Buffy the Vampire Slayer – Vol.1: High School is Hell by Jordie Bellaire and Dan Mora

Buffy The Vampire Slayer - High School is Hell Cover

Publisher: BOOM! Studios (28 May 2019)

Series: Buffy the Vampire Slayer – Volume 1

Length: Four issues – 128 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Prepare for a whole new take on Buffy the Vampire Slayer as the first four issues of BOOM! Studios’ new Buffy comic series are collected together in their first volume, High School is Hell.

For those unfamiliar with it, Buffy the Vampire Slayer was an extremely popular fantasy television show that started in 1997 and ran for seven seasons until 2003. The show followed the adventures of the titular Buffy, who has inherited the role of the Slayer, a magically strengthened warrior chosen to fight vampires, demons and the forces of darkness. Buffy the Vampire Slayer was the first show helmed by Joss Whedon, who went on create one of the best science fiction shows of all time, Firefly, as well as direct the first two Avengers movies (and parts of the Justice League movie, but let’s not look to closely at that). Buffy was actually an adaption of Whedon’s 1992 movie of the same name; however, there were some significant differences between the tone and writing of the movie and the show, as the show had some superb storylines and an amazing cast. It eventually resulted in the spin-off Angel, which also had a strong five-season run and some amazing episodes.

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Due to the immense popularity of the show, a huge amount of Buffy the Vampire Slayer tie-in material has been created, including a number of novels and video games. A substantial number of comic books were also created through Dark Horse Comics, many of which involved Whedon in the creative process. Indeed, the storylines of both Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel were continued for many years as a comic book series that followed a huge number of events that occurred following the end of both television shows.

Recently, Dark Horse Comics gave up the comic book rights to several of Joss Whedon’s works, including Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel and Firefly. These rights were subsequently obtained by BOOM! Studios, who have embarked on a whole new wave of comics for these franchises. The first of these, Firefly, started up last year, and the first collected volume was released in late April (I grabbed a copy the other day and will hopefully review it in the next couple of weeks). A new Angel comic book series is also currently running, although the first issue was only released a short while ago, so it might be a little while before I get my hands on the collected edition of it. BOOM! Studios are producing a bunch of different stories for these various properties and have different plans for each of them. The Firefly comics, for example, will be set in the same universe as the shows and have presented an interesting new adventure. However, for the new Buffy the Vampire Slayer comic, they have decided to do something different. Rather than continue the storylines written by Dark Horse Comics or try to fit in the established universe left by the shows, the new creative team have taken the bold step of completely revamping the entire series, restarting the story from the beginning and swapping the setting to a more modern era. This new series takes place in 2018/19 instead of the 1990s and features a completely different story to the original series, similar to what Marvel Comics did with their Ultimate universe.

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This new series starts in a similar way to the events of the show, with Buffy Summers only recently arrived in Sunnydale and ready to start as the new kid at Sunnydale High. Buffy has to deal with many of the pitfalls of being a modern teenager, grades, friends and an embarrassing dead-end job. However, Buffy has one thing no over teenager has to deal with, an unescapable destiny as the latest in a line of vampire slayers. While the story may sound familiar so far, this is not the grunge era of the 1990s; instead it is the modern era of smart phones, social media and social norms. Buffy soon settles in as the new girl in school, training with her watcher, Giles, and making two new friends, Xander and Willow, after she saves them from a vampire. While the worst thing in her life may appear to be the exceedingly peppy Cordelia, Sunnydale is still Sunnydale. Vampires and demons are always lurking just beneath the surface, and two familiar and deadly foes are in town. The devastating team of Drusilla and Spike are looking for a mysterious power and will kill anyone who gets in their way. What is their sinister plan, and how will the lives of the new Scooby Gang be changed forever?

Volume 1, High School is Hell, features issues #1-4 of this new Buffy series and was written by Jordie Bellaire. It also features the artistic skills of Dan Mora as the illustrator and Raúl Angulo as colourist. Joss Whedon is also credited as the original creator of this series in all the issues, although I am uncertain if he consulted on this new project at all. Pretty much the moment I saw this comic in the shop, I knew I was going to enjoy it. I grew up with watching Buffy and Angel when I was younger and have enjoyed a lot of their comics in the past. I really liked the concept of this new series, and I was incredibly interested in seeing where the creators of this new series were going to take it. I have to say that I was not disappointed with the end result. These first four issues not only tell an excellent and deeply compelling story with some incredible artwork; they also present an incredible reimagining of the classic Buffy the Vampire Slayer universe and bring it into modern times.

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The issues featured within Volume 1 tell a pretty amazing story. The whole reintroduction of the Buffy world is done extremely well, as the new story told within is filled with the right amount of new ideas, classic characters and an exciting, action filled storyline with some major twists. I really think the blend of the old characters and story elements with the new storylines where done exceedingly well, and it creates and excellent new world that has some amazing potential for the future. Bellaire also does a fantastic job capturing the tone and humour of the original series and inserting it into this new vision of the Buffy universe, and it makes for quite an entertaining and enjoyable read. I also like how the creators brought the story out of the 90s into more modern times, incorporating all the relevant technology and social norms into the plot. There are also quite a few jokes making fun of the 90s, which is a nice touch, and a great call back to the original series. As a result, I thought the new story introduced in High School is Hell was pretty darn amazing and I had a lot of fun reading it.

The issues featured in High School is Hell feature an interesting mix of characters from the original television show, and I think fans of Buffy will enjoy the changes that the creative team introduce to the various characters. Firstly, Buffy remains pretty much unchanged; she is still the new girl at the school who is trying to balance the Slayer part of her life with high school, friends and romance. While there is a tad additional teenage apathy, perhaps as a result of her job at Tunaverse, her character remains as a pretty consistent touchstone from the original series. The same could be said of Giles, who is still the same stuffy English gentleman he was in the first few episodes of the original show with the disapproving mentor vibe, although we do get to see him playing his guitar in public a lot sooner.

