Ember Queen by Laura Sebastian

Ember Queen Cover

Publisher: Pan Macmillan Australia (Trade Paperback – 11 February 2020)

Series: Ash Princess – Book Three

Length: 465 pages

My Rating: 4.25 out of 5 stars

Young adult fantasy fiction author Laura Sebastian brings her debut series to a close in a big way with Ember Queen, the excellent and exciting conclusion to the Ash Princess trilogy.

Years ago, when the vicious Kalovaxians invaded the island of Astrea, they killed their queen, enslaved the Astrean people and stole their sacred magical gems. Princess Theodosia, heir the Astrean throne, was imprisoned and spent over 10 years as a captive of the Kalovaxian Kaiser, belittled by the mocking title of “Ash Princess”. However, this imprisonment didn’t break Theo; instead, with the help of her friends, she was able to escape to forge her own destiny. Now Theo has returned to Astrea, leading an army made up of freed Astreans, pirates, refugees and forces from the other nations the Kalovaxians have ruined. Hoping to free her people, Theo and her friends believe that they finally have the advantage over the Kalovaxians. However, the sins of Theo’s past have come back to haunt her.

Cress is a young Kalovaxian noblewoman who claimed Theo as her best friend during Theo’s imprisonment, despite being the daughter of the man who killed Theo’s mother. Theo chose to poison Cress and her father when she made her escape, and while she succeeded in killing Cress’s father, the magical poison she used had unexpected side effects on Cress. Despite being burned and mutilated, Cress survived, with the fire-imbued poison granting her powerful and deadly magical abilities. Using these to her advantage, Cress has done the unthinkable, killing the Kalovaxian Kaiser, poisoning Theo and claiming power over Astrea as the Kaiserin.

Barely surviving her own poisoning after a sojourn down into the magical Fire Mine, Theo must now find a way to free Astrea from her former best friend. With her own fire magic greatly increased, Theo plots to take the fight straight to the Kalovaxians. However, Cress has her own plans, and whole of Astrea may burn in order for her to get her revenge. Who will rise as the Ember Queen, and will the winner have anything left to rule?

Wow, talk about an impressive end to a great trilogy. Ember Queen is an amazing book from Laura Sebastian, who over the last couple of years has done an excellent job establishing herself as one of the best new young adult fantasy fiction authors. This is the third and final book in Sebastian’s debut Ash Princess trilogy, and this is definitely another superb addition to this fun series. I have been enjoying this trilogy since the beginning, reading Ash Princess in 2018 and Lady Smoke in 2019, both of which are pretty fantastic novels. Ember Queen turned out to be an excellent conclusion to this entire trilogy, and I had a great time reading it.

Sebastian has pulled together an excellent story for the final volume of the Ash Princess series, and I really liked the way in which she wrapped up the entire trilogy. After the first two novels dealt with the oppression of Astrea by the Kalovaxians, we finally get to see Theo’s big attempt to free her country from the invaders. I loved the way that Sebastian changed the theme of each novel, with the first novel relying on espionage, the second on diplomacy, and this third book on war. Sebastian produced a compelling narrative around this battle for the control of Astrea, and I really liked some of the directions that the story went into, especially when some intriguing new fantasy elements were introduced by the antagonist. Overall, I was really impressed with how Ember Queen turned out, especially as Sebastian used it to expertly conclude this awesome trilogy.

One of the main strengths of the Ash Princess trilogy has always been its great characters, who evolve throughout the course of the books. This is particularly true for Ember Queen, as Sebastian wraps up many of the character threads that have been introduced in the previous books, resulting in some excellent character devolvement as well as some satisfying conclusions for many character arcs. The main example of this is the series protagonist and point-of-view character, Princess Theodosia (Theo). Throughout the course of the first two books, Theo has grown substantially as a character, from a meek and seemingly broken prisoner to a cunning spy and manipulator, to a canny diplomat to finally an effective military commander. We finally get to see Theo take up the reins of leadership and responsibility that she has been somewhat apprehensive of in the previous books, as she starts making the hard decisions needed to ensure the freedom of her people. I really liked seeing all this character growth from the protagonist and I also appreciated the fact that Sebastian had Theo look back and own many of her prior mistakes and decisions that she regretted. Overall, I thought that Sebastian did an amazing job portraying Theo’s entire arc, and I think that she concluded her story in an impressive and enjoyable manner.

Sebastian has also produced some great conclusions to the arcs of the various side characters that were featured within this trilogy. For example, Soren has an intriguing story during Ember Queen, as he finds himself once again caught between the woman he loves and supports, Theo, and his people, the Kalovaxians. Like Theo does with the Astreans, Soren must come to a decision about his role as a leader of the Kalovaxians, and I think that his story and romance with Theo came together quite well. Blaise, Theo’s childhood friend and secondary love interest, also has an excellent arc within this book, finally getting some closure over his relationship with Theo, as well as the conclusion to his mine-madness arc. Several of the other supporting characters get some great advancement within this book as well. Artemisia, Erik and Heron all have their individual tales expanded on, and it’s great to see how comfortable and close they, Theo, Soren and Blaise have come together as a group. I particularly liked the way that Theo has gotten closer to Artemisia, her tough-as-nails cousin and bodyguard, and I had a good laugh at the way that Art allowed Theo a one-off session of girl talk as a way of calming her down before the final battle. New character Maile is an interesting addition to the series, and while she initially comes across as rather abrasive, she eventually becomes part of the group, resulting in a significant revelation for one of the characters.

The main thing that really made Ember Queen stand out to me was the complex relationship between the protagonist of the book, Theo, and the antagonist, Cress. This has always been a rather interesting relationship, as within the first book Theo and Cress were, in theory, best friends, referring to the other as their heart’s sister, even if Cress was actually rather controlling and manipulative. Theo eventually allowed Cress and her father to be poisoned at the end of the first book, and Cress now holds a heavy grudge against Theo for her betrayal. She has also evolved as a character since this first book, morphing into a much more confident woman who has taken control of her people in a way that is somewhat reminiscent of Theo’s growth as a leader. However, this is where some of the similarities end, as Cress is now a bit of a black mirror to Theo, as she is cruel, ruthless, determined to win whatever the cost and has no compunction about killing innocents. Despite all this, Theo is still drawn to her old friend, and the two of them have a compelling emotional bond (as well as an actual magical bond) throughout this novel. Theo feels guilty for the way that she betrayed and poisoned Cress, and she has a bit of a hard time seeing the evil person that she has become, and is more inclined to consider mercy than her friends would like. Cress, on the other hand, acts as ruthlessly as possible towards Theo and her friends, and is actually an extremely convincing antagonist for this book. Despite her actions, the reader gets to see that Cress is still deeply concerned with what Theo thinks about her and her plans, and there are still hints of a connection. However, her sense of betrayal, anger and determination to keep her newfound power always start to overwhelm any connection she feels to her old friend, and this leads to some devastating and heart-breaking confrontations. This whole dynamic between protagonist and antagonist is a really amazing part of Ember Queen, and adds significantly to the overall quality of the story.

I have always appreciated the magical system that Sebastian has featured in her Ash Princess books. This magic is elemental in nature, based around fire, earth, water or air (similar to the magic in Avatar: The Last Airbender, with a few key differences), and is exclusive to the Astreans, due to the presence of the magical mines located on their island. This magic has been a bit of an understated affair in the previous books, as the plots of those novels focused on espionage and diplomacy and required smaller, more subtle displays of magic. However, in Ember Queen, the Astreans are now at war, and so the magical gloves are off. This book is filled with a number of great examples of just how powerful or effective Astrean magic can be and it is a really cool addition to the series. Seeing the formerly enslaved or dispossessed Astreans unleash their power against their oppressors is a little cathartic, and it certainly makes for some great, if devastating, scenes. Sebastian also does some intriguing morphing of her magical system when it comes to Theo, Cress and some other characters, and this results in a rather interesting plot line that I liked.

Like the rest of the books in this series, Ember Queen is a rather good piece of young adult fiction. Sebastian has created an amazing story that features a group of young people growing as characters and sacrificing everything for freedom, friendship and justice. This a great book for younger readers, and while there is plenty of violence, war and fighting, there is nothing too graphic or over-the-top that makes it inappropriate for younger readers. I personally really appreciated Sebastian’s excellent portrayal of several LGBT+ characters within this book, especially as two of these characters had one of the best romantic relationships in the entire series. Despite being angled towards younger readers, Ember Queen is one of those books that can be enjoyed by a wider audience of people. There is definitely something for everyone in this book and it is really worth checking out.

Ember Queen by Laura Sebastian is a wonderful novel that not only contains a captivating story, but which also does an awesome job concluding the author’s debut trilogy. In this final book in the Ash Princess trilogy, Sebastian presents a desperate battle for freedom, complete with intriguing magical elements, excellent characters, complex interactions between the protagonist and antagonist and a fantastic story. All of this comes together in a first-rate read, which is a great conclusion to this series. I note that Sebastian has her next body of work already planned out, with the first book in her upcoming young adult fantasy series, Constellation of Chaos, set for release next year. This new book has an interesting plot synopsis out already and I am planning to grab this book when it comes out. Until then, Ember Queen is an excellent book from Sebastian and it is really worth seeing how this fantastic trilogy ends.

A Little Hatred by Joe Abercrombie

A Little Hatred Cover

Publisher: Orion (Audiobook – 17 September 2019)

Series: Age of Madness Trilogy – Book One

Length: 20 hours and 20 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

One of the very best authors of dark fantasy fiction, Joe Abercrombie, returns to his epic First Law series with A Little Hatred, an outstanding and deeply entertaining read that serves as an excellent start to a whole new trilogy.

28 years after the failed Gurkish invasion of the Union and Jezal dan Luthar’s sudden rise to the throne, the world is much changed. Industry has come to the Union, with vast factories, production lines and businesses now defining the Union’s various cities at the expense of the nation’s farmers, labourers and working classes. In this time of change, a whole new generation is ready to make its mark in the world, but the rivalries, hatreds, manipulations and disappointments of those who have come before are hard things to overcome.

In the North, war once again rocks the lands, as the forces of Stour Nightfall invade the Dogman’s Protectorate, forcing the armies of Angland to come to their aid. Young lord Leo dan Brock is desperate to seek honour and glory on the battlefield; however, his forces are too small to defeat the vast Northern hordes. Requiring help from the Union, Leo is hopeful that a relief force led by Crown Prince Orso may help to turn the tide of battle, but the Crown Prince is a man known to constantly disappoint all who pin their hopes on him. However, the arrival of the mysterious Rikke, daughter of the Dogman, may provide him with a all the help he needs, especially with her ability to see through the Long Eye. Back in the Union, Savine dan Glokta, daughter of the feared Arch Lector Glokta, is making a name for herself as a ruthless businesswoman. Dominating the world of business and industry, Savine believes that she is untouchable, but dissent amongst the working classes are about to show her how wrong she is.

As both the North and the Union find themselves on the dawn of a whole new era, chaos will absorb all before it. While this new generation attempts to find their place, they soon begin to realise what the previous generation found out the hard way that they are not the ones in charge of their destiny, and there is nothing a little hatred cannot ruin.

