Throwback Thursday – Assassin’s Code by Jonathan Maberry

Assassin's Code Cover

Publisher: Macmillan Audio (Audiobook – 10 April 2012)

Series: Joe Ledger series – Book 4

Length: 15 hours and 35 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Reviewed as part of my Throwback Thursday series, where I republish old reviews, review books I have read before or review older books I have only just had a chance to read.

For this week’s Throwback Thursday, get ready for the fourth high-stakes, action-packed instalment of Jonathan Maberry’s excellent Joe Ledger series, Assassin’s Code, which sets the titular character up against a fantastic new set of antagonists.

Joe Ledger, top field agent for the elite Department of Military Sciences (DMS), is about to have a very unusual day. On assignment in Iran, Ledger and Echo Team have been tasked with rescuing American college kids held hostage by the Iranians. After successfully rescuing the hostages, Ledger is forced at gunpoint into a meeting with a high-ranking Iranian security officer. However, instead of being arrested, Ledger is given information about an impending terrorist attack that could shake the very foundations of the world.

An unknown player apparently has several nuclear weapons in play and is planning to unleash them against a number of targets around the world. As Ledger relays this information to his superiors, he is attacked by a mysterious assailant who is faster, stronger and more deadly than anything he has faced before. Barely escaping from his attacker, Ledger finds himself being pursued through the streets of Tehran by the Red Order, an ancient group of killers whose operatives appear to intimidate even Ledger’s boss, the legendary Mr Church.

As Ledger attempts to come to terms with what exactly is hunting him, he finds himself in the crosshairs of several other secret organisations, each of which has their own agendas. As Ledger gets closer to the truth, he discovers that events are being manipulated by an old enemy. An ancient conspiracy has been revealed and the fate of the world hangs in the balance. Can Ledger defeat the monsters unleashed against him or will a new world order arise?

Assassin’s Code in the fourth book in Maberry’s Joe Ledger series, which sees an elite special forces agency go up against the worst horrors that modern science and science fiction can unleash. I have already read and reviewed several books in this series so far, including the previous three novels, Patient Zero, The Dragon Factory and The King of Plagues, as well as the 10th and latest book in the series, Deep Silence. Each of these books has proven to be fantastic dark science fiction thrillers that I have had an amazing time reading, and all four of them have received a full five-star rating from me. Assassin’s Code is another incredible addition to the series, as Maberry has once again produced an intense and clever story, with some great antagonists, a complex protagonist and a heck of a lot of high-grade action.

In his fourth Joe Ledger book, Maberry has continued to utilise the same writing format that made all the other books in the series such an awesome read. While a large amount of the storyline follows Ledger and the other members of the DMS as they attempt to investigate and then counter the threats they are up against, a large amount of the book revolves around showcasing the history that led up to the book’s current events, as well as exploring the antagonists side of the story. There are several chapters that solely focus on the antagonists, showing what they are planning and the full range of their various motivations. I always love these explorations of the antagonists as I feel it creates a much more complete and interesting overall storyline, and these alternate points of view are often used to really ramp up the book’s tension and hint at events that are going to hit the protagonists.

While he continues to successfully utilises a number of these familiar writing styles, I felt that Maberry also made sure that Assassin’s Code stood out from the other books in the series. Not only does this fourth book have a lot more of a horror vibe to it than the previous two books in the series (somewhat reminiscent of the first novel, Patient Zero) but it is also told as a rush of events over a 24-hour period. Ledger is barely given an opportunity to rest as he is attacked again and again by a series of different opponents in the hostile territory of Tehran. The author has also woven together a number of interconnected conspiracies and features appearances from several individuals and organisations, each of whom has their unique agendas throughout the plot of the book, all of which need to picked through by the reader. All these various players and motivations make for a very full story, but I quite enjoyed seeing all the various revelations come to light. Assassin’s Code is also an intriguing central piece to the whole Joe Ledger series. Not only does it introduce several key characters who become major fixtures of the series but it also introduces a number of key events in the lives of characters who were introduced in the previous books. As a result, it is a must read for those people trying to get a grip on the series as a whole and is a fantastic overall read.

In my mind, one of the best things about the Joe Ledger books are the distinctive antagonists, each of whom come across as major threats not only to the protagonists, but to the entire world. So far in the series, Ledger has had to face zombies, genetically enhanced Nazis and a powerful cabal of terrorists (whose members included Osama Bin Laden) whose attacks are used to manipulate the world for profit. In Assassin’s Code, Maberry has done a fantastic job converting an old legend into a terrifying modern threat, as the major villains of this book, the mysterious Red Order and their infamous Red Knights, are essentially vampires. Maberry already has significant experience writing vampires into the modern world, thanks to his V-Wars book series (an adaption of which is coming out on Netflix in a couple of months), and he does a great job coming up with a new and somewhat plausible explanation for their existence (well, slightly more plausible than a supernatural origin), as well as a creative historical explanation for their organisation. These vampires are written as major threats for most of the book, and the fear and concern that they cause in a number of characters whose badass credentials have been firmly established in previous books is pretty impressive. The use of vampires in modern thriller was a real highlight of this book, and I really loved seeing them go up against a modern special forces unit. Maberry spends a lot of time exploring their history, as the book features a number of interludes that go back to the time of the Crusades, when they were first recruited for their mission. All of this exploration does a fantastic job of showing what true monsters these types of vampires are, which helps the reader really root for the reader. I also really liked some of the other groups featured in this book that were formed as a direct result of the existence of vampires, including a group of modern Inquisitors and the mysterious Arklight. If I had one complaint about these antagonists, it would be that they were taken down a bit too easily in the final act, and I would have preferred a more protracted or vicious fight.

