather interesting to see how the various characters saw each other throughout the course of the story, such as when some of the characters viewed Tinnstra for the first time and mistake her expressions of terror and apprehension for looks of determination and impatience to get towards the enemy. I also have to highlight the raft of cool and likeable side characters featured throughout the course of the story, many of whom steal several scenes from the point-of-view characters. These are a fun collection of side characters, although readers really should not get too attached to them, as they tend to have a rather short lifespan within the course of the book. Overall, We are the Dead contains some excellent and enjoyable characters, and I really appreciated the complicated and captivating storylines that Shackle wove around them.

In addition to the impressive story and excellent characters, Shackle has come up with an awesome new fantasy world for We are the Dead. The entirety of the story is set within the nation of Jia, a cultured land with a proud warrior tradition, which is somewhat reminiscent of feudal Japan. Shackle does a fantastic job of setting up this landscape in the initial couple of chapters, before everything changes thanks to the invasion. The new Jia, six months after the brutal conquest, is a vastly different place, filled with hunger, fear and desperation as the survivors are forced to adapt to their new way of life. Shackle did an amazing job portraying a nation completely under enemy occupation, and I was put in mind of Nazi-occupied France, due to the round up of civilians, the inclusion of collaborators and snitches, retaliations against the populace and the careful resistance movements relying on help from a nation across the sea to survive. The Egrils also proved to be a great antagonistic nation for the plot of this book, and I loved how they were able to fool the conceited Shulka warriors by pretending to be tribal savages for years, before invading with an organised and advanced army, utilising magical and demonic assets to perfection. There were some distinctive Nazi elements to the Egrils, such as the way that they swiftly conquered all of Jia in a few days with Blitzkrieg-like tactics, their absolute devotion to their anointed leader (who is totally going to turn out to be the lost brother of the mage Aasgod, right?), their stormtrooper-like appearance and tactics, as well as the fact that the narrator of the audiobook format gave all the Egril characters a distinctive Germanic accent. All of this proved to be an excellent background for We are the Dead and I loved seeing the story unfold in this recently conquered fantasy nation.

Those readers who like some action in their stories will be extremely satisfied with We are the Dead, as Shackle has loaded his book with all manner of fights, battles and gratuitous violence (the best type of violence). This is an extremely action-packed novel, and I personally enjoyed all the cool fight sequences, from the small-scale battles between trained warriors, the brutal hit-and-run tactics of Dren’s fighters, and several larger fight sequences between opposing forces. Shackle proved to be very adapt at bringing these action sequences to life, and I found myself quite pumped up as a result of reading this book. Readers should be warned however that We are the Dead does feature a number of vivid and disturbing torture sequences, which are made even worse by the fact that the torturer, Darus, can heal his victim and keep inflicting pain, over and over again. As a result, if intense torture scenes make you uncomfortable, then you are probably better off avoiding this book.

As I mentioned above, I chose to listen to an audiobook version of We are the Dead, rather than grabbing a physical copy. The audiobook format has a run time of just over 18 hours, and it is narrated by Nicola Bryant. This is a lengthy audiobook and it took me a little while to get through it. Part of this is because the story is a tad slow at the start of the book, although I did end up absolutely powering through the last six hours extremely quickly in comparison to the first two thirds of the novel. I really enjoyed the audiobook version, and I found it to be an incredible way to absorb We are the Dead’s clever and detailed narrative. I was also impressed with Bryant’s narration, as she brought some real passion to the audiobook. You could hear the intense emotions in Bryant’s voice as she narrated the story, and you can tell that she was trying to emulate what the characters were feeling with her narration. Bryant also utilised a fantastic and distinctive set of voices for the various characters featured within the novel, and I think that she had an excellent grasp of their personalities and emotions. This proved to be an exception audiobook, and I would definitely suggest checking out this format of We are the Dead.

We are the Dead is an outstanding and deeply enjoyable fantasy novel from Mike Shackle, who really hit it out of the park with his debut novel. I had an amazing time listening to this book, and I loved the blend of compelling story, fantastic setting, complex characters and intense action sequences. This book comes very highly recommended, and I am regretting not picking up a copy of this book last year. I will not be making the same mistake later this year when Shackle’s sequel book, A Fool’s Hope, comes out in December, and I am looking forward to seeing where the story goes next.

Film Review – Justice League Dark: Apokolips War

Justice League Dark - Apokolips War

Studio: Warner Bros. Animation and DC Entertainment

Series: DC Universe Animated Original Movies – Film 38, DC Animated Movie Universe – Film 15

Director: Matt Peters and Christina Sotta

Producer: James Tucker

Screenplay: Mairghread Scott

Writers: Christina Sotta and Ernie Altbacker

Length: 90 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

For this review I am going to go a little outside my wheelhouse by reviewing the latest animated comic book adaption from DC comics, Justice League Dark: Apokolips War. Fair warning: this is going to be a rather in-depth analysis, so those people who have not seen this film yet might be better served watching it first and then coming back. I will also have a spoiler alert for a key part of the movie towards the end of the review, so keep an eye out for that.

Over the last 13 years, DC Comics have been leading the way over Marvel Comics in the distinctive field of animated movie adaptations of their comic books. While Marvel have produced a couple of decent animated films, such as Planet Hulk and Hulk Vs., the DC adaptations have been leaps and bounds ahead of them. Most of these epic DC animated films have been part of the DC Universe Animated Original Movies project, which has produced 38 distinctive animated films since 2007. There have been some rather impressive and enjoyable releases as part of this project, and I have watched each one of them as soon as they have come out.