Joe Abercrombie is a highly acclaimed author who has produced some truly amazing pieces of dark fantasy fiction over the years. While he has written other books, such as the Shattered Sea trilogy, he is probably best known for his First Law series. The First Law series is currently made up of seven books (including A Little Hatred), which detail bloodshed, politics and manipulation in a dark fantasy world. This series started with The First Law trilogy, which debuted in 2006 with The Blade Itself and ended in 2008 with Last Argument of Kings. The First Law trilogy followed the adventures of several complex and amazing characters as they fought to not only stop the Gurkish invasion of The Union but also the end a war in the North. Abercrombie would eventually follow this original trilogy with three standalone novels, which were set after the events of The First Law trilogy. These three books, 2009’s Best Served Cold, 2011’s The Heroes and 2012’s Red Country, each had various degrees of connection to the original trilogy, and in many cases showed what happened to some of the major characters from the first three books. These standalone novels were eventually collected together into the loose Great Leveller trilogy. I absolutely loved the original First Law trilogy, and it remains amongst one of my favourite fantasy series of all times. I do need to check out all of the Great Leveller books at some point, although I have no doubt the will all prove to be first-rate reads.

A Little Hatred is Abercrombie’s first entry in the First Law series since 2012, and it is set 28 years after the events of the original trilogy and 15 years after the events of Red Country. A Little Hatred is also the first book in a new connected trilogy that Abercrombie is producing, The Age of Madness trilogy, with the next two books in this trilogy to be released in September 2020 and September 2021. I have been looking forward to reading A Little Hatred for a while now, mainly because of how much I enjoyed the original The First Law trilogy, and I was very happy to not be disappointed with this new book. A Little Hatred was an incredible and captivating read which I powered through in short order. Not only does this book get a full five stars from me, but I even listed it as one of my favourite novels from 2019 when I was only about halfway through it.

For his latest book, Abercrombie utilises the same writing style that proved to be so successful in the previous First Law books. Readers are once again in for a dark, gruesome and very adult story that follows seven main point-of-view characters as they experience the events unfolding throughout the book. While each of the seven main characters has their own unique arcs, their various stories combine throughout the course of the novel to produce a deeply compelling overall narrative. I really like all the places the story went in this book, and it turned into an excellent blend of war, political intrigue, violent social revolution and intense interaction between a number of amazing characters. Abercrombie does not hold back any punches in this story, and there are a number of intense and excessively violent fight and torture scenes in this book, and there is plenty to keep action fans satisfied. At the same time, the author also installs a fun sense of humour throughout the book, which usually relates to the personalities of the various characters who are telling the story. All of this adds up to an absolutely amazing story and you are guaranteed to get quickly get drawn into A Little Hatred’s plot.

I thought that the author’s use of multiple character perspectives was an extremely effective storytelling method, especially as the seven point-of-view characters followed in this book often find themselves on different sides in the various featured conflicts. This allows the reader to see all the relevant angles to the political, social and military conflicts that are shown in the story, whilst also advancing the book’s various character arcs. These multiple character perspectives also allow the reader to see multiple viewpoints of the same events. This is especially effective during a couple of the larger battle sequences or during a particular duel scene, where you get to see the thoughts, fears and plans of the various participants and spectators, allowing for richer and more elaborate scenes. There are also a bunch of brief scenes which are told from the perspective of several minor characters, which are used, for example, to show off the extreme chaos surrounding the takeover of a city by members of the working class. I also really liked how Abercrombie used these different character viewpoints to imbue the story with some intriguing symmetry, such as by having two separate characters spending time with their respective parents back to back in order to show the differences and similarities in their relationships. All of this produces an excellent flow to the novel, which I really appreciated, and which helped with the overall enjoyment of the book.

A Little Hatred is an excellent continuation of the previous First Law books, and Abercrombie has come up with a bold new direction for the series. This latest novel is strongly connected to the events of the previous entries in this overarching series and continues a bunch of the storylines established in the prior books. It also continues the adventures of several characters who have previously appeared in the series, showing what has happened to them in the intervening years and how their legacy is being continued. Despite this strong connection to the previous six books in the First Law series, I would say that it is not a major necessity to have read any of the prior books, as the author does a great job of rehashing all the relevant major events while also successfully reintroducing some of the main characters, allowing new readers to enjoy this book. That being said, those readers who are familiar with some of the prior books, especially The First Law trilogy, are going to have a much better understanding of the events and characters that are featured within A Little Hatred, which may also result in a change in how readers view certain characters and events. For example, one of the main characters from the original trilogy makes several appearances throughout the book, interacting with some of the point-of-view characters. As these new characters have no prior experiences dealing with him, they believe he is a fairly harmless and friendly old man, which is how he is then presented to new readers. However, those readers who are familiar with him from the original trilogy know just how dangerous he can be, and his harmless routine actually becomes a little sinister. Readers with knowledge of the events of the original trilogy are also in for a lot more cringe throughout this book, as you know all the shocking details of a certain inappropriate relationship well before it is revealed to one of the characters later in the book.

I thought it was interesting that Abercrombie included such a significant time skip between this book and the original trilogy, but I think that it really paid off and created an excellent new setting. While the North and the conflicts that defined it remained very similar to what was featured in the previous books, the main setting of the Union proved to be very different. Since the last time you saw it, the Union has started to evolve from a more medieval society to an industrial society, with factories and production lines, which in many ways were very reminiscent of the Industrial Revolution in places like England. Of course, these changes result in different types of conflicts, as the lack of traditional jobs combined with the rich ruthlessly taking the agricultural industry away from the peasants results in an interesting bout of extreme class warfare, led by the organisation called the Breakers. These Breakers bear a lot of similarities to the organised instigator of real-life industrial revolts that occurred throughout historical Europe, and it was interesting to see Abercrombie’s take on them, especially as he included an anarchist sub-group, the Burners. I really liked this intriguing focus on class revolution, and it looks like this is going to be one of the major story threads of this new trilogy. I am very curious to see how it all unwinds, and I imagine there is more anarchy, chaos and bloody revolution on the horizon.

While the above elements are all pretty outstanding, the true highlight of the First Law books has always been the complex and damaged protagonists through whose eyes the story is told. Abercrombie has a real knack for creating compelling and memorable characters, which he once again showcases within this book. There are some really enjoyable and complex characters here, and I really liked their various interactions and character arcs. These new point-of-view characters include:

  • Crown Prince Orso – son of King Jezal and notorious wastrel who, despite his outward appearance as a lazy, useless and apathetic drunk, is actually a surprisingly capable and deeply caring individual, who hides his abilities and real feelings, especially as his attempts to be a good person usually have disappointing results.
  • Savine dan Glokta – daughter of Arch Lector Glokta, Savine has capitalised on her business sense and the fear of her father to become a successful investor. As a woman in a man’s world, she is forced to be utterly ruthless like her father, and Savine mostly comes across as heartless until a traumatic experience and revelations about her past almost break her.
  • Rikke – a Northern girl who is the daughter of the Dogman. Rikke is a powerful seer with the ability to see both into both the past and the future, although she has limited control of these powers. Rikke starts the book out as quite an innocent woman, until Stour Nightfall’s invasion hardens her and makes her keener for violence and revenge.
  • Leo dan Brock – a Union lord who is the son of two of the protagonists of The Heroes. Leo is a young man’s man, eager to prove himself in combat, whose abilities have made him a popular hero. However, his impatience and desire for glory ensure calamity on the battlefield, which guilts him to try and learn a new way of command. However, once he tastes glory again, he forgets all the lessons he has learned and the friends who got him there.
  • Vick dan Teufel – a Union Inquisitor serving under Arch Lector Glokta. Despite the fact that Glokta framed her father in the original trilogy and sent her and her entire family to a prison camp, Teufel appears loyal to him and the Union, as she likes being on the winning side. Despite her misgivings about the people she works with and her respect for some of the people she is investigating, she continues her missions and tries not to get close to anyone. Teufel is actually very similar to Glokta in personality, especially as she has the familiar storyline of being forced to investigate a conspiracy that no one wants solved.
  • Gunnar Broad – a former Union soldier who returned home after many years of fighting for his country to find that the local lord has stolen his farm. Attempting to find work in the cities, Broad becomes involved in the events of the Breaker’s revolution. Broad is a killer without peer whose temper, bloodlust and the emotional trauma of war drag him into great acts of violence, even when these actions backfire on him and his family.
  • Jonas Clover – a veteran Northern warrior who finds himself serving as an advisor to the young warlord Stour Nightfall. Clover is easily my favourite character in A Little Hatred, as his sense of humour, penchant for mockery and jaded personality really stand out amongst the more serious and blood thirsty characters he interacts with and he has some of the best lines in the whole book. Clover affects an air of laziness and cowardice and is constantly spouting wisdom and council to the younger warriors, who either don’t listen or openly mock him. Despite his apparently amiable nature, Clover is actually a vicious bastard when he needs to be, and he has a couple of memorable kills throughout the book.

In addition to the above seven new point-of-view characters, there is also a bevy of great side characters which really help move the story along. While I could go on about several of them, I might just stick to Isern-i-Phail and Stour Nightfall. Isern is another older Northern character who serves as Rikke’s mentor and protector. While Isern is generally a hard and practical character she is in many ways crafted in a similar vein to Jonas Clover, gently mocking the younger characters she interacts with and producing some of the most entertaining insults and comments throughout the book. Stour Nightfall, on the other hand, is one of the primary antagonists of the book. The cocky son of Black Calder and the grandson of Bethod, one of the major antagonists of the original trilogy, Stour has a real sense of entitlement and viciousness, brought on by his famous relatives and his skill with the blade. In many ways he is a mirror to Leo dan Brock, as both are determined to seek glory in combat, and both seek to emulate the Bloody Nine, Logen Ninefingers, despite their elder’s warnings about what kind of person their hero really was. While at times Stour was a bit two-dimensional as a character, he changes after a significant event at the end of the book, and his future in the series should prove to be very interesting.

Aside from this new group of protagonists, several of the major characters from the original trilogy make a return in this book, allowing readers to get an idea of what has happened to them since their last appearances. This includes returning former point-of-view characters Jezal dan Luthar, Sand dan Glokta (who might just be the best character Abercrombie ever came up with) and the Dogman, as well as several secondary characters. While all of these characters get a few lines and are presented as major figures in the current world order, most of the focus of A Little Hatred is given over to the newer protagonists, which I think fits in well with the book’s overall focus on change. It was great to see these characters again, and there were even some major developments surrounding one of them. It was also cool to see them interact with the younger generations, especially when they see these new characters making the same mistakes they did at their age. A Little Hatred also features the return of the First of the Magi, Bayaz, who is still pulling all the strings in the world. Despite his grandfatherly appearance, Bayaz is probably the main villain of this entire series, and you just know that he is behind all of the events occurring in this book. I look forward to seeing more of the excellent villain in the future, and I cannot wait to see how and why he is manipulating everyone this time.