In addition to the vampires, this book also features the reappearance of two key antagonists from the previous book in the series, The King of Plagues, who are major manipulators of events behind the scenes. These characters are the former King of Fear, Hugo Vox, and the mysterious priest Nicodemus, both of whom were major players in the previous book. I really liked how Maberry continued to explore both of these cool characters, and he did a fantastic job of tying their storylines into the unique events of this book. Their respective roles in the plot of this book is quite interesting, and I really enjoyed how both their storylines progressed or ended in this novel. The true reveal of who (or what) Nicodemus is has been left for a later book, and I am very curious to see what he turns out to be.

Maberry continues to do an outstanding job utilising his complex and multilayered protagonist, Joe Ledger. While on the surface, Ledger’s defining character traits are his abilities as a special forces operative and his relentless sense of humour, the character is actually extremely emotionally damaged. Thanks to the fact that Ledger is the only character whose chapters are shown from the first-person perspective (a nice distinctive touch for the central protagonist), the reader gets a much more in-depth look at his inner thoughts, and as a result you see how the events of his life, including the events of the previous three books, have impacted his psyche. It is quite refreshing to have a character who is actually emotionally affected by the events of his books, and you get the feeling that Ledger is only a short way away from truly snapping. However, in the meantime, the thick layer of humour he overlays these feelings with is great for a laugh, and it helps gives the chapters that the character is narrating a very unique and enjoyable feel. In addition to Ledger, I really liked some of the new protagonists introduced in Assassin’s Code and I look forward to exploring them more in the future. Special mention as always needs to go the awesome supporting characters of Mr Church and Ghost, Ledger’s attack dog. With his actions and woofs, Ghost honestly has more personality that some human characters in other books I have read, while Church continues to be the ultra-mysterious intelligence god who you cannot help but want to know more about. These two characters are one of the many reasons why I am excited to check out all the future books in the series.

It should come as no surprise to those who read the plot synopsis, but Assassin’s Code is filled with wall-to-wall action. Maberry has a well-established history of doing detailed research into various forms of combat, especially martial arts, which he has actually written several books on. Maberry is able to transfer all of this knowledge into his books, creating some truly amazing action sequences. There are a huge number of great and varied battle scenes throughout the course of the book, and readers are guaranteed a pulse pumping ride as a result. Also, if you have ever wondered how martial arts trained special forces soldiers would go against vampires, than this is the book for you.

Like all the other books in the Joe Ledger series, I chose to listen to the audiobook format of Assassin’s Code, narrated by Ray Porter. Coming in at around 15 hours and 35 minutes, this is a substantial audiobook; however, due to how much I enjoyed the epic story, I powered through it in a couple of days. I would strongly recommend that readers always check out the audiobook format of this series, thanks mainly to Porter’s narration. Porter, who has so far narrated all of the Joe Ledger books, has an uncanny ability to bring this central protagonist to life. His great narration fully encapsulates Ledger’s full range of emotions, from light-hearted banter, to soul-crushing despair to powerful bursts of rage, and it is really worth checking out. In addition, Porter does some really good voices for the other characters in the book, especially Mr Church, and he is probably one of my favourite audiobook narrators at the moment.

When I started reading Assassin’s Code, I knew I was going to love it, and it did not disappoint. Not only did Maberry up the ante with some incredible antagonists but he created another complex and utterly captivating story that had me hooked in an extremely short period of time. Assassin’s Code easily gets another five stars from me, and I whole-heartily recommend the audiobook format of this book. I am planning to try and read all the other Joe Ledger books in the next couple of months as I only just found out that the story is continuing in November of this year as part of a new spin-off series. Stay tuned to see what I think of the other books in this series (spoiler alert, I think I am going to love them).

Star Trek: The Captain’s Oath by Christopher L. Bennett

Star Trek - The Captain's Oath Cover

Publisher: Simon & Schuster Audio (Audiobook – 28 May 2019)

Series: Star Trek

Length: 11 hours and 58 minutes

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Prepare to venture boldly into a new Star Trek: The Original Series tie-in novel which not only tells a deeply compelling story but also looks at several pivotal moments of Captain Kirk’s early Starfleet career that made him the captain we all know and love.

Captain James Tiberius Kirk is known throughout the galaxy as a great warrior, diplomat, explorer and hero. His story as the captain of the U.S.S. Enterprise is legendary, but how did a relatively young and inexperienced captain gain the right to take command of Starfleet’s most advanced and famous ship? What drives the young captain to be the best? And where did he get the tendency to bend Starfleet’s many rules in order to do the right thing?