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While Buffy and Giles are fairly similar to their original versions in the show, there are some interesting changes to the other major Buffy characters featured in this new series. For example, Willow has already discovered her sexuality and has a girlfriend, new character Rose. She also seems to be a whole lot more confident than she originally was in the series and is already eager to fight evil and start learning magic (which couldn’t possibly go wrong). Cordelia is still the most popular girl in school, although she is a lot braver and nicer than she was in the original show, although most of the characters find her extreme peppiness to be a bit too much. She also garners a rather unhealthy obsession with Spike, which was an intriguing addition which will no doubt become a major plot point in the future. Interestingly enough, Xander is probably the character who has changed the most in this series. On the exterior he is still the same happy-go-lucky character he was in the show. However, none of the characters realise that Xander is actually quite depressed, lonely and feels quite powerless, something the audience is made aware of by viewings of his anonymous blog. The inclusion of the blog entries is quite clever; we are initially made to think they are Buffy’s inner monologue. Once we are shown they belong to Xander, it gives an emotional look into his mind. Xander’s resultant story arc in this book ends in a pretty shocking twist, which has real potential to be a defining moment of this series.

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In addition to these main characters who were the focus of the original Buffy first season, there is also an interesting use of other characters from the show. Major characters Anya, Robin Wood, Spike and Drusilla all show up in these first four issues, each entering the story far earlier than they did in the television show, and with very different storylines. Anya is a demonic witch who deals magical artefacts from a secret occult shop (a fun nod to her business from the show). Anya is a neutral force in the town, and it is an interesting departure from her role as a vengeance demon. We only see a little of Robin Wood in these first four issues, although he is set up as Buffy’s potential love interest. In this series he’s set up as a star athlete and overall nice guy, with no real indication of whether he’ll have the same connections to the Slayers or Spike that he did in the show. Spike and Drusilla are a cool choice as the initial antagonists for this version of Buffy. The two of them always make a great team, although there is a bit of a change to the dynamic. Dru is somewhat less insane in this series, and seems to be the brains of the operation, relying on Spike a lot less. Spike is pretty much his usual fun self, although he appears a little less in love or devoted to Dru as he was in the show. He also has a fun relationship with Cordelia, and there is also a certain debate about his name. While Dru and Anya refer to him as William, he introduces himself to Cordelia as Spike to try and sound edgy, which results in a good joke from Dru about how the name “hardly played in the 90s”.

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Overall, I was quite happy with how the creative team behind this new series utilised the show’s existing characters and brought them into the new century. Some of the changes are really quite cool, and I liked how some of the dynamics were altered. Some of the new characters were also pretty cool, and it will be interesting to see what overall impact they will have on the series. I think that some of their decisions will lead to some excellent stories in the future, and I look forward to seeing how other existing characters are introduced.

The artwork in the first four issues of this series was pretty awesome and really added a lot to this volume. Mora did an outstanding job capturing the likenesses of the existing characters from the show; they looked so much like the original actors. The action sequences are done exceedingly well and there is a real sense of motion in some of the scenes that bring all the fights to life. The artwork and the colour schemes help add a lot of dread or unease to several scenes throughout the volume, which add a lot more to story. The artwork in this new version of Buffy the Vampire Slayer was first rate and really exciting.

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Buffy the Vampire Slayer: High School is Hell represents a bold new direction for the Buffy franchise, and one that I am quite excited for. The alternate timeline that the creative team has decided to set this story in is quite an intriguing concept that works exceedingly well. Bellaire has come up with a captivating initial storyline that is enhanced by Mora’s artwork. This series will definitely appeal to fans of the original television series, who will love seeing these great characters altered in a brand-new timeline. It is also easily accessible to those readers less familiar with the show and could be a good starting point for those who want to check out the franchise. This volume is highly recommended, and I am looking forward to the future inclusions in this excellent new comic book series.

Waiting on Wednesday – Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir

Welcome to my weekly segment, Waiting on Wednesday, where I look at upcoming books that I am planning to order and review in the next few months and which I think I will really enjoy.  Stay tuned to see reviews of these books when I get a copy of them.

Gideon the Ninth Cover

For this Waiting on Wednesday article, I check out a crazy, unique and extremely intriguing debut that is already getting a huge amount of interest: Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir. Gideon the Ninth is Muir’s debut book and it sounds like it will be a fantasy and science fiction hybrid novel focussing on a group of spacefaring necromancers as they battle for power. Gideon the Ninth is set to be released on 10 September 2019 and will be the first book in The Ninth House series, with two additional books in the series already planned.

Goodreads Synopsis:

The Emperor needs necromancers.

The Ninth Necromancer needs a swordswoman.

Gideon has a sword, some dirty magazines, and no more time for undead bullshit.

Tamsyn Muir’s Gideon the Ninth unveils a solar system of swordplay, cut-throat politics, and lesbian necromancers. Her characters leap off the page, as skillfully animated as necromantic skeletons. The result is a heart-pounding epic science fantasy.

Brought up by unfriendly, ossifying nuns, ancient retainers, and countless skeletons, Gideon is ready to abandon a life of servitude and an afterlife as a reanimated corpse. She packs up her sword, her shoes, and her dirty magazines, and prepares to launch her daring escape. But her childhood nemesis won’t set her free without a service.

Harrowhark Nonagesimus, Reverend Daughter of the Ninth House and bone witch extraordinaire, has been summoned into action. The Emperor has invited the heirs to each of his loyal Houses to a deadly trial of wits and skill. If Harrowhark succeeds she will be become an immortal, all-powerful servant of the Resurrection, but no necromancer can ascend without their cavalier. Without Gideon’s sword, Harrow will fail, and the Ninth House will die.

Of course, some things are better left dead.