While a lot of the DC Universe Animated Original Movies stand alone, 15 films were set within a shared universe, with the same group of voice actors reprising their roles multiple times. This shared universe, known as the DC Animated Movie Universe, started in 2013 with Justice League: The Flashpoint Paradox, and examines an alternate universe inadvertently created by the Flash. This new universe is very heavily influenced by The New 52 continuity of comics (but don’t hold that against it), and features an interesting collection of films featuring a range of different DC characters, although there is a noticeable and understandable focus on Batman and the Justice League. Justice League Dark: Apokolips War is the 15th entry in the DC Animated Movie Universe and serves as the conclusion to most of the storylines that were featured within the preceding 14 movies. This film was directed by Matt Peters and Christina Sotta, and features a story written by Christina Sotta and Ernie Altbacker, with the screenplay written by Mairghread Scott.

Following two previous attempts to conquer Earth by intergalactic tyrant and New God Darkseid, the Justice League is determined to safeguard the planet no matter what. Led by a vengeful Superman, the League launches a pre-emptive attack against Darkseid’s fortress planet of Apokolips, when it becomes clear that he intends to invade Earth again. However, the League’s attack fails miserably as they fly into a trap set by Darkseid, who uses his new troops, the Paradooms, to swiftly defeating the entire Justice League, killing or capturing most of its members.

Now, two years later, Earth has been brutally conquered by Darkseid, who has devastated the planet, and intends to drain it of its magma in order to fuel his future designs of conquest. With nearly all of Earth’s heroes killed during Darkseid’s assault, only a scattered few remain to oppose his plans. At the fore is Clark Kent, the former Superman, who has been stripped of his powers by Darkseid, and who now leads a resistance movement with his wife, Lois Lane. Determined to save the Earth no matter the cost, Clark recruits the surviving members of the League and the Teen Titans: Raven, Damian Wayne and John Constantine for one final mission.

With the help of an odd and violent group of villains, including Lex Luthor, Etrigan the Demon and Harley Quinn’s Suicide Squad, Superman and small team attempt the impossible, a second assault on Apokolips. However, even if they succeed in reaching Apokolips, they will face terrible opposition. Former members of the Justice League, including Batman and Wonder Women, have been converted into loyal soldiers for Darkseid, and they will do everything in their power to defend him. Can Superman and his team defeat Darkseid once and for all, or are these Earth’s final days?

Well damn, now that was one hell of an animated film. As I mentioned above, I have watched a ton of animated comic book adaptations but Justice League Dark: Apokolips War might just be one of the finest and most impressive animated adaptations that DC comics has ever created. This outstanding, five-star film is just plain amazing, and I had an incredible time watching it (multiple times). Apokolips War contains an intense story, pulse-pounding action, an amazing voice cast and a superb connection to prior films and comics, which helps create an epic and powerful animated movie experience. The creative team behind this movie did an exceptional job on this film, turning it into an intense and addictive viewing treat that I absolutely loved. Viewers should be warned, this is not a film for kids, as it has a well-deserved R-rating (MA15+ in Australia), which it earns very quickly and very explicitly.

At the heart of the excellent movie is an exciting and clever story that pits the broken remainder of Earth’s heroes against the ultimate villain in the DC canon. Apokolips War has such a cool concept, starting off with the entire Justice League getting taken out in the first few minutes and then abruptly jumping two years into the future, showing a world devastated by an evil alien invasion. This perfectly sets the scene for a character-driven narrative that follows the last desperate attempt of a handful of mixed protagonists, as they attempt an all-or-nothing mission with extremely high stakes. This results in all manner of character development, tragedy, intense action, and a fantastic smattering of witty humour, which all comes together into a compelling and utterly memorable overall narrative. I was deeply impressed with where the writers took this fantastic story, and I really appreciated all the existing storylines and the substantial character arcs that they were able to explore, expand on and finalise within the movie’s hour and a half run time. This was such a great story, and it worked exceedingly well with the enjoyable characters, eye-catching animation and the awesome team of voice actors to create an amazing overall film.

One of the things that I think I should address first is about whether or not you need to see the other entries in the DC Animated Movie Universe before watching Apokolips War. Due to its cool action and well-written plot, this is a film that is rather easy for viewers unfamiliar with the franchise to follow and enjoy, although a lot of the story elements will make a lot more sense if you are familiar with the DC Comics universe and characters. While you can probably get away without watching any of the previous movies, this is the 15th and final entry in an interconnected universe, so there are obviously going to be some advantages to watching these other films first. For example, you get a much better understanding of the characters, their relationships and their personalities in this universe, and having this knowledge about the characters beforehand can really increase the dramatic punch that a bunch of their actions have. I also personally enjoyed the continued storylines of this film universe, and I liked seeing how this movie wraps up a lot of character arcs and answers some interesting questions. As a result, I would strongly recommend watching some of the other movies first: The Flashpoint Paradox, Justice League: War, Justice League vs. Teen Titans, Justice League Dark, Suicide Squad: Hell to Pay, The Death of Superman and Reign of the Supermen as a bare minimum (yes, I know that calling seven movies a minimum is a bit much, but that just goes to show how intricate this animated universe was).

The creators of this movie utilise an intriguing and unique cast of characters, continuing many of the character arcs established in the prior animated movies. Fair warning: quite a few major comic book characters, including some characters who have been key additions to this animated universe, die in the opening moments of the movie, while some others only get a few scenes, often without any dialogue, before they are also killed. While this movie has quite a huge death toll, I think most of the killings do serve a purpose by motivating the surviving characters, highlighting the brutal nature of the film and its antagonist, or providing a real emotional punch to the viewer. While a large number of characters from the DC universe only get small roles, Apokolips War does contain a rather intriguing and diverse group of central characters who are extremely interesting to follow.

