She Who Became the Sun by Shelley Parker-Chan

She Who Became the Sun Cover

Publisher: Mantle (Trade Paperback – 27 July 2021)

Series: The Radiant Emperor – Book One

Length: 414 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Intriguing new Australian author Shelley Parker-Chan presents one of the most unique debuts of 2021 with the awesome She Who Became the Sun, a powerful historical read with a compelling twist.

In 1345 AD China languishes under the rule of the Yuan dynasty, descendants of the Mongolian invaders who have taken control and punished the southern Chinese citizens.  As famine and banditry stalk the land, the fate of the country will be decided by the most unlikely of people.  In a small village in the south, a seer predicts the future for two siblings.  For the favoured son, the seer sees greatness and unlimited potential, while for the daughter he sees nothing in her future at all.

When a bandit raid wipes out the village, only the daughter is left alive as her brother succumbs to his grief and despair.  Determined not to die an insignificant death and prove the seer right, the daughter plans the impossible.  Stealing the identity of her dead brother, she attempts to cheat fate and take her brother’s destiny for herself.  But how far can the newly named Zhu Chongba truly go, even with a fake identity and a stolen fate?

Travelling to a nearby monastery, Zhu impresses the Abbot and is soon accepted as a novice.  Growing up amongst the monks, Zhu finds a purpose for the first time.  But when a rampaging general destroys the monastery, Zhu is forced to find a new path that sets her against the emperor and the entire Yuan dynasty.  Joining with the Red Turban rebellion, Zhu manages to prove herself and soon leads her forces to several crucial victories.  But the eye of an old rival is upon Zhu, and not even this brilliant monk will be able to emerge unscathed.  The path to China’s future begins here, and soon the fate of the entire country will fall on the poor second daughter, destined to become the nation’s first female emperor.

This was a really compelling debut from Shelley Parker-Chan, who produced an epic and unique historical tale of war, destiny, identity and fate.  Serving as the first book in Parker-Chan’s The Radiant Emperor series, She Who Became the Sun was one of the most anticipated new releases for 2021, and I had an incredible time reading it, especially once I got caught up in its fantastic story.

She Who Became the Sun has an awesome and powerful narrative that proves to be extremely addictive.  The book first shows the protagonist as an unnamed daughter, destined for nothing until she adopts the identity of her brother, Zhu, and grows into a confident and capable young adult at a nearby monastery.  The first quarter of the book is primarily told from the perspective of Zhu and serves as a rather good introduction to the character and the overarching setting.  However, the story shifts dramatically after the eunuch General Ouyang, who serves under a noble family of the Yuan dynasty, burns down the monastery and leaves Zhu a medicant monk.  Determined to gain the destiny her brother was promised, Zhu joins with the rebel movement known as the Red Turbans.  The story then focuses on several interesting storylines, including Zhu’s ascent to commander in the Red Turbans, the volatile internal politics of the rebels, as well as troubles facing the wider Yuan dynasty.  The story adds in two additional point-of-view characters a quarter of the way through, with a particular focus on General Ouyang.  Ouygang is engaging in his own plot against the Yuan, and his fate soon becomes intertwined with that of Zhu.  This results in a pretty epic tale, especially as the various story threads tie together perfectly and produce an interesting and addictive overall narrative.  This leads up to an intense and fantastic conclusion that shows how much the protagonist has changed and how determined they are to see their destiny.  It also does an excellent job setting up the future novels in this series, and I have to say that I am pretty excited to see where Parker-Chan takes this tale next.

I was deeply impressed by the cool setting of She Who Became the Sun, especially as Parker-Chan worked in some excellent and compelling historical elements.  The novel is set in 14th century China during the Yuan dynasty and features an interesting retelling of the life of famed emperor Zhu Yuanzhang, founder of the Ming dynasty.  While there are a few major changes, like Zhu being a woman in disguise, She Who Became the Sun captures several key aspects of this figure’s early life, such as their peasant upbringing, their training as a monk, and their rise to power through the Red Turbans.  I really enjoyed the great examination of China during this period, and Parker-Chan does an excellent job of capturing the tyrannical rule of the Mongol invaders, the famines and crisis their ineffective rule caused, as well as the rebellion that rose to oppose them.  The author also makes sure to include several key historical figures, such as Zhu’s major supporters, and it proved to be a fun re-imagining of their relationship with the future emperor.  While this is primarily a historical fiction novel, Parker-Chan includes a lot of other interesting elements that alter the feel of She Who Became the Sun.  For example, there are several mystical features, such as some key individuals who can summon an aurora of visible light to show they have the divine right to rule.  Zhu also has the ability to see ghosts and finds herself haunted and at times damaged by malevolent spirits, angry at her decision to steal another person’s destiny.  These supernatural elements give She Who Became the Sun an intriguing and unique feel, and I really love it when authors subtly work in some subtle alternate genre inclusions into their work.

I also must mention the excellent inclusion of major LGBT+ elements into this book, especially around central character Zhu Chongba.  Zhu spends the entirety of the novel in the role of her late brother, pretending to be a man so she can rule and lead.  This was a really fascinating and distinctive choice by Parker-Chan, and one that makes She Who Became the Sun really stand out.  While there are some understandable comparisons to Disney’s Mulan, Parker-Chan instead frames it as a choice made from a desire to survive and to be more than what her sex would usually allow her to be in this period, especially under Yuan control.  Zhu spends most of the novel trying to hide her birth gender from everyone around her, allowing her to continue to achieve her.  While a few characters find out, Zhu is able to ensure their secrecy, which leads to some fascinating scenes.  I particularly love the interactions between Zhu and female characters who discover her secret, and the understanding that flows through these scenes is extremely powerful.  Other LGBT+ elements are later added to the story, especially around Zhu’s marriage to her wife Ma, and I really appreciated the clever and compelling way that it was worked into the plot.

Another impressive aspect of this outstanding book I want to highlight is the great use of characters.  This novel featured some amazing point-of-view characters whose journeys become the focus of She Who Became the Sun.  The main character is Zhu, the woman destined to become Emperor, who spends most of the book trying to live up to the legacy she believes she deserves.  I really liked the compelling character growth featured as her personality changes throughout the course of the book.  Initially meek and barely able to keep her secret, Zhu develops her cunning and her skills of manipulation to become a major figure in the monastery and the Red Turbans.  I loved the depiction of her rise to power, including that fun scene where she manages to win a battle with a prayer, and it was really entertaining to see her use the mild-mannered, humble monk routine to fool the people around her.  Having grown up with nothing, Zhu is more resilient against setbacks than some of the other characters and is able to overcome major hardships.  While Zhu spends most of the book as a good person, the desires for power and a great destiny eventually grows within her, encouraging her to do some evil things to win.  I really liked this subtle shift in personality as the novel continued, and the way that her character arc in this novel ends was really surprising and intense.

The other major character I really want to talk about is Ouyang, a general serving the powerful noble Lord Esen-Temur, son of the Prince of Henan.  Ouyang has a complex past, the son of a family declared traitor by the Emperor and the Prince of Henan, his entire family was killed, while Ouyang was made a eunuch.  Eventually able to work his way up from slave to general, Ouyang is initially portrayed as a petty, vicious, and vindictive figure, especially as he destroys the monastery that Zhu was living in.  However, as the novel progresses, you get to see how much Ouyang has suffered throughout his life, even though he is the best friend of Lord Esen-Temur.  Due to his status as a eunuch, there are some really interesting parallels between Ouyang and Zhu, especially as neither of these outsiders is comfortable in their body.  However, despite their similarities, they form a bitter rivalry, although occasionally working towards the same goals.  I really enjoyed Ouyang’s storyline, especially as it provided an intriguing alternative to the scenes focusing on the Red Turbans, providing the reader with a look at the politics of the Yuan dynasty and the fractious family dynamics surrounding Lord Esen-Temur.  It also leads to an excellent storyline where Ouyang slowly gets his long-awaited revenge and makes some moves to obtain even more power and control.  Ouyang served as an excellent antagonist for the novel, and his dark and brooding perspectives of life and the Yuan dynasty really enhanced She Who Became the Sun’s overall narrative.

Overall, I deeply enjoyed the unique and intricate book that was She Who Became the Sun, and it turned out to be an outstanding read.  Australian author Shelley Parker-Chan did an exceptional job with this impressive debut novel, and I loved the brilliant and epic historical tale she wove, especially as it contained some complex and intriguing characters.  This book comes highly recommended by me, and it is easily one of the best debuts I have so far read in 2021.

The Councillor by E. J. Beaton

The Councillor Cover

Publisher: Daw Books (Hardcover – 20 July 2021)

Series: The Councillor – Book One

Length: 442 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Australian author E. J. Beaton presents an excellent and compelling fantasy debut with The Councillor, an outstanding and impressive read.

Elira is a country still recovering from a fractious war a generation ago spurred on by the tyrannical magic-wielding White Queen.  The heroic Sarelin Brey, known as the Iron Queen, defeated the White Queen and led the subsequent hunt for the elementals, powerful magical users, who were forced into hiding.  Now, Elira once again stands on the brink of ruin when a mysterious assassin manages to kill the Iron Queen, an act that threatens to split and destroy the entire nation.

The queen’s last act before her death was to name her loyal companion, the palace scholar Lysande Prior, Councillor.  As Councillor, it is Lysande’s duty to choose the next ruler of Elira from the four city rulers and to ensure a peaceful transition of power.  As the city rulers arrive at the palace, Lysande is convinced that one of them may have orchestrated the Iron Queen’s murder.  Using her position as Councillor and the upcoming decisions around Elira’s future to her advantage, Lysande begins to investigate each of the city rulers to find who is responsible for her friend’s death.