Rather than read a physical copy of this book, I ended up listening to the audiobook version, which was narrated by Steven Pacey. The A Little Hatred audiobook runs for 20 hours and 20 minutes, making it a fairly substantial audiobook that would actually come in at number 19 on my longest audiobook list. The audiobook format is an excellent way to enjoy A Little Hatred, as you get a real sense of all the gore and violence as it is narrated to you, as well as a better vision of the impressive, changed world that served as the setting of this book. I was really glad that they continued to utilise Steven Pacey as narrator for this new book as Pacey has narrated all the previous First Law audiobooks. It was really good to once again hear the unique voices that Pacey assigned to the characters from the original trilogy, especially as, to me, they were the defining voices of these original characters. The voices that he came up with for the new characters in this book were also good, and I think that he got the character’s personalities down pretty effectively. As a result, I would strongly recommend the audiobook format of A Little Hatred to anyone interested in checking out this book, and I am planning to listen to the rest of The Age of Madness books.

A Little Hatred by Joe Abercrombie is an outstanding and impressive new addition to his brilliant First Law series. Abercrombie has once again produced a captivating, character-based tale of bloody war and politics, while also adding some intriguing new elements to it. This is an exceptional book, which I had an absolute blast listening to. The Age of Madness is off to an extremely strong start, and I cannot wait to see where Abercrombie takes this amazing series to next.

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The Last Smile in Sunder City by Luke Arnold

The Last Smile in Sunder City

Publisher: Orbit (Trade Paperback – 6 February 2020)

Series: Fletch Phillips Archives – Book One

Length: 318 pages

My Rating: 4.75 out of 5 stars

From debuting Australian author Luke Arnold comes The Last Smile in Sunder City, an absolutely superb piece of fantasy fiction that presents a unique and powerful story of loss, redemption and despair in fantastic new universe.

The Last Smile in Sunder City is the debut novel of Australian actor Luke Arnold. Arnold, who has appeared in a number of Australian television shows and movies, is probably best known internationally for playing Long John Silver in the pirate adventure series Black Sails. Arnold has now made the rather interesting career change to writing fantasy fiction with this first book, which is the start of a new series known as the Fetch Phillips Archives. I have actually been looking forward to The Last Smile in Sunder City for a little while now, as I liked the intriguing-sounding plot synopsis and I thought that this book had some real potential.

The continent of Archetellos has always had magic, with nearly every race or being having some access to the power that ran through the lands, extending their lives and giving them rare and amazing abilities. With these powers, the magical races ruled Archetellos, until the humans, the only race not gifted with magic, attempted to steal it for themselves. This resulted in the event known as the Coda, which saw all magic erased from the world. Overnight, the multitudes of beings who relied on magic for their very existence either died or were stricken down. The few survivors of these former magical races are now deformed, crippled and slowly dying in pain.

Fetch Phillips has been many things in his life (a guard, a peacekeeper, a soldier and a criminal) but now he is barely eking out a living as a man for hire in the former magical industrial hub known as Sunder City, which has been suffering ever since its magical fires went out. For a small fee Fetch will help you with whatever problem you have, although his sobriety will cost you extra. He only has only one condition: he won’t work for humans; his only clients are those former magical beings who need his help, because it’s Fetch’s fault that their magic is gone and never coming back.

Fetch’s latest case sees him hired by a school that specialises in teaching the children of former magical creatures. One of their professors, an ancient vampire who is slowly turning to dust, has gone missing, and the school is desperate to find him. Diving into the shady underbelly of the city, Fetch attempts to find some trace of the vampire or anyone who wanted to hurt him. But when one of the vampire’s students, a young siren, also disappears, Fetch needs to step up his game to find them. However, even without magic there are still monsters in Sunder City, and Fetch may not be able to survive his encounter with them.

This was a really impressive piece of fantasy fiction. With The Last Smile in Sunder City, Arnold has absolutely nailed his debut, presenting a clever and captivating fantasy mystery which makes full use of its inventive setting and excellent central protagonist to create an impressive and memorable book. This is a truly enjoyable story that contains a fascinating central mystery that blends extremely well with the book’s fantasy elements. I had a great time unravelling the full extent of this intriguing story, and Arnold takes the plot in some very interesting directions, producing some excellent twists and clever false leads. This is less of an action-based novel and more of an exploratory story which sets out the world and features a man of the city running through his contacts to investigate a curious disappearance. I think this worked out extremely well for this book, as it fitted into the book’s classic PI vibe while serving as a great introduction to the city which is no doubt going to be the main setting for any future books in this series. Arnold has also created a couple of fantastic subplots which not only help to explore the world but also help to expand on the compelling darker tone that has been injected into this book.

Without a doubt, the major highlight of this book is the deeply inventive and fascinating new world that Arnold has produced. When I first read The Last Smile in Sunder City’s plot synopsis about a world where magic no longer existed, I was intrigued and thought that it sounded like an interesting idea. However, I was not prepared for just how impressive and creative this turned out to be. In order to tell his story, the author first created a detailed fantasy world that was filled with a huge variety of classic magical creatures of all shapes and sizes, where magic was the ultimate power and in which humans, who have no access to magic, are second-class citizens. While this would have been an interesting place to set a fantasy mystery, the author immediately flips this setting on its head by showing how humans attempted to steal the magic from its source (via an animation intended for children that was cut across by the protagonist’s memories, which was a fantastic way to introduce this plot point), and how their intrusion resulted in the complete destruction of magic.

This of course leads to a very interesting world, as now all the creatures and beings who previously survived on magic have had their lives irreversibly altered. Arnold spends a good part of the book exploring the impact of this loss of magic, examining the impacts on the previously immortal elves who all suddenly died from old age, the werewolves and other shapeshifters who found themselves deformed and stuck at the halfway point between human and animal, the vampires who all lost their fangs and are slowly crumbling to dust, sirens whose human husbands all simultaneously left them, and so much more. There are also some cool examinations of the change in status quo, with humans now becoming the dominant species on the continent thanks to their superior numbers (humans were not affected by the Coda) and their ability to use technology as a substitute for the magic that used to run everything. Of course, humans being humans, there are a couple of examples of humanity taking revenge against the magical creatures that previously dominated the continent, which the author does a good job of working into the plot. All of this proves to be an extremely fascinating and enjoyable overarching backdrop to the story of The Last Smile in Sunder City, and I really have to congratulate Arnold on his amazing imagination. Every detail about this creative world was really cool, and I loved seeing how his vision of a fantasy realm bereft of magic come to life.

The main location of this book is the titular Sunder City. Sunder City is a former magical metropolis which has suffered in the post-Coda period. Once a place of marvels and magically-powered industry, the city is now a shell of its former self, with most magical beings now living in slums and struggling to get by without their abilities. There is a bit of a Depression-era vibe to Sunder City, especially as Arnold does an excellent job of imbuing much of the city with a sense of despair, resentment and hopelessness. This really turned out to be a fantastic city to serve as the book’s primary setting, and I really enjoyed the protagonist’s exploration of it as he attempts to find the missing people. There are some really intriguing elements to this city which are worked into the overarching mystery plot extremely well, such as a hostile police force, businesses catering to former magical creatures and gangs of humans trying to cause trouble. All of this is pretty amazing, and I look forward to seeing more adventures and mysteries take place in Sunder City, especially if the author spends time looking at new types of former magical creatures that weren’t featured in this first book.

In addition to the compelling story and outstanding settings, Arnolds rounds out this awesome book with an intriguing central protagonist, Fetch Phillips. Fetch, who also serves as the book’s narrator, is a drunk, depressed and broken man, who is essentially a classic noir PI in a fantasy world. While Fetch can at times be funny or entertaining, mostly due to his sarcastic and confrontational style, his defining characteristics are his overwhelming guilt and despair. This is due to the fact that he is largely responsible for the humans destroying magic, which resulted in so much death and suffering. The full story behind Fletch’s involvement in this atrocity is chronicled in the book through a series of flashbacks which show his origin, the friendships he formed and the events and emotions that led up to his darkest moment. Due to his role in the causing the Coda, and the fact that he betrayed the trust of several friends, Fletch is filled with all manner of self-loathing and must now deal with his complicated emotions towards other humans, who he detests, and the former magical creatures he is compelled to help, most of whom now hate him. Despite all this darkness, there is a little bit of light within Fletch as he struggles against his demons and his past to find redemption and live up to a promise he made. I thought that this portrayal of Fletch was a great part of the book, and I loved the complexity that Arnold has imparted on his protagonist. I also really enjoyed the way that the author showed off the character’s past, centring the flashbacks on the four tattoos he has on his arm, and exploring the meaning behind them. This mixture of the mystery in the present and the look at the events in the character’s past worked really well together, and they help show off an amazing central protagonist who is going to be a fantastic centrepiece for this series going forward.

The Last Smile in Sunder City by Luke Arnold is a superb and highly addictive fantasy mystery that presents the reader with a fantastic and thrilling story. While the book is mostly a clever and enjoyable mystery, its true strengths are the unique and captivating settings and the complicated, well-written protagonist, both of which help to transform this amazing novel into a first-rate read. Thanks to this excellent debut, Arnold has proven that he is a talent to be reckoned with in the fantasy genre, and I am looking forward to seeing what he produces next. The Last Smile in Sunder City comes highly recommended, and I think many people are going to enjoy this exciting new Australian author.

Legacy of Ash by Matthew Ward

Legacy of Ash Cover

Publisher: Orbit (Trade Paperback – 5 November 2019)

Series: Legacy trilogy – Book 1

Length: 768 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

From impressive new author Matthew Ward comes Legacy of Ash, a massive and entertaining new fantasy adventure that was amongst one of my favourite debut novels of 2019.

Legacy of Ash is set within the Tressian Republic, a powerful nation controlled by a council of nobles. The Tressian Republic is beset by many dangers, including the constant threat of invasion from the massive Hadari Empire on its border; open rebellion from the nation’s southernmost lands, the Southshires, which have been seeking independence for years; and the machinations of the dark magic-wielding criminal organisation known as the Crowmarket.

When the Hadari Empire invades the Southshires, the political ambitions and old grudges of the Tressian Council results in a muted military response. It falls to Viktor Akadra, the champion of the Tressian Republic, to lead a small force to the Southshires in order to make a stand against the invaders. However, Viktor is the last person the inhabitants of the Southshires want defending them, as years before he brutally put down their last rebellion, which resulted in the death of their beloved Duchess Katya Trelan.

In order to defeat the Hadari Empire, Viktor needs to work with the children of Katya Trelan, Josiri and Calenne, both of whom hate and fear him, and who both have different plans to ensure their future freedom. However, as fate, self-interest and the future of the Southshires forces them together, these three must find a common ground if they are to survive. But even if they manage to face the forces of the Hadari Empire, far darker threats are assailing the Tressian Republic from within and they will stop at nothing to achieve their terrible goals.