The main character of Apokolips War is John Constantine, the rogue magician last seen in Justice League Dark. Ever since his live action television series a few years ago, Constantine has been popping up in all manner of DC Comic adaptions. Constantine is a fantastic central protagonist, constantly moving the plot along and providing entertaining commentary and witty remarks about the events occurring around him. He also has a rather tragic storyline, which sees him full of regret and shame after he let down his love interest, Zatanna. Not only does this result in a conflict with Superman, but it also serves as a driving force throughout the movie as he tries to redeem himself. Constantine also serves as the heart of the entire movie, acting as a confidant to several characters and providing inspiration during key moments, including one impressive speech at the very end. While he is an amazing character, he was a bit overused when it came to solving problems, as he seemed to have a magical solution for nearly every obstacle that the protagonists came up against. While it does show off his resourcefulness, and his jack-of-all-trades approach to magic, I thought that it was a bit of a crutch for the story at times. Still, I loved Constantine as a protagonist, and I cannot think of anyone better to be the main character for this film.

Another character that I really appreciated throughout this movie was Superman/Clark Kent. If the recent live-action DC movies have shown us one thing, it is that Superman is a very hard character to write or portray at times, due to his powerset, his iconic nature and his somewhat dated ideals. However, the DC Animated Movie Universe is one of the few projects which has covered the character perfectly and allowed the viewer to care about him. His use in The Death of Superman and its sequel Reign of the Supermen was particularly impressive, and the creative team have followed that up extremely well with Apokolips War. In the opening scenes, he is an angry and vengeful character, recklessly determined to take the fight to Darkseid and finish him off for good. However, following his defeat, he is cast back down to Earth without his powers and with a painful liquid Kryptonite tattoo to remind him of his failure and to demoralise those people he encounters. Despite this, Superman shows his usual spirit and determination, rallying the remaining heroes to Apokolips, and is a generally fun and inspirational character. The best thing about his character, however, is his relationship with Lois Lane throughout the film. Lois is a major badass in Apokolips War, reverting to the resistance leader persona that she had in The Flashpoint Paradox and leading the various heroes and villains (whom she brings to her side after a boxing match with Harley Quinn in a very fun scene). The relationship between Lois and Clark is one of the major emotional centres of Apokolips War, and it serves as a great continuation of their entire joint character arc from their previous movies. It also leads to the most powerful and emotionally charged scene of the entire movie, which was an extremely touching and memorable moment.

The other major protagonists are the two surviving Teen Titans, Robin and Raven, who both add a lot to the plot. The Robin in this movie is the Damian Wayne version of the character, who has been a focal protagonist of several films in the DC Animated Movie Universe. While Damian Wayne is not my favourite Robin (Tim Drake for the win), he has been a solid part of this shared universe, especially in the two Teen Titans movies. In Apokolips War, Damian is his usual arrogant self, although he has grown and matured since his introduction. However, the events at the start of the film turn him to a darker path, and he ends up leading the League of Shadows like his grandfather before him. While at first reluctant, he is convinced to help their mission by Raven, to whom he had grown close in Justice League vs. Teen Titans and Teen Titans: The Judas Contract. Damian’s major scene is the eventual encounter he has with a Darkseid controlled Batman, and their emotionally charged fight sequence is a great part of the movie. Raven is also a fantastic character as she spends most of the film fighting her literal inner demon, her father, Trigon, whom she has imprisoned in the gem in her forehead. The emotional turmoil of the film and the constant conflict against her father has drained Raven, and she is a shell of herself throughout Apokolips War. Raven has some rather dark moments in this film, and her continued inner conflict is an excellent part of the plot. I really liked that the writers chose to focus on Raven, and it turned out to be an exceedingly interesting continuation of her storyline from the excellent Justice League vs. Teen Titans film. I also really enjoyed seeing the extension of the relationship between Robin and Raven. There had been some hints of a connection between the two in their previous entries in the universe, but the writing team took the time to explore it in more detail in this film. There are some rather nice moments as a result, as well as some heartbreaking sequences (this is a pretty traumatic film after all), and overall, both of them proved to be a great addition to the movie.

While the above main characters are great, I really need to highlight the inclusion of the entertaining side characters, who add an incredible amount of fun and excitement to the movie. At the top of this list is Etrigan the Demon, last seen in Justice League Dark. Etrigan was easily the most amusing character in the entire film, mainly because he is comically depressed following the death of the human he was bonded to, Jason Blood, in his previous appearance. Because of this, he spends most of the film following Constantine, looking for something to break him out of his stupor, and being too apathetic to take anything seriously or even to rhyme (which is a big problem for a rhyming demon). His antics are very entertaining, and every appearance he has is designed to make you laugh, right up to the end. I also loved the fantastic use of the Suicide Squad characters in this film. Harley Quinn is her usual, exceedingly violent and over-the-top self in this film, and it was fun to see her lead the Suicide Squad: “Best boss ever”. Next up you have the always dependable Captain Boomerang, who is at his sleaziest right of the bat. Boomerang is another fun addition to the team, due to his funny jabs towards the other members of the Squad, and he has some great moments, including starting an Australian/British rivalry with Constantine. However, the best member of the Suicide Squad has to be King Shark, who stands out right from his start when Constantine hilariously identifies him as one of his exes (which is a great nod to Constantine’s bisexual orientation in the comics). Unlike the pacifist King Shark we see in the Harley Quinn animated show, this version of the character is a bloodthirsty killing machine who gleefully eats several people. He also appears to only be able to only able to say one phrase: “King Shark is a shark!” which I thought was a nice homage to Groot. Pretty much every scene with King Shark is just great, and you will surprised how much fun his constant declarations of “King Shark is a shark!” becomes, especially as it leads up to an amazing joke with Captain Boomerang. I loved all four of these characters, and their inclusion was a masterstroke from the creators, due to how much heart and humour they add to the film.

