Usagi Yojimbo: Volume 37: Crossroads by Stan Sakai

Usagi Yojimbo - Crossroads Cover

Publisher: IDW (Paperback – 15 November 2022)

Series: Usagi Yojimbo – Volume 37

Length: 137 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

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The always impressive Stan Sakai presents another outstanding volume in his epic Usagi Yojimbo comic series with the fantastic and fun 37th volume, Crossroads.

I think we can all agree that 2022 has been a rather mixed year; while the world of books has been fruitful as ever, the world at large does seem to be getting crazier and crazier.  However, one thing that is guaranteed to make me happy is the fact that, for the first time since 2003, this year has seen the release of not one but two volumes of the exceptional Usagi Yojimbo comic.  Fans of this blog will know that I love, love, love the Usagi Yojimbo series, and it is easily one of my very favourite comic book series.  Written and drawn by the exceedingly talented Stan Sakai, the Usagi Yojimbo series is set in an alternate version of feudal Japan inhabited by anthropomorphic animals.  The series primarily follows the character of Miyamoto Usagi, a rabbit ronin who travels the land facing all manner of evil, including criminals, monsters, ninja and rival samurai.

Usagi Yojimbo - #22 Cover

Thanks to the compelling narratives, complex characters, and exceptional artwork, the Usagi Yojimbo series has always really appealed to me, and I have always tried to grab the new volume as soon as it is released.  The 36th volume, Tengu War! came out in March, and it was pretty damn epic.  Usually, I would have to wait an entire year to get my next Usagi Yojimbo fix, but Sakai appears to be on a roll, as he released the 37th volume, Crossroads, earlier this month.  Needless to say, I was extremely excited about this, and Crossroads was one of my most anticipated reads for the second half of 2022.  I was very happy when I received my copy of Crossroads, and I ended up reading it literally as soon as I got my hands on it.  I of course loved every second of it, and it proved to be another captivating read that really drew me in with its brilliant artwork and cool stories.

Crossroads is the 37th volume of the Usagi Yojimbo series and the fourth volume that has been released in colour by IDW (other volumes in colour include Bunraku and Other Stories and Homecoming).  Containing issues #22-26 of the IDW run on Usagi Yojimbo, this comic was once again completely written and drawn by Sakai, with Hi-Fi Design doing the colouring.  This latest volume only contains two stories over five issues, but Sakai loads up some fantastic narratives and character work into this instalment.

Usagi Yojimbo - #22 Alternate Cover

The first story in this volume is a lengthy entry titled Ransom, which runs for a full three issues.  Following on closely after the last story in Tengu War!, Yukichi, Ransom sees Usagi travelling the roads of Japan with his newly discovered cousin Yukichi, a gifted samurai who is a little naïve of the way of the world.  However, Yukichi is about to get a crash course in the shadier side of life when, upon arriving a new town, the pair of samurai run into the chaotic thief Kitsune and her apprentice Kiyoko.  Up to her usual tricks, Kitsune has stolen a valuable ledger from the local crime boss that she is planning to ransom back to him.  However, the crime boss’ men soon catch up with them, and when Kiyoko is captured, Usagi, Yukichi and Kitsune must launch a desperate rescue before it is too late.

Usagi Yojimbo - #23 Cover

This is a fantastic and fun starting comic for this volume, and it is one that has a lot of excellent great parts to it.  While the story will be familiar, mainly due to Sakai reusing elements of previous Kitsune stories, such as Kitsune trying to sell a stolen document back to a criminal (as in The Return of Kitsune, in Volume 7: Gen’s Story), this still proved to be a relatively fresh narrative, due to some new characters involved and the eventual story progression.  The story moves at an intense and captivating pace, with the protagonists forced into several complex and extended fight sequences throughout the course of the comic.  At the same time, they face other concerns, as a certain Snitch gets involved to undermine their plans, while a rival samurai starts to rediscover his honour.  Sakai’s depictions of these fights are pretty awesome, and the multiple pages of animalistic samurai battling it out are cool as always, especially in colour.  At the same time, there is a good covering of humour to this story, which makes it very light-hearted, even with the kidnapping and threat for life.  I had a fantastic time getting through this amazing story, and it was another classic Usagi Yojimbo romp featuring the always fun Kitsune.

Usagi Yojimbo - #23 Alternate Cover

Although this story shares similar plot beats with earlier entries, I do think that this one stands apart thanks to Sakai’s excellent character work.  I loved his continued focus on the new character of Yukichi, who has been quite an interesting inclusion to the Usagi Yojimbo series.  Shown as a bit naïve in the ways of the world having spent his entire life inside the rigid confines of a sword school, Yukichi is generally unprepared for the rough life on the road that his cousin has chosen.  As such, watching him interact with the wily and sneaky Kitsune was rather fun, as it put me in mind of Usagi’s initial interactions with the thieving fox, especially as Kitsune and Kiyoko immediately rob him in a very fun scene.  While he does mature a little throughout Ransom, including his constant checking of his purse every time Kitsune touches him, he still has a lot to learn, and I feel that is going to be a recurring theme of the next few stories.  I also quite enjoyed seeing how Usagi interacted with his new companion in this story, and there is a certain protectiveness that was quite touching, and it was great to see Usagi in the mentor role again.  I think that Sakai did a great job with how he featured Yukichi in this story, and I look forward to seeing him interact with some of Usagi’s other outrageous friends in future books.

Uagi Yojimbo - #24 Cover

Aside from Usagi and Yukichi, this was also quite a fun story for established characters Kitsune and Kiyoko, who are once again at their thieving ways.  This fantastic master-and-apprentice thief team is always very entertaining, especially with how they play off the more serious Usagi, and their enjoyable banter with the other characters is always great to see.  This was a very interesting story for both these characters, especially as it continued to showcase the growth of Kiyoko into a master thief, as she is successfully able to change the situation to her own advantage multiple times.  It was also very moving to see how much Kitsune cares for Kiyoko, as she was willing to risk giving up her career to save her (a promise she later recants, but only once Kiyoko is safe).  These two were very humorous, and they always end up being the life of any story they are featured in.  Throw in the curious new character Aoki, the only honourable samurai working for Ransom’s crime lord antagonist, and this excellent story featured an outstanding cast, who really added to the power and impact of this story.  I had a wonderful time reading Ransom, and it ended up being a strong start to this latest volume

Usagi Yojimbo - #24 Alternate Cover

The second story in this volume is the two-issue entry, Crossroads, which the volume is named after.  The Crossroads story sees Usagi and Yukichi once again on the road.  Deciding to take an impromptu shortcut, their road sees them discover the recent massacre of a group of pilgrims.  Determining that the murderers were a group of unsavoury ronin that Usagi and Yukichi passed earlier, the two samurai head back, determined to catch the killers before they strike again.  Their pursuit becomes complicated when, upon reaching a fork in the road, they are unable to determine which way the culprits travelled.  Splitting up, Usagi and Yukichi take a separate path to find the killers, hoping that they will be able to regroup before engaging their foes in battle.  However, while one samurai finds the killers, the other finds something even more dangerous, the dark and soulless Blade of the Gods, Jei.

Whew, now this was an exceptional Usagi Yojimbo entry, and it is easily my favourite of two stories contained in the Crossroads volume.  Sakai tells an intense and captivating tale in this story that really drew me in right away, especially as it starts with a classic Usagi Yojimbo move of the characters choosing a less travelled path only to wind up in trouble.  The initial set up works very well, and the sudden change from light-hearted talk to serious action once the first bodies are found is pretty striking.  The subsequent chase for the killers has some powerful tension to it, especially once the two protagonists are forced the split up.  And that is when the story gets extremely good, as while Usagi finds the culprits and engages them in a brutal fight, Yukichi finds something far more dangerous in Jei and his young ward Keiko.

Usagi Yojimbo - #25 Cover

Now, fans of Usagi Yojimbo will know that Jei is probably the best villain in this entire series, and he has been a wonderful nemesis for Usagi since first appearing in the third volume, The Wanderer’s Road.  A dark and mysterious spear-wielding killer with a unique look and way of speaking, for much of the series Jei has been a constant mystery, with readers unsure if he is an actual demon, a dark warrior of the gods, or just a deluded killer.  While some of that mystery has been revealed, Jei still cuts a fantastically dark figure in Crossroads, especially as it has been several years since his last major appearance, and there was absolutely no warning that he was going to appear in this story until his latest victim was discovered.  His inclusion in this story was just perfect, as you can only watch in horror as the completely unprepared Yukichi runs into Jei and ends up having a lengthy, philosophical conversation with them.  While Yukichi can tell that something is off, he has no idea how much danger he is in, and you spend the entire time worrying that Jei is just about to strike.  Their dark conversation is a real highlight of this entire volume, as not only and you are totally on edge the entire time, but it is quite compelling to see these two very different characters interact.

Usagi Yojimbo - #25 Alternate Cover

The use of this amazing sinister force proved to be a very excellent inclusion from Sakai, and Jei adds so damn much to any story he is involved in.  The rest of the story unfolds in an amazing way, especially as Usagi and Yukichi’s eventual battle with the true antagonists of the story is the best drawn fight in the entire volume.  The teamwork and care shown between the two protagonists is extremely moving, and it was great to see them work together while exhausted to take down a well-written and dangerous group of criminals.  Sakai ends this entire masterful story perfectly, as not only does Jei get another fantastic appearance, doing his trademark laugh, but you also have Yukichi recount his encounter to a horrified Usagi.  Watching the dawning realisation of who Yukichi is talking about appear on Usagi’s face is breathtaking, especially as you can imagine all the dark terror in his heart that his most dangerous opponent is still alive and stalking his loved ones.  That final scene with Usagi naming the dark spearman to an oblivious Yukichi is so damn impressive, and if nothing else, it will ensure that you definitely come back for the next volume, as you will want to see the follow-up to that revelation.  This ended up being such a strong and captivating entry in this volume, and I am so glad that Sakai chose to bring back his very best villain.

Usagi Yojimbo - #26 Cover

As with all of Stan Sakai’s comics, I was once again deeply impressed with the cool artwork contained within Crossroads.  The art in these comics is just absolutely gorgeous and it always works to support the amazing narratives, bringing the fantastic actions of the characters to life in stunning detail.  Not only does he do a wonderful job showcasing the various animal characters throughout the comics, but the various action sequences are so much fun to see, especially as Sakai always manages to capture the movement of the characters, allowing the reader to see how the sword fights would pan out.  However, it’s not just the characters and the action that are great about the artwork; there is also the elaborate backgrounds and surrounding settings that bring all the scenes together.  Nearly every panel has some degree of the unique Japanese setting in it, whether it’s the historical towns filled with people wearing period-appropriate clothing, the beautiful forests and mountains of Japan, or even a busy highway filled with people going about their business.  All this artistic detail brings the reader into the story, and you can really envision this version of Japan filled with these unique characters.  I am also still really loving seeing all the art in colour, which is a relatively new feature of these comics.  While I will always have a soft spot for the monochrome style of the original Usagi Yojimbo comics, the extra colour in the IDW volumes gives these new comics a little more impact, and I enjoy the clearer pictures being produced.  I particularly liked how the colour made Jei look even more sinister in his scenes, and the artwork around this creepy and malevolent character was extremely cool in Crossroads, and I love how much it enhanced his menace.  Sakai continues to produce some epic artwork in this comic, and I loved every single panel in this latest Usagi Yojimbo volume.

Usagi Yojimbo - #26 Alternate Cover

Stan Sakai does it again as his latest volume of the exceptional Usagi Yojimbo series was another instant classic that proved to be an amazing read.  Featuring two great stories, loaded with excellent characters, impressive action, cool artwork and even a few surprises, Crossroads was just epic and I had a fun time getting through it.  This was another easy five-star rating from me, and I am still so ecstatic that I got two volumes in 2022.  Even better, I won’t have much longer to wait for my next Usagi Yojimbo fix, as Sakai has another volume, The Green Dragon, coming out in February.

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Death to the Emperor by Simon Scarrow

Death to the Emperor Cover

Publisher: Headline (Trade Paperback – 15 November 2022)

Series: Eagles of the Empire – Book 21

Length: 466 pages

My Rating: 4.75 out of 5 stars

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One of the world’s best historical fiction authors, Simon Scarrow, returns with another epic instalment in his brilliant long-running Eagles of the Empire Roman history series, Death to the Emperor.