Ward is an interesting new author who is probably best known for his work with Games Workshop, where he served as a principal architect for the company on many of their properties, including Warhammer, Warhammer 40,000 and their The Lord of the Rings range. However, in recent years he has turned his hand to fantasy writing, creating several novellas and short stories, as well as releasing two ebooks, Shadow of the Raven and Light of the Radiant. Legacy of Ash is Ward’s first printed novel, and it is actually set in the same universe as his previous ebooks. It is also the first book in his planned Legacy trilogy, with the second book in the trilogy, Legacy of Steel, set for release later this year.

Legacy of Ash is an excellent new read which contains an exciting and elaborate story, set in a large and creative new world and featuring a substantial group of point-of-view characters. I have actually been looking forward to Legacy of Ash for a while, as it sounded like one of the more exciting new fantasy books that were set for release in 2019, and I am very glad I got a chance to read and review it. However, readers should probably be aware in advance that this book is nearly 800 pages in length, making it a pretty substantial read, and requiring a significant investment of time in finishing it off. This took me a couple of weeks to read in full, mainly because Legacy of Ash would actually come in at number 12 on my recent Longest Novels That I Have Ever Read list. That being said, Legacy of Ash is well worth the time, as this was an amazing and fascinating new fantasy adventure.

Ward has come up with a large and impressive story for his first book, and there is a lot going on within it. The story actually splits up into two separate locations within the Tressian Republic, with half of it set down in the Southshires and the other half set up in the capital of the Republic, Tressia (with small parts also set in a couple of locations in between or within the Hadari Empire). The parts of the book set down in the Southshires deal with the impending invasion of the Hadari, the repression of the Southshire inhabitants by the Tressian council and the attempts by Viktor to work with both of the Trelan siblings. At the same time, the parts of the book set up in Tressia contains a lot of political intrigue, criminal undertakings, dark magical plans and gambits for control of the nation. Both sets of storylines are a lot of fun, and it was really amazing to see all the various story elements occurring at the same time in the different locations. In addition, these two storylines are strongly related to each other, with events happening in one location impacting characters down in the other part of the Republic. All of these story elements and character arcs come together to form an extremely compelling overarching narrative and I quite enjoyed how Legacy of Ash contained such a wide range of different plot points.

Legacy of Ash is populated with a multiple point-of-view characters from whose eyes we see this whole massive story unfold. The use of all these characters allows for a much richer and expansive story, especially as you get to see every side of all various character’s plots and plans as everyone attempts to come out on top of the events unfolding around them. In addition, nearly all of the point-of-view characters have some incredibly captivating and enjoyable character arcs, many of which reach their full potential within this book. There are such an interesting range of different character based stories going on throughout Legacy of Ash, from the mysterious divine magic that starts to infect the honourable knight Roslava Orova, the machinations and manipulations of Ebigail Kiradin, the chaotic adventures of Crowmarket member Apara Rann and the fun friendship that forms between old opponents Kurkas and Halvor. However, the main elements of character development occur around the book’s three central characters, Viktor Akadra, Josiri Trelan and Calenne Trelan. Due to history, resentments and circumstances, these three characters start the book with fairly distant or hostile relationships to each other. However, these barriers are slowly broken down as the book progresses, and each of these main characters slowly works to come to terms with each other and their own individual issues, such as Viktor’s hidden dark magic, or the expectations or resentments that surround Trelan siblings thanks to their long-dead mother. Overall, this is some fairly impressive character work, and Ward did an excellent job creating a fantastic cast for this novel, each of whom add a whole lot to book’s story.

While I did enjoy how this novel progressed and all the interesting story points and character inclusions that were featured, I do feel it was a perhaps a little too long. In particular, I really think that Ward would have been better off not featuring the book’s final antagonist (a long-dead magical queen), who starts to appear around two thirds of the way through the book. Instead, the author could have perhaps only hinted at her return and shaved off most of the final 100 pages. Not only would this make Legacy of Ash a bit more of a manageable read, but it would have allowed the author to expand on this antagonist’s motivations and history a lot more in the subsequent book, rather than having her introduction be somewhat rushed, like it was in this book. Still, the inclusion of this final antagonist led to some rather intriguing and emotional moments, and it also sets up some potentially fantastic story arcs for one of the main characters in the next book in the series.

I also need to say how impressed with the massive and complex new fantasy landscape that Ward created for his debut series. Ward has come up with a number of unique and enjoyable elements for this fantasy world, which really add a lot to the story. The central location of the Tressian Republic was a lot of fun, as it is filled with all manner of perils, conflicting ideals, fermenting hatreds and a hidden death-worshipping criminal organisation, while also featuring a number of external or divine groups or threats at the same time. I felt that the author did a good job of introducing all of these unique elements throughout the book, and I was never too lost or confused by any of the inclusions.

I also really enjoyed the huge number of battle sequences that took place throughout this harsh fantasy landscape, especially those which were enhanced by the series’ unique fantasy inclusions. For example, one massive sequence featured two armies, one with magical constructs and the other with armoured rhinos, facing off against each other as strange and divine magics rain down chaos all around them. Other scenes include a number of different characters attempting to combat the eldritch-enhanced assassins of the mysterious Crowmarket, often resulting in some really impressive battles. I also liked how Ward utilised the multiple point-of-view characters during some of these longer conflicts, ensuring that the reader got to see both sides of the battle, as well as the various thoughts and fears of the characters involved. All of this ensured that the book was chocked full of intense and exciting fantasy action, which is always a plus in my book.

Legacy of Ash by Matthew Ward was an extremely well-written and addictive fantasy debut, which I am very glad I made the effort to read cover-to-cover. Full of some excellent characters, a multi-faceted story and an intriguing new fantasy landscape, the first book in the Legacy trilogy was a really great read, and I had a lot of fun getting through it. Ward has a lot of potential as a fantasy author, and I am quite excited to see where this series goes next.

Guest Review: The Fowl Twins by Eoin Colfer

For this entry, my lovely and talented editor Alex steps out of the shadows once again (after previously reviewing Pan’s Labyrinth) and provides us with a guest review of a book she recently picked up.

The Fowl Twins Cover.jpg

Publisher: Harper Collins (Trade Paperback – 5 November 2019)

Series: The Fowl Twins – Book One

Length: 432 pages

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

The Unseen Library occasionally raises the topic of auto-buy authors, and Eoin Colfer is one of mine. I’m already hyped for Highfire, so you can imagine my excitement when I happened upon a display of The Fowl Twins in a department store the other day. I didn’t even break my stride or pause to read the back cover; as soon as I saw the words “Colfer” and “Fowl” I picked up a copy and had started reading it before I reached the checkout queue. The eight Artemis Fowl books followed the eponymous juvenile criminal mastermind and his many run-ins with the People, the secret civilisation of magical beings living deep underground. The series ran from 2001 to 2012 and was one of my favourites growing up, so I was absolutely thrilled to discover that Colfer is now continuing the saga.

The Fowl Twins picks up the story several years after Artemis Fowl and the Last Guardian, the final book in the original series. Artemis himself gets a rest; this story follows his younger brothers, Myles and Beckett. Myles is undoubtedly cut from the same cloth as Artemis and their father, with a talent for the sciences, an unquenchable thirst for knowledge and a penchant for fashionable suits and cutting insults. Beckett is more interested in active pursuits and making friends with wildlife, but he shares the same cunning and passionate loyalty that Fowls are famous for. The twins were only toddlers in Artemis Fowl and the Last Guardian and have no memory of the People, and it appears that their lives have been relatively quiet since those events. But in the Fowl world quiet never lasts for long, and when a rare troll surfaces on the family estate the twins suddenly find themselves in the midst of a cat-and-mouse game with an LEP specialist, an immortal duke and a knife-wielding nun.

Given that this is the ninth book set in the Fowl universe, the story is built upon a great deal of already-established Fairy lore and, indeed, laws. However, it does not wholly rely on readers having a certain level of assumed knowledge; Colfer ensures that no reader gets left behind. The appropriate backstory and important details are provided where necessary in his usual elegant style so that new readers are informed and old fans aren’t bored by the rehashing of exposition. As an old fan myself, albeit one with an appalling memory, I really appreciated the unobtrusive reminders of previous events in the Fowl canon.

There is of course a lot for fans of the original series to enjoy, including some excellent cameos. I found that many elements of the story mirrored the original Artemis Fowl. Myles and Beckett are around the same age Artemis was in his first Fairy adventure, and it was amazing to see how their different upbringings shaped them. When we first meet Artemis, he is in a desperate pursuit to rescue his father from a Russian mafia and his mother from her rapidly deepening delirium. Myles and Beckett, on the other hand, have enjoyed an upbringing with an intact, stable family and without the inherent danger that comes with being part of an active criminal empire. They are, as a result, far more well adjusted 11-year-olds, and it was so enjoyable to see the bond the boys all share.

Also like Artemis Fowl, The Fowl Twins features at its core a plot to kidnap a Fairy creature for personal gain, but this time the Fowls are innocent. Instead, the baddie is the whimsically named Lord Teddy Bleedham-Drye, who I can’t help but imagine as a scoundrel in the style of Terry-Thomas, whose ruthless quest for immortality leads him to the Fowl estate to tackle a troll. No Fowl story would be complete without the involvement of the LEP, and Specialist Lazuli Heitz finds herself in an uncomfortably similar position to Captain Holly Short, in that her supposedly straightforward surface mission goes immediately haywire as soon as the Fowls get involved. Lazuli is an excellent addition to the main cast of characters, and her talent for quick-thinking and creative problem-solving perfectly complement those of the boys she finds herself teamed up with.

The Fowl Twins is an excellent blend of suspense and action, and Eoin Colfer’s impeccably charming style of omniscient narration means there’s never a dull moment. The story is also incredibly fast-paced, with 400-odd pages covering only a couple of days, and so compelling that I finished reading it in no time. This book is fun for all ages and would make an excellent Christmas gift for a young new reader, a 20-something who loved the original series, or really anyone who enjoys a suspenseful story with a magical element. I can’t wait to see more adventures of Myles, Beckett and Lazuli.

Warrior of the Altaii by Robert Jordan

Warrior of the Altaii Cover

Publisher: Tor (Trade Paperback – 9 October 2019)

Series: Standalone

Length: 352 pages

My Rating: 4.25 out of 5 stars

In the mood for a very unique fantasy read? Think about checking out the hitherto unpublished first novel from Robert Jordan, an author many consider to be amongst the best fantasy writers of all time.

The late, great, Robert Jordan was a highly regarded author who started writing in the late 1970s and found his calling several years later in the fantasy genre. His first published work was The Fallon Saga of historical fiction novels, which were made up of three books released between 1980 and 1982. Following this early work, Jordan was contracted to write several Conan the Barbarian novels, starting with Conan the Invincible and Conan the Defender, both of which were released in 1982. Jordan ended up writing seven Conan the Barbarian books between 1982 and 1984, and they are some of his earliest works of fantasy fiction. However, Jordan would find his greatest success later when he wrote his epic fantasy series, The Wheel of Time, which were some of the first fantasy novels that I ever read.