No superhero movie would be complete without a great antagonist, and Apokolips War features the biggest bad in the entire DC universe, Darkseid. Darkseid has been the major villain for the entire DC Animated Movie Universe, from his destructive introduction in the Justice League: War, to his manipulations in The Death of Superman and Reign of the Supermen. As a result, Darkseid is an amazing antagonist for this movie, as you get to wrap up his storyline and see how he has been building up to this battle for the entire length of the DC Animated Movie Universe. Darkseid is exceedingly ruthless and destructive in this movie, more than living up to his reputation by brutally taking out the Justice League and killing so many protagonists and heroes. I loved his portrayal as a cold uber-tyrant, and he has some awesome scenes, such as taking out the entire Green Lantern Corp by himself, or facing off against a raft of powerful opponents (including one massive brawl against another major DC antagonist). Of course, his most evil acts revolve around his treatment of the heroes that he captures in the opening acts of the film. I have already mentioned his depowering of Superman, but that is nothing compared to what he does to other members of the League, as he turns them into twisted cybernetic monstrosities, slaved to his will. I was particularly impressed with how he managed to twist Batman’s mind, turning him into his chief enforcer and strategist. Having the ultimate hero become as ruthless as the Batman in this film is a little jarring, and I felt that it was a rather intriguing character arc to explore. I also have to mention Darkseid’s new foot soldiers, the Paradooms. Paradooms are the traditional Apokolipian soldier’s, the Parademons, who have been enhanced with the DNA of Doomsday, making them more than a match for most of the heroes in the Justice League. While the name ‘Paradooms’ is a little uninspired, they do add an exciting new element to the story, especially after the thrashing that the Justice League gave the Parademons in Justice League: War. I did think that their power levels were a little inconsistent at times, as one minute they are killing the entire Justice League, the next they are getting taken out rather easily by the Suicide Squad, but overall they were a destructive addition to the universe. I really liked this collection of antagonists, and I think that having such impressive baddies, really amped up the stakes and my enjoyment of the film.

Apokolips War has a truly impressive voice cast, with most voice actors returning after prior appearances in the DC Animated Movie Universe. At the forefront is Matt Ryan, who once again voices Constantine to perfection in this film. Anyone who has seen any live action or animated feature where Ryan portrays Constantine will know how awesome his work is, and in Apokolips War he once again shines, bringing his brand of charm and roguish appeal to the character. I also must highlight Jerry O’Connell voicing Superman in this movie. O’Connell has been killing it as Superman throughout this shared universe, and Apokolips War is some of his best work. He brings a great deal of passion to the role, and I think that his voice expertly captures all of Superman’s attributes, from his inherent positivity, to his anger at Darkseid and everything that he has done. O’Connell’s Superman also has an amazing amount of chemistry with the film’s Lois Lane, although this is not surprising, considering that Lois is voiced by O’Connell’s real-life wife, Rebecca Romijn. Romijn also does a fantastic job with Lois, and I really like her take on the character, showing of Lois’s boundless confidence and deep love for Clark. Romijn also touches on Lois’s vulnerabilities and doubts in this film, and this helps her produce one of the best and most heartfelt sequences in the entire movie.

I am also a major fan of young voice actor Stuart Allan and his take on Damian Wayne. Allan has been voicing Damian since 2014, and he has always perfectly captured the character’s arrogance and reckless personality. I like how Allan has grown up in step with the character, and his portrayal of Damian in this film adds some more restraint, uncertainty and vulnerability to the character after the opening events. Another impressive young voice actor in this movie is Taissa Farmiga, who returns to voice Raven for the third time. Farmiga has a much younger and more vulnerable take on the character of Raven than Teen Titans fans would be used to, and I think it works extremely well, showing off how scared Raven is of herself and her inherent darkness.

There is also a fantastic group of voice actors voicing the many side characters and antagonists in this movie. Candyman himself, Tony Todd, voices Darkseid, and his deep and callous take on the character, really helps to make the antagonist seem even more menacing and evil. Jason O’Mara does another amazing job as Batman in this film, and I like his more calculating take on the character, especially when he is under Darkseid’s control. Rainn Wilson is also entertaining as Lex Luthor, and he brings a real cowardly, slimy air to his parts of the film. Rosario Dawson is once again cast perfectly as Wonder Woman, and I loved her strong and confident voice for this character. John DiMaggio, Hyden Walch and Liam McIntyre all return to voice members of the Suicide Squad they have portrayed before, and they are all rather entertaining. I have already mentioned how much I loved DiMaggio’s King Shark, and it was fun to see him provide a new voice to the character after portraying him in Assault of Arkham. Walch provides another excellent turn as Harley Quinn, bringing some great energy to the character, and I think I prefer her portrayal to that of her Teen Titans co-star Tara Strong. McIntyre also does an excellent Captain Boomerang, and I personally liked it when they cast an Australian in the role, even if the character is a bit of a silly Australian caricature. While there are a couple of actors who I haven’t discussed, I think I have done enough to show how this movie has an exceedingly strong voice cast, and there was not a single miscast in the entire film.