I have made no secret of my deep appreciation for the works of Simon Scarrow, who is easily one of my favourite historical fiction authors.  A talented and compelling author, Scarrow has written several great series and standalone reads that cover historical subjects such as the Napolenic wars, World War II and even a cool historical crime fiction novel, Blackout.  However, his most substantial body of work is his Eagles of the Empire series, which is one of the best historical fiction series I have had the pleasure of reading.  Set during the reigns of some of Rome’s most infamous emperors, Eagles of the Emperor follow two Roman soldiers, Prefect Cato and Centurion Marco, who have fought on multiple battlefields across the empire.  I have had a wonderful time reading this series over the years, and it features some outstanding books, including the last four novels, The Blood of Rome, Traitors of Rome, The Emperor’s Exile and The Honour of Rome.  Naturally I started reading the latest book in the series (the 21st book overall), Death to the Emperor, pretty much as soon as I got it, and boy did that prove to be a smart decision.

60 AD, Britannia.  After years fighting side by side together, Prefect Cato and Centurion Marco are back in Britannia, the land they helped conquer at the start of their partnership.  Since their first time there, their lives have been transformed in ways they could have never believed.  While Marco is retired, serving a senior administrative role amongst the other retired veterans in Britannia, Cato is hiding out on the island, attempting to avoid Nero’s wrath for rescuing the Emperor’s former mistress from exile.  Determined to make their new lives in Britannia work, Cato and Marco are once again thrust into danger as tensions escalate throughout the island.

While the usual malcontents and druids stir rebellion and conflict against the Romans, tensions are higher than ever, especially as rumours spread that Emperor Nero wishes to pull out of the savage province.  However, Nero is also determined to squeeze the island for every bit of wealth it has, and he dispatches a ruthless and dangerous procurator to do this.  Worried that this move may destabilise an already fragile Britannia, Cato and Marco attempt to help their ally, the recently widowed queen of the Iceni, Boudica, whose tribe has caught the eye of the Emperor and his Procurator.

However, soon duty separates the two old friends again, as Cato is conscripted by Britannia’s ambitious governor, Gaius Suetonius Paulinus, in his latest campaign to destroy the druid stronghold at Mona.  Left alone, Marco can only watch as outrage and disrespect brings the Iceni to the brink of war with Rome, one that he and his forces cannot possibly defeat.  Soon, the fate of Britannia lays in hands of one woman, Boudica, who can bring peace to the lands.  However, when Boudica is pushed too far, will she declare war on Rome, its Emperor, and her old friends Cato and Marco?

Death to the Emperor was an outstanding and fantastic read that once again highlights Scarrow’s impressive ability as a historical fiction writer.  Continuing the long-running story of Cato and Marco, Scarrow expertly dives into a major historical event and brings it to life in a compelling way.  I had a wonderful time reading Death to the Emperor and I felt that it was one of Scarrow’s better novels in recent years.

I loved the incredible story that Scarrow wove around Death to the Emperor, especially as it provides the reader with an excellent blend of action, adventure, character development and a ton of historical detail.  Set shortly after the events of the last book, The Honour of Rome, Scarrow continues several threads from there, with Cato and Marco attempting to settle down in their old stomping ground of Britannia and find some peace.  However, the death of Boudica’s husband soon leads to chaos as the disgruntled locals start to push back against the increasing control and greed of Rome.  After a good introduction, which sets much of the scene for the rest of the book, the protagonists are split up, with Cato forced to accompany Governor Paulinus on his campaign to eradicate the druids, while Marco remains behind to attempt to keep the peace.  This results in a great split of storylines, and both of their exciting character arcs really paid off.  Cato’s story arc is a pretty typical Scarrow narrative, as Cato takes control of a new regiment and leads them into several battles as part of his campaign.  This results in several impressive action sequences, including a great and highly exciting extended siege sequence at the druid stronghold of Mona, which was one of the best battle scenes in the entire book.  At the same time, Marco bears witness to all the key events that lead up to Boudica’s rebellion, as the villainous Catus Decianus antagonises the tribes, despite Marco’s best efforts to stop him.  Marco’s storyline is a lot more intense and emotionally rich as the protagonist attempts to save all his friends against heavy odds.  However, despite his best efforts, Marco and his fellow veterans find themselves forced to fight Boudica’s army, which results in a pretty memorable ending.

I deeply enjoyed how this compelling narrative came together, and Scarrow was on excellent form as he provided the reader with everything they needed.  While the start of the book is a little slower, it sets the scene perfectly, before all the action and deadly developments ensue at a faster and more intense pace.  The author really built up the tension throughout the narrative, and you really knew that everything was going to go wrong, and boy did it.  The resulting battles, which includes several very fun sieges, were well worth the wait, and Scarrow did a wonderful job of showcasing all the carnage of these fights.  Separating the main characters created a much more complex and wider narrative, and I liked the excellent contrasts between the battles, as Cato’s successes with his forces are mirrored by Marco’s desperate fights with the small band of retired fighters under his command.  The intensity of the plot got even more pronounced as the narrative continued, and the reader really gets drawn in as a result.  I personally powered through the second half of the book in very short order as I wanted to see how everything would unfold.  The desperate and bloody conclusion to the narrative was pretty shocking, especially as there are some major series moments featured here.  The resulting cliff hanger finisher was just perfect, and you are left wanting more.  I am not entirely sure I’ll be able to wait a whole year to see how this series continues, but I am sure that the reader is for even more excitement and shocks when Scarrow brings out his next book.

One of things that really impressed me about Death to the Emperor was the level of historical detail that Scarrow put into it as he covers some of the early events of Boudica’s uprising.  The author does a remarkable job showcasing all the events that lead up to the rebellion, and he paints a compelling and unique picture around it.  Many events are discussed or shown in intriguing detail, including the general oppression of the local tribes, the attempts to embezzle money from the Iceni, the capture and humiliation of Boudica, and the disregard that Nero had for Britannia and his rumoured plans to abandon the province.  All these events, eventually lead up to the rebellion and it was fascinating to see them come about, especially through the eyes of a common soldier character like Marco.  The subsequent early battles of this rebellion, including the fight at Camulodunum, are very dark and brutal, and I deeply appreciated how Scarrow put his protagonists in the centre of these bloody conflicts, as they really raise up the intensity of the narrative.  At the same time, Scarrow also spends a good part of the book highlighting Governor Paulinus’s invasion of the druid stronghold of Mona.  This compelling campaign is often overshadowed by Boudica in history books, but it was an important part of the events at that time, especially as it left the rest of the province undermanned.  Scarrow covers this campaign extremely well through the book, especially as Cato is the officer usually at the front of the fighting, and it became quite a key part of the book.  I loved seeing this blend of historical events throughout Death to the Emperor, especially as Scarrow brings his usual flair for showcasing the Roman war machine throughout this book, highlighting the strategies and martial techniques of the Romans in exquisite detail.  I can’t wait to see the rest of Boudica’s rebellion in the next Eagles of the Empire book, as it is going to be epic.

Scarrow does another awesome job with the characters in Death to the Emperor, as he tells some intriguing character arcs that really helped to shape the narrative.  The primary focus as always is one of the series’ main protagonists, Prefect Cato and Centurion Marco.  Both have some intriguing character moments in this book which I had a great time with here.  Cato’s arc is pretty typical for much of the series, with the prefect forced back into combat, this time leading an auxiliary cohort on the campaign to Mona.  Cato’s arc is filled with a huge amount of action and intense battles as he fights from one end of Britain and back again.  It is always fun to see Cato in action, especially as he takes his units into some bloody battles, using a range of unique tactics to win.  While Cato is fun, the most intense character moments is focused on Macro, who remains behind and watches over the province while the army is gone.  Marco, who is mostly retired at this point, finds himself in a unique leadership position, and must work his force of reservists into a coherent force.  At the same time, he also finds himself greatly conflicted as he finds his loyalty to Rome tested due to his friendship with Boudica.  Forced to take military action against them, Marco tries to protect Boudica and her family, however, his orders and his slimy commander make that impossible, and he must decide whether he should continue to blindly follow Rome or do what is right.  His decision will have huge impacts on the story, and it places him in some dark situations.

Aside from Cato and Marco, who tend to be the primary point-of-view characters, Death to the Emperor has an awesome cast of supporting characters who really add a lot to the overall narrative.  This includes Boudica, who serves as Rome’s main antagonist in this arc of the series.  Boudica has actually been a friendly supporting character for many of her previous appearances, having formed a relationship with the two protagonists.  However, this book sees all that change as she is pushed too far, becoming the warrior queen we all know.  Scarrow handled her transformation from friend to deadly enemy extremely well, and it was fascinating to see her interact with Marco, especially as he keeps trying, but failing, to help her.  Aside from Boudica, I also liked seeing more of the fun supporting character, Apollonius.  Apollonius has been an interesting figure for the last few books, serving as Cato’s spy and advisor, and generally being a good secondary protagonist.  He has a very interesting time in Death to the Emperor as he remains behind to help Marco.  I loved seeing the continued relationship between the two, as Marco generally disapproves of Apollonius, and it was also quite intriguing to get some insights into why Apollonius chooses to stay and help Cato.  The final character I need to point out is Catus Decianus, the Roman Procurator who is generally considered responsible for Boudica’s rebellion.  Scarrow does an amazing job with Decianus, a real historical figure, and he turns him into a very despicable villain in Death to the Emperor.  The author paints him as an arrogant, greedy fellow, whose arrogance and general dislike of the Britannia locals, leads to the resulting war.  You really cannot help but hate Decianus, especially as he really is the main villain of this story.  These great characters, and more, turn out to be an amazing cast, and I had a wonderful time seeing the outstanding and dramatic narrative Scarrow wove around them.

Simon Scarrow continues to showcase why he is one of the best historical fiction authors in the world with the latest entry in his exceptional Eagles of the Empire series, Death to the Emperor.  Expertly showcasing the brutal events of Boudica’s rebellion with his long-running protagonists right in the middle, Scarrow tells a powerful and action-packed story that takes his characters into some dark direction.  Captivating, exciting and oh so bloody, Death to the Emperor will keep you relentlessly entertained and ensure you come back for more books in this epic series.  Highly recommended!

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Desert Star by Michael Connelly

Desert Star Cover

Publisher: Allen & Unwin Australia (Trade Paperback – 8 November 2022)

Series: Ballard and Bosch – Book Four

Length: 393 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

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Legendary crime fiction author, Michael Connelly, returns with another impressive and deeply enjoyable read that once again brings together two of his best protagonists for a compelling investigation, with Desert Star.

Connelly is an author who needs very little introduction, having spent the last 30 years dominating the crime fiction world.  His various outstanding works often cover several diverse subgenres of crime fiction, and his unique and captivating protagonists all exist in one shared universe, primarily set around Los Angeles.  Ever since I started properly reading crime fiction a few years ago, Connelly has been an author I have particularly enjoyed each year, and I have had a wonderful time reading several of his most recent books.  This includes the fantastic Mickey Haller legal thriller, The Law of Innocence, and the intense Jack McEvoy journalistic investigative read, Fair Warning (one of my favourite novels of 2020).  However, some of my favourite Connelly books have been the more classic police investigation novels, all of which have been part of the Ballard and Bosch subseries.

The Ballard and Bosch books are an intriguing set of recent novels that bring together Connelly’s two main police protagonists into one investigative team.  These two protagonists are female detective Renée Ballard and Connelly’s original protagonist, Harry Bosch, who has long retired from the LAPD but is still in the detective game.  These two form a fantastic team, and it is always fun to see their interesting mentor/mentee relationship as they investigate a series of cases.  There have so far been three Ballard and Bosch books, and I have had a wonderful time with each of them, including Dark Sacred Night, The Night Fire (one of my favourite books and audiobooks of 2019) and The Dark Hours (one of my favourite books of 2021).  Due to how awesome these last three books have been, I was quite excited to see that Connelly had a new one coming out in 2022, and that book, Desert Star, was one of my most anticipated reads for the second half of 2022.

Desert Star is set a year after the events of The Dark Hours, which saw Renée Ballard quit the LAPD after encountering sexism, corruption, and obstacles to solving her cases.  Lured back after being offered a dream job, Ballard now finds herself leading an elite cold cases unit which hopes to find justice for the many unsolved murders throughout Los Angeles.  While Ballard has already pulled together an effective team, there is still one person she needs to complete it: Harry Bosch.

While angry at Ballard following their last encounter, Bosch is lured back as a volunteer investigator after Ballard offers him help on the one cold case that has haunted him for years, the slaying of the Gallagher family.  Years ago, the entire family of four was found brutally killed, their bodies buried in the desert, and Bosch has never forgotten them or the fact that he was unable to find the man he knows killed them.  In return for access to the resources of Ballard’s unit, Bosch agrees to help Ballard solve her own cold case.