The Wheel of Time series is an epic fantasy series that started in 1990 with The Eye of the World. Made up of 14 massive novels, the series ran until 2013, and is considered one of the most creative, complex and enjoyable fantasy book series ever written. Not only did many of the books gain high critical praise but it is one of the bestselling fantasy series of all times, selling over 80 million copies. Unfortunately, Jordan passed away in 2007 and it fell to fellow author Brandon Sanderson to complete the final three books in the series utilising Jordan’s notes. Sanderson did a fantastic job finishing off the series, which concluded in 2013 with A Memory of Light, (make sure to check out my reviews for some of Sanderson’s other books, including The Way of Kings, Skyward and Starsight). The Wheel of Time series is probably going to get a lot of attention in the next year or so, as it is currently being adapted into a major television series by Sony and Amazon. Featuring Rosamund Pike in the leading role, and with a mostly unknown cast of young actors, this series has some real potential to dominate in the post Game of Thrones television landscape. The Wheel of Time books were some of the first fantasy novels that I ever read, and they served as an excellent and enjoyable introduction to the genre for me. Despite recently featuring several of The Wheel of Time books in my Longest Novels That I Have Ever Read list, I do have to admit that it has been a substantial time since I have had the opportunity to read The Wheel of Time novels, and I am a little hazy on some of the series’ details. As a result, I am strongly considering trying to reread some of the books (probably the audiobook formats) before the first season of the television adaptation is released, although I will have to see how I go with time as each of the books are likely to be some of the longest audiobooks I will ever listen to, plus I also have a bunch of other series I want to get into.

Warrior of the Altaii is actually the first novel that Jordan wrote and attempted to get published. He apparently wrote it in 13 days back in 1978 but unfortunately no publishers picked it up at the time. By that point he was working on some of his other series, so the author shelved it and it remained unpublished until now. There is actually a rather fascinating and entertaining summary of this book’s publication history in the foreword that was written by Jordan’s wife and editor/publisher Harriet McDougal, which I am sure many fans of the author will find quite interesting.

Warrior of the Altaii is set on the vast and harsh lands known as the Plain. The Plain is home to all manner of terrors, obstacles and fierce warriors, as several barbarian tribes roam the cruel landscape. Amongst all the tribes of the Plain, none are more feared or deadly than the Altaii, fighters without peer, whose nomadic way of life and dedication to raiding has sustained them for generations. Life is always difficult on the Plain, but recent strange events are making it harder for the Altaii to survive. More and more ferocious beasts roam the land, dark omens abound, and some unknown group has been destroying the various water holes that keep all of the inhabitants of the Plain alive.

Amongst these chaotic events, Wulfgar, a leader of a troupe of Altaii, travels to the massive city of Lanta on the outskirts of the Plain on a trading mission. Arriving at the city, Wulfgar and his followers and comrades encounter great hostility and scorn from all they encounter, including the city’s twin queens. It soon becomes apparent that the queens of Lanta are conspiring against the Altaii with a rival barbarian tribe and the mysterious individuals known as the Most High. But what are their objectives, and why are they targeting the Altaii?

As Wulfgar attempts to understand the scope of the threat facing him, he receives a prophecy of doom and the destruction of the entire Altaii race. Their only salvation apparently lies in the hands of a traveller from another world, who will gift Wulfgar the knowledge needed to save his people. Can Wulfgar defeat the vast forces arrayed against him, or will he be overwhelmed by treachery, assassins and the vengeance of two scorned queens?

This was a rather exciting and enjoyable read that was a lot of fun to check out. Warrior of the Altaii is a cool classic fantasy read that features an interesting and, at times, over-the-top story with a number of great action sequences and some rather cool fantasy ideas. The plot of this book is extremely fast-paced, and there is never a moment that is not exciting or filled with action or adventure. There are a number of really fun sequences throughout the book, including the siege of a major city, several large-scale battle sequences that feature some fantastic strategies and high body counts, as well as a few desperate and brutal smaller fight scenes that are bound to keep readers on their toes. Despite being ostensibly a fantasy novel, there are a few interesting science fiction elements in this book, as several beings with advanced weapons have apparently travelled across from an alternate world. This results in a cool blend of science and magic in places, which added a whole new layer to the story. Warrior of the Altaii is a good standalone novel with a mostly self-contained narrative that did not leave any major storyline elements open. This is probably for the best, as, for very obvious reasons, there is not going to be any sort of sequel. Overall, I felt that Jordan created an excellent and thrilling story within this book, which I believe will be appealing to most fantasy readers.

One of the major appeals of this book is the fact that it is the unpublished first attempt at a novel from an author who is better known for their later works, and as a result, fans of Robert Jordan’s later works can get a glimpse of his early writing style. One of the major things that I took away from reading Warrior of the Altaii was the fact that Jordan clearly had an aptitude for creating intriguing fantasy worlds even early in his career. Throughout this book, he described a dark and detailed world, of which we only saw a small part, filled with memorable characters, organisations, threats and locations. Several of the elements utilised in this book were clearly early versions of things that were later featured in The Wheel of Time novels, such as the inclusion of an all-female group of magic users, which are similar to The Wheel of Time’s Aes Sedai. In addition, the whole barbarian tribe-centric storyline he produced for this book is very reminiscent of Conan the Barbarian and it is very clear why his wife thought that he would be a good fit to write several of these novels. I think that major fans of Jordan and his existing series are going to find a quite a lot to enjoy in this book, and I would strongly recommend Warrior of the Altaii to anyone interested in seeing how this great author started out.

While I quite enjoyed this book, there are elements to Warrior of the Altaii that some readers might not enjoy. In particular, there are lot of examples of female enslavement by the barbarian characters of this book. While, to be fair, the main male character does get enslaved for a period of time, I can image that quite a few readers may not appreciate all the times that female slavery becomes a casual, recurring plot point. The way that it is used in this book does seem to be a bit more of an old-school fantasy inclusion such as would be seen in a piece of Conan the Barbarian fiction and is perhaps not as appropriate for a modern book. However, as this book was written in the 1970s, this is a somewhat understandable inclusion, and I don’t think you need to read too much into it. It honestly didn’t take too much away from the enjoyment of the story; it is just something people might need to consider before reading this book.

Warrior of the Altaii is an electrifying piece of fantasy fiction with a bit of an old-school feel to it that I quite enjoyed. I had a great time checking out this early work from a fantasy author I hold in very high regard, Robert Jordan, and it was a real treat to see his previously unpublished first novel. This is definitely an interesting read for fans of the fantasy genre and is well worth checking out, especially if you are in the mood for a fast-paced and action-packed fantasy adventure.

The Ember Blade by Chris Wooding

the ember blade cover

Publisher: Orion (Audiobook – 20 September 2018)

Series: The Darkwater Legacy – Book 1

Length: 30 hours and 40 minutes

My rating: 5 out of 5 stars

If you are looking for an elaborate and exciting fantasy epic to really sink your teeth into look no further than The Ember Blade, the impressive first book in Chris Wooding’s The Darkwater Legacy.

The Ember Blade is a massive fantasy book that was released in late 2018 by veteran author Chris Wooding. I somehow completely failed to realise that this book was coming out until I saw it on the shelves of my local bookshop, and while I thought that it had a lot of potential due to the cool sounding plot, I was unfortunately unable to fit it into my reading schedule last year. However, as it was one of the books I most regret not reading in 2018, I decided to listen to the audiobook format of The Ember Blade, narrated by Simon Bubb, a little while ago. I have to say that I was not disappointed; Wooding, who has previously written such books as the Braided Path, Malice and Tales of the Ketty Jay series, has created a bold and inventive new fantasy tale in this book. Featuring a great story, an amazing group of characters and set in a massive and creative fantasy world, this was an exceptional book that I am really glad I listened to it.

A generation ago, the once proud nation of Ossia was invaded by the brutal Krodan Empire, and not even Ossia’s legendary defenders, the Dawnwardens, could stop them. Now the Krodans rule Ossia with an iron fist, installing their own religion and way of life, and treating the Ossians like second-class citizens in their own land. Any acts of dissent are quickly crushed, and those few that fight for Ossian freedom are quickly being rounded up. The only Ossians who flourish are those who accept Krodan rule and attempt to assimilate into their way of life, like Aren, the son of a wealthy Ossian collaborator. Aren has spent his whole life being told that the Krodans saved his country and that their laws, religion and rule are fair and beneficial for everyone. However, he is about to learn the dark side of Krodan rule.

When his farther is suddenly arrested and executed as a traitor, Aren and his best friend Cade are taken to a forsaken Krodan labour camp where they are expected to work until they die. With his hopes and dreams for the future crushed, Aren decides that it is finally time to rebel and engineers an escape from the camp with Cade and another prisoner. Despite all their planning, their escape seems doomed to fail until a mysterious band of fighters intervene at the last minute. However, their salvation is a double-edged sword, as the leader of this group, Garric, is a vengeful figure from Aren’s father’s past, who bears a terrible grudge against his entire family.

Forced to travel with this band, Aren and Cade discover that they are amongst some of the last Ossian rebels in the entire country. As they flee, pursued by a tenacious member of Krodan’s secret police and his three terrifying minions, they are told of Garric’s ambitious plan to break into an impenetrable fortress and steal the Ember Blade, an ancient artefact of Ossian rule that could be used to rally the country to their cause. However, in order to even have a chance to steal the blade, they must overcome treachery, the indifference of a conquered people, and their own personal demons unless they wish to be overwhelmed by the evil forces arrayed against them.

Wooding has come up with a pretty spectacular plot for this book, and I really enjoyed the places that this compelling story went. While the beginning of the book is a little slow, mainly to establish the setting and the friendship between Aren and Cade, it does not take long for the plot to get really exciting, when the two main characters introduced at that point are thrown into a prison camp. The story continues at an excellent and captivating pace from then on in, as the characters get wrapped up with Garric and his band as they attempt to free Ossia from the Krodans. This whole story is pretty fantastic, as it blends together a bunch of different fantasy adventure storylines into one satisfying narrative. For example, throughout the course of the book, you have an exploration of life within a Krodan prison camp, a complex prison break, a pursuit throughout all of Ossia by the Krodans, an exploration of a long-abandoned and magically haunted palace, treachery and plotting throughout the towns and cities of Ossia, all finished off with an elaborate heist and prison break scenario within an impenetrable castle and the dramatic consequences that result from their actions. While you would imagine that having all of these plot aspects within one novel would be a bit too much, I think that Wooding did an excellent job balancing all these intricate storylines together into one outstanding overall narrative. Sufficient time is spent on all of the various parts of the book, which not only ensures that various plot points are well-constructed and impactful but also allows the various character dynamics and relationships to come into effect while also slotting in some world building. All of this leads to an incredible and truly addictive story which I absolutely loved and which also sets up a number of intriguing plot points for future books in this series.

While The Ember Blade’s story is pretty amazing, the real strength of this book is the fantastic group of characters. The author has come up with several outstanding and complex protagonists, each of whom has an elaborate backstory which the reader learns all about through the course of the story, as many of them are utilised as a point-of-view character for a several chapters. There were some truly fantastic and memorable characters throughout this story, and I really enjoyed their various motivations and the way that they interacted with each other. The further you get into the book, the more you find yourself getting wrapped up in each character’s unique personality and finding out what makes them tick, until you actually start to care for them. However, fair warning in advance, some of these characters that you grow to like will not survive until the end of the book, and Wooding goes on a little bit of a killing spree with some of his creations (although I think there is a good chance one or two might come back in a future book).