I also have to praise the amazing animation quality featured within this movie. The animators behind Apokolips War have helped produce an incredibly slick movie with some impressive backgrounds and some fantastic and eye-popping action sequences, some of which were quite brutal and over-the-top at times. Apokolips War also features some cool and unique character designs, as many of the character had new and distinctive looks as a result of the harsh plot of the movie. This includes the depowered Superman with the Kryptonite S on his chest, half-dead cybernetic Justice League members and a whole new evil costume motif for Batman. I also have a lot of love for how the musical elements of this movie fit in with the visuals, and some of the instrumental scores that were featured really helped some key events pop out and stick in the mind, especially when combined with some of the impressive animation. For example, there is a great scene about two-thirds in where the music helps really enhances a major moment around one of the key characters, there is also a bit right at the end of the movie where the score plays extremely well with a really visually impressive moment, creating a fantastic ending for the entire movie. This helps turn Apokolips War in a visual and audible treat, and I thought that the fantastic combination of these elements helped to create an excellent movie.

 

The next paragraph gets extremely plot heavy in its discussion, so I am issuing a SPOILER ALERT.

I need to discuss how the entire movie concludes, mainly because I am in two minds about it. The film essentially ends with the entire DC Animated Movie Universe being erased out of existence, when Constantine talks the Flash into creating another Flashpoint once it becomes clear that the Earth is doomed. While it was an amazing scene, especially with the monologue that Constantine gives to convince Flash to do it and the fade to white that heralded the end of the movie, I thought it was a controversial way to end the film. Not only was it a rather predictable move thanks to several discussions about the alternative Flashpoint universe made earlier in the film (and the fact that time travel was the only obvious way to fix everything), but it also seems to do the rest of the amazing film a disservice by instantly erasing it, and it reminded me of those television episodes where major events turned out to be dream sequences or simulations. That being said, I did think it was a great way to conclude the entire DC Animated Movie Universe, which was created as a result of a Flashpoint in the very first movie, and it keeps the entire plot of this shared universe rather contained. It will be interesting to see what happens next in the DC Universe Animated Original Movies range, and whether they create a new animated shared universe in the future. I also would love if they maybe set another movie in this universe post-Apokolips War, because seeing what happened in the crumbling ruins of Earth with a depleted Justice League has a lot of story potential

SPOILERS END

 

Justice League Dark: Apokolips War is an incredible and highly recommended animated comic book adaptation, which serves as an epic and memorable conclusion to the DC Animated Movie Universe. I had an exceptional time watching this movie, especially as it blended a dark and clever story with amazing characters, impressive animation and a top-notch team of voice actors. This was an overall great film, and it might be one of the best new movies of 2020 so far (which to be fair, might be due to most films getting pushed back this year). I had a great time reviewing this animated film, and I might spend a bit of time reviewing more animated comic book movies in the future. As most of them are adaptions of existing comic books, I think this is close enough to my current focus as a reviewer to fit on this blog, and I look forward to examining some of my favourite animated comic book movies in the future.

The Viennese Girl by Jenny Lecoat

The Viennese Girl Cover

Publisher: Allen & Unwin (Trade Paperback – 28 April 2020)

Series: Standalone

Length: 266 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Love, war, endurance. Debuting author Jenny Lecoat presents an impressive and compelling historical drama with The Viennese Girl, a fantastic read based on a remarkable true story.

June 1940. The inhabitants of the Channel Island of Jersey can only watch as the German army invades and takes complete control of their island without any opposition. Abandoned by the British and forced to fend for themselves, the people of Jersey must get ready to endure a lengthy occupation that will last to the very end of the war.

For young Jewish girl Hedy Bercu this is a nightmare situation. Having already successfully fled from the Nazis when they invaded her home of Vienna, Hedy once again finds herself trapped and persecuted, only this time she has nowhere to escape to. Forced to do everything she can to survive, Hedy tries to hide her true identity and even accepts a job as a translator in the German headquarters. However, Hedy is not content to simply sit back and let the Nazis win without a fight, and she begins to engage in several small acts of resistance which bring her to the attention of a German lieutenant, Kurt Neumann.

Kurt finds himself instantly smitten by the mysterious Hedy, and he attempts to pursue a relationship with her, without knowing about her tragic past. But when Hedy’s attempts at sabotage are discovered, her Jewish heritage is revealed to all and she becomes the most sought-after fugitive on the island. Can Hedy rely on her friends and Kurt to survive, and how will she escape detection from the Nazis on their most isolated and heavily occupied territory?

The Viennese Girl is a great debut novel from television writer Jenny Lecoat, which turned about to be quite an intriguing historical drama that I am really glad that I checked out. A very important thing to know about this novel is that it is actually based on a true story of the Jersey occupation. The main characters contained within this story are all real people, and their tale has been mostly unknown until a recent publication by Dr Gilly Carr in the Journal of Holocaust and Genocide Studies.

Lecoat provides an exquisite novelisation of these historical events within The Viennese Girl and turns it powerful and captivating narrative of romance and resistance that follows two real-life star-crossed lovers, Hedy and Kurt, as they attempt to survive a terrible situation. The story is shown from the dual perspectives of Hedy and Kurt, whose different viewpoints show off various aspects of the German occupation of Jersey. This book makes great use of a combination of a dramatic and tension filled storyline, fantastic portrayals of real-life characters, a distinctive historical setting and a compelling romance to make for an amazing read.