I have to admit, this has to be one of the wildest and most interesting plot synopses that I have ever read. “Lesbian necromancers in space” is a pretty darn compelling plot hook for a book, and it definitely got my attention. The idea of the political intrigue and backstabbing of competing space necromancers really appeals to me, and I am sure it will make for a great story. Honestly, this book sounds like it is going to have an incredibly fun and over-the-top story, and I am extremely keen to check it out. I also really love the book’s cool cover, and the dead, gothic theme of it really stands out.

I have been seeing some early reviews of this book, and it sounds like some advanced copies have already been circulated to some other reviewers. These early analyses are very positive, and it sounds like a lot of people are really enjoying them. If you are curious for a sneak peek, the Tor website has the first nine chapters already up. I have checked out one of the chapters on there, and the bits I read were both intriguing and funny. Based on the small amount that I have already read, I know I am really going to like this book and I am looking forward to getting my own copy.

It looks like I am going to be having a lot of fun in September with Gideon the Ninth and I cannot wait to try out this exciting and creative sounding debut.

Waiting of Wednesday – Loki: Where Mischief Lies by Mackenzi Lee

Welcome to my weekly segment, Waiting on Wednesday, where I look at upcoming books that I am planning to order and review in the next few months and which I think I will really enjoy.  Stay tuned to see reviews of these books when I get a copy of them.

I am a man that loves a good and complex anti-hero story, so for this week’s Waiting on Wednesday I check out an absolutely spectacular-sounding book that is set to be released in September 2019: Loki: Where Mischief Lies.

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Loki: Where Mischief Lies is the first of three young adult novels that acclaimed author Mackenzi Lee has been contracted to write by Marvel Comics. Each of these books will focus on a different Marvel anti-hero and will feature a historical setting. The first of these anti-heroes is the master of mischief himself, Loki, Prince of Asgard, who, thanks to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, has to be one of the most popular comic book villains at the moment.

Even before Tom Hiddleston brought him to life with some significant swagger in the MCU, the character of Loki has been a major figure in the Marvel Comics universe. A re-imagining of the Norse god of mischief, Loki is portrayed as a powerful magician who battles against his brother, the superhero Thor, out of jealousy or for control of Asgard or the world. He has been a recurring Marvel villain for over 60 years and is the villain responsible for the formation of the Avengers. Over the years, a large amount of complexity has been added to his character, with some significant developments to his motivations and history, and a number of notable shifts in his allegiance and relationship with Thor and the rest of Asgard. As a result, I am quite eager to see any sort of novel written about Loki, especially one that sounds as awesome as this one.

Goodreads Synopsis:
Before the days of going toe-to-toe with the Avengers, a younger Loki is desperate to prove himself heroic and capable, while it seems everyone around him suspects him of inevitable villainy and depravity . . . except for Amora. Asgard’s resident sorceress-in-training feels like a kindred spirit-someone who values magic and knowledge, who might even see the best in him.

But when Loki and Amora cause the destruction of one of Asgard’s most prized possessions, Amora is banished to Earth, where her powers will slowly and excruciatingly fade to nothing. Without the only person who ever looked at his magic as a gift instead of a threat, Loki slips further into anguish and the shadow of his universally adored brother, Thor.

When Asgardian magic is detected in relation to a string of mysterious murders on Earth, Odin sends Loki to investigate. As he descends upon nineteenth-century London, Loki embarks on a journey that leads him to more than just a murder suspect, putting him on a path to discover the source of his power-and who he’s meant to be.

There are so many amazing elements to unwrap in the plot synopsis, but the bottom line is I think I am going to like this. Not only do we have a comic book novelisation focusing on an amazing character, but we have Loki investigating murders in 19th century London. Historical fiction is one of my favourite genres, and a murder mystery in 19th century London is always a great basis for a good story. Combine that with comic book shenanigans and a young Loki investigating the crimes, and you have a book with insane amounts of potential.

I am also quite excited by the choice of author for this trilogy. Mackenzi Lee is a fantastic author known for her unique and powerful novels, most of which are set in 19th century England. I am very much looking forward to seeing her take on the character of Loki, and I cannot wait to see what sort of backstory and conflicted thought processes she attributes to this amazing character.

One of the things about Where Mischief Lies that is getting a lot of attention is the author’s apparent intention to make Loki a genderfluid and pansexual character. This is based on a tweet from December 2017, in which Lee responds to someone’s question about Loki being queer in her upcoming book. Lee correctly points out that Loki “is a canonically pansexual and gender fluid character” and then ends it with “So.”. Based on that, quite a lot of people are assuming she will explore this aspect of the character in her book. Loki’s gender identity and sexuality have been featured in many comics, with the character reincarnating as a female several times, and there are also some examples of Loki romancing members of various genders. I am quite interested in seeing how much of this is explored in Where Mischief Lies, and I am sure it will result in quite an intriguing part of the story.

I am uncertain whether I will grab a physical copy of this book or try to get it on audiobook. While I love the awesome cover for Where Mischief Lies and imagine it would look great on a hardcover book, I do love a good audiobook and I have had excellent experiences with comic book based audiobooks in the past. They have also gotten Marc Thompson, one of the best Star Wars audiobook narrators, to narrate this book. I have recently finished listening to one of his Star Wars audiobooks and would be really intrigued to see what voice he would attribute to Loki and the other iconic Marvel characters.

This has the potential to be an outstanding novel, and I am really looking forward to seeing how Lee tackles the character of Loki. The plot of this book sounds like a huge amount of fun, and I am sure there will be some amazing story and character developments throughout the book. I think this is going to be one of the best tie-in novels of the year and I plan to get it as soon as it comes out.

The Unbound Empire by Melissa Caruso

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Publisher: Orbit (Trade Paperback – 25 April 2019)

Series: Swords and Fire – Book 3

Length: 508 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

One of the fast-rising authors of fantasy fiction, Melissa Caruso, brings her outstanding debut series to an end with the third book in the Swords and Fire trilogy, The Unbound Empire.