The Ember Blade features a number of great characters that I could talk about, but for the sake of brevity I might just focus on the most important characters, Aren and Cade. These two Ossian youths are great central protagonists for this story, and they form a pretty fun and emotional duo for most of the book. Aren and Cade are dragged into the events of this book because of their friendship, and the two of them try to stick together, as they end up being the only person each of them has. However, throughout the course of this book, their friendship is tested by a lack of hope, conflict over ideals, love and feelings of betrayal, which makes for some very emotional reading. Both characters are really interesting, and both bring a lot to the story. While Aren is the central protagonist of the series, Cade is the story’s heart and soul, telling all manner of bad jokes and regaling his companions with the old stories of the land. Aside from the periods of time when he is infected with hopelessness or bitterness, Cade mostly remains the same character throughout the course of the book and does not develop too much. Aren, on the other hand, goes through a great deal of character development throughout the book, as he starts to become more disillusioned with the Krodan regime. Due to his upbringing, Aren is slow to realise the evils of the Krodans, even when his father is murdered and he is thrown into a deathcamp. However, several confrontations with Cade, discussions with Garric and actually seeing all the evil that the Krodans perpetrate help convince him of the benefit of rebelling against them and being a hero. This is not a straight progression; instead, the author creates a much more deviated course to greatness for our hero, as he is forced to betray someone he respects, is betrayed in turn by his own countrymen, must overcome his own prejudices and learn to deal with his sense of entitlement and his resentments, all before he become a better person. All of this makes for some great reading, and these two make a fantastic pairing.

Quite a lot of time is also spent on the character of Garric, who probably shares top billing with Aren as the book’s main protagonist. Garric is a freedom fighter whose own country is no longer willing to fight. Obsessed with victory, no matter the cost, Garric has become a very angry and bitter man over the years, especially due to a past interaction with Aren’s father. Despite this past hurt, his code of honour requires him to rescue Aren, and subsequent events force him to spend time with the son of the man he hated the most in the world. We learn a great deal about Garric throughout the course of the book, and despite his outer veneer of hatred and anger, most of which is directed at Aren, he is shown to be a good man and a hero. However, his need for vengeance against the Krodans slowly consumes him throughout the course of the book, and he begins to risk everything, even the lives of the people who trust him, to achieve his goal. I really liked the character of Garric, mainly because he has such an outstanding and well-written character arc in this book, the course of which goes into some dark and destructive directions and was deeply compelling to witness.

There is no way I can review this book without mentioning my favourite character, Grub, since, according to himself, “Grub is the greatest”. Grub is a Skarl, a warrior whose people journey out from an icy wasteland to do mighty deeds in order to have them tattooed on their body. Joining in on Aren and Cade’s escape plan, Grub spends the majority of the book boasting about the deeds that earned him his tattoos and making himself sound like the greatest warrior of all time. Grub is mostly used as a comic relief, and his jokes, outlandish boasts, coarse behaviour, amusing nicknames for the other characters and habit of constantly talking about himself in the third person make him the funniest protagonists in the book. However, like most of Wooding’s characters, Grub’s life is a lot more complicated than you would expect. Grub is not what he appears to be and bears a secret shame that makes him an outcast from his own people. In order to return, Grub must redeem himself by performing the most heroic or cunning of deeds and remains with the protagonists because he believes that participating in their adventures are exactly what he needs, that and he plans to rob them of the Ember Blade. However, as the book progresses, Grub, who has never known friendship or acceptance, begins to bond with several of the protagonists, especially Aren, which could alter his eventual plans.

As you can see from the examples above, Wooding has done an excellent job inserting complex and appealing characters into his story. Favourites I haven’t yet mentioned include a powerful druid and her dog, who provide much of the book’s magical elements; a fearless female hunter with poor social skills, who is a love interest for both Aren and Cade; an intelligent Ossian woman whose ambitions are thwarted by the inherent sexism of the Krodans, and who gets some of the best revenge against a mansplaining ass by beating him in a strategy game; and more. The author even shows a couple of chapters from the point of view of The Ember Blade’s main antagonist, the Krodan secret police commander Klyssen, which humanises him a little and shows why he is so determined to hunt down our protagonists. All of these characters add a large amount to the story, and it was a real pleasure to follow their adventures and learn all about their lives.

In addition to the fantastic roster of characters that the excellent story followed, I have to say that I was also impressed with the bold new fantasy world that Wooding created. Not only is the primary setting of the nation of Ossia a complex and dangerous location that helps create a thrilling and enjoyable read, but the author spends a lot of time expanding out the entire world, furnishing the reader with some fascinating depictions of some of the other cultures and races that live in the world. Thanks to the fact that one of the point-of-view characters is a bit of a storyteller, we get a really good idea of the history of the world, much of which has some sort of bearing on the current story, or could potentially become an interesting part of a future book. In addition, due to the examination of several of the protagonists, we also get a good basis for some of the other nations that are mentioned throughout the story, all of which sound really fascinating. I particularly liked the sound of the Skarl, Grub’s race, and I would definitely love to read a story set in their frozen necropolises. Wooding also introduces some supernatural elements in this book, including some ancient god-like monsters who are likely to be the major opponents of any future books in the series, as well as a cursed, magical castle which our protagonists find themselves trapped in for a substantial part of the book. I also quite enjoyed the potion-based magical system of the druids that was utilised by one of the primary characters, and I will be intrigued to see more of what sort of magic the Krodans have.

While the rest of the world introduced in The Ember Blade has a lot of potential in future books, I did really like the main location of this book, the conquered nation of Ossia. Ossia has been under Krodan rule for around a generation at the point of this story, and the people are becoming more accustomed to their conquered status. This situation bears some very strong similarities to Nazi-occupied France, with the Krodans infecting the country with their rules and ideals over a conquered nation, and utilising collaborators and violent retaliations to rule with an iron fist. Not only are the Krodans depicted in quite a Teutonic way, but it is clear that they are participating in some form of ethnic cleansing, as the entire population of a gypsy facsimile race in their empire has been rounded up and taken to an unknown location. All of this really helps to up the stakes for the protagonists, as they must not only overcome all the Krodans they come across but also contend with being sold out by members of their own nation. This chance of betrayal from fellow Ossians is quite disheartening to many of the characters, and it makes them wonder at times why they are fighting to free these people, when it is quite obvious that many amongst them do not want to be free. In addition to all of this, I have to mention the dreadknights, the strange, dangerous and seemingly indestructible elite soldiers of the Krodan Empire, who have been unleashed to hunt down and kill the protagonists. These dreadknights are terrifying beings whose unrelenting pursuit of your favourite characters (and indeed they bear responsibility for the deaths of some of these characters) really adds a lot of tension to the story. There was something of the Ringwraiths from The Lord of the Rings in their manner and bearing, and there is a lot of mystery surrounding their origins. I am very curious to see if we learn more of these creatures in the rest of the series, and I have a vague feeling that Wooding is going to make them even more horrifying in the future.

As I mentioned above, I ended up listening to the audiobook version of The Ember Blade, which was narrated by Simon Bubb. Considering the physical copy of this book is around 800+ pages, it should come as no surprise that the audiobook format is going to be fairly substantial. It runs for 30 hours and 40 minutes, which actually makes it the eighth-longest audiobook I have ever listened to. As a result, it did take me a pretty long time to get through this book, but once I started getting really into the story, I went out of my way to try and finish it off as quickly as possible. I am actually really glad that I listened to the audiobook version of this book, as I felt that it really helped me absorb the enjoyable story and detailed setting. Bubb had a great, steady narration voice for this book, and his take on the story and the characters really helped to keep my attention glued to the book. As a result, I would strongly recommend the audiobook format of The Ember Blade to those people interested in checking this book out, as you will have a lot of fun listening to it.

The Ember Blade is a modern-day fantasy masterpiece from Chris Wooding, and I am extremely glad that I managed to get a chance to read it this year. Wooding has come up with a detailed and captivating plot which combines exceedingly well with the book’s excellent group of characters and intriguing new fantasy world to create a first-rate story. This was an outstanding read which does a fantastic job introducing The Darkwater Legacy, which, if Wooding continues to write this well, has potential to become a truly great fantasy series. A highly recommended read that gets a full five out of five stars from me, this is essential reading for all fans of the fantasy genre.

Boundless by R. A. Salvatore

Boundless Cover

Publisher: HarperAudio (Audiobook – 10 September 2019)

Series: Generations – Book 2

Length: 13 hours and 3 minutes

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

From one of the world’s leading writers of fantasy fiction, R. A. Salvatore, comes an exciting and captivating new adventure that focuses on the author’s best-known protagonists, the Drow (dark elf) ranger Drizzt Do’Urden, his father Zaknafein, the rogue Jarlaxle and the Companions of the Hall.

Centuries ago, one Drow warrior was feared and respected above all others in the dark elf city of Menzoberranzan, the legendary weapon master Zaknafein. Even before the events that would eventually force him to sacrifice himself to save the life of his beloved son Drizzt Do’Urden, Zaknafein was never content with his life in Menzoberranzan. Sickened by the evil matriarchal system that rules the city in the name of the dark goddess Lolth, Zaknafein found himself trapped in the service of the ambitious Matron Malice Do’Urden. His only solace is his friendship with Jarlaxle, the charismatic leader of the mercenary band Bregan D’aerthe, with whom he forms a close bond. However, even this friendship is not immune to strife, as influential forces within Menzoberranzan attempt to turn the ranks of Bregan D’aerthe against Zaknafein.

Years later, Zaknafein has been mysteriously returned to life, finding himself in a strange new world, living within the dwarven kingdom of Gauntlgrym. Despite being reunited with his son, Drizzt, Zaknafein is once again lost; his inherent Drow distain for all non-dark elf life is making it hard for him to fit in with Drizzt’s dwarf, halfling and human friends and family. But as Zaknafein, with the help of Jarlaxle, attempts to find a new path, he is once again beset by dark and powerful opponents.

An ambitious family of human nobles from Waterdeep has combined forces with the ruler of Neverwinter, Lord Neverember, and a minor clan of dwarfs, in an attempt to topple Gauntlgrym’s king, Bruenor, and claim the elemental magical powers the great dwarven kingdom safeguards. While normally such foes would prove little threat to King Bruenor and his allies, these new enemies command a massive and ever-growing army of demons capable of overwhelming even Gauntlgrym’s substantial defences. In addition, their opponents are supported by a noble Drow House from Menzoberranzan whose matron, in a bid to become Lolth’s most favoured servant, is determined to be the Drow who finally captures Zaknafein and Drizzt. As father and son fight for their lives against their new enemies, they soon find themselves pursued by creatures far more sinister and destructive than anything they have seen before. Can the Companions of the Hall prevail, or will evil finally defeat the last bastion of light in the Forgotten Realms?