As the investigation continues, Lysande soon learns much about the city rulers, including the secrets that they harbour.  Forced to balance her investigation with her responsibilities to the people, Lysande begins to revel in the power that she has been granted, even as her problematic addiction to a magical narcotic threatens her self-control.  However, the closer she gets to the truth, the more Lysande begins to understand that there is a dark threat rising, one that could overwhelm Elira for good.  The White Queen is returning, and this time there is no mighty Iron Queen to stop her, only a brilliant scholar with a bright vision for her nation.

The Councillor was an impressive debut fantasy novel from Beaton, who combines some intriguing characters with a powerful fantasy narrative laden with political intrigue, espionage and one character’s personal journey from scholar to ruler.

Beaton utilises a pretty awesome story in The Councillor, and it is one that I quickly became quite addicted to.  Told exclusively from the point-of-view of protagonist Lysande, the novel has a powerful start with one of the major characters killed off, leaving Lysande and the entire nation in chaos, especially as it appears that a notorious magical villain has returned years after her famous defeat.  From there the protagonist attempts to identify the agent responsible for her friend’s death, believing it to be one of the four arriving nobles vying for the throne.  This results in a compelling storyline where Lysande investigates the secrets of the city rulers, while also becoming increasingly involved in the politics of the realm after being unexpectedly placed in a position of power.  As The Councillor progresses, it evolves into a very captivating piece of political intrigue as Lysande and the city rulers tour the country, attempting to rule together, initiate plans to stop the growing influence of the White Queen, while also attempting to achieve their own goals.  There are some great misdirects and red herrings featured throughout this part of the book, as Beaton attempts to disguise who the antagonist is and what the agendas of the various other politicians are.  This all leads up to a big and explosive conclusion where the traitor is revealed and several great storylines come together, resulting in some awesome action and clever political storylines.  While I was able to guess who the traitor was in advance, Beaton did a great job setting them up, and I did find the methods of the antagonist very surprising, especially the fun super-weapon that was hinted at throughout the book.  The final scenes wrap up the entire narrative extremely well and do a great job setting up the next novel in the series.  I look forward to seeing where the narrative goes from here and I think that the series has some amazing potential.

I really enjoyed the cool and memorable fantasy world that Beaton introduced in her first novel, and it serves as a great setting for the awesome story.  The nation of Elira is broken up into several distinctive political and climate zones, based around a city state, resulting in fascinating group of different and proud people.  I loved the fun blend of cultures featured within this nation, especially as it results in some compelling and entertaining cultural and political clashes.  There is a great focus on the history of Elira, especially as it relates to the previous war against the White Queen, with the scholar protagonist attempts to uncover the full truth behind the past to determine the country’s future.  There are also a ton of LGBT+ elements associated with the setting, which I really appreciated and which helped to make the setting even richer.  Add to that several hostile nations surrounding Elira, a rampaging magical queen full of vengeance, and a covert network of independent magical users with their own agenda, and you have a fantastic combination of groups and political ideals, which helps to makes the compelling narrative even more exciting.  This all proves to be pretty damn awesome, especially as Beaton does a wonderful job describing the rich and vibrant countryside of her setting, allowing the reader to have an outstanding time exploring this new nation.  I really enjoyed this captivating setting and I look forward to seeing how the author expands it in her next novel.

Easily the best thing about The Councillor are the complex and intense characters featured throughout the story.  This includes main protagonist Lysande, who is forced to endure quite a lot of growth and betrayal during the story.  Beaton weaves a powerful and intense narrative around Lysande, an orphan who was chosen to become the Iron Queen’s companion and who grew into a brilliant scholar and thinker.  After the queen’s death, Lysande is forced to become both a ruler and politician, and she finds herself excelling in the role, especially as it allows her to use her skills as a scholar and researcher to her advantage.  Due to Lysande being the point-of-view protagonist, Beaton takes a lot of time exploring her personality, feelings, and history, and it does not take long for the reader to become attached to her, especially as she finds herself in a dangerous and complex personal and political situation.  It proved to be extremely compelling to see Lysade take the political stage for the first time, and I loved the way she adapted to the intrigue and deceit, especially once she started to revel in it.  It was pretty cool to see a scholar attempt to take the throne, resulting in a very different hero from what most fantasy fans would expect.  I also enjoyed the way that the author ensured that Lysande is a bit of a flawed protagonist, especially as she is controlled by her addiction to Chimera Scale, a magical narcotic that gives her energy and different insights to the world.  This growing reliance on Chimera Scale impacts her severely throughout the novel, especially as it covers up some deeper secrets about her, which come to fore later in the novel.  An overall exceptional main character, I am very intrigued about where this story will take Lysande next.

Aside from Lysande, The Councillor features a fantastic collection of supporting characters, each of whom add a lot the story.  The main four supporting characters are the city rulers who arrive in court to put their cases for being the next monarch.  Beaton spends a bit of time building up each character, and it proves quite enjoyable learning their flaws, personalities and secrets, especially as any of them could potentially be villainous.  The most prominent of these city rulers is the mysterious and manipulative Luca Fontaine, a dangerous bastard son who became city ruler after killing his family.  Presented as a dark figure with a love of intrigue, espionage and advanced politics, Fontaine has some outstanding back and forth with Lysande, which were extremely enthralling and compelling, and Fontaine swiftly becomes one of the more entertaining and likeable characters in the novel.  I did think that Beaton could have toned down Fontain’s manipulative side just a little, especially as it made him too obvious a suspect for being the traitor, however, I don’t think this had too much of a negative impact on the narrative.  Aside from the city rulers, the book has some interesting focus on Lysande’s advisors and guards, each of whom hep her in their own unique way.  I particularly enjoyed Lysande’s new maid, Litany, especially once her real purpose in the court is revealed.  This great supporting cast proves to be a lot of fun to follow, and I really appreciated the time and detail that the author put into setting them up.

Overall, I found The Councillor to be an outstanding and deeply entertaining fantasy read with a really addictive and compelling narrative.  Australian author E. J. Beaton did an excellent job with her first book, and this is a must read for anyone who loves a fantasy tale laden with clever political intrigue.  A highly recommend fantasy debut, I cannot wait to see where Beaton takes this series next.

Star Wars: The High Republic: Out of the Shadows by Justina Ireland

Star Wars - Out of the Shadows Cover

Publisher: Disney Lucasfilm Press (Audiobook – 27 July 2021)

Series: Star Wars – The High Republic

Length: 10 hours and 50 minutes

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

The marvels and terrors of the High Republic era of Star Wars history continues with the latest fantastic and exciting young adult tie-in novel, Star Wars: Out of the Shadows by Justina Ireland.

The High Republic is an interconnected collection of novels, comics, audio dramas and other pieces of media produced by top Star Wars authors, set hundreds of years before the films.  Starting in January 2021, this compelling multimedia project features several great pieces of fiction, including the awesome introductory novel Light of the Jedi by Charles Soule, the impressive The Rising Storm by Cavan Scott, and the entertaining young adult novel Into the Dark by Claudia Gray.  The latest High Republic novel, Out of the Shadows, is another compelling young adult novel that continues several key storylines from previous High Republic novels.  This was the second Star Wars book from author Justina Ireland, who previously wrote the High Republic junior novel, A Test of Courage.

Death, destruction, pirates, and plant monsters!  The Republic may be at the height of its culture and influence, but it is in some major trouble.  Following the devastation that occurred during the Republic Fair at Valo, the Republic are at war with the marauders known as the Nihil, with the Jedi leading the efforts to hunt them down.  But in the far corners of space, the Nihil are planning something new, something that could change the very fabric of the galaxy.

Sylvestri Yarrow is a young pilot and captain of a dilapidated ship, who is doing the best she can to keep her crew above water after the death of her mother.  However, when her ship is suddenly pulled out of hyperspace in a remote area of space with a boarding party of Nihil raiders waiting for her, she has no choice but to abandon her home.  Determined to get some form of justice, Sylvestri heads to Coruscant to convince someone of the dangers, but no one is willing to listen to a teenage pilot from the frontier until the unscrupulous and ultra-wealthy Xylan Graf appears and makes her an offer she cannot refuse.

In exchange for a new ship and a substantial number of credits, Sylvestri will accompany Xylan to the area of space where she lost her ship to help him disprove rumours of a dangerous Nihil weapon and to convince a senator into giving his family access to valuable hyperspace lanes.  Despite her misgivings about the plan, and the trustworthiness of Xylan, Sylvestri agrees to accompany him.  However, the Senator has a caveat: Xylan must take along some unimpeachable observers of her choosing, Jedi.  Now accompanied by young Jedi Knight Vernestra Rwoh, her Padawan Imri Cantaros, Master Cohmac Vitus, his apprentice Reath Silas, and, awkwardly, Sylvestri’s ex-girlfriend Jordanna Sparkburn, the team heads out to the wilds of space.  But the Nihil are always watching and waiting from the shadows, and their plans could spell doom for everyone.  Can Sylvestri and her new Jedi friends survive the dangers ahead of them, or will terrible secrets from her past threaten to overwhelm everyone once they are dragged out of the shadows.

Out of the Shadows proved to be a fun and compelling entry in this great new Star Wars series that I had a fantastic time listening to.  Featuring a great story and some excellent characters, this novel continues several key storylines from the previous High Republic novels and presents a strong and action-packed adventure.

Ireland has come up with a pretty good story for Out of the Shadows, resulting in a very exciting read.  Set around a year after Ireland’s last novel, A Test of Courage, and a short period after the events of the last major High Republic novel The Rising Storm, Out of the Shadows ties together several intriguing story threads set around some compelling characters.  The book starts out quick, with each major characters introduced in short order through a series of separate point-of-view chapters.  These early introductions do a good job of establishing the characters’ histories, personalities and motivations, and sending them on their various story paths.  The first third of the novel moves quickly, with each character getting some compelling moments, such as Sylvestri getting involved with unscrupulous businessman Xylan Graf, while Jedi Vernestra and her friends get a taste of the dangerous frontier life on their way to Coruscant.  This results in a fun mixture of plot inclusions, from some captivating political intrigue in Sylvestri’s storyline to some more action in Vernestra’s story combined with some interesting examinations of the Jedi and the Force.