It is always a bittersweet moment when a great book series comes to an end. For the last two years, the Swords and Fire trilogy has been one of my favourite new fantasy series due to its excellent combination of characters, story, intrigue, fantasy elements and world building. I absolutely loved the first book in the series, The Tethered Mage, and I felt that Caruso did an excellent job following this up with The Defiant Heir, which made my Top Ten Reads For 2018 list and my Top Ten Books I Loved with Fewer than 2,000 Ratings on Goodreads list. As a result, I have been eagerly waiting for The Unbound Empire for the last year, and it even featured in my very first Waiting on Wednesday post.

The Swords and Fire series is set on the continent of Eruvia, which is made up of two great nations, the Serene Empire of Raverra and the loosely collected states of Vaskandar. The Serene Empire is the home of our protagonists, and is a land where magic is controlled by the government, led by the Doge and the Council of Nine. All mages who are identified as having enough power are conscripted into the army as a Falcon. Each Falcon is bound to a non-magical handler, a Falconer, who is entrusted to control and protect their Falcon. One such Falconer is Lady Amalia Cornaro, heir to one of the most powerful families in Raverra and future member of the Council of Nine. While the nobility is usually forbidden from becoming Falconers, desperate circumstances forced Amalia to be bound to the powerful and rebellious fire warlock Zaira.

Vaskandar, on the other hand, is a far wilder nation, ruled by the Witch Lords, magicians whose powerful vivomancy literally flows through their land, making them part of everyone and everything in their domain. War is always looming between these two nations, and while Vaskandar as a nation has decided to remain out of the most recent conflict, nothing can stop an individual Witch Lord from attacking. The cruel and ambitious Witch Lord Ruven, the Skinwitch, has long wanted to conquer and rule over The Serene Empire. His most recent ambitions have been stymied by the combined actions of Amalia and Zaira, who managed to stop his plan to unleash a destructive volcano, although it came at great cost to Amalia.

However, Ruven is far from done and is determined to gain new land, either in the Serene Empire or in the domains of the other Witch Lords. Launching a series of attacks against the Empire’s capital, Raverra, as well as several outlying holdings, with a range of horrifying strategies, Ruven is able to cause significant damage. But while he launches his attacks, he is also trying to recruit Amalia to his cause by any means necessary, as her unique heritage gives her the ability to usurp the domains of other Witch Lords. As Amalia and Zaira race to counter Ruven’s actions, Amalia finds herself once again torn between love, duty and friendship, as the responsibilities of her office clash with the friendships she has formed. As Amalia struggles to maintain her humanity in the heat of war, Ruven’s greatest cruelty might be the thing that finally breaks her and leads to the fall of the Serene Empire.

Caruso once again knocks it out of the park with The Unbound Empire, creating a satisfying conclusion to her series that still contains her trademark storytelling ability and character work. The final book in the Swords and Fire trilogy does a great job utilising the previous entries of the series and also attempts to tie up all of the existing loose storylines and plot points. The Unbound Empire is filled with some really emotional storylines, a number of powerful magical action sequences and several surprising plot developments. The end result is another five-star book from Caruso that I powered through in quite a short period.

At the heart of this book lies the series’ main two characters, the narrator and point-of-view character, Amalia, and the fire warlock Zaira. The challenging and evolving relationship between the initially sheltered Falconer and the rebellious and infinitely destructive Falcon has always been a major part of this series. While the two characters have been establishing a better relationship with each book, it was great to see the two of them becoming even closer in this book and helping each other deal with some major issues. I also liked how both characters’ stories come full circle in this book, as Amalia becomes more and more like her mother, while Zaira finally confronts a number of her personal demons and for once starts to consider having a future. The author’s depiction of the doubt and guilt that Amalia is feeling after the events of the last book forced her to kill her cousin added some extra emotional depth to the story, and I liked the inclusion of such a realistic emotional reaction. The character arcs for the two main characters were incredible, and it was great to see how much they had evolved over the course of the trilogy.

Caruso has also developed a number of great side characters for this series, and she continues to expertly utilise them in this final book. The main two side characters of The Unbound Empire were Amalia’s love interests: Captain Marcello of the Serene Empire; and the Witch Lord Kathe, known as the Crow Lord. Throughout the course of the book, Amalia is caught between them; while she loves Marcello, her position makes a relationship impossible, and Kathe presents a more suitable match. Marcello’s storyline in this book is pretty significant, and there are some substantial and emotive changes to his character that really helped make The Unbound Empire extra compelling. I also really liked the deeper dive into Kathe’s personality and backstory, as well as the natural strengthening of the relationship between Amalia and Kathe. Thankfully the book’s love triangle aspect wasn’t too over-the-top or filled with insufferable toxic jealousy, as both the men understand the difficult position Amalia is in. The arc of Zaira’s love interest, Terika, is really sweet, and I liked how she continues to have a positive effect of Zaira’s personality. Other side characters, such as the Amelia’s powerful and unflappable mother; the surprisingly lethal Cornaro servant, Ciardha; and Marcello’s eccentric artificer sister, Istrella, all shine through in this book, and all of them add quite a lot to this book’s story.

No great fantasy story would be complete without a despicable antagonist threatening the heroes, and luckily this book has a truly evil and threatening villain. The Witch Lord Ruven is a powerful Skinwitch, a person with the ability to control and alter other creatures just by touching him. Not only is this power by itself pretty horrifying but Ruven uses it in some fairly novel and evil ways, unleashing all manner of horrors upon the protagonists. I thought that Ruven had some of the best magical powers in the entire series, and his abilities were really fun to see in this book. Caruso also tried to humanise the character in places throughout this book, which was a nice touch and added some new depth to the story, although he does mostly come off as utterly irredeemable. Overall, I feel that Ruven was an excellent villain and his antagonism really helped make this book and the series as a whole.