Boundless is another outstanding and incredibly enjoyable piece of fantasy fiction from one of my all-time favourite authors, the legendary R. A. Salvatore, who is easily one of the top fantasy authors of all time. This is actually the second novel from Salvatore this year, with the second book in his The Coven trilogy, Reckoning of Fallen Gods, having come out in January, and the final book in this trilogy, Song of the Risen God, is set for release in January 2020. In Boundless, Salvatore has once again returned to the iconic Forgotten Realms universe to produce another excellent story set around the character of Drizzt Do’Urden.

The dark elf ranger, Drizzt Do’Urden, is easily the most iconic and popular character that Salvatore has ever created. One of the few moral dark elf characters in all of the Forgotten Realms (the large-scale interconnected universe which has been the setting for a huge number of fantasy novels over the years), Drizzt has been one of Salvatore’s main recurring protagonist for over 30 years, ever since Salvatore’s debut novel, The Crystal Shard. I have long been a fan of Drizzt, mainly because of Salvatore’s amazing second trilogy of books, The Dark Elf trilogy, which told a captivating tale of a young Drizzt Do’Urden. Boundless is the 35th book to follow the adventures of Drizzt and his companions (if you include The Sellswords trilogy) and is the sequel to last year’s exciting fantasy adventure, Timeless. Boundless is also the second book in Salvatore’s current trilogy that focuses on Drizzt, known as the Generations trilogy, which is set to conclude next year in the final book, Relentless (a synopsis of which is already available online).

Boundless was an absolutely fantastic read which takes the reader on an epic thrill-ride through a demon invasion, the dark political underbelly of Menzoberranzan and into the heart and mind of one of Salvatore’s more complex and intriguing characters. Making exceptional use of two separate timelines, Salvatore tells a compelling and intricate story that combines a desperate battle for survival in the present with adventures in the past. Filled with action, adventure, amazing fantasy elements and an epic conclusion, this was a first-rate read that I greatly enjoyed.

This book was essentially impossible to put down from the moment I started listening to it, as Salvatore starts it off with an action packed prologue that sees a large force of halflings, dwarves and Drizzt face off against the horde of demons that were unleashed in Timeless. After this action-packed introduction, the book is then split into four parts, two of which follow the resulting battle for Gauntlgrym and the surrounding lands in the present (the present being Dalereckoning 1488), while the other two parts go back years before the events of the first book in The Dark Elf trilogy, Homeland, and tell a story of a younger Zaknafein and Jarlaxle in Menzoberranzan.

The parts set in the present offer a pretty exciting range of action and adventure as the story is split between several of the fun characters that Salvatore has introduced in all of his Forgotten Realms books. For example, throughout these parts you get to see the destructive siege of Gauntlgrym from the perspective of Bruenor, Zaknafein, Jarlaxle and the Bouldshoulder brothers (who originated in The Cleric Quintet, another one of Salvatore’s Forgotten Realms series). At the same time as Drizzt is being pursued throughout the land by a powerful magical construct, Wulfgar is caught up in an invasion of Luskan by a powerful fleet of monsters, and Regis teams up with Dahlia and Artemis Enteri to investigate their demonic opponents in Waterdeep. This was a fantastic blend of storylines in the present-day parts of the book, and I really enjoyed seeing the various adventures and perils assailing this great group of protagonists. All of the storylines in this part of the book were a lot of fun, and I really enjoyed the larger narrative that they were telling. These modern-day storylines end with a major cliff-hanger which is going to make me really want to check out the next book in this trilogy.

While the parts of the book set in Dalereckoning 1488 are pretty awesome, I have to admit that I much preferred the half of the book set back in the past. This part of the book was set over a period of several years and follows a younger Zaknafein and Jarlaxle as they navigate the highs and lows of their original friendship in the darkness of Menzoberranzan. I really liked this storyline, as it not only contained the politics, backstabbing and casual murder that makes all the stories set in Menzoberranzan so much fun, but it also explores Zaknafein’s psyche and starts to explain why he was a different Drow to the other members of his race when he was first introduced in The Dark Elf trilogy. It was also interesting to see the early days of Jarlaxle’s rise as a mercenary leader, and there is also a number of intriguing scenes that feature other Drow characters, such as Drizzt’s mother, Matron Malice, who have been dead for a while. As a result, these parts of the book serve as an excellent prequel to The Dark Elf trilogy, of which I am a massive fan. In addition, these chronologically earlier parts of the book serve to introduce some of the Drow antagonists who are threatening the characters in the present day, and it really interesting to see how the actions of Zaknafein and Jarlaxle hundreds of years in the past are impacting on the future.

I really loved this combination of the two separate timelines in the book and felt that it helped create a fantastic overall narrative. The earlier storyline of Drow house politics, friendships and small-scale grudges contrasts well with the intense war and near constant peril that makes up the 1488 storyline and helps to create a much more compelling book. I also really enjoyed how story elements, such as the exploration of Zaknafein and Jarlaxle’s friendship, or the examination of the cruel dynamics of Drow society, continued on from one part of the book to the next, and it was interesting to see how relationships and minds can change over time.

If there is one guarantee in life, it is that a Drizzt Do’Urden novel is going to feature some fancy swordplay and a ton of action. Boundless is no exception to this rule, as Salvatore has once again furnished his story with all manner of intense and detailed action and battle sequences, as his protagonists fight a variety of opponents. This makes for an exciting and really enjoyable read, as it always fun to see the various ways the Companions of the Hall engage in battle, especially since they have built up quite an impressive array of magical weapons and abilities after 35 books. In addition, Salvatore has come up with some unique and powerful opponents for this book, including two powerful magical constructs that are all but invincible and require extreme measures to combat. The parts of the book set in Menzoberranzan’s past also feature a wide array of dazzling duels and battles from Zaknafein, as he is forced to prove that he is the best weapons master in the city. The author shows off some truly impressive fight sequences in the parts of the book focusing on Zaknafein’s earlier life and Salvatore does a fantastic job providing the reader with a blow-by-blow account of what is happening. I also really liked how the author included several scenes that showed Zaknafein training for future battles in which he attempts to work out the best way to perform some elaborate or near-impossible combat move, which of course would then be utilised in a later fight. Needless to say, those looking for their next dose of fantasy action should look no further than Boundless, as Salvatore has once again provided one hell of a hit.

While I did read a physically copy of the previous book in the series, Timeless, for Boundless I ended up listening to the audiobook format instead. Boundless’s audiobook is narrated by Victor Bevine and runs for just over 13 hours, which only took me a few days to get through. I ended up having a great time listening to Boundless, especially as listening to a blow-by-blow of the amazing action sequences really helped bring these scenes to life for me. Bevine did a fantastic job of breathing life into the book’s various characters, and I really enjoyed the way that he captured the personalities of several of the characters with his performance. I also appreciated the way that he was able to emulate a number of very different characters and species throughout the course of the audiobook. Not only did he come up with sly and calculating voices for the various Drow characters, but he was also able to affect an impressive brogue for the various dwarven characters in the book. This is a fantastic range, and I quite enjoyed all of the voices that Bevine came up with. As a result, I would definitely recommend the audiobook version of Boundless to anyone who is interested, and I think that I will try to listen to next book in the trilogy.

Overall, Boundless is an outstanding and incredible new release from Salvatore, and I loved every second that I was reading it. Featuring a ton of action and some really cool plot elements, Salvatore tells a clever and intricate story that sets some high stakes for his beloved characters. Not only am I excited to see where the story goes in the next book, but I also have a very strong urge to go back and check out Salvatore’s The Dark Elf trilogy, where some of the fantastic characters explored in this book were first introduced. With this latest novel, Salvatore continues to show why he is one of the biggest names in fantasy fiction, and it is thanks to books like Boundless that I will continue to grab every new Salvatore release I can get.

Loki: Where Mischief Lies by Mackenzi Lee

Loki Where Mischief Lies

Publisher: Penguin Random House Audio (3 September 2019)

Series: Standalone/Book One

Length: 9 hours and 10 minutes

My Rating: 4.25 out of 5 stars

From acclaimed young adult fiction author Mackenzi Lee comes a fun and clever young adult tie-in novel to the Marvel comic book universe that follows the early life of one of the genre’s best villains, Loki, the Asgardian God of Mischief.

Loki has long been one of the most infamous and complicated villains in the Marvel Universe, whose manipulations and machinations are a constant threat to Asgard, his brother, Thor, and the Avengers. However, years before he started causing chaos in Midgard, he was a young prince of Asgard and the unfavoured son of Odin. Despised and mistrusted by the people of Asgard for his magical abilities, and feared by his father as a prophesied destroyer, Loki’s only confidant is Amora, a powerful sorceress in training.

When Loki and Amora accidently destroy an ancient and valuable magical artefact, Amora is banished to Midgard (Earth), where her magic will eventually fade, and Loki loses the one person who appreciates who he truly is. Determined to prove his father wrong, Loki dedicates himself to becoming a dutiful son, but he continues to find himself overshadowed by his brother’s bravery. When a failed mission once again disappoints Odin, Loki is sent to Midgard in order to investigate a series of murders that have been caused by Asgardian magic.

Arriving in 19th century London, Loki makes contact with a small group of humans who police interdimensional travel, the Sharp Society. Loki, despite his reluctance to help, soon finds himself trying to find the mysterious killer who is turning humans into living corpses. But when he discovers who is responsible for the deaths, he is once again torn between doing the right thing and acting the villain. As his adventure on Midgard continues, Loki soon realises that he needs to decide who he truly is: the good prince of Asgard his family always wanted, or the villain everyone expects him to be.

Loki: Where Mischief Lies is a rather intriguing read that caught my attention some time ago. I am a huge fan of Marvel comics and I will always be interested in checking out any tie-in novels connected to either the comics or the movies. As a result, I made sure to grab a copy of the audiobook version of this book as soon as I could. This turned out to be a fast-paced and enjoyable read that explores the life and times of a young Loki, placing him into a fascinating setting that helped enhance the story. Lee, who is best known for her young adult novels set in the 19th century, including This Monstrous Thing and the Montague Siblings books, created a great Loki story that does a spectacular job diving into the psyche of the character and shaping a fun adventure around it. This is actually the first book in a series of three historical novels that Lee has been contracted to write that will feature Marvel antiheros, and I am really interested in finding out which characters will be in these books.

Where Mischief Lies contains a compelling central storyline that follows the early days of Loki in Asgard and his first foray down to Midgard. Lee starts the story off by introducing a young Loki on Asgard, establishing his character, examining some of his early motivations, inserting a major life-changing event and inserting a magical premonition that will haunt the character throughout the rest of the book. I really enjoyed this introduction to the characters and the plot, and thought that it set up the rest of the story perfectly. The next few parts of the book, which are set after a time jump of a few years, do a good job showing how the character has evolved after the introductory events of the book, and then they manoeuvre him down to London where he has to discover the cause of a series of deaths done using Asgardian magic. The set up to get him down to London, the initial parts of Loki’s adventures on Midgard, his introduction to the Sharp Society and the first encounter with the mysterious bodies are all pretty interesting, and is a great follow-through from the book’s introductions.