These storylines combine around halfway through the book, with the key characters (except for one point-of-view antagonist) coming together and working as a team.  While it did have some good moments, I felt the middle part of the novel dragged a little, and there was not a great deal of excitement there.  However, it did set up the conclusion nicely, with Sylvestri and the Jedi coming face to face with the Nihil in less-than-ideal circumstances.  After a short confrontation, the story goes into overdrive, with the characters racing through several events all the way up to the end, including one event that might have some major ramifications for the High Republic storylines.  Strangely enough, while the second act was a little slow, the final part of the novel was way too quick, with a lot happening in a very short amount of time.  Still there were some great moments in these end scenes, including a couple of good twists, and it also sets up some further adventures extremely well.  All the key characters get gratifying conclusions to their various storylines, and readers are left feeling pretty satisfied with how events turned out.  Ireland makes sure to layer her story with some great action sequences, and there are some entertaining moments spread throughout the book.  I had a wonderful time reading this cool story, and it ended up being a rather good Star Wars book.

This latest Star Wars novel is marketed towards a young adult audience, and I felt that it was a particularly good read for teenagers.  Not only does it feature several teenage characters kicking ass, including a girl who became a Jedi Knight at age 15, but it also contains a clever and enjoyable story that does not pander to the younger age group or shy away from violence or controversial topics.  Ireland did a great job diving into the teenage mindset, and I felt that the various teenage characters featured in this novel were well portrayed as competent and complex figures.  I also liked the strong LGBT+ elements that Ireland featured throughout the novel, especially between Sylvestri and Jordanna Sparkburn, and it is cool that it is being shown so prominently in these novels.  Like many young adult Star Wars novels, this book is can be easily enjoyed by older Star Wars fans, who will appreciate the intriguing story and fascinating developments to the wider High Republic universe.  Younger readers will also probably have a good time with this novel, especially as Ireland does not go too over the top with the violence and romance, and as such I felt that this was an accessible novel to fans of all ages.

Out of the Shadows’ narrative is a continuation of several previous High Republic novels, which readers may need a bit of pre-knowledge about to fully enjoy.  Not only does this novel continue to expand the High Republic series and make frequent references to characters and events primarily featured in Light of the Jedi or The Rising Storm; it also serves as a direct continuation of two previous books.  This includes Ireland’s first Star Wars novel, A Test of Courage, as well as earlier 2021 release, Into the Dark, with key characters and storylines continued in Out of the Shadows.  Readers unfamiliar with these previous novels might also have a hard time following what is happening in Out of the Shadows, although I did think Ireland had a good go at making this novel accessible to readers, no matter their knowledge base.  Some key events of previous novels are explored in some detail, and I had no trouble following what was happening or who the characters were, even though I haven’t read A Test of Courage.  Ireland also blended the various existing storylines together extremely well, and this helped to turn Out of the Shadow into a key entry in the overall High Republic series, especially as it continues to show the galactic machinations of the Nihil.  It also looks like several storylines, mainly surrounding Ireland’s primary protagonist Vernestra Rwoh, will be continued in some future novels and I will have to try to read Ireland’s next novel, Mission of Disaster, even though I have avoided the junior High Republic novels in the past.

One of the things that particularly impressed me about Out of the Shadows was the excellent collection of characters that Ireland fit into her narrative.  There is a substantial central cast in this book, including some new additions and some characters who have appeared in previous High Republic novels.  The author does a good job of introducing and exploring these key characters throughout the novel, and you get some interesting and intense character development occurring, which really adds to the narrative.

These characters include Sylvestri Yarrow, a young pilot who finds herself dragged into the middle of this adventure.  Sylvestri is a tough frontier girl with a big independent streak and a massive chip on her shoulder when it comes to both the Nihil and the Jedi, and she goes through a lot in this novel.  Serving as one of the main point-of-view characters, Sylvestri offers a very interesting view on the events occurring and has some deep connections to the Nihil plot without even realising it.  She also forms an intense and fantastic relationship with Jordanna Sparkburn, her ex-girlfriend, who suddenly re-enters her life.  Jordanna is a frontier deputy responsible for defending her planet from Nihil raiders, which has seen her fight in quite a few battles.  Brought into the story after the Jedi help her to defend her home, Jordanna accompanies them to Coruscant and then gets wrapped up the main story.  Mainly introduced as the tough girl still interested in Sylvestri, Jordanna gains a lot of depth as a character as the story progresses, especially as she has experienced a lot of trauma after being forced into multiple battles.  A lot of this comes out when Sylvestri is in trouble, and Jordanna goes on a bit of a killing spree with a unique Nihil weapon she has obtained.  This scene really adds a lot to how the reader sees her, and it proves to be quite fascinating.  I was also a big fan of Jordanna’s giant alien cat, Remy, a dangerous creature who is just a big kitten at heart, especially when she bonds with some of the other characters.

I also enjoyed the great Jedi characters featured in Out of the Shadows.  These include Jedi Knight Vernestra Rwoh and her Padawan Imri Cantaros, who were the main characters of A Test of Courage and are now Ireland’s go-to Star Wars protagonists.  These two Jedi make for a unique pairing, as Vernestra is a brilliant Jedi prodigy, becoming a Knight at a very young age, while Imri is only slightly younger and has a unique ability to perceive emotions.  Vern is a particularly striking character, particularly with her lightwhip (a lightsaber modified to also be used as a whip) and I enjoyed seeing the challenges that a very young Knight would face.  Her unique connection to the force also connects her to another interesting character in the High Republic canon, and it sets her up for some big storylines in the future.  The other major Jedi characters are Jedi Master Cohmac Vitus and his apprentice Reath Silas.  Cohmac and Reath were previously heavily featured in a previous young adult novel, Into the Dark, and it was great to see them again.  Despite being the apprentice, Reath is the more prominent character, with several point-of-view chapters to himself.  While it was great to see more of Reath and Cohmac, they are a little underutilised, and I would have liked to see more about them, especially with Reath’s unique connection to one of the antagonists.

The other two characters who were a lot of fun in this book are Nan and Xylan Graf, two complex figures who are playing their own games.  Nan is a young Nihil spy and infiltrator who previously encountered Reath while the two were trapped on a space station together.  Serving as one of Marchion Ro’s most loyal soldiers, Nan is entrusted with an important treasure and is subsequently forced to navigate the Nihil’s internal feuding and plotting to survive.  Nan provides a fantastic alternate perspective for much of the events of the novel as she is used to show what is happening in the Nihil camp.  I liked her use in this book, and while I would have enjoyed a much more intense confrontation with Reath when they are inevitably reunited, I did enjoy how Nan’s story arc dramatically changed towards the end of the novel, which should be interesting for future High Republic novels.  The other character is Xylan Graf, the ultimate rich-kid master manipulator.  Xylan is the scion to the exceedingly powerful and rich Graf family, who organises the entire expedition, seemingly to gain rights to a valuable sector of space.  Xylan is an extremely flashy and stylish figure, and it is quite entertaining to see the other characters react to his eccentricities.  He is also quite a sly operator, cooking up plans and spinning tales to keep everyone happy.  He is so slippery that you honestly don’t know what he is planning for most of the novel, and I felt that he was a very compelling and fun addition to the cast.  All of the above characters were really fun and I hope they reappear in some of the future High Republic entries.

I made sure to grab a copy of Out of the Shadows’ audiobook format, which proved to be an interesting experience.  While I tend to really enjoy Star Wars audiobooks due to the cool production inclusions they usually feature, I ended up being a little disappointed with Out of the Shadow’s audiobook.  This was mainly because it lacked the iconic Star Wars musical score or background sound effects that all the other Star Wars audiobooks have, which made for a more subdued listening experience.  While this didn’t make Out of the Shadows impossible to enjoy, it was a very noticeable departure from the typical fun I have with Star Wars audiobooks, and several scenes could have benefited from being enhanced by some emotional music.  Still, I enjoyed the production, mainly because narrator Keylor Leigh does a really good job telling the story.  Leigh, who previously narrated Ireland’s A Test of Courage, has a great voice for teenage characters.  I felt that Leigh gave each of the key protagonists a unique and fitting voice, and she also ensured that the narrative moved along at a quick and exciting pace.  In addition, with a runtime of just under 11 hours, this is a relatively quick listen, which dedicated listeners can power through in no time at all.  As a result, this is a good format to enjoy Out of the Shadows on, although I really do wish that it had featured the usual strong Star Wars production values.

Star Wars: Out of the Shadows by Justina Ireland is an awesome and captivating High Republic tie-in novel, which continues to explore this unique period in Star Wars history.  Containing a fun story and some great characters, this novel serves as a key entry in the High Republic series, following several fascinating plot threads from some previous novels.  Readers are in for an excellent time with this novel, and Out of the Shadows proves to be an exciting and compelling experience.

The Mask of Mirrors by M. A. Carrick

The Mask of Mirrors Cover

Publisher: Orbit (Audiobook – 19 January 2021)

Series: Rook & Rose – Book One

Length: 23 hours and 13 minutes

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Inscape by Louise Carey

Inscape Cover

Publisher: Gollancz (Trade Paperback – 27 January 2021)

Series: Inscape – Book One

Length: 426 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

The future is a cyperpunk nightmare in Inscape, the fantastic and clever science fiction thriller debut from amazing author Louise Carey.

Years after an apocalyptic event, the world is now run by corporations who battle for control and influence.  One of the most powerful corporations is InTech, which sits on the cutting edge of a variety of technologies and advances and which does not take any prisoners in their war for dominance.  When a valuable piece of information is stolen, InTech sends a team of agents into the unaffiliated zone to retrieve them.  However, only one agent will return alive and unharmed.