I have always loved the complex fantasy world and elements that the author came up with for this series. The various forms of magic and resulting rules that form the backbone of this book are very imaginative, and I loved how Caruso was able to utilise them in her story. There are some amazing new versions of the magic and fantasy elements from the previous two books included in The Unbound Empire, as well as some new locations to explore. While the world building is not as intense as the first two books in the trilogy, Caruso still offers some great new elements, and I had a lot of fun seeing these extra expansions to the universe. Hopefully Caruso will come back to this world at some point in the future, as I had a lot of fun there over the course of the series.

The Unbound Empire was another incredible piece of fantasy fiction from author Melissa Caruso that expertly wraps up her debut trilogy. This has got to be one of the best debut fantasy trilogies I have had the pleasure of reading, and it has been a lot of fun absorbing the excellent tales of magic, adventure and intrigue that Caruso has woven over the last two years. I have really loved the Swords and Fire trilogy, and while I am sad to see it go, I am excited to see where Caruso goes next as this author has amazing potential for the future. I highly recommend each and every book in the series and encourage you to get wrapped up in the magic and characters of this series if you have not had a chance to read it.

The Raven Tower by Ann Leckie

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Publishers: Orbit and Hachette Audio (Audiobook Format – 26 February 2019)

Series: Standalone/Book 1

Length: 12 hours and 1 Minute

My Rating: 4.25 out of 5 Stars

The bestselling author of the Imperial Radch series, Ann Leckie, presents her first foray into fantasy fiction with The Raven Tower, an intriguing fantasy read that I have been looking forward to for a while, and which attempts something new and different in its presentation.

The Raven Tower is set in a world filled with gods whose power and abilities can be gifted to humans in exchange for worship and offerings.  For centuries, a powerful god known as the Raven has ruled over the rich kingdom of Iraden, offering protection and prosperity from atop a tower in the city of Vastai.  The human ruler of all of Iraden is known as the Raven’s Lease and has been chosen by the Raven to bear his power and enact the god’s will.  However, this power comes at a price, as each Lease must sacrifice himself to the Raven in order to keep the god strong and Iraden safe.

When Eolo and his lord, Mawat, heir to the Raven’s Lease, return to Vastai, they find the city in chaos.  Mawat’s father, the former Lease, went missing just before he was required to pay the Raven’s price.  In his place, Mawat’s uncle, Hibal, has taken the throne and has been named the new Raven’s Lease.  Determined to find out what happened to the former Lease and reclaim the throne for his master, Eolo attempts to uncover the many secrets of Vastai.  But as Eolo investigates he discovers that something ancient and mysterious is concealed within the Raven’s Tower: a secret from Iraden’s past that the Raven has kept hidden for centuries.  It is clear there will be a reckoning, but is Eolo ready to pay the price?

To be honest, I found that The Raven Tower was a very challenging book to critically examine and assign an overall rating for.  Before I had even started reading it, I saw that a number of other reviewers had noted that had great difficulty with this book, mainly due to the author’s unique way of narrating the story.  As a result, I chose to listen to the audiobook version of The Raven Tower, narrated by Adjoa Andoh, in the hopes that this would make it easier for me to follow along.  The audiobook version of the book is around 12 hours long, and I managed to get through it in around a week.  While I did also experience some issues with the way the book was set out, I actually began to appreciate this unique format the more that I stuck with the story, and this turned out to be a really enjoyable piece of fantasy fiction.

For this book, Leckie chose to utilise a noticeably different second person limited narration format to tell her story.  The story is told by a god known as the Strength and Patience of the Hill, who not only tells the main story in Vastai, specifically focusing on the character Eolo, but who also describes all the events of its own life that led up to this period of time.  This god has a very unique way of speaking that impacts how the Vastai story is told.  In particular, the god constantly describes what Eolo is doing, but, at the same time, it has no idea of what is going on inside Eolo’s head.  As a result, it makes very generic statements and guesses about Eolo’s memories, state of mind or thought process.  Take for example the following line, said as Eolo explores the docks near the tower: “I don’t think you grew up near the sea, and so you likely knew very little about boats or tides.”  Having this being make guesses about the protagonist’s thoughts or feelings is a little unusual, and I was very confused about why the author had written her book this way, and for a large portion of the book I really thought that it would have made more sense to have a more traditional narrator system.  However, as I read deeper into the story, it became a whole lot clearer why Leckie had set her story out in this way, and I was able to really appreciate it use.

As the book progresses, the two halves of the story start to come together.  Taken separately, both parts of the story are fairly interesting.  The storyline focusing on Eolo and the mystery surrounding the Raven’s Lease is fairly intriguing mystery filled with politics, murder, mystery and the fate of an entire nation.  The second storyline, which looks at the backstory of the Strength and Patience of the Hill, helps build up Leckie’s new world while also explaining much about the book’s primary fantasy element, the gods, as well as the Raven’s rise to power.  While both these storylines are quite fascinating in their own right, when they start coming together in the later part of the book, it creates a much more complete and intense story.  The author’s use of the Strength and Patience of the Hill as the book’s primary narrator becomes a lot clearer, and I actually really liked how this unconventional narration was utilised.  I also really enjoyed the fantastic twists that occurred at the end of the book, and the author’s excellent lead-up to these events was really quite clever and subtle.  Overall, this turned into quite an amazing story, and I was very glad that I stuck with it and got all the way through.