I did however struggle with the middle parts of the book, as they felt a little flat and hard to get through. Those readers hoping for a complex mystery into who is leaving the bodies on the streets of London are going to be disappointed, as Loki solves the case quite quickly, and it is literally the most obvious suspect ever. I also wasn’t the biggest fan of the following periods of Loki’s indecision and angst as he tries to deal with the fallout from this revelation. However, the ending of the book more than makes up for it, as Lee wraps it up with an epic conclusion that showcases the full extent of the character’s nature and his eventual future, while also utilising story elements set up earlier in the book. While there were periods in the middle of the book where I was starting to get a little restless, I think overall the story of Where Mischief Lies is really good and its strong ending made it all worthwhile.

Thanks to his appearances in the MCU, Loki is probably one of the most popular and well-known Marvel antiheroes and characters, so any portrayal of him needed to be spot on. Luckily, Lee did an outstanding job with her characterisation of Loki, and the examination of the younger version of this character is probably one of the best things about this book. Lee’s version of young Loki contains all the hints of the growing arrogance, swagger, fashion sense, penchant for mischief and casual disdain for mortals and Asgardians that make him such a fun character in the comics and movies. However, what really makes this an excellent portrayal is the fact that Lee also shows all of Loki’s inherent vulnerability, frustration and anger, which have resulted from a childhood of being seen not only as the lesser son but as something that is dangerous and untrustworthy. This examination of the character’s inner psyche is a fantastic central point of the book, and it is interesting to see the world from Loki’s point of view, especially as you really start to sympathise with him. The story also shows some key moments in Loki’s life, and you get a sense of his motivations and determination to torment those around him. I also think that Lee did a fantastic job of examining the relationship between Loki and Thor. While a lot of their relationship is antagonistic, Thor is shown at times to be the only character who trusts Loki, and it is interesting to see the relationship that might lead to Loki’s eventual redemption. If I were to complain about any aspect of Lee’s portrayal of Loki, it would be that his powers and abilities were a bit inconsistent at times. For example, it was a little weird to see him being physically inconvenienced by a human in one scene, and then a chapter or two later he has the strength to lift two people up at the same time. While this is a relatively minor issue and I imagine that you could explain this away as some form of deception by Loki, I personally found it to be a little jarring.

One of the most intriguing aspects of Lee’s portrayal of Loki is his gender and sexuality. In the build-up to the release of Where Mischief Lies there was a lot of discussion about how this book was going highlight certain LGTB+ elements from the comic books, especially as Lee’s previous books have all contained LGTB+ components. Throughout his comic book history, Loki has been portrayed as both genderfluid and pansexual, and both of these elements of the character are explored within this new book to various degrees. While an interesting part of the character, the genderfluid aspect of Loki is only really shown to a small degree in this book. While Loki does not actually change his gender within Where Mischief Lies (which has occurred in some Marvel comics), when asked “if he prefers men or women”, he does indicate that he has been both. There are also several examples of Loki using his powers of magic to appear as a female character (with various degrees of success), and there are also scenes where he dresses in women’s clothing, usually stolen from Amora, who is amusedly annoyed that they look better on him. While it was not as fully explored as it could have been (and to be fair, it would have been hard to add it in to a novel of this length), it is really cool to see a genderfluid character being introduced into a novel connected to the Marvel Universe.

In addition to this, the pansexual aspect of Loki’s character is on full display throughout the book, as Loki has romantic connections with both male and female characters. Not only does he fall in love with Amora (there is a reason they call her The Enchantress), but a romantic connection also begins to spark between him and a young Sharp Society member, Theo. I really liked the way that Lee handled both of these romances. While the relationship between Loki and Amora ends in flames (which should come as no surprise to Marvel fans), the slowly growing feelings he shares with Theo are quite sweet and contain some rather interesting social commentary. The relationship with Theo is underscored with feelings of identity; due to the social conventions of the 19th century, Theo is unable to be who he really is. This is mirrored by Loki, who has complete freedom of sexuality and gender, but who finds that he is looked down on because of his magic, which he sees as a being major part of his identity. All of this was intensely fascinating, and I really enjoyed seeing this additional complexity explored within the character.

Another aspect of this book that I enjoyed was the various tie-ins it contained to the Marvel’s comics universe. This was a pretty comprehensive origin story for Loki, and quite honestly it could be used as a prequel to both the comics and the Marvel Cinematic Universe. However, given that there is a lot more focus on magic, runes, elves and artefacts, it should probably be more associated with the comics. Lee does a fantastic job bringing Asgard to life, and there are a number of cool references to the various settings and characters of the Thor comics that will appeal to major comic book fans. In addition to this, the author also peppers the story with other Marvel references, especially when the story goes down to Midgard. For example, there are mentions of an industrialist called Stark, talk of a green-skinned female alien and discussion that the Sharpe Society should be renamed as either SHIELD or SWORD. While all these references are rather amusing, I would say that no real prior knowledge of the comics or the movies are really required to enjoy this book, although Marvel fans will probably get more out of it.

Where Mischief Lies is being marketed as a young adult fiction novel, and I believe that this would be a great book for young teen readers, who will love this intriguing look at one of the best Marvel characters. Younger readers should be prepared for the typical amount of comic book level of violence and sex in this book, but there is really nothing that is too explicit for younger readers. I personally think that many teens will appreciate the various LGTB+ elements included in the story, and they will be interested to see this side of the character that has not been included in the movies. Like many young adult tie-in novels, Where Mischief Lies is very accessible to older readers, and I know that many will really like this take on Loki as well, making this a fantastic novel for all ages.

While I really enjoyed the awesome cover of Where Mischief Lies’ hardcover edition, I ended up listening to it on audiobook rather than grabbing a physical copy. The audiobook format of this book is narrated by Oliver Wyman and runs for just over nine hours in length. I think that was a pretty good way to enjoy Where Mischief Lies, as it proved to be a rather easy book to listen to, and I was able to complete it in only a couple of days. Wyman is an enjoyable narrator, and I really like his take on the book’s protagonist and point-of-view character, Loki. He did a fantastic job capturing various aspects of the character’s personality and speech patterns, from his sneering contempt to his frustrations at the way he is treated. This excellent narration really added a lot to my enjoyment of the novel and I would definitely recommend the audiobook format to anyone who is interested in checking this book out.

Loki: Where Mischief Lies by Mackenzi Lee was a fantastic young adult tie-in novel that does a wonderful job of bringing the character of Loki to life. I had a lot of fun listening to this novel, especially as Lee dives deep into the life and mind of Loki, exploring how he became the villain we all love. I was initially planning to give this book a rating of four out of 5 stars; however, considering how much I ended up writing about it, it must be worthy of 4.25 stars instead. I have to say that I was impressed with Lee’s talent for writing novelizations about Marvel antiheroes, and I look forward to her next book in this young adult series.

The Grace Year by Kim Liggett

The Grace Year Cover

Publisher: Del Rey (Trade Paperback – 10 October 2019)

Series: Standalone/Book One

Length: 416 pages

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

From the brilliant mind of young adult and horror author Kim Liggett comes one of the most thought-provoking reads of the year, The Grace Year.

In Garner County, a seemingly isolated town in the middle of vast wilderness, women are taught that they are magical beings whose eldritch powers are the root of all sin and whose magic can control the actions of men, causing them to do all manner of debauchery. In order to rid themselves of their magic, each girl in the village must participate in the grace year. At the start of their sixteenth year, all of the town’s young women are transported to an isolated compound deep in the woods. There they must spend an entire year together, using all their magic to survive amidst the harsh elements and the dangerous things lurking outside the fences. Only if they survive their grace year will they emerge as pure women.

Tierney James is just about to enter her grace year. As something of a rebellious soul compared to the other girls in the village, Tierney dreams of a better society in which women are not forced to survive amidst the bitter whims of the men nor pitted against other women. Hoping for a quiet life in the fields after she returns, an unexpected betrothal from her friend paints a target on her back from the other girls travelling with her. After arriving at the compound, Tierney attempts find a way for everyone to survive the harsh year. However, between the lack of food, the vicious poachers waiting outside the fence and the growing instability of the girls trapped with her, Tierney’s odds are not looking good. As the grace year continues, Tierney begins to suspect that she does not have any magic within her, and that the grace year is a lie. Can she convince her fellow participants of this before it is too late, or will Tierney be the latest victim of the grace year?

The Grace Year is a really interesting piece of fiction that features some stimulating examinations of modern society that has been getting some understandable comparisons to books like The Handmaid’s Tale. Liggett is a fantastic author who has produced a number of compelling young adult novels since her 2015 debut, Blood and Salt, each of which has some intriguing elements. Her latest book has more of a social commentary slant, as it takes a look at how younger women are viewed within our modern society.

I received a copy of The Grace Year a few weeks ago, and I have to admit that before the publisher contacted me, this book was really not on my radar. While the plot synopsis of this book sounded really interesting, it is a little outside of my usual review wheelhouse. However, after diving into this book, I found that Liggett has created a complex and creative tale in a unique setting filled with vicious action, social commentary, a moving romance and even some horror elements.

The central focus of the book is on how the world views young women and how it is capable to manipulate a society in order for certain people to remain in power. Liggett apparently based the story on a scene she witnessed in a busy subway, where a young teen girl was appraised by various people passing by her. As a result, her book is set in a rather disturbing dystopian society where a large female population is controlled by a smaller group of males and women are barely treated as people. The protagonist’s story unwinds the various methods that the men use to control the women, including through myth, religion, ceremonies, banishment and the events of the titular grace year. However, as the book progresses, there are some examples of female empowerment and thoughts of revolution that start to change the tone and direction of the book. All of these various elements ensure that The Grace Year is filled with quite a lot of social commentary that is incredibly relevant in modern times and which can be analysed in a number of different ways.

Liggett has done a great job telling her story in a well-paced and exciting manner. I found the initial parts of the book intriguing, especially when Liggett explored the various elements of the Garner County community, but my favourite part of the book covers the course of the actual grace year. There is a lot of apprehension built into the short amount of story before this point, as the narrator, Tierney, has very little actual idea of what actually occurs in the isolated compound during the grace year. In order to get to the compound, the young women have to traverse a landscape surrounded by poachers who make a legal living killing and harvesting the bodies of the grace year girls. While these poachers are a major threat, the real danger appears to come from the mental strain and manipulation of the isolation as the girls turn on each other. All this conflict and the resulting tribalism is reminiscent of Lord of the Flies and makes for some powerful and dark scenes. There is also a rather curious and tragic central romance that takes up a lot of space in the centre of the book, which not only makes for some great reading, but which also helps highlight another aspect of the author’s crazy and inventive universe. All of this makes for a very compelling story that will appeal to a wide audience of readers who will love all the excitement and the really unique fictional society that the protagonist lives in.

The Grace Year is probably one of the more complex and unique books that I have had the pleasure of reading this year. It has some compelling ideas of society and gender identity that are interesting to unravel, all wrapped up in an excellent and captivating story. This is definitely a book that needs to be read in order to fully understand it, and I would wholeheartedly recommend this book for anyone looking for an intriguing piece of literature.