Tanta has spent her entire life training to work and fight for InTech.  An orphan who was raised solely because of the company’s good will, Tanta is crushed when her first mission ends in near failure.  Attacked by a mysterious enemy agent with advanced weapons technology, Tanta is barely able to survive and is subsequently tasked with retrieving the information that the thief stole.  Teaming up with an unconventional technical genius, Cole, Tanta begins her investigation, only to discover that someone is attacking InTech’s interests around their city.

Believing the culprits to be working for a rival corporation, Tanta and Cole attempt a dangerous infiltration into their city.  However, their mission quickly runs into problems when their contact is captured and Tanta’s tech appears to be compromised.  Attempting to survive in enemy territory, the two InTech agents engage in a risky heist to find answers.  But with all evidence pointing to a traitor high up in InTech’s ranks, can Tanta and Cole survive their dangerous mission, or will secrets from both their pasts destroy them and everything they love?

I am really glad that I decided to check this cool debut out as it ended up being a pretty impressive science fiction read.  Inscape was the first solo novel from author Louise Carey, who has previously written several novels and comics with her father, comic author Mike Carey, and her mother, Linda Carey.  Carey has come up with an exciting and compelling read in her first novel, especially as it combines an excellent science fiction thriller storyline with some great characters and an inventive and unique cyberpunk setting.

At the centre of this fantastic debut is an outstanding narrative that combines an electrifying spy thriller novel with some compelling science fiction.  Carey starts Inscape off quickly, with Tanta and her comrades brutally attacked by a dangerous enemy agent out while trying to recover some stolen files.  After this great opening scene, which sets up most of the narrative perfectly, Tanta is chucked into the midst of a massive conspiracy which sees her beloved corporation under attack, and which requires her to find who stole the files and for what purpose.  The rest of the novel is captivating and clever, as readers become engrossed by Inscape’s fantastic thriller elements as the protagonists attempt to get to the bottom of the conspiracy, which includes an extended undercover sequence where they infiltrate a rival corporation’s city to discover what they know.  This entire awesome sequence, which takes nearly a third of the novel, is extremely exciting, as Tanta and Cole are forced to rely on the minimal of resources to not only survive but to also pull off a daring prison break.  I really fell in love with this novel during this part of the story, and Carey makes sure to end it with an amazing conclusion which sees some major secrets come out and significant developments moments occur for the main characters.  I felt that the author wrapped Inscape up perfectly and readers will deeply enjoy where the story leaves off, especially as there are some great hints as to where the series will go from here.

One of the key things that I really loved about Inscape was the amazingly inventive and distinctive cyberpunk themed world that Carey created as a background to her awesome story.  The world of Inscape is set several years after an apocalyptic technological event which left much of the world in ruins.  Most civilisation now revolves around massive corporations who manage cities and safe zones while monitoring their citizens and assigning resources to the most useful.  There were also some intriguing pieces of technology introduced in this novel, such as the communications and information devices built into everyone’s heads, known as scapes, which serve as a key part of Inscape’s story.  This was an impressive and well-designed science fiction setting, and I enjoyed the cool blend of advanced technology, changing social norms and predictions of future corporate control.  I felt that Carey did an amazing job of introducing information and key points about the setting and advanced technology as the novel progresses, and it proves to be an excellent backdrop to Inscape.  I also appreciated the way in which technology like the scapes are utilised throughout the story as the instantaneous communication and information they contain help to enhance some of the action orientated scenes as well as amp up the intrigue and connections between characters.  You also occasionally get the opposite effects where this technology is deactivated and the protagonists are forced to rely on their own senses, which can be rather jarring for them.  Carey works in some compelling discussions about over-reliance on technology, free will and corporate greed throughout Inscape, all of which adds a darker and fascinating edge to the entire story.  All of this makes Inscape a very intriguing read that fans of science fiction and cyberpunk will deeply enjoy.

Another wonderful aspect of Inscape was the fantastic characters featured within, particularly the three main point-of-view characters.  Carey makes excellent use of multiple character perspectives throughout the novel to provide compelling alternate viewpoints of key events and character actions, which I felt really added a lot to the overall narrative.  In addition, the author introduces several amazing characters, most of whom either have a compelling base to their unique personalities or who go through some substantial development throughout the course of the novel.

The most prominent of these is central protagonist Tantra, a young woman who was raised by InTech since she was orphaned and who has been training all her life to be an agent for them.  Tantra starts the novel as a particularly zealous and passionate character who is unquestionably loyal to her corporation and her handler, Jen.  A skilled survivor, fighter and intuitive investigator, Tantra serves as a great protagonist for the early part of the novel, as she swiftly and efficiently begins the hunt for the person who is attacking her beloved InTech.  However, as the novel progresses, Tantra goes through some substantial changes, especially after she discovers some harsh truths about InTech and herself.  While this turns her into a much more likeable and free-spirited person, it does raise certain questions about Tantra’s true self and her motivations, which is rather intriguing and captivating to see.  Tantra is a fairly badass character throughout the entirety of Inscape, and I deeply enjoyed her intensity, intelligence, capacity for violence and acting abilities, the last of which results in a couple of fun scenes.  I also enjoyed how Carey made her a lesbian character, and she has a nice and touching relationship with a fellow orphan, Reet, although certain aspects of the narrative make Tantra contemplate how and why their relationship occurred.  This was a fantastic central protagonist, and I am curious to see what happens to her in the future.

The next major character in the novel is Cole, an InTech scientist who finds himself partnered with Tantra on the case to find the missing information.  Cole is a great character, a brilliant man who has recently lost his memories due to a technological mishap.  As a result, he spends much of the novel attempting to work out who he is, which impacts much of his personality and motives.  Cole ended up being a rather fun and interesting addition to Inscape, and I loved the unusual team that he forms with Tantra.  In many ways, Tantra and Cole are complete opposites, as Cole has a bit of an anti-authoritarian streak and sees the other characters and corporations in a different light to his partner.  Cole is also far less trained as a corporate operative and finds himself extremely overwhelmed when out in the field.  In several great sequences he is shown to be very out of his depth and is forced to rely on Tantra’s skill and knowledge, which is particularly jarring for him as he is substantially older than her.  I very much enjoyed seeing Cole finding his feet throughout this book and getting a crash course in espionage and survival from his teenage partner, and I liked the fun and substantive friendship he formed with Tantra.  Several great secrets and reveals come out about Cole as the novel progresses, and it results in some great discussions about whether he is the same person that he was before he lost his memories.  These reveals are likely to have a major impact in some future novels and should result in some intriguing story arcs.

The final major point-of-view character in this novel is Jen, Tantra’s handler at InTech, who Tantra views as a mentor and mother figure.  Jen is an ambitious and driven woman who is determined to climb the InTech ranks, and who sees her control over Tantra as the way to do it.  I really liked the way that Carey portrays Jen through the various perspectives as you get a very different viewpoint of who and what Jen is.  For example, in Tantra’s eyes Jen can do no wrong, and is one of the few people that she loves and respects.  However, when Cole sees her actions, he realises just how manipulative Jen is and how little she actually cares for Tantra.  Jen’s true ruthlessness and uncaring nature is further explored in some of the scenes shown from her perspective, and it is fantastic to see the differing viewpoints about her motives and actions.  Jen serves a great role throughout the novel as Tantra’s motivation and as a dangerous controlling figure and I really enjoyed seeing the entirety of her storyline unfold.  Each of these three main characters were written pretty perfectly and I loved the fantastic development and exploration that Carey did with them in Inscape.

Inscape by Louise Carey was an incredible and addictive debut novel that ended up being a really fun and compelling read.  Carey did a wonderful job of blending an excellent thriller narrative with some great science fiction elements, amazing characters, and a clever examination about humanity’s over-reliance on technology.  I look forward to seeing how this series continues in the future, especially after this amazing first novel, and Inscape is really worth checking out.

Serpentine by Jonathan Kellerman

Serpentine Cover

Publisher: Random House Audio (Audiobook – 2 February 2021)

Series: Alex Delaware – Book 36

Length: 12 hours and 10 minutes

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

One of the leading stars of the murder mystery genre, Jonathan Kellerman, returns with the latest entry in his long-running Alex Delaware series, Serpentine.

For years LAPD detective Lieutenant Milo Sturgis has tended to do things his own way in the department.  Thanks to his impressive solve rate and his unique and successful partnership with his best friend, psychologist Alex Delaware, Milo has been able to crack some of the toughest murder cases that the department has come up across while managing to avoid the lows of office politics.  However, not even Milo is able to withstand pressure from the very top of the LAPD, so when an extremely wealthy businesswoman wants help from the department’s best, Milo is forced to work an impossible case.

The businesswoman, young entrepreneur Eleanor Barker, wants closure over the death of her mother, a mysterious woman who was found dead decades ago in a torched Cadillac with a bullet in her head.  Despite their reservations over the way the case was assigned to them, Milo is determined to do the best job possible, and with Alex’s help he begins his investigation.  However, with no evidence, no case file, no witnesses and no real idea about their victim’s past or origins, their chances of success seem slim.

Forced to look for answers in some unusual places, Milo and Alex are slowly able to pull together a picture of the events surrounding the death of Eleanor’s mother.  However, the more they dig, the more unusual coincidences begin to arise as what they discover deviates massively from the established facts.  It soon becomes apparent that there is far more to this case than was initially believed and that someone out there is determined to stop any investigation into this brutal murder.  Can Milo and Alex solve their most difficult case yet, or will a cunning killer continue to remain free?