One of the main things that I enjoyed about The Raven Tower was the interesting fantasy elements that Leckie utilised throughout her story, mostly shown in the form of the gods that inhabit this world.  The gods in this book are quite an interesting creation from Leckie, who has come up with a number of rules surrounding them, all of which is explored by the narrator.  In this world, the gods have a finite amount of power, which they gain from worship and which they lose by altering the world, either for their own benefit or in order to answer prayers.  The gods’ power is tied to their speech; anything they say as a fact, their power will act to make it so.  For example, if they say that an object will turn, then their powers will act to make it turn.  However, if the action they want to accomplish takes more power than they have access to, then they will die or become extremely weak.  As a result, the gods are forced to speak extremely carefully, lest they inadvertently make a command that will take way too much energy.  The gods, therefore, try to avoid absolutes in their conversations and have to use words such as “I think” or “I heard” to get around this.  Leckie consequently has to have her narrator, the Strength and Patience of the Hill, utilise this language throughout the entire book, as to the god addresses the main character Eolo (even if Eolo does not hear them).  That is why there are so many unusual language choices throughout the book, such as the recurring “Here is a story that I have heard”.  While these language choices did throw me at first, once I understood why it was happening, I got used it and I thought it was extremely creative and commendable that the author stuck with this throughout the entire story.

In addition to this use of language, Leckie spends considerable time exploring the limitations and abilities of the gods throughout her book.  Leckie uses all sorts of different narrative devices to showcase this, from the Strength and Patience of the Hill’s personal memories and experiments, conversations they have with other gods, as well as telling stories about other gods and how they utilise their powers (there is one particularly amusing story about a god-powered spear I liked).  It is clear that the author put a lot of thought into her universe’s gods and the abilities that they have, and the exploration of these ideas were some of my favourite parts of the book.  I was also extremely impressed with how Leckie was able to utilise these fantasy ideas so effectively in her story, and I liked the bearing that they had on both the plot and the way the book was written.

Another interesting aspect of The Raven Tower is the characters that the author has used within the story.  The main protagonist is Eolo, whose attempts to get to the bottom of the mysterious events in Vastai are a large focus in the book.  Eolo is a pretty boss protagonist, able to disguise his intelligence and cunning behind an ignorant peasant facade, while quickly unravelling what has occurred in the city and then playing the politics to get the best result for her master.  Eolo is actually a transgender character, and I was really impressed with how well-written this part of the character’s identity was, and with how it was explored within the book.  In addition to Eolo, there are also several other intriguing characters used throughout the book.  Once you get the hang of its speech pattern, the Strength and Patience of the Hill is a pretty good narrator, and I found the god’s backstory and way of seeing the world to be incredibly intriguing.  I quite liked the character of Tikaz, who serves as one of the main female characters in the book, as well as Eolo’s potential love interest.  Tikaz is fleshed out incredibly well, and I loved the various interactions that she has with Eolo.  The book’s main villain, Hibal, is suitably evil and conniving, and he even has a pair of creepy twins serving as his henchmen.

I need to point out the fantastic job Leckie did coming up with one of the main characters in the book, Mawat.  Mawat is the heir to the Raven’s Lease, who finds his position usurped by his uncle.  However, rather than write him as a noble character we are supposed to feel sympathy for, Mawat immediately has a temper tantrum and spends the rest of the book acting as an unreasonable child, completely ignoring Eolo’s advice and even attacking his loyal servant whenever he hears something he does not like.  While a large amount of this is necessary for the story, I liked the reversal of the noble disenfranchised heir trope that is often utilised in fantasy, and instead we are left with a more complex character.

I quite liked the audiobook format of The Raven Tower and found it to be a really great way to enjoy this book.  I definitely think it helped me follow the plot and navigate the different narrative devices of this book, and I absorbed more information about Leckie’s fantasy elements.  I quite enjoyed Adjoa Andoh’s narration throughout the book and thought their voice was perfect for the mysterious and wise Strength and Patience of the Hill, who narrated most of the text.  I especially liked how Andoh was able convey the Strength and Patience of the Hill’s anger at certain key points of the book and to make the god’s voice quite menacing.  Apart from the Strength and Patience of the Hill, the other character voices throughout The Raven Tower were fairly distinctive and matched the personalities of the characters quite well.  I was especially fond of the fitting accents she assigned to some of the human characters, such as Tikaz or the god known as the Myriad.  Overall, I would strongly recommend that readers check out the audiobook format of The Raven Tower, as it may prove to be an easier way to enjoy this intricate story.

As I mentioned above, I had a hard time giving this book an overall rating.  When I first started reading it and I encountered the strange narration style for the first section of the book, I thought I might have to give it a low score.  However, once I started to get more into the story and the lore behind the gods of this world was explained in some detail, I ended up changing my score to something closer to 4 out of 5 stars.  This reflected my appreciation of Leckie’s inventiveness, but also had a few demerits due to the slow start and issues I had getting into the story.  However, I ended up changing this to a 4.25 out of 5 stars in the end, once I appreciated how the two separate storylines came together and that superb ending.  As a result, I would highly recommend The Raven Tower to fantasy readers, and I encourage people to see past the issues at the start of the book.  Leckie is an outstanding author, and her first foray into fantasy featured some unique elements that turned The Raven Tower into one of the most distinctive and clever reads of 2019.  The Raven Tower works incredibly well as a stand-alone book, but if the author decides to return to this world in the future I would be extremely curious to see where she takes the story next.

The Wedding Guest by Jonathan Kellerman

The Wedding Guest Cover.jpg

Publisher: Random House Audio (Audiobook Format – 5 February 2019)

Series: Alex Delaware – Book 34

Length: 12 hours 20 minutes

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

 

Bestselling author Jonathan Kellerman returns with the 34th book in his long-running Alex Delaware crime series, The Wedding Guest, a clever and captivating murder mystery.

It is the couple’s big day, an elaborate wedding ending with a ‘Saints and Sinners’ themed reception in a former Los Angles strip club.  The only thing that could upstage the happy couple is the discovery of a well-dressed murder victim hidden in one of the club’s bathrooms.  None of the guests claim to know who the victim is, and she appears to have crashed the wedding without anyone noticing.