To keep their unit alive and well funded, Ballard needs to solve the rape and murder of a councilman’s sister years ago.  There are few avenues for a further investigation, and Ballard hopes that Bosch’s unique views may be the key to solving it.  However, after a chance clue connects their case to another brutal murder, Ballard and Bosch find themselves taking their investigation in some very dangerous directions.  At the same time, Bosch’s obsession with finding the Gallagher family’s killer grows even more, as he finds himself determined to catch him before it’s too late.  Can Ballard and Bosch solve their crimes, or will tragedy strike right at the heart of their partnership?

This was another outstanding crime fiction read from Connelly that combines a cool series of murder mystery cases with some intense character work to create and excellent story.  Desert Star gets off to a quick start, bringing back the two main protagonists and showing what changes have gone through their lives in the last year, as well as introducing the new cold case unit.  The reader is swiftly then brought across the two central murder cases that the protagonists are investigating.  The initial focus is on the murder of councilman’s sister, which has political connotations for the cold case unit, but Bosch also spends a large amount of time examining his personal case.  After some interesting breaks in the main case, Ballard and Bosch find themselves stuck looking far closer to home than they imagined, when clues point to a serial killer with connections to the very politician who created their unit.  There are some great twists and turns towards the centre of the book as they come close to their revelations, and the identity of this killer is pretty clever, with several interesting clues in the lead-up to the big confrontation.  At the same time, Bosch starts closing in on the main suspect in his case after revisiting witnesses from his initial investigation.  This leads him down a long, dark road as he contemplates what he’s willing to risk to get justice.  Everything leads up to a heart-pounding finale, which will leave readers on the edge of their seat as you honestly have no idea how far Connelly is going to take everything.  Desert Star ends on a particularly satisfying note, and it will be interesting to see where Connelly’s narratives go next, as he has left several intriguing storylines open.

This was a pretty addictive and fast-paced read, and it really doesn’t take long to get drawn into the two intriguing cases.  I loved the focus on cold case investigation in this book, which is a classic Connelly story element, and the author presents some excellent mystery elements.  I had a lot of fun with both cases, one because it was a seemingly unsolvable case with huge political issues behind it, the other because of one protagonist’s intense obsession with cracking it.  Connelly does a good job splitting focus between the two cases, which is made easier with the use of two perspective characters, Ballard and Bosch.  Both have very different views of the investigations, and the split in perspectives helps to ratchet up the tension in several scenes extremely well.  Connelly goes for a pretty fast pace in Desert Star, and you really find yourself powering through the narrative, especially once you get caught up in the excellent investigation arcs.  I loved how both cases turned out, and Connelly puts in some great build-up for both of their powerful conclusions.  Like most of the books in this shared crime universe, Desert Star can be easily read as a standalone novel, and no prior knowledge of either character is really required to enjoy it.  However, this latest Ballard and Bosch book is coming off a lot of emotional build-up and character development from the previous entries, so you’ll appreciate Desert Star more if you’ve checked them out first.  Connelly also throws in a ton of references to some previous novels, mainly some of Bosch’s older adventures, which established fans will really appreciate.  I loved Desert Star’s amazing story and how it was presented, as will all die-hard Connelly readers.

As always with a Connelly read, there is a noticeable and impressive focus on the central characters, with the author diving deep into his two point-of-view protagonists, Renée Ballard and Harry Bosch.  Both characters have a ton of history behind them at this point in Connelly’s joint universe, both as a team and as established, independent protagonists of their own novels.  As such, Connelly takes a little less time introducing them in Desert Star than he would previously, and instead starts highlighting their current issues and concerns, as well as re-establishing the teamwork between them.  While there is a little friction at the start of the book, mainly due to the fallout of The Dark Hours, Ballard and Bosch mostly get their investigative teamwork groove back and become an effective unit.  While Bosch does take on the mentor role in this book, it isn’t as prevalent as it has been previously, mainly because Ballard is now in control of her own unit and is the boss.  This forces her to supervise and try to control Bosch, with limited success, and this impacts their previous established dynamic.  At the same time, Ballard also relies on Bosch’s unpredictability and dislike of the rules to solve their more difficult, politically associated case, so that creates some odd friction and reliance that I rather enjoyed.

Most of the best character work in Desert Star revolved around old favourite protagonist Harry Bosch.  Bosch, who Connelly has aged up naturally over the last 30 years, is retired from the police, but he comes back to help Ballard with her case, and I loved seeing his maverick attitude reassert itself here.  However, he is primarily concerned with his own cold case, and swiftly reignites his obsession with finding the man responsible for the murder of a family.  This obsession soon starts to overwhelm him, and while he helps Ballard, he risks a lot to find his target while there is still time.  Connelly paints a powerful picture of Bosch in this book, and there are some big reveals about him that have been a long time coming.  While I won’t go into too much detail here, this is one of the more powerful and compelling Bosch narratives in a while, and Connelly does an outstanding job building up some tension around his storylines here.  Ballard also gets some interesting development in this book, and it was great to see her as a leader in this book, especially after spending so many years as the LAPD’s unwanted pariah for her attempts to report a superior for sexual harassment.  However, Ballard also encounters the darker side of leadership as she is forced to play politics and encounters various attempts to cover up the whole truth for expediency and self-gain.  This forces her to make some tough choices, and she becomes a bit more like her mentor, Bosch, with every case.  All this excellent character work really adds some impressive impact to Desert Star’s narrative, and this was one of the more significant novels for both of this amazing and iconic Connelly protagonists.

Michael Connelly continues to dominate the crime fiction scene with another epic and captivating read, Desert Star.  Bringing back two outstanding protagonists for a joint investigation, Desert Star contains a compelling and clever investigation into two fascinating murders.  Featuring a great story, some exciting pacing, and the amazing use of two complex protagonists, Desert Star was another exceptional read from Connelly that I had an awesome time reading. I can’t wait to see what Connelly writes next, and no doubt it will tie into the powerful moments raised in this incredible book.

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Oath of Loyalty by Kyle Mills (Based on the series by Vince Flynn)

Oath of Loyalty Cover

Publisher: Simon & Schuster Audio (Audiobook – 13 September 2022)

Series: Mitch Rapp – Book 21

Length: 9 hours and 23 minutes

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

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Fantastic spy fiction author Kyle Mills continues his excellent stewardship of the late, great Vince Flynn’s Mitch Rapp series, with the new action-packed thriller, Oath of Loyalty.

I have had a lot of fun with some cool spy thriller series over the last few years, but one series that keeps on pulling me back in is the ultra-compelling Mitch Rapp series.  Originally written by Vince Flynn, the Mitch Rapp series follows rugged American spy Mitch Rapp as he wages a brutal war against America’s enemies.  While sometimes a little too nationalistic for my tastes, the Mitch Rapp series nonetheless has some outstanding and inventive scenarios in its arsenal, with the protagonists forced to take on some dangerous enemies and crazy situations.  Since Flynn’s death, the series has been taken over by Kyle Mills, who has continued the tradition of compelling high-concept spy action.  I have had a great time reading Mills’s recent contributions to this series, with awesome reads like Red War, Lethal Agent, Total Power and Enemy at the Gate, all of which were extremely fascinating stories that proved very hard to put down.  As such, I am always very keen to check out the new Mitch Rapp adventure, and I was really drawn into the fascinating plot of the 21st Mitch Rapp novel, Oath of Loyalty.

After a lifetime of protecting the country he loves from terrorists, enemy nations and foreign spies, the shoe is on the other foot as Mitch Rapp finds himself as America’s most wanted man.  The corrupt and paranoid President Anthony Cook is determined to shape America into a personal kingdom that he and his calculating wife can rule for years.  However, after Mitch Rapp foils Cook’s plan to destroy his greatest rival, Rapp is now in the firing line.

Convinced that Rapp will attempt to assassinate him, especially as his actions have resulted in the death of one of Rapp’s oldest friends, Cook attempts to eliminate him, only to have Rapp slip through his fingers.  With neither side wishing to be at war with the other, the President and Rapp manage to negotiate a truce through former-CIA director Irene Kennedy, by which Rapp will remain untouched if he agrees to leave America and stay in plain sight for as long as the Cooks control the White House.  However, the ambitious new head of the CIA is determined to win the President’s influence and manages to convince Cook that Rapp still plans to kill him.  To stop Rapp from coming after them, the new administration decides to attack those closest to him by leaking the identity and location of Rapp’s partner, Claudia Gould, to her many enemies.

Soon, everyone Claudia and her dead assassin husband ever crossed is out to get her.  Despite Rapp’s violent reprisals against her attackers, the threat increases dramatically when one of Claudia’s old enemies hires the infamous Legion.  Legion is a completely anonymous team of assassins who rely on secrecy and never meet their client in person.  No one knows who they are; all they know is that once Legion accepts a contract they don’t stop until their target is dead, no matter how long that may take.  With their country turned against them, can Rapp and his allies save Claudia from this new threat before it is too late, or will he lose another woman he loves?

Kyle Mills continues to showcase just how awesome a Mitch Rapp novel can be with this fantastic new entry.  Perfectly utilising all the typical action, intrigue and political insight that the latest Mitch Rapp books have all been known for, Oath of Loyalty features a fantastic narrative that I really got stuck into.  This was another impressive and fun spy thriller read, and I ended up powering through this book in no time at all.

Oath of Loyalty had another excellent Mills narrative that took the protagonist on a wild adventure of survival, revenge, and political upheaval.  The start of the book contains a detailed prologue that replays the closing scene of the prior novel, Enemy at the Gate, which was a good recap to start off with.  The rest of Oath of Loyalty seamlessly follows on, showing Mitch Rapp in the crosshairs of the new President and his corrupt administration.  After a great escape sequence, Rapp flees to South Africa and arranges a truce, and begins to watch the decline of America from afar.  However, the President is far from done with him, and his fearmongering advisor convinces him to keep Rapp occupied while they prepare for his potential retaliation.  Rapp is forced to defend Claudia and her daughter from several dangerous assassins, which includes one particularly impressive action sequence as Rapp fends off an entire hit squad by himself.  This results in some A-grade vengeance as Rapp goes after Claudia’s enemies in retaliation, which naturally includes some very over-the-top results.

However, the characters find themselves in dire straights when one enemy hires the unstoppable Legion assassin team, who specialise in elaborate kills.  Mills sets up Legion extremely well, and the reader is soon engrossed in watching the cat-and-mouse game that emerges between them and Rapp.  At the same time, Rapp and his allies are forced to contend with a selfish and power hungry president who is determined to destroy them all.  The second half of the book has some great sequences, and I loved seeing Legion’s actions and their attempts to get past Rapp, and the protagonist finds himself in a tough situation, especially as his limited help sometimes proves to be even more dangerous than his opponents are.  Everything leads up to a fantastic and very entertaining conclusion, which I think worked very well.  While I did think that part of the solution was a little silly when it came to just how threatening the protagonist could be, this was a pretty amazing story and I had a wonderful time getting through it.

I felt that Mills did a great job setting out Oath of Loyalty’s narrative, and there are many great elements to it that make it so much fun to read.  The author makes excellent use of multiple character perspectives to showcase the fun narrative, and it was awesome to see the various sides of the story.  I especially liked the parts of the book shown from several antagonists’ standpoints, and it was great to see the simultaneous moves and counter-moves that Rapp and his opponents put into play.  Like the rest of the Mitch Rapp books, Oath of Loyalty has several great action scenes that come together extremely well.  The brutal combat is crisp and flows off the page perfectly, ensuring that every action junkie can imagine just how the protagonist is kicking ass.  This works in concert with the book’s outstanding espionage elements, which Mills features so very well here.  I love the author’s take on spy craft in Oath of Loyalty, and there is a gritty realism to how Rapp and his allies go up against their foes, especially as this time they are going up against the American intelligence apparatus.  Oath of Loyalty is also well paced out and readers are left with barely a second to breathe between the various exciting or compelling sequences of espionage, or political malfeasance.  All this, and more, definitely helped me stayed glued to Oath of Loyalty and I really got stuck into the cool narrative and couldn’t wait to see how it all came together.