Well, that was a pretty cool murder mystery!  Serpentine is the 36th entry in Jonathan Kellerman’s amazing Alex Delaware series, which has been running since 1985.  I am a relative newcomer to Kellerman’s work, having only stumbled onto series when I read his 34th book, The Wedding Guest, back in 2019.  I had an excellent time reading The Wedding Guest and the loved the authors distinctive writing style and ability to weave together a great mystery.  I enjoyed it so much I ended up checking out Kellerman’s next book, the 2020 release The Museum of Desire, which contained an impressive murder case and ended up being another amazing read.  As a result, I have been very keen to check out Kellerman’s latest book for a while now and I have to say that I was very pleased with how awesome Serpentine turned out to be.

I ended up absolutely powering through this latest Alex Delaware novel, especially once I got hooked on its exceptional and impressive murder mystery narrative.  Kellerman came up with an amazing narrative for this novel that proved to be particularly captivating right off the bat as his two established protagonists become embroiled in a seemingly impossible-to-solve case.  Forced to dig around in the past, the protagonists slowly determine the events surrounding the old murder via odd bits of evidence and a range of interesting witnesses.  While the investigative process is quite fun to see, Kellerman has also thrown a ton of fantastic twists into the story, ensuring that the reader has no idea how the mystery is going to unfold.  I love some of the unique directions that the author took this compelling case and I was impressed with some of the clever reveals that he chucked in, especially as they were set up beautifully and added some fantastic surprises to the plot.  While I did think that the book concluded rather rapidly and some storylines could have been wrapped up a little better, this was still an exceptional narrative which I deeply enjoyed.

Easily my favourite thing about the Alex Delaware novels is the great way that the author portrays the ongoing investigation.  Kellerman always ensures that his investigations extremely realistic and as a result his protagonists always engage in a methodical examination of the sources, slowly gaining the information they need and building up connections and discovering any inconsistencies.  A lot of their evidence is obtained through discussions with potential witnesses, colleagues and experts, and there may be multiple conversations with various persons of interest to find out different nuggets of information.  This then results in the main characters throwing out theories about what potentially happened and basing their future investigative directions on the most promising clues.  This manner of investigation proves to be very different to other crime fiction novels I have read, and I really enjoy this more realistic portrayal of how police could solve a difficult case, especially as the author works in time delays for evidence analysis, unreliable witnesses and colleagues, and lack of resources.  I particularly enjoyed the investigation featured within Serpentine as it forces the protagonists to solve a murder that occurred over 30 years previously.  As a result, the characters lack any sort of evidence, useful witnesses, or previous investigations to help them find the killer, and they are forced to utilise more creative methods to find information or track down anyone who has the slightest idea of who the victim was or what happened to them.  This extremely cold case was a fantastic part of Serpentine’s plot and it proved to be deeply fascinating to see how he envisioned detectives solving this sort of investigation.  I loved this realistic and methodical portrayal of a murder investigation and it really made Serpentine stand out as a fantastic crime fiction novel.

I also must highlight the outstanding two lead characters who form the heart of Serpentine, and indeed the entire series, titular protagonist Alex Delaware and LAPD detective Milo Sturgis.  Alex and Milo are a fantastic pair of crime-fighting protagonists who have taken on some extremely tricky murders during their partnership.  Both characters bring a lot to the novel.  Alex is the more serious of the two.  As a clinical child psychologist with a head for mysteries, Alex can provide some intriguing insights into the minds of the victims, witnesses, and potential suspects, which provide new insight into their cases.  Milo on the other hand is the food-loving, cynical veteran cop who works the hard grind of a LAPD detective.  While I enjoy both characters, Milo is easily my favourite due to his constant wise cracks, the author’s tasteful portrayal of the character as a homosexual LAPD lieutenant, and his somewhat maverick cop persona.  Alex is also quite fun, especially as his psychological insights have a basis in the author’s own training as a psychologist, and I liked his constant clever quips about the situations they encounter.  The real joy of these two characters, however, is the way they work together.  These two make an amazing team, especially as they have become close best friends who are able to work together perfectly in sync.  I loved the way these two were able to work together to solve crimes, and their innate teamwork and friendship is a fantastic centre of the book’s story.  I also enjoyed the way the two characters play off each other throughout the story, as their personalities and unique sense of humour really gel together well and produce a lot of fun jokes and moments.  Overall, I had an amazing time following Alex and Milo through another excellent book, and I cannot wait to see what crazy case they encounter next time.

To check out Serpentine I grabbed a copy of its audiobook format, which was narrated by John Rubinstein.  This audiobook, which has a run time of just over 12 hours, ended up being an amazing way to enjoy this fantastic book and I powered through it in no time at all, especially once I got caught up in the outstanding mystery.  Rubinstein, whose has previously lent his voice to a great collection of crime fiction novels, including previous Alex Delaware audiobooks, did an outstanding job narrating this novel, and I felt that he moved the story along at a fast and enjoyable pace which really captured the audience’s attention.  I also rather enjoyed the various voices that he utilised throughout Serpentine, as each character was given their own unique voice, which I felt fit their respective personality perfectly.  I really loved the voice that Rubinstein uses for Milo in particular, as it just screams veteran cop, and it really helped enhance how much I enjoyed this already awesome character.  As a result, I would strongly recommended Serpentine’s audiobook to anyone interested in checking out this book and listeners are in for a good time with this format.

Serpentine by Jonathan Kellerman is another impressive and clever addition to the great Alex Delaware series.  This latest book features a complex and captivating murder mystery investigation which forces Kellerman’s fantastic and lovable protagonists to dive back into the past and solve an intriguing cold case.  Full of several outstanding twists around Kellerman’s latest compelling case, Serpentine has an incredible story and readers are going to have an amazing time unwinding this great mystery.  I deeply enjoyed this fantastic novel, and this might be the best Alex Delaware novel I have read so far.  Highly recommended.

Quick Review – City of Vengeance by D. V. Bishop

City of Vengeance Cover

Publisher: Macmillan (Trade Paperback – 9 February 2021)

Series: Cesare Aldo – Book One

Length: 402 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

From impressive debuting author D. V. Bishop comes a powerful and exciting historical murder mystery set in the heart of 16th century Florence with the amazing City of Vengeance.

Synopsis:

Florence. Winter, 1536. A prominent Jewish moneylender is murdered in his home, a death with wide implications in a city powered by immense wealth.

Cesare Aldo, a former soldier and now an officer of the Renaissance city’s most feared criminal court, is given four days to solve the murder: catch the killer before the feast of Epiphany – or suffer the consequences.

During his investigations Aldo uncovers a plot to overthrow the volatile ruler of Florence, Alessandro de’ Medici. If the Duke falls, it will endanger the whole city. But a rival officer of the court is determined to expose details about Aldo’s private life that could lead to his ruin. Can Aldo stop the conspiracy before anyone else dies, or will his own secrets destroy him first?

City of Vengeance is an awesome and powerful historical murder mystery that I have been looking forward to for a while.  New author Bishop has come up with an excellent story that expertly combines great characters, intense historical detail, and a clever murder mystery into an awesome and exciting tale.  I had an outstanding time getting through this amazing book, and this might be one of the better debuts of 2021 that I have so far read.

Bishop has produced an extraordinary narrative for his debut book which I deeply enjoyed and found myself quickly engrossed in.  This book contains an excellent mystery which is actually a clever adaptation of a real-life historical murder and conspiracy in renaissance Florence which the protagonist, Cesare Aldo, finds himself investigating and attempting to stop after several other related crimes are discovered.  Bishop builds a fantastic and intense story around this investigation as the protagonist goes up against several powerful foes and is forced into deadly situations as his opponents attempt to stop him.  There is also a great secondary storyline about a separate murder which is being investigated by both Aldo and his associates at Florence’s criminal court.  While this other murder is not directly connected to the main murder and conspiracy, they do highlight some of the personal issues surrounding the protagonist and provide some intriguing opportunities for a dastardly secondary antagonist.  I loved the author’s great use of multiple perspectives throughout this narrative, and he really comes up with some intense, action-packed moments as Aldo is forced to fight for his life.  This story ended up having some amazing twists to it, especially if you are unfamiliar with the events of 16th century Florence, and the reader is constantly left on their toes as they witness all the crazy events unfold.  I particularly loved the final sequence in the book, mainly because it was an extremely cathartic moment for both the protagonist and the reader, and it served as the perfect end to this dark and captivating tale.  This was an overall incredible narrative, and I am really glad I got to check it out.

Easily one of the best highlights of this fantastic book was the impressive and realistic setting of renaissance Florence that Bishop brought into being.  The author has clearly done their research when it comes to this iconic Italian city as the reader is shown a detailed and complex view of the city throughout the book.  The various characters explore different parts of this historical location, and you get a real sense of the scale and culture of this city.  I really appreciated the way in which Bishop attempts to highlight interesting parts of day-to-day life in Florence during this period, and I also deeply enjoyed the examination of the city’s justice system, leadership, and political placement in the rest of Italy.  The author also utilises a range of different Italian terms and words into the text in a bid to increase the narrative’s authenticity.  I really liked this clever use of language throughout the book, especially as it enhanced the storytelling without disrupting the flow of the narrative.  Several major figures in Florence’s history also make an appearance, and I was deeply impressed by the way in which Bishop portrays them, as well as the infamous historical events that they are connected to.  I thought that the author did a great job cleverly tying these real-life figures into the exciting plot of City of Vengeance, and it was cool to see their unique tales unfold.  All this really helps to elevate City of Vengeance as a historical fiction novel and this was a captivating and clever dive back into 16th century Florence.