The lives of and the relationship between the two main characters, Hedy and Kurt, forms an excellent centre to this book. Both are intriguing characters in their own right. For example, Hedy is a Jewish girl doing everything she can to survive after being trapped by the Nazis a second time. She is rightly bitter and terrified about the entire situation, but brave enough to fight back against the Germans with small acts of sabotage. Naturally, the parts of the book told from Hedy’s point of view are filled with all manner of tension as she is terrified of being taken away by the Nazis, a feeling that only intensifies as the book proceeds. There is also a prevailing sense of loneliness and despair brought on by her situation, the lack of people on Jersey who she can trust and the knowledge of what has happened to her Jewish friends and family back home. Kurt, on the other hand, is a reluctant member of the German army who has become disenfranchised with his more radical Nazi colleagues. He has some rather surprising views for a German officer, and a distinct dislike for many of the people he serves with, and there is a bit of sadness in him as he watches the war consume Jersey. This, and the instant attraction he feels for Hedy, compels him to help her without really knowing anything about her. Kurt then goes to some amazing lengths to help save Hedy in the future once he knows the full detail of her history and manages to outthink some determined opponents.

The author makes sure to spend time exploring both of these characters through the course of the occupation, as well as examining their history, feelings and intentions. Despite all the inherently problematic issues that would occur with such a romance, the two fall in love and start a dedicated relationship. Their romance is an essential part of the story, and I think that Lecoat did a wonderful job showing how such a romance could occur, as well as exploring all the drama that resulted. I liked how the romance managed to help make each of them better, and it healed certain holes in their hearts and minds. I really enjoyed this romance, and I ended up being pleasantly surprised after finishing this book to find that Kurt was a real person who really did fall in love with and help Hedy (due to the unlikely situation, I had assumed that he was either a fictional character or an embellished version of someone). The knowledge that this romance actually happened really enhanced Lecoat’s incredible story for me, and I am rather glad to have seen how it unfolded.

In addition to Hedy and Kurt, I also have to highlight the character of Dorothea Weber (née Le Brocq), who was also a real person featured heavily in Dr Carr’s article. Dorothea was the wife of Hedy’s best friend and fellow refugee Anton, who would eventually become Hedy’s close companion and saviour after she hides Hedy in her house for the later years of the occupation. Dorothea was a rather complex character who has a rather interesting act within this novel, especially when it comes to her relationship with Hedy. For the first half of the book, Hedy sees Dorothea as an interloper and distraction to her friendship with Anton and is a bit annoyed by the attention she gets, her apparent helplessness and obsessions with American films and actresses. However, as the war progresses and Anton is conscripted into the German army, their relationship grows, especially as both of them face their own form of persecution. While Hedy is oppressed for her Jewish heritage, Dorothea faces ostracism from her friends and family for marrying an Austrian, especially one who ends up in the German army, and is labelled a Jerrybag (a derogative term for Jersey girls who were sleeping with the enemy). While she comes across as extremely naïve at the start of the book, Dorothea really grows as a character throughout the book, and continually shows off her surprising inner strength by standing up to people and not hesitating to take Hedy in and hide her from the Germans, despite the obvious risks. I really enjoyed learning about Dorothea’s story, and she became a fantastic part of this book, and it was rather gratifying to learn how the real Dorothea has been deservedly honoured by both the Jewish community and Britain in recent years.

I also really enjoyed learning more about the German occupation of Jersey during the Second World War. This was honestly a topic that I knew very little about, but which proves to be a rather fascinating backdrop to this character driven story. Lecoat, a Jersey native, does a fantastic job showcasing all the details of this invasion, and follows the entirety of the occupation in her story, right up until the end of World War II (the occupiers were some of the last German forces to surrender). The author captures a number of key moments from the occupation in the story while also including several historical figures in her narrative. I also liked how she endeavoured to highlight what day to day life for the inhabitants of Jersey would have been like with the Germans there, and it was interesting to see her interpretations of the islander’s attitudes, how they dealt with the Germans and how desperate the situation got at times throughout the occupation. This proved to be a really interesting and distinctive element to the novel, and I quite enjoyed learning more about this part of World War II that is often overlooked in other historical fiction novels.

Overall, The Viennese Girl is a superb and memorable historical drama novel that is very much worth checking out. Lecoat hit it out of the park with her debut novel, and I was absolutely enthralled by her amazing narrative of courage, survival and love in the most unlikely of circumstances. This was a really impressive novel, and it’s story is going to stick with me for a very long time.

Song of the Risen God by R. A. Salvatore

Song of the Risen God Cover

Publisher: Audible Studios (Audiobook – 28 January 2020)

Series: Coven trilogy – Book Three

Length: 17 hours and 3 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Legendary fantasy author R. A. Salvatore brings his Coven trilogy to an explosive and enthralling end with the third and final novel, Song of the Risen God.

The Coven trilogy is an exciting series that Salvatore has been writing over the last three years, which is set in the world of Corona, the setting of his previous series, The DemonWars Saga. This new trilogy follows the adventures of an interesting group of characters in the lands surrounding Loch Beag, including the imposing mountain, Fireach Speuer. The first two novels in this series, Child of a Mad God and Reckoning of Fallen Gods, have both been extremely good, and I have been enjoying reading some of Salvatore’s non-Forgotten Realms fantasy work. I am a massive fan of Salvatore’s writing and I have been looking forward to finishing this series off for some time now. Salvatore certainly did not disappoint with the final entry in this trilogy, as this final novel is potentially my favourite book in the entire series.

War has once again come to the world of Corona, as a new evil leads its forces on a mission of conquest and destruction. The wild lands surrounding Loch Beag and Fireach Speuer have never been peaceful, but now a massive army of invaders is marching across them, determined to conquer and kill all before them. These mysterious invaders are the Xoconai, a lost race of humanoids from the other side of Fireach Speaur. Now, with their reborn god leading the charge on his mighty dragon, the Xoconai are commanded to expand their empire to the opposing coast.