While characters are never the strongest part of a Mitch Rapp novel (I always felt that the protagonist was a tad one-dimensional), I did like how some of the recurring figures turned out in Oath of Loyalty.  There was some interesting work on Mitch Rapp himself in this book.  While he is still the same highly feared and insanely talented assassin and general sadist, you can see that the years are really starting to get to him in this book as he starts to think about winding down.  The cynical weariness that infects him in this book as his country turns against him is pretty compelling, and it was interesting to see him as America’s enemy for once.  Throw in some growing family concerns and touching relationship moments, and this was an interesting book for Rapp, and I quite enjoyed seeing his deeper thoughts on several matters here.

Several other characters had some fantastic moments in Oath of Loyalty.  Irene Kennedy and several of Rapp’s allies find themselves on the wrong side of politics here, and it was compelling to see the loyal American soldiers realise they have been betrayed by their country.  Claudia gets quite a lot of focus, especially as her past mistakes are brought into focus, and Mills does a good job of examining how she fits into Rapp’s life and how their relationship has grown.  I liked the fantastic backstory around Legion, and Rapp manages to make them appear dangerous and interesting in a very short amount of time, which I really appreciated.  Without ruining too much, I also was highly entertained by Rapp’s allies in the second half of the book, especially as they result in a really mental minefield for the protagonist, who finds himself stuck with two damaged people he has no idea how to deal with.  Finally, President Cook and his inner circle prove to be entertaining antagonists, and I loved seeing them abuse their power all in an attempt to kill one man.  Their ambition, ruthless political savvy and complete disregard for the people they serve makes them quite unlikeable, and it was fun to see them thrown for a loop by a single man as they live in fear of what Rapp may do to them.  The growing instability of the president as he gets consumed by his paranoia is particularly fun, and Mills comes up with a great crony character who feeds on that for unique reasons, all of which is very amusing to see.  I had an excellent time with all these fantastic characters, and Mills certainly wrapped an awesome story around them.

One of the things I have appreciated with Mills’s last few Mitch Rapp novels is his insights into the current state of American politics and the country’s current divides.  All his major American protagonists, who are old hats at politics and espionage, are disillusioned by the direction the country has taken, and this becomes apparent in their discussions and inner thoughts, as many of them begin to wonder what they were fighting to preserve all these years.  At the same time, several of the villainous political figures in this book are shown to be quite aware of the divides occurring in America, and are very willing to manipulate it to their own ends.  Indeed, many of their discussions about strategy show them actively doing this, and there are several scenes with them attending the sort of rallies and conventions that people familiar with contemporary politics will know and loath.  I really appreciated this frank and intriguing look into American politics and the state of the country in Oath of Loyalty, and I honestly felt that the author and the characters were even more critical than in recent books (although some of that was tied into the plot).  It is honestly a little refreshing to see this sort of introspection from a series that has always been very pro-American, and it is definitely a sign of the times.  However, these political insights aren’t just there for the sake of making the novel stand out, and they play quite a vital role in the plot.  The characters have many discussions about the future of America, and their decisions are very tied into how they want it to proceed.  It proved to be quite a key part of Oath of Loyalty’s narrative, and I think that Mills did a pretty good job of utilising this modern-day elements in his latest book.  It will be quite interesting to see how this is presented going forward, and I really appreciated how Mills is trying to keep the series relevant.

As I have with the last few Mitch Rapp novels, I chose to check out Oath of Loyalty’s audiobook format, which was a great way to enjoy this book.  With a run time of just under nine and a half hours, this a relatively short audiobook and I managed to get through it quite quickly once I got stuck into the story.  I had an excellent time getting through the Oath of Loyalty audiobook, and I felt that it did a great job enhancing the narrative, especially by picking up the pace of the awesome action sequences.  I am however, once again on the fence when it comes to narrator George Guidall, who has lent his voice to most of the Mitch Rapp audiobooks.  I always find that Guidall’s voice sounds a little tired when he reads these audiobooks and there really is not that much variation between the various characters, although I never had any issue working out who was talking.  While this would ordinarily put me off, I have actually gotten quite used to Guidall as narrator for this series, and I honestly could not imagine anyone else voicing these cool books.  I also feel that Guidall’s older, wearier voice perfectly fits the character of Mitch Rapp in these latest books, especially as he is getting sick and tired of all the political games and general BS surrounding him.  I was quite happy to listen to Guidall once again in Oath of Loyalty, and I look forward to hearing him again with the next Mitch Rapp audiobook.

Overall, I was very happy with this great book and Oath of Loyalty proved to be an excellent addition to this brilliant long-running series.  Kyle Mills continues his impressive run of elaborate and clever Mitch Rapp stories here, and Oath of Loyalty served as an outstanding sequel to the author’s previous book while perfectly continuing some amazing storylines.  Exciting, intense and loaded with so much action, Oath of Loyalty is a very easy book to fall in love with, and I had a brilliant time getting through it.

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Throwback Thursday: Blood Rites by Jim Butcher

Blood Rite Cover

Publisher: Penguin Audio (Audiobook – 3 August 2004)

Series: Dresden Files – Book Six

Length: 13 hours and 5 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

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Welcome back to my Throwback Thursday series, where I republish old reviews, review books I have read before or review older books I have only just had a chance to read.  For my latest Throwback Thursday I keep diving into the epic Dresden Files urban fantasy series with the impressive sixth book, Blood Rites.

Last week, in my review for the outstanding fifth book in the Dresden Files series, Death Masks, I mentioned how I had also started listening to the next book in the series, Blood Rites.  I honestly had so much fun reading Death Masks last week (as I did with the rest of the Dresden Files series, such as Storm Front, Fool Moon, Grave Peril, Summer Knight, Battle Ground and The Law), that I had to immediately dive into the next book as soon as I could.  The sixth novel in the series, Blood Rites, was another epic novel which had an impressive and captivating plot to it.

Harry Dresden, Chicago’s resident wizard and protector from the paranormal, continues to eke out a deadly living through his chaotic career of odd mystical jobs while also defending the city against the worst monsters lurking in the shadows.  However, his latest job may place him in the most uncomfortable spot yet, on the set of an adult movie, which finds itself under attack from a deadly and relentless curse.

Taking the case as a favour to his vampire friend and suspicious ally Thomas Raith, Dresden goes undercover on set and attempts to discover who is responsible for cursing the movie’s cast and crew, and why.  However, Dresden’s heroics on set make him a target, and he soon finds the curse striking at him, attempting to end his investigation before he can find the magical murderer.  Worse, enemies old and new are bursting out of the shadows, as two separate courts of vampires attempt to strike Dresden down.

As Dresden continues to search for the murderer wielding the curse, he is forced to fend off attacks from the lethal Black Court.  Led by a powerful elder vampire with a serious grudge against Dresden, the Black Court will stop at nothing to destroy him and any of his friends that gets in their way.  However, the greatest threat may reside in the White Court, to which Thomas belongs.  The White Court vampires are manipulative and subtle killers, using their alluring presence to suck the life out of everyone they touch.  Caught between warring members of the White Court family, Dresden must use all his wits to escape their wrath and uncover hidden truths if he is to survive.  But what secret from the past connects Dresden to the White Court and their machinations, and is Dresden really ready for the dark knowledge waiting for him?

Whelp, it seems that it is pretty impossible for Butcher to write a dud novel.  Blood Rites is an exceptional addition to the wider Dresden Files series, and it was another one that I have no choice but to give a full five-star review to.  Featuring an intense and deeply captivating narrative, Blood Rites was an incredible read and I quickly got sucked into its unique story, compelling mysteries and dark, damaged characters.

I just loved the elaborate, dark and powerful narrative that Butcher featured in Blood Rites, as the author comes up with a complex tale that expertly brings together a dark urban fantasy with a thrilling murder mystery storyline.  Like the rest of the Dresden Files books, Blood Rites exclusively follows protagonist and point-of-view character Harry Dresden as he finds himself forced to face off against a series of dangers and threats at the same time.  The most prominent of these includes an investigation into a deadly curse aimed at the female employees of an adult entertainment studio, which sees Dresden go undercover on set to try and save the remaining cast and determine who the killer is.  This also leads him into a confrontation with the White Court of the vampires, especially when his vampire friend, Thomas Raith, requests his help.  At the same time, vampires from the Black Court are after Dresden for his actions in Grave Peril, which forces him to call in some major backup to take them on.  Unfortunately, this also leads him into conflict with his supposed allies, as well as his former mentor, when secrets from the past are revealed.  Dresden is also hit with a whole bundle of personal drama, especially when he discovers unfortunate truths about his long-dead mother, and there is an interesting growth in the relationship between him and several supporting characters.

As a result, there are many plot elements scattered around Blood Rites, which makes for quite an elaborate overall story.  Luckily, Butcher does an excellent job of introducing all these separate narrative threads to the reader, and you swiftly get drawn into all of them.  After a good and necessary bit of setup, the story roars off at a quick and captivating pace, and the reader has a great time jumping from storyline to storyline.  Everything starts to come together near the middle of the book, where you get some excellent action scenes, including a particularly funny death sequence involving a vampire and a frozen turkey, and the fallout of these scenes leads to some great dramatic moments with big personal revelations.  Following this, the story zooms along, and you soon find a partial and problematic solution to the murder case, while the protagonist is also forced to deal with an all-out assault on the Black Court, while also dealing with dark secrets from his allies.  The attack on the Black Court was one of the best sequences in the book, and the surrounding drama results in some major revelations that fans of the series will lap up.  The remaining storylines then come together perfectly for the finale, as Dresden solves the murder and faces off against its overall architect in a brilliant and extended dark sequence.  I loved how this entire narrative unfolded, and some of the concluding notes will leave you wanting to dive into the rest of the series to see what happens next.

To bring Blood Rites’ great story to life, Butcher utilises his typical style and techniques, which I always immensely enjoy.  The entire narrative is paced perfectly, and you quickly get drawn into the various plotlines, especially with their great combination of characters, intriguing plots, fantasy elements, and dramatic moments.  All of this is overlayed with Butcher’s distinctive humour, most of which is expelled through his cocky point-of-view protagonist, and it helps to enhance the overall powerful and entertainment of the book, especially when the protagonist tries to deflect from his many issues with comedy.  The narrative pretty much goes non-stop, and you get bounced through multiple excellent and powerful scenes, all of which are very fun to see.  I loved how the author balanced out action, character growth, universe building and more in each of the sequences, and there is something quite entertaining and fun for all manner of readers.  I wasn’t as keen on Butcher’s continued attempts to spice up the story with more adult themes, such as the adult film set or the lust-inducing White Court vampires, although it was pretty tame compared to some of the scenes in the last book (that bondage scene, yikes!), and Butcher wove some very compelling narratives around all of them that I deeply enjoyed.  I did enjoy how inclusive Butcher made this novel to new readers, and anyone could easily jump into Blood Rites and enjoy it, even if they haven’t read a Dresden Files book before.  However, there is also a lot to appeal to established fans of the series, especially as there are multiple major reveals and secrets featured here, many of which will lead to big story moments down the track.  As such, I deeply appreciated how this story came together, and pretty much everyone will have a great time getting through it.

I really enjoyed some of the cool fantasy elements featured throughout Blood Rites as Butcher seeks to expand on the lore and magic of his unique universe.  There are some great and intriguing fantasy inclusions here, with the obvious focus being on the various Vampire Courts.  The three main factions of Vampires have all been featured in previous books, although most of the focus has been on the Red Court, whom Dresden is at war with.  Blood Rites, however, has a far bigger spotlight on the two of the other courts who have major differences in powers and appearances.  Most of the focus is on the White Court, who are essentially this universe’s version of succubi, extremely beautiful and seductive creatures who feed off the life energy of those who desire them.  The White Court go on to become a major faction in the Dresden Files series, but this is one of the first books that fully explores them in substantial detail.  As such, you quickly get across their unique abilities, strengths, weaknesses and powers throughout this book, and they come across as quite a distinctive group as a result.  You really get to understand their entire society and worldview, as well as seeing some very different members of the factions, and Butcher writes some compelling storylines around them, while also putting in some very vivid depictions of their powers in action.  I loved how sinister and villainous members of the White Court appear at times, and there is something quite insidious about their abilities that creeps out the protagonists and reader.  A truly complex and excellent group that I had a lot of fun exploring.