I also quite enjoyed the characters featured in this great novel.  On top of the historical figures who are seamlessly fitted into the narrative, Bishop has also come up with a collection of fantastic fictional characters who the main story revolves around.  While I enjoyed all these characters, I must highlight two in particular: the main protagonist Cesare Aldo and secondary antagonist Cerchi.  Aldo is an excellent hero for this book thanks to his dedication to justice, his maverick personality, his quickness with a blade and his investigative prowess, all of which help him attempt to solve the difficult crime before him.  Aldo gets into some very rough scrapes in this book, and it was a lot of fun to see him get through them and survive.  The risks are especially high since the detective also has to hide his sexuality in order to survive.  This was a fantastic character element for Bishop to include and it certainly amped up the difficulties for the protagonist, especially when he is forced to contend with people like Cerchi.  Cerchi is a fellow investigator in Florence’s criminal court, and in many ways he is the direct opposite of Aldo, in that he is a snivelling, corrupt and selfish individual who cares more about lining his own pocket than justice.  Cerchi spends most of the book attempting to undermine Aldo while also blackmailing prominent homosexuals in the city for large amounts of money.  This leads to even greater conflict with Aldo, especially as Cerchi suspects Aldo’s secret, and this adds a whole new level of drama and suspense to the narrative.  I really liked the inclusion of Cerchi in the story as he was a particularly despicable and unlikeable character who the reader quickly grows to hate and beg for his downfall.  Both characters have some great storylines throughout this book, and I particularly enjoyed the way in which their combined arc ends.

In the end I really enjoyed this exceptional first novel from D. V. Bishop which was a lot of fun to read.  Thanks to its awesome blend of history, mystery and clever characters, City of Vengeance has an exciting and captivating narrative that proved extremely hard to put down.  I was deeply impressed with the way that the author utilised his knowledge of 16th century Florence to create a powerful and compelling tale of murder and conspiracy, and readers are in for a real treat with this fantastic debut.  I look forward to seeing what Bishop comes up with next and I particularly hope that he revisits Cesare Aldo and Florence in his future novels.

Star Wars: Victory’s Price by Alexander Freed

Star Wars - Victory's Price Cover

Publisher: Random House Audio (Audiobook – 2 March 2021)

Series: Star Wars: Alphabet Squadron – Book Three

Length: 16 hours and 19 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

One of the best Star Wars tie-in series comes to an epic and impressive end, as Alexander Freed presents Star Wars: Victory’s Price, the amazing third and final entry in the awesome Alphabet Squadron trilogy.

Since its inception in 2014, the current Star Wars extended universe has featured an amazing range of novels that tie into the various movies and television series.  One of the best has been the Alphabet Squadron trilogy from acclaimed author Alexander Freed.  Alphabet Squadron is a particularly compelling trilogy that follows a fantastic group of mismatched Rebel and Imperial pilots who continue to fight in the aftermath of Return of the Jedi.  This series has so far featured two excellent entries: the great introductory novel Alphabet Squadron, and the outstanding second entry, Shadow Fall, both of which I have deeply enjoyed.  As a result, I have been looking forward to seeing how the series ends and I think that Freed has left the best to last with this epic and powerful read.

The Emperor and Darth Vader may be dead, and the second Death Star destroyed, but the war is far from over.  Nearly a year after the battle of Endor, conflict still reigns in the galaxy between the forces of the New Republic and the remnants of the Empire.  In nearly every battlefield, the Empire’s forces are in retreat and disarray, apart from the notorious pilots of the 204th Imperial Fighter Wing, better known as Shadow Wing.  Led by the dangerous Imperial TIE Fighter ace, Colonel Soran Keize, Shadow Wing continue to bring death and destruction to the Empire’s enemies, slipping away when their vile deeds are done.

However, despite their skills and strategies, Shadow Wing is in constant danger as New Republic forces, under the command of General Hera Syndulla, are pursuing them.  Syndulla is determined to end the threat of Shadow Wing utilising the ragtag pilots of the unique unit known as Alphabet Squadron, each of whom has a score to settle with Shadow Wing, to lead the fight against them.  However, the members of Alphabet Squadron, Wyl Lark, Chass na Chadic, Nath Tensent and Kairos, are still recovering from their last traumatic encounter with Shadow Wing on Cerberon, as well as the revelation that their former leader, Yrica Quell, was an active participant of Operation Cinder, the Emperor’s genocidal last order to destroy multiple disloyal planets.

As Hera and Alphabet Squadron attempt to find their prey, they begin to discover just how dangerous the cornered Shadow Wing has become, as their opponents begin to enact a new version of Operation Cinder.  Worse, Alphabet Squadron are shocked to discover that Yrica Quell is still alive and has re-joined her old comrades in Shadow Wing.  As the two forces engage in battle again, the loyalties of Alphabet Squadron will be tested like never before while Quell attempts to determine just whose side she is truly on.  The conflict will finally end above the skies of Jakku, as the Imperial and New Republic fleets engage in their final battle.  Can Alphabet Squadron finally put an end to the evils of Shadow Wing, or will Soran Keize’s master plan change the entire galaxy forever?

Now this is what all pieces of Star Wars fiction should be like.  Victory’s Price is an exceptional and impressive novel that had me hooked from the very beginning.  Not only does Freed do an amazing job of wrapping up the Alphabet Squadron trilogy but he also provides the reader with fantastic action sequences and some outstanding characters.  This is easily one of the best Star Wars novels I have read in ages and it gets a full five-star rating from me.

For this final book, Freed has come up with a powerful story set within the iconic Star Wars universe.  Starting right after the events of Shadow Fall, Victory’s Price sees the members of Alphabet Squadron separated and traumatised as their protracted and personal conflict with Shadow Wing begins.  This leads into a series of exciting encounters and battles in space as Alphabet Squadron pursues Shadow Wing during their latest mission, while the leader of Shadow Wing hatches a plan to end the war on his terms.  At the same time, each of the characters attempts to deal with issues or distress raised in the previous novels, whether it be Quell’s conflicted loyalties or Chass’s post-fight trauma.  All of this leads to some epic and impressive final confrontations as the two sides meet for the very last time.  This was an extremely good character-driven read, and I loved the very cool way that Freed finished off this amazing series. 

While it is an amazing Star Wars novel, Freed focuses more on the war part of the book, turning this into a gritty story of survival, loyalty and conflict, which makes for a powerful piece of fiction.  While obviously best enjoyed by those readers familiar with the rest of the series, Victory’s Price is a very accessible novel which new readers can follow without any trouble.  Thanks to the awesome use of multiple character perspectives, Victory’s Price has an excellent flow to it, and the readers are supplied with clever twists, cool action sequences and impressive character moments as the protagonists come to terms with their place in the universe and the constant fighting.  This ended up being quite an intense tale of war and life, which not only perfectly wrapped up the Alphabet Squadron series but which also had me engrossed from the very minute I started reading it.

One of the major things that I liked about this book was the way in which it added to the Star Wars expanded universe.  This series has always done a cool job of exploring what happened after Return of the Jedi, and it is always interesting and somewhat more realistic to see that the war did not end as soon as the Emperor died.  However Freed has painted this period as a particularly dark and deadly part of the war, and I love seeing how he envisioned what happened to members of the New Republic and Empire after Endor.  Victory’s Price focuses on the very end of the civil war, showing another side of the events that lead up to the battle of Jakku and fitting its original characters into this conflict.  This is a cool part of the book, and I loved seeing another version of the epic battle of Jakku, a major conflict that has been featured in several other novels and pieces of fiction.  Freed also takes the time to explore and answer several other intriguing questions, such as the mystery behind the Emperor’s messengers, the creepy red-clad droids who project holograms of the Emperor’s face, which sought out various Imperial commanders after Endor and ordered the various genocides of Operation Cinder.  The solution surrounding the messengers ends up being rather intriguing, and there are even some clever parallels to World War II in there.  Due to the intriguing elements of Star Wars lore featured within, Victory’s Price, like the rest of the Alphabet Squadron series, will probably be enjoyed most by major fans of the franchise, but there are a lot of compelling elements that readers of all knowledge bases will appreciate.  This was truly an exceptional piece of Star Wars fiction and I cannot wait to see what Freed adds to the canon next time.

I really must highlight the outstanding action scenes that Freed came up with for this book.  I am a man who likes his Star War’s action, and I have to say that Victory’s Price has some of the best sequences that I have ever had the pleasure of enjoying.  Due to the novel’s focus on fighter pilots, there are naturally a huge number of amazing combat scenes as the rival pilots engage in complex battles in space.  Freed has saved the best for last in this final Alphabet Squadron novel, as the opposing pilots find themselves fighting in a range of unique situations.  The battle scenes are extremely well crafted, filled with elaborate details and fantastic depictions of complex manoeuvres and clever tactics that are guaranteed to keep you on the edge of your seat with their intense action.  They are also quite emotionally rich, as you witness your favourite characters constantly face near-death experiences in this final entry in the series.  Highlights of these great battle sequences included two fantastic duels between the protagonists and the leader of Shadow Wing, which sees some fancy flying between some of the most skilled pilots in the series in some very distinctive landscapes.  I also really loved the final, elaborate battle set above Jakku, which proved to be a major part of the second half of the book.  Not only do you get the desperate and packed main conflict between the entire New Republic and Imperial fleets, which features destruction and death in every direction, but you also get a more private and quiet final battle between a group of Alphabet Squadron led New Republic fighters and Shadow Wing.  This smaller pitched battle between the two sides fits perfectly into the midst of the wider conflict and is filled with personal turmoil and antagonism as these two rival squadrons meet for a final time.  All these battles come out as being extremely epic and powerful, and I loved every second of the gritty and deadly fights they contained.

While I have a lot of love for Victory’s Price’s epic story, intense action, and clever Star Wars connections, easily the best thing about this book are the complex and well-written characters.  Each of the major characters featured in Victory’s Price have been introduced in the previous Alphabet Squadron novels with some complex and powerful storylines.  In Victory’s Price, all these great arcs reach a climax as the characters meet their final destiny and their stories comes to an end.  I really enjoyed the satisfying conclusions that Freed came up with for his outstanding characters, although in many ways it was sad to see their stories finish.  Still, I really appreciated all the great character arcs contained in this final novel, and Freed ensures they go through the emotional wringer before they go.