With no hope of defeating the vast host that has suddenly appeared above them, the few surviving inhabitants of the villages surrounding Loch Beag flee through the wilds to find sanctuary. Led by the powerful witch Aoelyn, the frontiersman Talmadge and the ranger Aydrian Wyndon, the villagers move towards the apparent safety of Honce-the-Bear, the most powerful human kingdom in Corona. There they hope to warn the people of Honce-the-Bear of the approaching danger and gather a force that can push back the Xoconai.

However, the dark ambition of the Xoconai god, Scathmizzane, knows no limit, and his magical powers are as vast as they are terrifying in their origin. Using these powers, Scathmizzane is able to accelerate the Xoconai invasion at a tremendous pace, striking right at the heart of Honce-the-Bear, and managing to overpower both their armies and the magic of the Abellican monks. As the Xoconai horde advances, it falls to Aoelyn, Aydrian and their companions to stop them by any means necessary. But can even the most powerful magic user on the continent and a fallen king be able to throw back the invading armies, or will Scathmizzane’s dark power fall across all the lands?

Song of the Risen God is a really impressive and captivating read that provides the reader with an entertaining adventure in one of Salvatore’s detailed and expansive fantasy universe. This final book in the Coven trilogy is a cool addition to the trilogy that not only acts as a satisfactory conclusion to this new series but which also ties it even more firmly into the wider world of Corona.

This book contains an epic and wide-ranging narrative that showcases the dramatic aftermath of the second novel in the series, Reckoning of the Fallen Gods, which saw a massive army and a dragon-riding god descend on the isolated setting of the first two novels. In this third novel, the protagonists are chased all the way to one of this world’s key settings, the kingdom of Honce-the-Bear, where they must fight to save the world from the invading horde. This turned out to be a rather interesting departure from the previous novels in the Coven trilogy, which were much smaller in their scope, tending to focus on a handful of closely related villages in a single location. I actually liked this change of pace, as it made for a much more impressive conclusion, and I quite enjoyed seeing the characters interact with the wider world. This turned out to be an extremely exciting and fast-paced novel that contained a lot of entertaining action and large-scale battle sequences, although the author does not skimp on the intriguing dialogue, creative world building or compelling character development. Salvatore utilises a host of point-of-view characters to tell this story from a variety of different angles, which leads to a rich and comprehensive overall narrative. I am also glad that the author continues to feature in-world texts at the beginning of each part of the novel, which provides some fascinating insights into some characters, and contains some clues about a big twist towards the end of Song of the Risen God. Overall, this was an extremely captivating story with a great blend of elements, and I had a fantastic time reading it.

One of the more distinctive parts of Song of the Risen God is how it connects with some of the previous books set in the world of Corona. Corona is a unique fantasy world created by Salvatore, which has previously served as the setting for 13 novels, including the previous two Coven books. The first seven of these books are all part of the same series, known as The DemonWars Saga, which established many elements of this world, including the kingdom of Honce-the-Bear, the Abellican order of monks and the world’s gem based magical system. The Coven series has always been set in Corona, but the first novel in this trilogy, Child of a Mad God, had very little to do with these prior books. More of a connection was established in Reckoning of Fallen Gods, especially with the appearance of Aydrian, who was a major figure in the later DemonWars books. However, in Song of the Risen God, Salvatore fully combines this trilogy with his prior series, by bringing the protagonists and antagonists of the previous Coven books into the main location of The DemonWars Saga and having them interact with these established characters and settings.

Immersing this series more fully into the wider fantasy world was an interesting choice from Salvatore, and it one of the major things that distinguishes Song of the Risen God from the previous books in the trilogy. This was not a sudden or random decision from Salvatore, as there have been hints that this was going to happen in the previous two books, especially once Aydrian was introduced as a major character. I rather enjoyed the way that Salvatore so dramatically expanded the setting and started using elements from The DemonWars Saga in this novel, as it made for a much more expansive and fascinating story. I never actually read any of the books in The DemonWars Saga (a regrettable gap in my Salvatore knowledge), and before reading Song of the Risen God, I had no real idea what happened in this series, aside from what was discussed in the second Coven novel. However, I found that you really didn’t need any pre-existing knowledge of these earlier books, as Salvatore spends a good amount of time explaining some of the major story events that occurred during these novels and how they impact the current plot. As a result, at no point while reading Song of the Risen God was I in anyway confused by what was going on, and I always had a good idea how the plot was tied into the wider universe. I really appreciated being able to enjoy the entirety of the plot without having to read The DemonWar Saga first (which admittedly sounds pretty awesome, and I might have to check them out at some point), and I think that Salvatore did a fantastic job recapping the events of this prior series in text. Fans of The DemonWars Saga will no doubt like the fact that Salvatore is once again exploring this world, and many will be interested in seeing how much the universe has changed in the intervening years, as well as the major developments that occur as part of Song of the Risen God.

As I mentioned above, Song of the Risen God is the third and final book in the Coven trilogy, which does mean that this book might be a bit harder to follow for those readers who try to jump into the series at the very end (although that would be true for any trilogy). Salvatore does do a good job of recapping and exploring some of the key events of the first two novels, so most readers should be able to follow it well enough. I think that Song of the Risen God proved to be a great conclusion to the entire trilogy, as all of the major storylines were wrapped up rather well. The ending of the book also suggests that Salvatore is planning an additional Corona based series in the future, and if so, it is likely to focus on some of the major characters from the Coven trilogy. I personally would be extremely interested in a follow up series to these books, especially after all the major events that occurred in this novel, and I look forward to seeing what Salvatore cooks up next.