Almost in direct comparison to the White Court is the Black Court.  The Black Court are a completely different group of living dead, portrayed more like the classic vampires from Bram Stoker’s novel (indeed, the Dracula novel was an elaborate propaganda attack by their enemies).  Shown as ugly, decaying, blood-hungry creatures that are more monsters than their original human forms, the Black Court are a much more obvious threat with much clearer motives.  There are some brutal and powerful scenes featuring the Black Court in this book, and it was really interesting to see Dresden and his allies go up against them with some classic vampire-hunting weapons, albeit with some fun modern twists to them.  I also deeply appreciated the fantastic parallels between the Black Court and the White Court vampires featured in the Blood Rites; whilst they are both extremely dangerous, their diverse methods and powers troubled Dresden in different ways.  These cool vampires, plus some other great new supernatural threats, added a lot to the complexity of the narrative and I loved the excellent detail and lore that Butcher imbued them with.

As usual, one of the highlights of this Dresden Files book is the compelling and impressive characters the story revolves around.  Butcher features an intriguing and fantastic group of characters in this book, with a compelling blend of established supporting characters and several new figures, many of whom will go on to have substantial roles in the rest of the series.  I had a brilliant time with all these characters, especially as Butcher endeavours to write some outstanding and distinctive storylines around them.

As usual, the most prominent character is Harry Dresden, the wizard protagonist and point-of-view character of the series.  Like most of the recent books, Blood Rites is an emotionally damaging book for Dresden.  Not only is he forced to deal with another harrowing case that racks his sanity, but he also finds out some long-buried secrets that prove quite damaging to behold.  In particular, there is a deep dive into his past and his missing family, both of which are hard subjects for him, and he finds himself with some unexpected connections that he has long been missing.  It was truly fascinating to see this long buried and painful part of Dresden’s past explored, and Butcher ensures that the reader gets struck in the feels with some of the powerful scenes that are explored.  Other interactions and reveals see Dresden re-evaluate some of his relationships in this novel, and there were some intriguing and harsh discussions between him and other characters as a result.  I did think that Butcher is over-playing the whole chivalrous-to-a-fault aspect of Dresden, as he continues to be a tad sexist and constantly underestimates woman, usually to his own detriment.  It’s honestly getting a little old, and I hope it gets phased out a bit in future books.  Still, I deeply enjoyed the fantastic development around Dresden in Blood Rites, and it greatly enhanced the narrative.

This book also featured a great appearance from previous supporting characters Karrin Murphy and Thomas Raith, who both play a major role in Blood Rites.  This proved to be quite a pivotal novel for both characters, and I really appreciated the way that Butcher built on their previous appearances and used them to write some impressive and powerful storylines around them.  This proves to be one of the more intriguing looks at Murphy so far in the series, especially as it dives into her complicated family life, and I liked the early hints here about the future relationship between her and Dresden.  Murphy gets dragged far further into Dresden’s magical activities than ever before here, and she is forced to balance her responsibilities as a cop with the necessity of killing monsters, something she has great difficulty with.  An overall badass character, Murphy has some brilliant and action-packed scenes in Blood Rites, and I love how well she serves as a foil to the more ridiculous Dresden.

Thomas, on the other hand, gets quite an intense and deeply personal storyline here as you get the most in-depth look at this elusive and compelling vampire character.  Not only do you get a great look at the rest of his family as the book explores the White Court, but you finally find the reasons why he is always helping Dresden, which leads to some emotional and compelling scenes.  A lot of time is also spent exploring the battle between Thomas’s humanity and the monster within, especially when it comes to feeding on those around him.  This comes to a head when his need to feed and survive hurts someone close to him and he has trouble coming to terms with what he’s done, especially when Dresden harshly confronts him.  Throw in his complicated family and intense daddy issues, and Thomas goes through the emotional wringer in this book, which proves to be very illuminating.  Butcher sets Thomas up as quite a substantial supporting character in this book, and I look forward to seeing more of him in the future.

Aside from these main characters, there is also a great collection of supporting characters who add a lot to the story, and there are some awesome appearances here.  I really enjoyed seeing more of mysterious mercenary Kincaid in this book, especially after his fun appearance in Death Masks.  Kincaid is a badass killer who is hired by Dresden to kill the Black Court, only to end up being a bigger threat to Dresden when the wizard lacks to money to pay him.  Kincaid has some excellent and action-packed scenes, and I was intrigued by his backstory, especially the hints at his dark, dark past.  I also loved the use of Dresden’s mentor, Ebenezar McCoy, an older wizard who raised him and taught him magic.  Butcher writes some amazing scenes around McCoy, especially once Dresden finds out just how many secrets the old man has been keeping from him.  Throw in a batch of great vampire characters (including the sinister Lord Raith and the compelling Lara Raith), some entertaining members of the adult film industry (including the fantastic diva Trixie Vixen), and the first appearance of Mouse, Dresden’s puppy, and you have an amazing cast of characters here that Butcher gleefully and impressively wraps the story around.  Each of these characters is very fun and intriguing in their own way, and I loved the elaborate and moving scenes that they star in.

Naturally I chose to check out Blood Rites on audiobook, which I maintain is the absolute best way to enjoy the Dresden Files books.  The captivating story and excellent characters really fit into this format extremely well, and I find myself absorbing the narrative and the author’s fantastic style a lot better this way.  With a runtime of just over 13 hours, Blood Rites is the noticeably longer than the previous books in the series (they get progressively longer and longer as the series goes, with some later books like Cold Days reaching nearly 19 hours in length).  Despite the increased run time, I still found myself knocking this audiobook off in no time at all, especially once I got stuck into the excellent and powerful story.  I must also highlight the incredible voice work of the always awesome James Marsters, who did another spectacular job narrating this fantastic novel.  At this point in the series, Marsters has really hit his stride when it comes to narrating, and he voices each audiobook with some impressive passion, effortlessly bringing the dark events and complex characters to life and ensuring that everything sticks in the listener’s mind.  All the characters are voiced extremely well, with the highlight again being protagonist Harry Dresden, who Marsters inhabits effortlessly.  He really understands the character’s anguish, pain, and dark humour, and this comes across in his narration perfectly.  Thanks to his epic performance in Blood Rites, and the other Dresden Files audiobooks, Marsters remains one of my favourite audiobook narrators, and I cannot recommend the Blood Rites audiobook enough as a result.

My dive into the early Dresden Files novels continues to be incredibly epic, as I once again fell in love with one of Jim Butcher’s unique reads, Blood Rites.  This fantastic novel has so much going for it, and I had a brilliant time exploring the powerful urban fantasy/crime fiction based narrative.  Featuring a deeply compelling mystery, a ton of intriguing parallel storylines, and some impressive and emotionally charged character development, Blood Rites is another exceptional book that is so much fun to get through.  Honestly, if I didn’t have such a backlog of awesome recent audiobook releases, I would probably be diving into the seventh Dresden Files novel right now, but hopefully I will get a chance later this year.  If you haven’t checked out the Dresden Files books after my previous glowing reviews, then you really need to get your butt into gear and start reading them now!

Throwback Thursday – Death Masks by Jim Butcher

Death Masks Cover

Publication: Penguin Audio (Audiobook – 1 August 2003)

Series: Dresden Files – Book Five

Length: 11 hours and 17 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

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Welcome back to my Throwback Thursday series, where I republish old reviews, review books I have read before or review older books I have only just had a chance to read.  For my latest Throwback Thursday, I highlight another excellent entry in Jim Butcher’s iconic Dresden Files series, with Death Masks.

Fans of this blog will know that I have been having a magical time (pun intended) discovering and getting into the long-running Dresden Files series by acclaimed fantasy author Jim Butcher.  Set in Chicago, the Dresden Files novels follow the adventures of Harry Dresden, wizard for hire and protector of the city against any supernatural threat that comes its way.  This has been Butcher’s major series for years, but I only got into it back in 2020 when I checked out the 17th entry, Battle Ground.  Due to its exceptional plot and the all-out magical war for Chicago that it depicted, this was a pretty epic novel that was not only one of the best books and audiobooks of 2020 but also an excellent recruiting tool for new Dresden Files fans.  It didn’t take me long after reading Battle Ground to check out some of the earlier entries in the series, such as Storm Front, Fool Moon, Grave Peril and Summer Knight, as well as the novella, The Law.  I have had such an epic time with this series that when I felt like a guaranteed five-star book, I immediately decided to check out the next book in the series, with the fifth Dresden Files entry, Death Masks.

Harry Dresden, Chicago’s resident professional wizard, is once again thrust into the middle of far more trouble than he ever dreamed of when a television panel show introduces him to an array of people who want something from him.  Not only does he find himself forced into a duel against a powerful Red Court vampire noble but he is also hired by a Vatican priest to recover a revered stolen holy relic, the Shroud of Turin.

Determined to make the most of these new events, Dresden takes the case and begins to search for the shroud while also preparing for his upcoming fight to the death.  However, many people are interested in obtaining the shroud for their own use, and Dresden finds himself under attack by hitman, gangsters, criminals, and far, far worse.  The Denarians, an ancient and despicable group of fallen angels, have designs on the shroud, and not even Dresden’s most powerful and holy allies, the Knights of the Cross, may be enough to save him.

As Dresden attempts to recover the shroud, he finds that the Denarians and their deadly leader, Nicodemus, have a nefarious plot for the shroud that could destroy everything that Dresden holds dear.  Working with allies old and new, Dresden must overcome the Denarian threat before it is too late, while also managing to defeat the Red Court vampire gunning for him.  With everything on the line, has Dresden finally bitten off more than he can chew?  And what happens when the lost love of his life returns to town, battling her own demons?

Wow, Butcher just cannot strike out!  This is yet another book from him that I have no choice but to award a full five-star rating to.  Death Masks has a deeply addictive narrative that grabs your attention from the very first page and refuses to let go, and some complex and entertaining characters to match.

Death Masks has a pretty awesome story to it that got really addictive very quickly.  Starting off a few months after the events of Summer Knight, Death Masks contains several, great layered storylines, all of which are pretty exciting and intense in their own way and which cross over well to create a complete and powerful narrative.  The first of these immediately places Dresden in the path of several dangerous enemies and opponents as he is dragged into a new case, recovering the stolen Shroud of Turin.  Despite being warned off by his allies, the Knights of the Cross, Dresden naturally pursues, which sets him against established foes, like Chicago’s gangster king, and a powerful new cadre of enemies, who represent one of the biggest threats that Dresden has gone up against at this point in the series.  At the same time, the protagonist is forced to accept a formal duel to the death against a powerful vampire lord, as part of the ongoing storyline about his war with the Red Court, and he also helps the police investigate a disfigured corpse that seems to have been simultaneously infected by every disease known to man.  These events are further complicated by the re-emergence of Susan Rodriguez, his former love interest whose romance was crushed when she was partially turned into a vampire, and who he still holds a massive torch for.

Each of these storylines is quite interesting on its own, and Butcher writes some interesting scenes around all of them, with the primary focus being on the search for the shroud and the fight against the Denarians.  These storylines start pulling together about hallway through the book, and Butcher really raises the stakes for the protagonist, especially when he experiences some major and heartbreaking setbacks.  I really loved the unique blend of character development, fantasy and urban crime that is utilised throughout most of this story, and it is always so much fun to see the protagonist attempting to understand the complex plots arranged against him as he tries to save his friends and city.  Everything leads up to an extremely exciting final third where Dresden and his allies are thrust into a series of battles with massive stakes involved that leave them broken and nearly beaten.  I honestly could not stop listening to the final few hours of this book, and I pretty much powered through the entire second half in less than a day.  There are some epic and very moving moments featured in the big conclusion, and Butcher did a brilliant job of bringing everything together and ensuring that the reader will come back for future instalments of his work.  I particularly loved the final little twist that saw the book’s major villain get one over the protagonist, and I am extremely keen to see what happens with that storyline going forward.

I have so much love for Butcher’s writing style when it comes to the Dresden Files novels, and Death Masks was a particularly good example of this.  Like the rest of the series, Death Masks is told exclusively from the perspective of its central character, Harry Dresden, and this places you right into the midst of all the action and investigations, and you see all the steps as Harry tries to outwit his various foes.  This use of Dresden as the central figure also ensures that the reader gets quite a lot of humour in the story, and the continuous jokes and funny insights really help to make the story that much more fun to enjoy.  There is a great focus on character development and introductions in this novel that I deeply enjoyed, and this works really well with the mystery elements and established fantasy setting to create an excellent narrative.  Butcher keeps the pace of the book sharp and fast here, and all the big events quickly and effectively fall into place where needed.  I liked how the protagonist dealt with multiple problems and cases simultaneously, and Butcher did a good job of balancing and combining these initially separated storylines and threats where necessary.  I did think that Butcher did go over the top in places when it came to the romance sequences, and some of the scenes were a little questionable at times.  Still, this didn’t impact my overall enjoyment of the Death Masks, and I had a blast seeing everything unfold.