At the forefront of these outstanding characters are the five members of Alphabet Squadron who have served as the focal point for the entire series.  The pilots in Alphabet Squadron, so named for their use of a different Rebel Alliance fighter (A-Wing, X-Wing, B-Wing, U-Wing and Y-Wing), are layered and complex individuals, each of whom has experienced their own trauma or betrayal throughout the course of the lengthy war.  All five of these original characters have gone through significant development throughout the course of the previous two novels, and Freed does an exceptional job continuing their journeys in this final book.

The main protagonist of this series is Yrica Quell, a former member of Shadow Wing, who joined Alphabet Squadron in the first novel to help neutralise her former Imperial comrades.  However, it was eventually revealed that Quell, despite claiming she defected from the Empire after refusing to participate in Operation Cinder, aided in the destruction of a planet.  This revelation caused a massive rift in her relationship with the rest of Alphabet Squadron, and she ended up reuniting with Shadow Wing at the end of the second novel.  In this final book, it is revealed that Quell has infiltrated Shadow Wing to bring them down from the inside.  However, upon spending time with her Imperial comrades, she begins to experience doubts about her plan, especially as she sees that the Imperials are just as damaged by the war as she and the New Republic pilots are.  Her plans are further complicated due to her relationship with the leader of Shadow Wing, Soran Keize, her former mentor and the person who initially convinced her to defect to the New Republic.  Quell still has an immense amount of respect for Keize, and strongly believes in several of his plans.  This re-remembered loyalty to Shadow Wing strongly conflicts with her friendships with Alphabet Squadron and the guilt she feels for her role in Operation Cinder, placing Quell in a major quandary for most of the book.  This uncertainty and inner conflict is a really clever part of Quell’s story, and the reader is deeply impacted by her struggle and conflicted loyalties.  This was easily one of the best and most powerful character arcs in Victory’s Price and I really appreciated the outstanding character story that Freed set around Quell.

Victory’s Price also spends a significant amount of time following Quell’s fellow Alphabet Squadron members, Wyl Lark and Chass na Chadic, both of whom have compelling arcs that highlight different aspects of warring soldiers.  Wyl Lark is the young, optimistic member of the squadron who took over leadership at the end of the second novel.  Lark has developed a significant amount throughout the course of this series, and it is great to see him come into his own as a leader and pilot.  However, despite his apparent ease at the role, Lark is plagued by doubts and concerns about the morality of this fight, especially as it conflicts with some of the teachings of his race.  He spends a great deal of this final book coming to terms with his morals, and even attempts to once again contact the members of Shadow Wing to try and find some common ground or a way to end the conflict.  His actions go a long way to humanising the antagonists of the novel and his hope is a refreshing beacon of light in this darker Star Wars book.  I deeply enjoyed seeing the way in which Lark attempts to change the outcome of the war his way, and it was a fascinating addition to the story. 

Chass, on the other hand, is easily the most damaged character in the entire series.  A music-loving veteran pilot who is more afraid of the end of the war and her inevitable slide into irrelevance and despair than her own death, Chass has always been on edge throughout the series.  However, in Victory’s Price, Chass is even more traumatised, especially after learning of the betrayal of her love interest, Quell (which is an intriguing LGBT+ relationship for a Star Wars novel) and has since turned to the teachings of a cult to gain some clarity.  Despite this, Chass is still driven by her anger and her rage and is constantly lashing out at everyone around her, with her death wish a constant anchor around her neck.  Freed has written a complex and moving story around Chass and her suffering, and I deeply appreciate the portrayal of her as a troubled veteran.  I think that Chass’s story comes to a fantastic end in this final novel, especially as she gets closure with several important people in her life.  Both characters are incredibly well written and are fantastic examples of Freed’s exceptional writing ability.

Next up are the final two Alphabet Squadron pilots, Nath Tensent and Kairos.  While both characters have been somewhat overshadowed throughout the series, Freed has developed some intriguing storylines around them which come full circle perfectly in this final novel.  Nath Tensent, a pilot who served both the Empire and the Rebels during the war, has an enjoyable and likeable personality and is the sort of guy who quickly becomes everyone’s best friend.  However, despite the easygoing façade he projects to the world, even Nath is feeling the effects of the war and the constant worry and responsibility is getting to him.  This is particularly exacerbated in Victory’s Price when he becomes a decorated military hero with greater responsibilities and is forced to balance his own selfish goals with the lives of people who look up to him, as well as his very strong concerns for Wyl Lark.  This results in a particularly clever and enjoyable arc, and it was great to see him finally take some responsibility in this war.  I liked the way in which Freed ended Nath’s storyline, especially as it potentially opens another series in the future. 

The final member of the squadron is the mysterious Kairos, an alien of unknown origin with a strong hatred for the Empire and terrifying combat skills.  Despite her intriguing introduction in Alphabet Squadron, Kairos was somewhat left out of the second book after receiving an injury.  However, this is more than rectified in Victory’s Price, as Kairos is featured more prominently and we finally get to see some of her backstory.  Freed comes up with quite the intriguing, if tragic, story for Kairos, and it was fascinating to see her unique alien beliefs and culture, as well as a powerful story of renewal and redemption that accompanies her.  Kairos becomes quite close to two characters in this book, especially after the closest people in her life died in the previous novel, and it was great to see her finally connect, even if only for a short while.  Freed did a fantastic job setting up Kairos’ story in the previous two novels, and I personally loved finally getting some answers regarding this curious character’s identity.

Aside from the members of Alphabet Squadron, several other characters are also shown in great prominence throughout this book.  The one I liked the most was Hera Syndulla, the New Republic general commanding Alphabet Squadron.  Hera is one of the few characters in this novel who Freed did not come up with, as Hera originated in the Star Wars: Rebels animated series and serves as a bridging character to the larger franchise.  Due to how much I love Star Wars: Rebels, I have really enjoyed seeing more of Hera in this series, not only because I am very curious about her post-Rebels life but because she also serves as a great mentor character to the members of Alphabet Squadron.  Hera features a lot more prominently in this final novel and her perspectives are shown nearly as much as the members of Alphabet Squadron.  This extra perspective really added a lot to the story as a whole and I personally really enjoyed seeing Hera take charge and attempt to hunt down Shadow Wing, while also attempting to determine the course of the entire war.  I also really enjoyed the fact that this book shows Hera’s role in the battle of Jakku, which as the largest space battle in the entire civil war, you had to assume she would be a part of.  Hera is naturally a bit of a badass in this battle, as you would expect, and I appreciated that Freed featured more of her in this novel.

The other major character featured within Victory’s Price is Colonel Soran Keize.  Keize is a fantastically complex character who serves as the leader of Shadow Wing and Quell’s Imperial mentor.  Despite nominally being the antagonist of this book, Keize is portrayed as a more of a tragic and misunderstood figure, one who is sick of war and who only has the best concerns of his men at heart.  As a result, Keize is running his own game throughout Victory’s Price and works to get the best result for the members of Shadow Wing.  His convictions, sense of honour and understandable motivations make him a hard character to dislike, and his role in mentoring Quell ensures that she is extremely conflicted when it comes to betraying him.  Keize is also probably the best pilot in this entire series, as he is regarded as the Empire’s ace of aces, and Victory’s Price is where you get to see him soar as he engages in several great battles and duels.  Thanks to this, and his curious character development, Keize is a great character to follow, and I really enjoyed the unique tale Freed told through him. 

Freed also focuses on some of the other pilots on both the New Republic and Imperial sides.  This results in a great combination of complex side or minor characters, each of whom have their own reasons for fighting in the war.  Freed attempts to show that, despite fighting on different sides of the war, these characters really are not that different.  Instead, all of them are soldiers, with several similarities, including their own trauma, PTSD and issues with the war that they are fighting in.  I think it is a testament to Freed’s writing ability that he was able to get me to care about members of the Imperial navy, and it was pretty spectacular the way in which he attempted to show the humanity buried deep within them.  It does mean that the action sequences more emotionally loaded and potentially devastating as you end up not wanting to see some of the pilots dying, but I really appreciated the way in which Freed took the time to explore these compelling side characters.

While I have previously enjoyed the first two Alphabet Squadron novels in their paperback format, circumstances required me to check out Victory’s Price as an audiobook instead, which was pretty damn awesome.  Not only did Victory’s Price feature the usual blend of iconic sound effects and music that makes all Star Wars audiobooks such a treat to enjoy, but I found that the story flowed incredibly well in this format.  With a lengthy runtime of 16 hours and 19 minutes, I absolutely blasted through this book as I became so engrossed in the awesome story and the way in which it was performed as an audiobook.  I also thought that the use of the iconic Star Wars music in the Victory’s Price was particularly impressive, and not only did the music make several of the extended space battle sequences even more epic, but they also really highlighted some of the most emotional scenes in the book and made them strike my soul even more emphatically.  I also really enjoyed the amazing narration from January LaVoy, who has previously provided her voice to the other Alphabet Squadron books.  LaVoy is a particularly skilled narrator whose work on the Star Trek: Discovery tie-in novel, Die Standing, I really enjoyed.  Not only does LaVoy present the awesome details of Victory’s Price in a quick and exciting manner, making each of the action scenes sound particularly cool, but she also provides some great voices for the various characters.  Each of the main characters gets a unique voice which fits them perfectly and which really helps the listener get to grips with their personalities and inner thoughts.  While all of the character’s voices were done extremely well, the best voice that LaVoy did was probably Hera Syndulla’s, which sounded extremely close to the character’s voice in the Star Wars Rebels animated series.  All of this helps to make Victory’s Price’s audiobook an immensely enjoyable experience and I would highly recommend this format to anyone and everyone.