One of the major highlights of Song of the Risen God was the incredible raft of characters. This book had a massive and diverse group of characters featured within it, including the protagonists of the previous two books, characters from The DemonWars Saga and original characters who appeared for the first time within this book. Salvatore did a fantastic job diving down into several of these protagonists, and there was some rather intriguing character development that occurred throughout Song of the Risen God, most of which has some interesting roots in some of Salvatore’s previous novels.

A good portion of the book focuses on Aoelyn, who has served as the main protagonist for the first two Coven novels. Aoelyn is a witch who has spent the previous books trying to escape the clutches of her vicious tribe, the Usgar. In this novel, Aoelyn finally has her freedom, and finds herself in a brand new world, although she still seems to be dealing with some of the same prejudices and problems that occurred amongst the Usgar. Aoelyn spends a good portion of this book continuing to come to terms with her magical powers, which both define her and frighten her, as she has seen how magic can corrupt individuals, and she also attempts to take responsibility for the Xoconai invasion, which she inadvertently caused by killing a demon in the first Coven novel. I felt that Salvatore covered her character arc rather well, and there were quite a few intriguing moments, including Aoelyn making new friends and finding closure with some of the antagonists from the first two novels. I also liked some of the interesting developments that occurred towards the end of the novel with Aoelyn, which not only impact her outlook on life, but which may have some major impacts on any future Corona novels that feature her.

In addition to Aoelyn, quite a few other characters have some fantastic moments within Song of the Risen God. Bahdlahn, the former Usgar slave and Aoelyn’s childhood friend, probably had the most dramatic character development of all within this novel, as he grew and grew with every new encounter and experience within the plot. You cannot help but get attached to Bahdlahn, especially as he goes from wide-eyed former slave who had barely seen anything of the world, all the way up to an elite knight and resistance fighter in Honce-the-Bear. Bahdlahn is another character who has some interesting developments towards the end of this novel, and it looks like Salvatore has some big plans for him in the future. The former Usgar witch Connebragh also has a rather fascinating, if shorter, storyline within this book, as she befriends two former inhabitants of the lakeside villages, despite the long hostility between her tribe and theirs, and helps them survive the Xoconai invasion. The frontier explorers Talmadge and Khotai are also well utilised towards the front of the book, and there are some great moments with them, especially as Khotai regains her mobility in a rather unique way, although both disappear for the last third of the book. Salvatore also invests time in showing the viewpoint of a couple of key Xoconai characters, which I think really adds a lot to the story. Rather than having the Xoconai solely being mindless followers of Scathmizzane, these character perspectives help show them as being rather similar to humans, and two characters in particular have some very interesting viewpoints that lead them to question the word of their god as they attempt to fight his holy war.

All of these character arcs are great, but my personal favourite has to be the one surrounding Aydrian Wyndon. Aydrian is a major character within The DemonWars Saga, as the son of the original protagonists, who eventually became the main antagonist of the series after being possessed by a demon. Freed from his corruption at the end of the series and banished from Honce-the-Bear, which he ruled for a brief time, Aydrian has taken up the role of a ranger, which led to him meeting and helping the protagonists of the Coven series in the previous novel. In this book, he finds the threat of the Xoconai so great that he is forced to return to Honce-the-Bear, despite his banishment, to warn his former people. This leads to several outstanding scenes where he revisits the hurt and despair that he previously caused as a despotic and murderous king, and it serves as a fantastic defining characteristic as he searches for redemption. Aydrian has an absolutely incredible storyline throughout this novel, and his inclusion really added a whole lot to the overall narrative.

In addition to the fantastic story and amazing characters, I also have to once again highlight some of the enjoyable fantasy elements that Salvatore includes in this novel. At the fore of this is the cool gem-based magic that is one of the defining features of the stories set in Corona. This gem magic is an excellent concept, and it proved to be particularly fascinating in this novel as Aoelyn, a self-taught magical gem user, encounters members of the Abellican Church, who also use this form of magic, although in an apparently lesser way. Salvatore makes full use of all this cool magic throughout Song of the Risen God, and there are some rather impressive and destructive examples of the universe’s various magics, which were a lot of fun to see. I really enjoyed some of the cool and unique fantasy elements contained within this book, and it was a rather exciting addition to the story.

I ended up listening to the audiobook format of Song of the Risen God rather than grabbing a physical copy. This audiobook runs for just over 17 hours and is narrated by Tim Gerald Reynolds, who has provided narration for several of Salvatore’s previous books, including the other Coven books. I really enjoyed the audiobook version, and it proved to be a fantastic way to absorb and experience the cool story and the intriguing settings and characters. This is a bit of a longer audiobook and it took me over a week to fully listen to it, although my audiobook listening schedule has been a bit messed up lately. I felt that Reynolds did a really good job narrating this audiobook, and his fantastic voice really helped me get sucked into this fun story. Reynolds had a great handle on all the characters featured within Song of the Risen God, and I liked all the voices that he came up with for them. I ended up having an amazing time listening to this audiobook, and this is a truly excellent format to enjoy this novel in.

Song of the Risen God is a very impressive and deeply enjoyable fantasy novel that comes highly recommended. R. A. Salvatore once again shows why he is one of my favourite authors as he produces a slick and captivating read which is not only fantastic in its own right but which concludes an epic trilogy and ties it into a wider fantasy universe. This proved to be an absolutely amazing read, and I think I have to award it a full five-star rating based on how much fun I had listening to it. Salvatore has done it once again, and I look forward to checking out his next book in a few months.