Death Masks proved to be a particularly significant entry in the Dresden Files series, and it is a must-read for all fans as a result.  Butcher perfectly sets up several ongoing storylines here while also successfully continuing some established character arcs and introducing a whole new batch of great and interesting characters.  There are so many key events and interactions going on in Death Masks, many of which will be vital for the rest of the series, and I know it helped to give some additional context for some of the events in the later books I have read.  However, like most Dresden Files novels, Death Masks is extremely accessible to new readers, and Butcher always makes a point to expand on the existing storylines and characters in a way that new readers can understand and follow without boring the existing fans.  As such, this is a book with a lot of appeal to many readers, and all fantasy fans can dive in extremely easily.

Death Masks is also a major book for character work, and readers who love the impressive and exciting Dresden Files cast are in for a great time here.  I felt that Butcher presented a great balance of established and new characters in this novel, and there is an excellent focus on development and the emotional issues impacting the protagonist.  Many of the new characters will become major recurring figures in the series from now on and deeply enjoyed seeing how their story started.  Most of the character work hinged on protagonist Harry Dresden, who is the true heart and soul of the book.  I always enjoy quirky and rebellious protagonists in novels with a first-person perspective, and the Dresden Files are a great example of this.  Dresden was his usual funny and disrespectful self for the entirety of Death Masks, and it was so much fun seeing him sass every person he encountered, especially when it enrages the villains.  There is also a great emotional component to Dresden in Death Masks that I enjoyed, as he is still going through a lot of issues.  His already complicated feelings about his past failed romance come full circle here when the girl that got away (well, got turned into a vampire) returns and he is forced to finally confront his repressed feelings for her.  There are also some major moments where Dresden is forced to confront the consequences of his mistakes, especially when they cost other characters, and I loved some of the interactions that occurred as a result.

One of the big returns for Death Masks is the character of Susan Rodriguez, Dresden’s love interest who has been missing for a couple of books.  Susan was partially turned into a vampire during her last appearance and left Dresden as a result.  This book sees her return, and there is a complete change of character because of her transformation, being a lot more confident as well as some more notable abilities.  I liked most of the Susan storyline in this book, not only because fans finally get some closure for the romance between her and Harry but also because she now has some mysterious connections and is working as a covert anti-vampire agent.  There are some great moments with Susan in the book, although I did find one scene to be pretty ridiculous, even though it was supposed to be the sequence that served as the climax of the Dresden/Susan romance arc.  Who knew that all you needed to cure vampiric thirst was a bondage session (I’m barely joking here, that happened).  I mostly ignored this awkward scene (try listening to it whilst on your lunch break at work) from my overall grading of Death Masks, just because it was so much of an outlier, but it was a little weird.  Still, I’m glad we got a return from Susan, and it was interesting to see how much she had changed since the last book.

I also enjoyed the use of the Knights of the Cross in Death Masks, and they served as excellent comrade characters for Dresden.  The Knights of the Cross are three modern day crusaders who wield legendary holy swords and serve as God’s fist on Earth.  We had previously met one of them in Grave Peril, Michael Carpenter, and I loved seeing him again, especially as he is essentially a badass Ned Flanders with a sword and a mission from God.  His mentorship of Harry is a key part of his character arc in the series, and it is really interesting to see him serve as a conscience to the rebellious and faithless Harry.  The two other knights introduced in this book also add a lot to the plot.  The rookie knight, Sanya, was really fun, and I liked his more refreshing take on the role and responsibilities he wields.  However, the best of them was Shiro, the elder knight who acts as the group’s guiding light and who has stood against evil for decades.  I love the depiction of this Japanese badass who literally has fallen angels quaking in their boots, and he was a wise and brilliant character that did a lot in a few short appearances.  Shiro was probably my favourite of the three in this book, and his fantastic dialogue with Harry, especially that description of how he became a Christian, was some of Butcher’s best writing.

Finally, I must talk about the villains, who added a great deal to the story.  Readers are spoiled for choice in Death Masks when it comes to villains, as there are several different groups and individuals who turned up looking to kill Dresden throughout the book.  The first of these is Don Paolo Ortega, a Red Court vampire who seeks to end the war between his people and the wizards of the White Council by killing Dresden in a duel.  Ortega appears to be a mostly reasonable and honourable figure despite his desire to kill Dresden, and I liked the fun banter he had with the protagonist.  I was also glad to see more of Chicago gangster Johnny Marcone, who is one of the best recurring figures in the series.  Marcone always serves as such an excellent foil to Dresden, and their constant sparring and back and forth is a lot of fun to see.  It was particularly interesting to see Marcone become even more involved in the mystical world in this novel, mainly due to the respect he has for Dresden’s abilities, and this serves as a major step towards his current incarnation later in the series.

However, the best villains in the story are probably the group known as the Denarians, a collection of fallen angels possessing desperate or evil humans.  The Denarians are some of the most dangerous beings in the entire Dresden Files, and Butcher gives them an impressive introduction in this novel, showing them as agents of chaos determined to cause as much grief as possible.  Their leader, Nicodemus, is probably one of the most intriguing and sinister figures I’ve yet see Butcher write, and he pretty much always had Dresden on the ropes.  I particularly loved his first major interaction with the protagonist, especially as he was able to completely rattle Dresden, who could barely do anything in response.  The characters were barely able to survive his machinations throughout the book, and he truly showcased how much of a threat he could and would be.  A masterful villain, I cannot wait to see more of him in some of the future books.  All these characters, and more (future superstar Butters has an interesting introduction this book), really add to the captivating story, and I loved how well Butcher developed and featured them in Death Masks.

Unsurprisingly, I chose to enjoy Death Masks on audiobook, which was another excellent and impressive experience.  I really love the Dresden Files audiobooks and Death Masks was another good example of why.  Not only does the format really capture the essence of the story and help the listener become immersed in the urban fantasy world, but it also features some of the best voice work you are likely to find in an audiobook.  That is because Death Masks is narrated by actor James Marsters, who always does a spectacular job brining this series to life.  After providing narration for the first four books in the series, Marsters really knows what he is doing when he gets to Death Masks, and he swiftly dives in and gives the epic narrative everything it needs.  All the characters are voiced perfectly, with some extremely fitting and powerful voices given to them that expertly portray their personalities, ethnicities and mentalities.  Due to the great range of characters in Death Masks, Marsters is required to play a range of figures, from an evil fallen angel, three ultra-good holy knights, a gangster, multiple vampires and more, all of which come out really well.  However, the best work is saved for protagonist and point-of-view character Harry Dresden.  Marsters perfectly inhabits the role of Dresden, and you get the full breadth of his complexities, inner pain, and weird sense of humour, as Marsters narrates the book through his eyes.  You really get the best understanding of Dresden through Marsters’s voice work, and that really adds to the quality of the entire read.  As such, this format comes extremely highly recommended, and you need to try Death Masks’ audiobook as soon as you can.

Another Dresden Files book down, another five-star rating from me.  Death Masks was another epic and exceptional entry in this amazing series, and I continue to be impressed by how well Jim Butcher writes these great books.  Thanks to its excellent and utterly addictive narrative and brilliant character work, Death Masks is probably one of the best Dresden Files novels I have read so far, and I had such a great time with it.  I can think of no higher compliment than to say it made me so happy, I instantly started listening to the next book in the series, Blood Rites, the moment I finished Death Masks.  Make sure to come back next week to check that Throwback Thursday out.

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Throwback Thursday: Warhammer: Vampireslayer by William King

Vampireslayer Cover 2

Publisher: Black Library (Audiobook – August 2021)

Series: Gotrek and Felix – Book Six

Length: 11 hours and 13 minutes

My Rating: 4.75 out of 5 stars

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Welcome back to my Throwback Thursday series, where I republish old reviews, review books I have read before or review older books I have only just had a chance to read.  For my latest Throwback Thursday I continue my recent obsession with Warhammer Fantasy fiction by checking out another entry in the iconic Gotrek and Felix series by William King, Vampireslayer.

I have been on a real roll with looking at the cool fiction associated with the now defunct Warhammer Fantasy tabletop game over the last few weeks, including the fantastic novels Runefang and Van Horstman.  However, few Warhammer Fantasy books have grabbed my attention or interest more than the Gotrek and Felix series, which serves as one of the central pillars of Warhammer fiction.  The Gotrek and Felix books, which were originally written by William King, follow the titular characters, dwarf slayer Gotrek Gurnisson and his sworn human companion Felix Jaeger, as they journey around the Warhammer Fantasy realm, finding monsters to fight and kill, all in the hope of finding a worthy death for Gotrek.  This is an awesome and unbelievably exciting fantasy series that take the reader to some of the darkest parts of the Warhammer Fantasy world and sees them face off against all manner of crazy foes.

I have had an absolute blast getting through the Gotrek and Felix books over the last year, as there have been some cracking reads in there.  The previous books, Trollslayer, Skavenslayer, Daemonslayer, Dragonslayer and Beastslayer, have all had their own unique charm, and all of them have been well written and compelling reads.  Vampireslayer is the sixth book in the series, and as the name suggests, it pits Gotrek, Felix and their allies against one of the most dangerous creatures in the Warhammer canon, an ancient and deadly vampire count.

Following their victory at the siege of Praag, Gotrek, Felix and their surviving allies, have finally been able to relax after a never-ending series of battles. However, the ever-restless Gotrek is still determined to find a worthy death to fulfil his suicidal oath, and Felix knows it is only a matter of time before they journey out to face the rising hordes of Chaos that are building around the realms of man.  But before Gotrek and Felix can head out, a new evil rears its head; one that is far more cunning and ancient than anything they have faced before.

After accepting a job from a wealthy Praag nobleman, Gotrek and Felix find themselves investigating a mysterious man who is attempting to steal one of their client’s treasured artifacts.  But the closer they look, the more apparent it becomes that their target is no ordinary man, but a powerful ancient vampire named Adolophus Krieger, who has been stalking the streets of Praag, feasting on the innocent.  Determined to slay this beast, Gotrek and Felix’s confrontation goes poorly, when the vampire outsmarts them, steals the artifact and takes their companion, Ulrika Magdova, hostage.

Determined to save Ulrika and get their revenge on their foe, Gotrek and Felix, as well as their allies, Snorri Nosebiter, Max Schreiber and Ulrika’s father, Ivan Straghov, pursue the vampire lord.  To kill Krieger, they will have to travel to one of the most dangerous places in the Old World, the haunted lands of Sylvania.  Controlled by the Vampire Counts for generations, Sylvania is a wicked place where the dead never rest, and dark creatures lurk around every corner.  Worse, their foe is powered by an ancient artefact forged by Nagash and has designs on becoming the supreme vampire ruler, leading them in a new war against the living.  With the odds stacked against them, Gotrek, Felix and their companions must dig deep if they are to kill Krieger, rescue Ulrika and save the world.  But after spending time trapped with the vampire, can Ulrika truly be saved?

King once again shows why his Gotrek and Felix books were the defining Warhammer Fantasy series with this epic and fast-paced read.  Vampireslayer is easily one of the stronger entries in the series and takes its distinctive protagonists on an intense and captivating adventure that I deeply enjoyed.

Vampireslayer had an amazing fantasy narrative, and I think this was one of King’s more impressive and enjoyable stories.  Taking off right after Beastslayer, the initial story sees Gotrek, Felix and their allies still at the city of Praag, planning out their next adventures.  They quickly find themselves dragged into another adventure when a distant relative of Ulrika reaches out to them for help with a mysterious threat.  This initial part of the book was rather interesting, and not only does it have some great follow-ups from the previous entry in the series but it also sets up the narrative and the current characters really well.  There is a fantastic cat-and-mouse game going on in the early stages of the novel, as the protagonists attempt to discern the new evil they are going up against, while their vampiric assailant, Adolophus Krieger, puts his plans into motion.  Following the first encounter between the heroes and the vampire, which is set up and executed to drive up anticipation for later interactions, Krieger escapes and the protagonists are forced into a deadly chase across the world.