Star Wars: Victory’s Price is an exceptional and powerful novel from Alexander Freed that is one of the best books I have so far read in 2021.  Featuring a dark and gritty war story set during a fascinating period of Star Wars history, Victory’s Price perfectly wraps up the impressive Alphabet Squadron trilogy while also providing some cathartic conclusions to outstanding character arcs that Freed has built up during the previous book.  I absolutely loved this final novel (hence the massive review), and I think that this was probably the best entry in the entire series.  A highly recommended read, especially if you have already enjoyed the rest of the trilogy, this was a truly epic Star Wars novel.

The Girls I’ve Been by Tess Sharpe

The Girls I've Been Cover

Publisher: Hodder Children’s Books (Trade Paperback – 9 February 2021)

Series: Standalone/Book One

Length: 361 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

From bestselling young adult author Tess Sharpe comes an outstanding and deeply impressive new novel, The Girls I’ve Been, an extremely clever and emotionally rich young adult thriller that is easily one of my favourite books of 2021 so far.

When young teen Nora O’Malley started her day, she thought that the worst thing she would have to deal with would be an awkward chance meeting with her ex-boyfriend at the local bank with her new girlfriend in tow.  However, things get decidedly worse when two armed men storm the bank, shooting wildly and demanding the manager.  When their plan goes awry, the two robbers take the staff and customers hostage, locking them in and barricading the doors.  With only a small police force in town, the nearest SWAT team hours away and the gunmen getting more and more antsy, things look grim for the hostages until Nora takes the lead.

Despite only being 17, Nora has a complicated and terrible past.  Born the daughter of a self-centred and manipulative con artist mother, Nora spent the first 12 years of her life helping her mother run her dangerous cons, first as a prop, then as an active participant, learning everything there is about lies, deceit and becoming a whole different person.  However, after their final job went terribly wrong, Nora eventually left her mother behind to escape and become Nora.  Despite living a relatively quiet life for the last five years with her long-lost sister, Nora is prepared to dive back into her past lives as a conwoman to ensure that everyone gets out this dangerous situation alive.

Using every trick and subtle deception at her disposal, Nora must try to manipulate the two robbers into letting them go, while also attempting to distract them from her friend’s escape attempts.  But as conditions in the bank get even worse, Nora begins to realise that these robbers have their own deadly plan, and that the only chance to survive is to reveal her true identity to her captors.  Nora has a deadly secret in her past, one that she has been running from for years, and which may prove to be far more dangerous than anything the robbers can throw at her.

The Girls I’ve Been is an impressive and captivating young adult thriller that I was lucky enough to receive a copy of a few weeks ago.  This is the latest novel from Tess Sharpe, an author who specialises in novels with strong female protagonists, including Barbed Wire Heart, Far From You and the Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom tie-in novel, The Evolution of Claire.  I must admit that before receiving her latest novel, I was a little unfamiliar with Sharpe’s work, although I did hear good things about her Marvel Comics tie-in book, Captain Marvel: Liberation Run.  However, the moment I received The Girls I’ve Been, I knew that I had to read it as I really liked the cool synopsis and the fantastic-sounding plot.  I ended up powering through it in a few short days as I quickly became engrossed in the excellent and complex narrative that Sharpe weaved around her damaged protagonist.  I had an outstanding time reading this book and, considering how engrossing and powerful I found it, I have no choice but to give it a full five-star rating.

For this amazing book, Sharpe has come up with an exceptional story primarily told from the point of view of the book’s protagonist and narrator, Nora.  The author starts the story off quick, pushing the protagonist and her friends, the dramatic pairing of her hurt ex-boyfriend and her long-time crush turned recent girlfriend, into the midst of a violent and dangerous situation when the bank they are in is stormed by two gunmen.  After this explosive start, Nora quickly slips into action, plotting her escape while trying to find some way to manipulate their captors into letting them go, which in turn reveals her past as a conwoman’s daughter.  The author then starts layering in a series of fantastic flashback sequences or chapters loaded with details about the protagonist’s past or her relevant skills and experiences.  Not only do these become relevant to the current crisis that the characters find themselves in, but they also provide more context for Nora’s actions, as well as containing hints about her troubled past.  These flashbacks fit seamlessly into the main narrative, and as the book progresses and the situation in the bank gets worse, the reader becomes more and more aware of just how dangerous and messed up Nora’s childhood.  The depictions of the character’s past are exceedingly fascinating, and this entire flashback narrative proves to be an awesome addition to the plot, especially as some of her previous actions have severe consequences on current events.  Both the past and present come together extremely well to form an impressive conclusion, which also leaves open the potential for sequels in the future.  I really enjoyed this awesome overarching narrative, due to its fast-paced intensity, clever humour (I particularly liked the inclusion of text at the start of some chapters describing the progress of Nora’s various plans), and impressive character development, and it really did not take me long to get invested in the story.

Easily the best thing about The Girls I’ve Been is the extraordinary amount of character development that Sharpe puts into her point-of-view protagonist, Nora.  Nora (not her real name) is a character who has a unique outlook on life due to her past, which she is constantly haunted by.  When we are first introduced to Nora, the reader is shown a seemingly normal girl, albeit with a complex love life, but it does not take long for the reader to understand just how different she is.  Not only do we witness her immediately take control of the situation inside the bank, but soon the reader sees a powerful series of flashbacks showing the character’s chaotic early life.  Each of these great flashbacks help to produce a layered and captivating figure and it was truly fascinating to see how Nora was born and raised as a criminal conwoman.  Sharpe really dives down deep in Nora’s psyche, allowing you to see how messed up she is and how her past shaped her.  I particularly enjoyed the various flashback chapters that show her committing cons when she was younger, each time with a different name.  With each of these cons, the protagonist learns a whole new set of skills and personality traits, either because her mother demanded it to make the con work or because the trials she underwent during this job required her to learn them.  The protagonist attributes each of these traits to the distinct person she was during the job, and she calls on each of these personalities to shape her into the mostly stable and capable person that she is today.  The author pulls no punches in showing the reader all the terrible things that Nora experienced as a child, and I think she did an outstanding job capturing the lasting impact painful events would have on a young person.  Despite this trauma there is a noticeable strength to Nora that drives her to survive and help others, even if it means sacrificing herself or taking a more lethal approach to solving a problem.  Naturally, all this impressive backstory helps to produce a truly compelling protagonist who the reader cannot help to pull for, especially as Sharpe also imbues her with a sarcastic and clever sense of humour that really appealed to me.  It will be interesting to see if Sharpe continues utilising this unique character in the future and I for one would love to see what happens to her next.

In addition to Nora, Sharpe has also included several other great supporting characters who help to turn The Girls I’ve Been into a first-rate novel.  While none of these characters get as developed as Nora, Sharpe has ensured that each of them is just as complex and nearly as damaged.  The main two supporting characters are Iris, Nora’s quirky current girlfriend, and Wes, Nora’s ex-boyfriend, both of whom are trapped in the bank with her.  While you would assume that this combination of characters would result in petty drama, Sharpe has come up with an intriguing relationship dynamic between the three of them which becomes a fantastic part of the narrative.  They prove to be quite supportive of each other, as all three have experienced various forms of neglect or abuse in the past, and together they are able to face their demons and become more stable people.  I really liked the way that Sharpe utilised Iris and Wes in the story, especially as both characters have some interesting characteristics, and it was amazing to see them all develop them throughout the course of the novel.

In addition to her friends, there is also a significant focus on Nora’s family, her sister Lee, and her mother, both of whom have had a major impact on her life.  I enjoyed both characters for very different reasons.  Lee is the strong older sister who, after experiencing a similar traumatic childhood like Nora, dedicates her life to saving Nora, even if she must ruin everything she loves.  Their mother, on the other hand, is a selfish, manipulative creature, who lives for the scam and is willing to drag her children through hell to get what she wants.  Both characters are great additions to the narrative, and it was fascinating to see what motivated them and what terrible things they are willing to do for different reasons.  All these characters add so much to The Girls I’ve Been, and I was really impressed with Sharpe’s excellent work on them.

Like several of Sharpe’s previous novels, The Girls I’ve Been is marketed as a young adult fiction novel for a younger audience.  I would say that this is an exceptional novel for teenage readers, as The Girls I’ve Been contains a complex and powerful story that features a young girl forced to endure amazing hardships and overcoming them in an intelligent way.  There are some deep and emotional issues that are hit on throughout this book, including children forced to deal with abusive parents, as nearly every parental figure in this novel is either abusive or complicit through negligence.  I think the author addressed these issues in an excellent way, especially as she did not try to talk down her intended audience, and I have no doubt that these elements will strongly resonate with some readers.  In addition, Sharpe also discusses some other important issues in this novel, such as endometriosis, as well as depicting some very positive LGTB+ relationships, all of which I think a lot of teenagers will also really appreciate seeing.  The novel does contain some more mature themes and elements, which might not be appropriate for younger readers, but which make it a great teen read.  This is also one of those young adult novels that can be quite easily enjoyed by an older audience, and I think that a wide range of readers will deeply enjoy this amazing novel.

The Girls I’ve Been is an outstanding and exceptional novel that I cannot give enough praise to.  Tess Sharpe has come up with a truly impressive young adult thriller, containing an amazing story and some exceedingly compelling characters.  I had an awesome time with this book, and I cannot recommend it enough.  I look forward to seeing what Sharpe will come up with next and I can certainly say that this is an author that I will be keeping a very close eye on.  I hope that she considers a sequel to The Girls I’ve Been in the future, although this great novel already has a pretty fantastic self-contained story to it, still it might be interesting to revisits the cool characters again.  There is apparently a movie adaptation of The Girls I’ve Been in the works, starring Millie Bobby Brown.  I think that this book would make for a really good movie, and Millie Bobby Brown is a fantastic choice to play Nora (I only just watched her in Enola Holmes).  In the meantime, do yourself a favour and check out The Girls I’ve Been, because you really will not be disappointed.

Hollow Empire by Sam Hawke

Hollow Empire Cover 2

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

Series: Poison War – Book Two

Length: 560 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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