Psychologist Alex Delaware is called onto the case by his friend Detective Milo Sturgis.  With no obvious suspects at the wedding, Alex and Milo not only have to find out who the murderer is but also the identity of the victim.  As they slowly build up a picture of the events that led up to the murder, the investigators soon discover that this not the first time that the murderer has struck, and his is still at large in the city.

Kellerman is an extremely prolific and skilled crime fiction author, who has been writing books for over 30 years.  His first book, When the Bough Breaks, was released in 1985 and was the first book in his main body of work, the Alex Delaware series.  In addition to huge number of books in his main series, Kellerman has also written three shorter series: the Petra Connor series, the Jacob Lev series and the Clay Edison series.  The latter two series he wrote with his son, Jesse Kellerman.  In addition, he has also written several standalone novels, including two with his wife, Faye Kellerman, and several nonfiction books reflecting his career as an actual clinical psychologist.

As mentioned above, this is the 34th book in the Alex Delaware series, and I was a bit uncertain how easy it would be to come into this series this far in, having not previously read any of Kellerman’s books before.  Luckily, I found that The Wedding Guest was extremely accessible to new readers to the series as there were only minimal throwaway references to the previous books or cases that the main characters were involved in.  The author instead dives straight into the mystery and builds up his story from scratch.  The focus is on the main case, with only a brief look at the protagonist’s personal life, and as a result there is very little need to dive back into the series’ previous investigations.  I ended up really enjoying The Wedding Guest and thought it was an excellent piece of crime fiction.

The standout part of this book has to be the central investigation into the murder of the unexpected guest at the wedding.  The overall case is compelling, and I found myself getting pretty hooked on the story and trying to work out who the killer is, especially as the case expands further out.  Kellerman has a very interesting murder mystery writing style.  Rather than creating a fast-paced mystery that has the investigators barrelling from one massive clue to the next, Kellerman keeps the investigation within The Wedding Guest at a much slower and more realistic pace.  The investigators are forced to wait for test results and for technicians and coroners to get back to the office, and most of their investigation involves meeting and questioning people of interest.  The whole process is a lot more methodical that other crime fiction books I have read; it has a much more realistic investigative timeline.  The author has a very detailed orientating writing style, recording a large amount of details about the suspects, their possessions and the locations they are found in, so much so that you expect any of these details to become relevant at a later point in the text.  I loved how realistic the investigation came across, from the timelines and issues that real-life detectives would experience, to the impact of chance or coincidence on solving a case and the use of modern-day technology, such as social media or internet searches, to obtain information on suspects.  The case as a whole was deeply captivating, and my curiosity about who had committed the crime kept me deeply enthralled within The Wedding Guest.

This book is very character based, as the story focuses deeply on the lives of a huge range of secondary characters, most of whom are suspects, witnesses or victims of the crimes being convicted.  Through his protagonists, Kellerman dives into the lives of these characters, finding out surprising details and issues that may or may not have some impact on the case.  As a result, the reader is quite exposed to these secondary characters, in some way more so than some of the protagonists investigating the case.  Many of the characters who are suspects are fairly duplicitous or unlikeable in some way or another, making it rather easy for the readers to dislike them and see them as reasonable suspects for the murder.  In contrast to these interesting but deceitful characters are the main protagonists, Alex and Milo.  I loved the fun friendship between these two characters.  Who would have thought that a psychologist and a homosexual police detective would make for such an entertaining and enjoyable tandem?

In addition to the fantastic mystery and intriguing characters, this book contains a number of other great story elements for the reader to enjoy.  This includes the fantastic and detailed descriptions of the city of Los Angles.  Kellerman, a near life-long resident of the city of Los Angles, does an outstanding job of portraying the various components of city, and there is obvious affection for its many nuances and its inhabitants’ ways of life.  I also liked the psychological inclusions with The Wedding Guest.  The main character, Alex Delaware, is a child psychologist who assists with the police investigations and provides analyses of the suspects and the murderer.  While the psychological elements within The Wedding Guest are somewhat less prominent than in some of the other books in the series, such as the first book, When the Bough Breaks, it is still deeply fascinating, and it was intriguing to see things such as the character’s analysis of what kind of person the killer would be.

While did receive a physical copy of this book, I ended up choosing to listen to the audiobook format of The Wedding Guest, narrated by John Rubinstein.  This was an excellent way to the listen to this book, and at 12 hours and 20 minutes, it did not take me long to get through it.  Rubinstein does an incredible job of narrating this awesome story, and I felt that his fantastic voice really added a lot to this book.  The Wedding Guest is told from the point of view of the main character, Alex Delaware, and Rubinstein does a good base narration for everything the character sees and says.  I also really liked the other voices that Rubinstein does throughout this book, and he is able to impart some real personality into most of the other characters.  I especially loved the narration that he does for Milo, as he gives this character an exceptional cop voice that was really fun to listen to.  Overall, I felt that the audiobook version of this book was a great way to enjoy The Wedding Guest and I would strongly recommend this format.

The Wedding Guest was an excellent piece of crime fiction, containing a deeply compelling mystery that really drags the reader in and holds their attention for the entire book.  I quite enjoyed Kellerman’s use of characters and felt that it enhanced the mystery elements to create a wonderful overall story.  Easily accessible for those who have not read any of the previous books in the Alex Delaware series, The Wedding Guest is well worth checking out in both its paperback and audiobook formats.

Blood & Sugar by Laura Shepherd-Robinson

Blood & Sugar Cover.png

Publisher: Mantle (Trade Paperback edition – 24 January 2019)

Series: Standalone/Book 1

Length: 432 page

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

 

From the creative mind of Laura Shepherd-Robinson comes this powerful, dark and extremely captivating historical murder mystery, which might just be one of the most impressive debuts of early 2019.