The rest of the novel is primarily set in the dread realm of Sylvania, and sees the protagonists chase after the vampire and his kidnapped victim.  This second part of the book is filled with some fun and exciting classic horror elements as the protagonists go up against a variety of foes from the vampire count’s army.  There is a lot of great action, fantastic chases, and some substantial character development occurring during this part of the novel, as the author brings together many of the threads from earlier in Vampireslayer, while also introducing some intriguing new supporting characters.  King makes particularly good use of multiple character perspectives throughout this part of the book, and I loved seeing the conflicted thoughts of the main protagonists (minus Gotrek as usual), as well as the many plots of the villain and his new minion.  This all leads up to the big confrontation between the protagonists and their foe at the legendary Drakenhof Castle, as the heroes face off against an army of the undead and the vampire himself.  The action flows thick and fast here, and King pulls no punches, showing the brutal and dark nature of the Warhammer Fantasy universe.  I did think that the final confrontation was a bit rushed, with the anticipated battle against Krieger lasting only a short while, but it was pretty fun to see.  There are a couple of good tragic moments in this conclusion, as well as some interesting developments for some long-running supporting characters, and King brings everything to a good close as a result.

I think that one of the things that made this story particularly enjoyable was that it was a lot more focused than some of the other books in the series.  This was mainly because it was the first book since Skavenslayer not to feature a sub-story that focused on recurring villain, Grey Seer Thanquol.  While Thanquol’s perspective was good for Skavenslayer, its use in the following novels, while usually very fun and entertaining, seemed a bit unnecessary and often affected the pacing or stole the impact away from the book’s actually antagonists.  This became more and more apparent in Dragonslayer and Beastslayer, especially when Thanquol’s actions rarely had any impact on the main plot.  As such, not having a Thanquol focused side story in Vampireslayer was a bit of a blessing, and it really increased the impact of the remaining storylines.  It also ensured that the parts of the book told from Krieger’s perspective really pop, as he was the only villain you could focus on.  I had a brilliant time with this impressive story and it ended up being an excellent adventure to follow.

Vampireslayer proved to be a pretty awesome entry to the wider Warhammer Fantasy universe, and I loved the cool details and references that King added in.  Like most of the books in the Gotrek and Felix saga, Vampireslayer can be read as a standalone novel (probably more so than the last three books in the series), and very little pre-knowledge about the Warhammer Fantasy or the previous books in the series is required to enjoy this excellent book.  King does a great job of once again introducing the key elements, recurring characters, and wider evils of this universe, ensuring that new readers get the information they need without making it too repetitive or boring for established fans.

One of the things that makes Vampireslayer standout a little more from some of the recent entries in the series is the move away from Chaos focused opponents and instead brings in a new faction from the universe in the form of a vampire and his undead hordes.  This is a fantastic change of pace, and I rather enjoyed seeing one of the more compelling factions from the game, even though I have bad memories of facing my brother’s Vampire Counts army.  King does a brilliant job diving into the lore and history of vampires and the general undead in the Warhammer universe, and the protagonists get a good crash course on them, which new readers will deeply appreciate.  I loved seeing a vampire antagonist in this novel, especially as it is one of the classic Vampire Counts types (a Von Carstein vampire).  This vampire has a lot of the classic European elements associated with Dracula, and it was fun to see the protagonist deal with this sort of creature, especially as Krieger takes the time to taunt them in a way they’ve never dealt with before.  King also adds in several of cool units from the Vampire Counts book, and it was pretty fun to see them in action in some brilliant fight scenes.  I also deeply enjoyed the dark setting of Sylvania, where much of the story takes place.  Sylvania, a Warhammer realm based deeply on Transylvania and ruled over by vampires, has always captured my imagination and it was fun to see it used in Vampireslayer.  You really get the sense of fear and despair surrounding the countryside, and all the locals, many of whom are just a step away from becoming some form of creature, are a depressing and scared group.  Watching the characters attempt to traverse this land was really entertaining, and I think all these awesome Warhammer Fantasy elements helped to make this great story even more impressive.

I also found some of the character work in Vampireslayer to be pretty intriguing, as King examines several great characters in this book.  The central two characters are naturally Gotrex and Felix, although not a great deal of character development went towards them in this book.  Gotrex is his usual gruff, murderous and unreadable self, who is essentially shown as an unkillable beast at this point, and you really don’t get much more from him, especially as Gotrex’s perspective is deliberately not shown.  Felix also doesn’t get much growth in this book, although he does serve as a primary narrator, recording and observing the events of the book.  Despite this lack of growth, Felix is a great everyman character to follow and it is really entertaining to see his quite reasonable reaction to facing off against the evils that gravitate towards Gotrek.

A large amount of focus went to the supporting characters of Max Schreiber and Ulrika Magdova, who have been major parts of the series since Daemonslayer.  The attention on both has been growing substantially through the last couple of books, especially in Beastslayer, and they had a massive presence in Vampireslayer.  Max, the team’s wizard, is pushed to the brink in this book after investigating a dangerous magical artefact and having his companion Ulrika kidnapped.  Max, who has always had a crush on Ulrika (it was pretty creepy at first, but better now), becomes obsessed with saving her before its too late, and this drives him to some extremes in this book.  Ulrika, on the other hand, must survive the evil attentions of the book’s villain, especially once the vampire takes an unhealthy obsession with her.  I must admit that I have always found Ulrika to be a fairly annoying character (which isn’t great when she’s usually the only female figure in the books), however, this was one of her best appearances as she goes through a physical, mental and magical wringer.  Her attempts to resist the vampire are extremely powerful and her eventual fall to darkness is one of the more compelling and best written parts of the book.  This was an excellent outing for both these supporting characters, and it actually serves as a wonderful final hurrah, as I know they don’t appear in many books in the future.

The final character from Vampireslayer that I need to talk about is the book’s primary antagonist, the titular vampire Adolophus Krieger.  Krieger, a centuries-old creature with connections to Vlad von Carstein, serves as a brilliant villain for this adventure novel, especially as King takes a substantial amount of time to dive into his history, personality and motivations.  Rebelling against his sire and attempting to become the next vampiric master of the Old World, Krieger is shown as a complex and intense being with some major issues.  Not only does he have to temper his intense ambition, but he also finds himself mentally deteriorating towards savagery and must constantly fight for control as his afterlife’s goals comes to fruition.  King does a great job capturing this compelling figure throughout the book, and I particularly enjoyed his introductory chapters where his temper and inability to suffer fools is shown with gruesome results.  Krieger has a brilliant presence throughout the novel, and he was a great villain opposite Gotrek and Felix with his gentlemanly airs (he has a great comeback to a line from Snorri Nosebiter).  I deeply enjoyed all the outstanding characters in Vampireslayer, and King did some superb work with them throughout this novel.

After reading paperback versions of Dragonslayer and Beastslayer, I’ve finally gotten back onto the Gotrek and Felix audiobooks with Vampireslayer, which was a lot of fun to listen to.  The audiobook format did an amazing job of capturing the dark tone and fast-paced action of this intense novel, and I felt that listening to Vampireslayer on audiobook really helped me appreciate a lot of the book’s more interesting details.  With a runtime of just over 11 hours, this is an easy audiobook to power through, and I personally managed to get through it in a few days.  This great audiobook was further enhanced by the excellent narration of Jonathan Keeble, who has narrated most of the other Gotrek and Felix audiobooks.  Keeble has an amazing voice for this sort of novel, and I loved the fantastic way he was able to move the story along at a brilliant pace while also enhancing the book’s horror and action elements.  I particularly loved the range of excellent voices he attributes to the various characters, many of which are carried over from his previous audiobook experiences.  All the characters get some distinctive and very fitting tones here, which I think worked extremely well.  Examples of some of the best voices include Felix, whose calm voice of reason, serves as the narrator’s base tone for most of the story; Gotrek, who is given a gruff and menacing voice that contains all the character’s barely restrained anger and regret; and even the new vampire character, Adolophus Krieger, who is gifted a French/European accent to match the classic vampire vibe that goes with the Vampire Counts characters in Warhammer, and the character’s likely origins as a Bretonnian Knight.  This expert voice work was extremely good and I had a brilliant time listening to this version of Vampireslayer.  As such, this format comes highly recommended and it is usually one of the best ways to enjoy a cool Warhammer novel.

Vampireslayer was another epic entry in the fantastic and ultra-fun Gotrek and Felix series by William King.  Bringing in a great new opponent who pushes the protagonists to new lows, this was an excellent adventure novel that shows some of the best parts of the Warhammer Fantasy world.  With a captivating and fast-paced narrative, this was one of the better entries in the series and I had an outstanding time getting through Vampireslayer.  An awesome read for all Warhammer and general fantasy fans, especially on audiobook.  I love this series so much!

Vampireslayer Cover

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The Law by Jim Butcher

The Law Cover

Publisher: Podium Audio (Audiobook – 5 July 2022)

Series: The Dresden Files – Book 17.5

Length: 3 hours and 22 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

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Prepare to dive back into the wild world of Jim Butcher’s iconic Dresden Files series with the latest impressive novella, The Law.

Readers of this blog might have noticed that I usually don’t go out of my way to read too many novellas or short stories and instead usually focus on full-length novels and comics.  This isn’t so much a deliberate choice as I just prefer whole books I can really sink my teeth into.  However, I had to make an exception for the latest Dresden Files novella that Jim Butcher just dropped, as I have been deeply enjoying this epic series.

The Dresden Files are a long running series of urban fantasy novels that follow protagonist Harry Dresden, a wizard who protects the people of Chicago from the magic beings and creatures they don’t even know exist.  People may remember that I first got into the Dresden Files back in 2020 when I checked out the 17th entry in the series, Battle Ground.  While I did enter this series late in the game, I still had an outstanding time with Battle Ground and it ended up being one of my top books and audiobooks of 2020.  In fact, I enjoyed it so much that I went back and started reading the series from the beginning.  So far, I have been able to read the first four Dresden Files novels, Storm Front, Fool Moon, Grave Peril and Summer Knight, all of which have been pretty impressive and captivating reads.  This dive into the older novels, plus my lingering enjoyment of Battle Ground, ensured that I was ready and eager for any new Dresden Files content that came my way, and Butcher just delivered with his latest novella, The Law.

Set a month after the events of Battle Ground, The Law sees Harry Dresden and the city of Chicago still recovering from the invasion of the Titan Ethniu and her forces, which resulted in significant destruction.  However, Dresden is primarily mourning the tragic death of his love, Karrin Murphy, and even his new responsibilities as lord of a castle and protector of Chicago isn’t enough to keep his mind off his loss.  Determined to snap Dresden out of his funk, his friends decide to get him back to basics and introduce him to someone in need of a good investigator.

Enter Maya, a former prostitute turned tutor whose grassroots education company helps to supplement the education of Chicago’s working-class children.  Working hard, Maya has managed to turn her tutoring business into a viable, if low-profit, franchise that prioritises helping as many children as possible.  However, Maya’s past life is about to come back to haunt her in the form of her former pimp, Tripp Gregory, who initiates a bogus lawsuit against Maya’s company for a ridiculous sum.  Unable to afford a lawyer and desperate for help, Maya has no choice but to turn to Chicago’s resident miracle worker, Harry Dresden.

Deciding to the take on the case and hoping to quietly warn Tripp away from Maya, Dresden soon discovers that sometimes the most dangerous opponent is a greedy idiot concerned only for themselves.  Worse, Tripp and the case have unexpected connections to the magical world, with dangerous players taking an interest in its outcome.  Forced to deal with old and new foes of considerable power, Dresden will need all his wit and will if he is to save Maya’s business and ensure that justice is found.

Well, that has gone a long way to convincing me to check out more novellas in the future.  The Law was an epic read that took Butcher’s always outstanding Dresden File’s protagonist on a short, but extremely sweet, adventure.  Bringing Butcher’s usual flair and style, while also expanding on events from the last book, The Law was a great read that gets a full five-star rating from me.

Butcher pretty much teaches a master class on how to do a short, concise and captivating story here in The Law as, despite its length, this novella had an impressive and fun narrative that I found to be utterly addictive.  Not only does it serve as a great follow up to Battle Ground but it showcases some amazing character work while presenting the protagonist with an intriguing new adventure.  The story is so much fun, and I loved how it started as seemingly non-magical job and then morphed into something more dangerous and problematic as Dresden finds that it has connections with the magical world that forces him to deal with some of Chicago’s key players, including some old enemies.  Bringing a small but enjoyable amount of legal thriller aspect to the series’ usual urban fantasy crime fiction style, The Law goes in some fantastic directions, as Dresden attempts to placate all the players while also serving his client.  There is a great bit of action, a ton of humour, some intriguing revelations, and even some pretty dark moments, which combine extremely well to create quite the impressive narrative.  I loved how Butcher wrapped the entire novella up, especially with that one conference scene near the end, and the reader comes away very satisfied and entertained with the entire affair.  I cannot emphasise how great this story was, and I was so damn enthralled by it that I nearly finished it in an entire sitting.