In June 1781, a horrific murder is discovered on the dock of the slaver port of Deptford, outside of London.  The body has been brutally tortured in a variety of ways associated with the slave trade, and his chest has been branded with a slaver’s mark.  The dead man was Tad Archer, a passionate abolitionist who had been causing trouble throughout Deptford as part of his abolitionist campaign.

Days later, Captain Harry Corsham, a war hero who fought in the American Revolution, currently attached to the War Office and about to embark on a promising career as a politician, receives a visit from Tad’s sister, who is searching for her missing brother.  Tad, an old estranged friend of Harry’s, was apparently in Deptford to expose a secret that could potentially end the British slave trade.  Travelling to Deptford, Harry discovers the terrible fate of Tad and is determined to bring his killer to justice.

In order to discover who is responsible for his friend’s the murder, Harry must uncover the secret that Tad believed could permanently end the slave trade.  But as Harry investigates further, he finds himself embroiled in a conspiracy that reaches to the very heart of the realm.  Powerful forces wish to see murder covered up and anyone connected to the dark secret silenced.  Harry soon finds himself on the wrong side of men who can easily destroy his career and family.  Undeterred, Harry presses on with his investigation, but he may prove to be unprepared for the cruel killer stalking him through Deptford.

Blood & Sugar is the debut novel of Laura Shepherd-Robinson, a fantastic new voice in the historical murder mystery genre.  Shepherd-Robinson has created an outstanding novel that masterfully blends a fantastic and clever murder mystery with some powerful and evocative historical content.  The result is a terribly addictive novel that highlights this debuting author’s obvious ability to craft an excellent and compelling story.  From how the story is written, Blood & Sugar will probably be a standalone novel, although I do hope that Shepherd-Robinson sticks with the historical fiction and murder mystery genres, as she has an amazing talent with both.

At the heart of this amazing book is a complex and intriguing murder mystery that sets the book’s protagonist off on a dangerous and dark investigation of the slave trade.  While the investigation is originally focused on the murder of Tad Archer, it spirals out into to encapsulate several additional murders and a larger and more widespread conspiracy which may or may not be connected to the initial murder.  Each of these mysteries is clever, well thought-out and guaranteed to grab the reader’s curiosity and keep them going through the story to work out the incredible solution.  The author has also populated her story with a number of distinctive and complex characters, each of whom has their own hidden secrets and dark pasts.  In order to solve Blood & Sugar’s overarching mystery, the protagonist has to unravel each of these character’s lies and personal secrets, each of which add a new layer to book’s excellent plot.  These characters are all extremely self-serving and naturally suspicious, providing the reader with a huge pool of potential suspects.  The investigation into each of these mystery elements is extremely well written, and I really loved all the solutions to the book’s various mysteries.  I was really impressed with the conclusion to each of the personal mysteries that are uncovered throughout the narrative, and some of them were extremely satisfying to see come to a conclusion.

In addition to the outstanding mystery storyline, Shepherd-Robinson has also created an amazing and realistic historical setting for her story.  I felt that the author did a terrific job capturing the essence of 18th century England, from the streets of London to the docklands of Deptford.  There was a particular focus on the then port town of Deptford, which served as a major plot focus for the book, as well as several other riverside locations.  I loved this examination of Deptford, and I found the examination of this part of its dark history to be absolutely fascinating.  These locations serve as an appropriately dingy setting for such a dark story, and I really enjoyed it.

A major part of this book was the focus on the evil slave trade that was a major business during the 18th century in England.  As part of the plot, the author spends a significant amount of time exploring every facet of English slavery and the slave trade in the 1780s, including the economics behind it, the burgeoning abolitionist movement, slave laws throughout England during this period and how it was a major part of Deptford’s economy and way of life.  These details are extremely interesting and disconcerting, as Shepherd-Robinson pulls no punches when it comes to describing the brutal actions of the slavers and the cold business that they practiced.  The slave trade also serves as an incredibly effective background motive and catalyst for the murders and the conspiracy that the protagonist finds himself drawn into.  The author crafts an incredibly captivating mystery storyline around the English slave trade, and I was both intrigued and appalled to find that certain horrendous elements of this plot were based around a real-life historical slave event.  Blood & Sugar is definitely a must-read for those unafraid to learn more about the cruelty of the English slave trade and who wish to see it creatively used as a major plot point in this captivating story.

While Blood & Sugar featured a number of duplicitous and villainous characters who serve as excellent antagonists, Shepherd-Robinson has also crafted a compelling and layered protagonist to tell this story as the book’s narrator.  On the surface, Captain Harry Corsham is your typical English hero, a former soldier determined to find the man responsible for the death of his friend.  However, as the book progresses, the reader finds out that there is a lot more to Harry’s character than first meets the eye.  Harry is a deeply conflicted character in many ways, but throughout this book he struggles with his opinions about slavery and the abolitionist movement.  In his past he was a strong supporter of abolishing the slave trade, but since he has entered politics and married into an influential family, he is more aware of the current political realities around the slave trade.  But as he spends more and more time investigating the Deptford slave traders, he finds himself being drawn more and more into the abolitionist way of thinking.  The author has also written in a fairly realistic portrayal of PTSD for Harry after the horrors he experienced fighting in the American Revolution.  This is an intriguing character trait, and one that comes into play the more horrors that Harry experiences during this book.  Shepherd-Robinson has also included some amazingly well-written and very surprising personal developments for her protagonist that really change everything in the latter half of the book.  All these character elements add layers to this central protagonist, and I liked the emotional and ethical impacts that they caused on the story.

Overall, I thought that Blood & Sugar was a powerful and captivating historical murder mystery that expertly combines an intriguing and clever mystery storyline with some first-rate historical backgrounds and plot points.  This is an exceptional debut from Laura Shepherd-Robinson which showcases her amazing talent and superb ability as a writer.  This was an easy five stars from me, and I am really excited to see what sort of story this fresh and inventive author writes next.