One of the things that I particularly liked about The Law is the way that it serves as a bridging novella between Battle Ground and any future entries in the series.  Butcher spends a lot of time in this story looking at the aftermath of the previous novel, especially as Battle Ground featured that epic battle that saw Chicago nearly levelled.  As such, Butcher packs The Law with a ton of callbacks to the events of the last book, and there is a huge focus on how the various characters are dealing with the aftermath, especially Dresden.  There is also a very fascinating look at the rebuilding that is occurring during this time, as well as the current state of the citizenry, many of whom are traumatised or damaged because of a battle most of them couldn’t even fully comprehend.  I really appreciated seeing the various figures featured in The Law remembering or trying to understand the events of Battle Ground, whether they are a magical person who lost someone, a normal person who went through hell, or even one of Dresden’s Knights of the Bean, who now bear a dark connection with the protagonist.  Some of the details that came out as a result are deeply fascinating, and there are even a few hints about where some potential future storylines might go, such as increased Government awareness of magic (you see evidence of them covering up the events of Battle Ground here), or the increased fear that might lead to humans attacking magic kind in the future.  All of these are featured heavily in The Law, and I liked how it was well utilised for the current story, while also showing fans of the series how different the landscape of Chicago will be in the future.  I would say that this focus on the aftermath of Battle Ground did make The Law a little less accessible to those readers who haven’t read the latest Dresden Files novel, however, I think that if you are interested in reading this, then you should definitely read Battle Ground first.

I also must talk about the great character work featured in The Law.  Despite its shorter length, Butcher manages to fit a decent number of characters in The Law, and there are some impressive character arcs and development that occurs as a result.  Naturally, most of this is focused on series protagonist and central point-of-view character, Harry Dresden, who puts on his usual brave face for most of this novella, bringing his usual insights and wicked humour to the new case.  However, it soon becomes very apparent that Dresden is still heavily traumatised by the events of Battle Ground, where he lost so much because of the war.  Despite his best efforts to hide it, Dresden is a wreck for much of the story, and it was quite confronting and moving to see him experience blackouts and emotional strains due to the tragedies he has experienced.  I think that Butcher covered his protagonist’s trauma and grief in a pretty realistic way, and I liked how he tried to use an old-fashioned investigatory case as a coping method for Dresden.  It was great to see Dresden going back to his roots as a private investigator after the chaotic and world-altering events of the last few books, and it was interesting to see how much the character’s powers, methods, insights and choices have changed as a result of everything he’s seen.  The Law ended up being quite an intense and fantastic look in the recovering Dresden and readers will like seeing his emotional damage, his recovery, and even some of his darker moments that are contained within this excellent novella.

Aside from Dresden, The Law features an excellent array of supporting characters, who bring a lot to the narrative.  Butcher made sure to include a combination of new faces and existing characters to fill out the cast, and I had a blast with how they were utilised throughout.  Several of the funniest and most interesting recurring figures from the series had substantial roles here, including Bob, Gentleman John Marcone, and even Mab, and each of their appearances and interactions with Dresden were entertaining and fitting with their previous appearances.  I enjoyed many of the great new characters that Butcher introduced here.  Some of them, including a devilish lawyer with a shrouded identity, may come back in the future, and it will be interesting to see how they are utilised.  I also enjoyed main antagonist, Tripp Gregory, mainly because he was so different that Dresden’s usual antagonists.  Rather than being a magical creature or a major threat, Tripp is a normal and rather idiotic criminal, who has a surprising power: he’s too stupid to believe in magic and too self-centred to avoid all the trouble Dresden is bringing his way.  Dresden’s reactions to having to deal with such a selfish and unusual opponent makes Tripp’s inclusion totally worth it, and I had fun seeing his arc unfold.  These characters, and more, were awesome inclusions to The Law, and their unique inputs added a lot the quality and entertainment value of the entire novella.

Finally, a quick note on the audiobook format, which was how I enjoyed The LawThe Law audiobook has a very short run time of just over three hours and is a relatively easy audiobook to get through.  I always find myself really getting into Butcher’s excellent stories in this audio format, and this continued here with The Law, and it really helped me enjoy all the novella’s fun and entertaining details.  Probably the biggest thing about The Law audiobook was the choice of narrator.  I was deeply, deeply shocked when I discovered that long-time Dresden Files voice actor, the legendary James Marsters, wasn’t narrating The Law, and instead Butcher himself took over and voiced the entire thing.  Surprisingly, this ended up working out rather well and Butcher turned out to be a pretty competent and enjoyable audiobook narrator.  Don’t get me wrong, he’s no James Marsters (a point Butcher makes up-front, after promising Marsters would come back for future novels), but he does a really good job considering his lack of experience.  All the characters are given good, distinctive voices that fit their personalities and showcase their emotions and reactions perfectly.  His voice for Dresden was particularly good, and Butcher captured his creation’s cocky nature and damaged inner self perfectly.  While some of the accents he did were a little iffy, this was an overall fantastic performance from Butcher, and it was fun to see him contribute to his work in this way.  The Law audiobook ended up being an excellent and impressive way to enjoy this fantastic story, and it is easy the format I would most strongly recommend.

Jim Butcher continues to expand his epic Dresden Files series in some fantastic ways with the new novella, The Law.  Containing a compact, but highly impressive story loaded with some of Butcher’s best characters, The Law proved to be extremely entertaining and a lot of fun to get through.  Serving as a perfect follow-up to the major events of the last novel, The Law was an excellent and powerful entry in this long-running series that is a must read for all Dresden Files fans.

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Waiting on Wednesday – Unnatural History by Jonathan Kellerman

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.  I run this segment in conjunction with the Can’t-Wait Wednesday meme that is currently running at Wishful Endings.  Stay tuned to see reviews of these books when I get a copy of them.  For my latest Waiting on Wednesday, I dive into the upcoming releases of 2023 with an awesome and intriguing new murder mystery from legendary author Jonathan Kellerman, Unnatural History.

Unnatural History Cover

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Fans of this blog will probably note that while I read a variety of books annually, there are several key series that I try to continue each year by grabbing the latest entries.  These series cover a range of genres, such as gripping spy thrillers, impressive fantasy novels, and compelling historical fiction series.  This also includes a couple of great, long-running crime fiction series whose intense and captivating mysteries always serve as a fun treat for me.  Of these, one of the most intriguing is the long-running Alex Delaware series by acclaimed author Jonathan Kellerman.

The Alex Delaware series is an excellent murder mystery series that follows talented child psychologist, Alex Delaware, as he investigates unusual murders in Los Angeles with his long-time friend, Detective Milo Sturgis.  Following on from Kellerman’s debut novel, When the Bough Breaks, the Alex Delaware series has been running for over 35 years and features a massive number of entries.  However, despite how long the series has been going, Kellerman is still pumping out some awesome reads that have some very distinctive and compelling cases to them.

My own experiences with the Alex Delaware books started a few years ago when I checked out the interesting sounding novel, The Wedding Guest, that focused on a mysterious death of an unknown guest at a wedding.  I ended up having a wonderful time with this novel, which featured a great mystery, and a methodical and realistic investigation style that worked around the fantastic and unique team of Alex and Milo.  I enjoyed it so much that I made sure to grab the next book in the series when it came out, with the intense and dark The Museum of Desire, which featured another impressive case around an elaborate murder.  Since then, I have read the latest two entries in the series, Serpentine and City of the Dead, both of which were outstanding reads, and I have also started looking for older entries in the series to check out.  As such, it is fair to say that I am now a pretty substantial fan of the series and the author, and as a result I get extremely excited when I find out details about the next Alex Delaware book to come out.

Well, its time to get pumped as I know have some details about the next, upcoming Alex Delaware novel, Unnatural History.  Set for release in February 2023, Unnatural History will be the 38th entry in this long running series and looks set to deliver another intense and powerful mystery.  This time Alex and Milo will investigate the killing of a notorious and wealthy photographer, and they must determine whether his death is related to his controversial art or his bizarre and uber-rich family.  I am already very intrigued and hyped about this amazing sounding story and I can’t wait to dig through its awesome mystery.  While I already knew I was going to enjoy Unnatural History due to Kellerman’s stellar ability, I am a lot more hyped after reading the below synopsis, and I will be very happy the moment I get my hands on this book early next year.

Synopsis:

The most enduring detectives in American crime fiction are back in this electrifying thriller of art and brutality from the #1 New York Times bestselling master of suspense.

Los Angeles is a city of stark contrast, the palaces of the affluent coexisting uneasily with the hellholes of the mad and the needy. It is that shadow world and the violence it breeds that draw brilliant psychologist Dr. Alex Delaware and Detective Milo Sturgis into an unsettling case of altruism gone wrong.

On a superficially lovely morning a woman shows up for work with her usual enthusiasm. She’s the newly hired personal assistant to a handsome, wealthy photographer and is ready to greet her boss with coffee and good cheer. Instead, she finds him slumped in bed, shot to death.

The victim had recently received rave media attention for his latest project: images of homeless people in their personal “dream” situations, elaborately costumed and enacting unfulfilled fantasies. There are some, however, who view the whole thing as nothing more than crass exploitation, citing token payments and the victim’s avoidance of any long-term relationships with his subjects.

Has disgruntlement blossomed into homicidal rage? Or do the roots of violence reach down to the victim’s family—a clan, sired by an elusive billionaire, that is bizarre in its own right?

Then new murders arise, and Alex and Milo begin peeling back layer after layer of intrigue and complexity, culminating in one of the deadliest threats they’ve ever faced.

Waiting on Wednesday – Death to the Emperor by Simon Scarrow

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.  I run this segment in conjunction with the Can’t-Wait Wednesday meme that is currently running at Wishful Endings.  Stay tuned to see reviews of these books when I get a copy of them.  In this latest Waiting on Wednesday I check out the next upcoming entry in one of my favourite historical series, Death to the Emperor by Simon Scarrow.

Death to the Emperor Cover

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Each year I am lucky enough to get my Roman fix with an awesome novel from one of the leading historical fiction authors Simon Scarrow.  Scarrow, who has written several great historical series and standalone novels in his career (for example the World War II thriller Blackout), is best known for his Eagles of the Empire series.  Set during some of the most turbulent years of Roman history, the Eagles of the Empire series follows Prefect Cato and Centurion Marco, two elite Roman veterans as they traverse Rome’s provinces, fighting its many enemies.  I have been a major fan of this series for years, having read all the current entries (check out my reviews for The Blood of Rome, Traitors of Rome, The Emperor’s Exile and The Honour of Rome).  As such, I am always very excited when I find out about the next thrilling entry in the series, and it looks like I don’t have too much longer to wait.

The next book in the series will be the cool sounding Death to the Emperor, which is set for release in November.  The 21st entry in this long-running series, Death to the Emperor will continue storylines set up in recent novels after Cato and Marco returned once again to Britannia, the province they fought to capture in their first campaign together.  This time, the two veterans, both of whom are currently hiding out from Emperor Nero (Cato has secretly spirited away Nero’s former mistress and is hiding her), will be dragged into another deadly conflict against the tribes of Britannia.

For the synopsis below, it looks like Death to the Emperor might serve as a prelude to Boudica’s uprising, perhaps featuring the earliest salvos.  If that is the case than it will be interesting to see the war unfold from the protagonist’s eyes, especially as both Cato and Marco have a long history with Boudica.  No matter what, I already know I am going to have an amazing time with Death to the Emperor and it will no doubt be one of the more exciting and action-packed novels from the second half of 2022.

Synopsis:

 AD 60. Macro and Cato – two battle-scarred heroes of the Roman army – face tribal uprisings and battles to the death with unmatched courage in barbaric Britannia.

The hard-won province of Britannia is a thorn in the side of the Roman Empire, its tribes swift to anger, and relentless in their bloody harassment of the Roman military. Far from being a peaceful northern enclave, Britannia is a seething mass of bitter rebels and unlikely alliances against the common enemy. Corruption amongst greedy officials diverts resources from the locals who need them. For the military, it’s a never-ending fight to maintain a fragile peace.

Now it’s time to quell the most dangerous enemy tribes. Two of Rome’s finest commanders – Prefect Cato and Centurion Macro – are charged with a mission as deadly as any they have faced in their long careers. Can they win the day, or could this be the last battle?

A stunning and unforgettable story of warfare, courage and sacrifice as brave men face an enemy with nothing to lose . . .