Over three separate timelines set between 2261 and 2265, The Captain’s Oath follows Kirk’s early career as a captain. Looking at both his first command aboard the U.S.S. Sacagawea to his initial missions with the crew of the Enterprise, this book highlights several major conflicts and explorations that Kirk was involved in which shaped his personality and command style. From early conflicts with the Klingons, first contact missions that tested Kirk’s dedication to follow the Prime Directive to the letter, and diplomatic missions that had the potential to lead to war, these experiences will turn him into a captain worthy of the Enterprise.

I am fairly new to the world of Star Trek tie-in books, having only previously read two Star Trek novels that were released earlier this year, The Way to the Stars and Available Light. I was massively impressed by The Captain’s Oath, which was a spectacular and massively compelling read. Veteran Star Trek author Christopher L. Bennett, who has written a large number of Star Trek tie-in novels since 2004, crafted an excellent novel that not only showcases the past of an iconic character from the franchise but presents an exciting adventure at the same time.

The overarching narrative of The Captain’s Oath is told in three separate timelines. The first of these timelines starts in early 2261 and follows the early day of Kirk’s captaincy of the Sacagawea. The next timeline is set between 2262 and 2264, and also features Kirk as the Captain of the Sacagawea; however, this timeline starts after an undisclosed destructive event that crippled the ship and killed several of Kirk’s crew in the previous timeline, and follows Kirk’s adventures after this event. The final timeline is set in 2265 and starts the moment Kirk takes command of the Enterprise. It follows his first real mission as captain of his iconic ship, and ends just before the start of The Original Series television show. The book features lengthy chapters, with various adventures in different points of time spread throughout the course of the novel. These adventures are also usually shown from the perspectives of Kirk and some of the Starfleet personnel serving with him, although there are occasional scenes featuring characters aboard other Starfleet ships.

I did initially find it a little tricky to get my head around the use of multiple timelines, especially as I was listening to the audiobook format of The Captain’s Oath. However, once I got track of each of the three major timelines, I was able to appreciate what Bennett was doing with this writing style and how he wanted to tell the story. By using these multiple timelines, Bennett succeeds in telling a story that is much more complex and compelling than a linear story would have been. These multiple timelines allow the reader to get a much better sense of the main character and how he became the person he was in the first episode of The Original Series. By showing various stages of his time as a captain, Bennett is able to examine a number of key events that formed Kirk’s personality and command style. Through a series of intriguing missions and a ton of different scenarios, you get to see how Kirk reacts to both his success and his failures, and what lessons he takes with him. As the book progresses, you get to see how these earlier experiences affect his actions in the subsequent chronological missions. This was an extremely clever way to write the story, and I felt that the multiple timelines work extremely well together and helped create a powerful narrative that did a fantastic job showcasing the character of Captain Kirk.

I also really enjoyed the huge variety of Star Trek missions that Kirk and his crew went on throughout the course of the book. This book featured an amazing range of different missions that Starfleet are known for, including diplomatic undertakings, rescues, exploration, first contact and military missions in defence of the Federation. Some of these missions are quite complex in their individual content and in the way that most of them flow through and connect with later missions in the chronology. Bennett has come up with some truly unique and fantastic scenarios for this book, and through these various missions the reader is treated to some intriguing mysteries, intense battles and deep examinations of humanity and life. I really got into a number of these missions, including a fascinating mission where Kirk and his crew get trapped on a pre-spaceflight planet whose government is using propaganda to frighten the populace with non-existent invading aliens. However, the best scenario is a series of missions set during Kirk’s days as captain of the Sacagawea where he and his crew encounter an unusual group of aliens who are invading Federation space in some unique ships (the one on the cover). The various missions involving these new aliens not only result in some impressive space battles but also feature some intriguing diplomatic meetings and fascinating discussions about different forms of life, as the beings Kirk and his crew encounter are so alien that a number of key concepts such as territory and galactic borders are untranslatable to them. Each of the missions featured in this book were pretty amazing and are a testament to Bennett’s imagination and appreciation for the underlying material.

One of the things that I enjoyed about this book was the sheer amount of Star Trek references and lore that Bennett has managed to fit into this story. Fans of Kirk and The Original Series will be intrigued by this new look at Kirk’s early career as a captain and several of the pivotal adventures he undertook. The Captain’s Oath also features Kirk’s first meetings with several key characters from the series, including Spock, Sulu, Scotty and McCoy. Not only does the reader get an idea of the early relationship between Kirk and Spock, which only began when Kirk took command, but you also get to see Kirk befriend McCoy and then eventually talk him into becoming doctor for the Enterprise. In addition to the look at the major characters, there are also a number of great examinations of minor characters from the series. A great example of this is the inclusion of the Klingon character Captain Koloth, the villain of The Original Series episode The Trouble with Tribbles. While he was only in the book for a short period of time, it does answer a question about how Koloth and Kirk knew each other, as they recognise each other in the episode, and it shows why they disliked each other.

Perhaps the most interesting part of The Captain’s Oath was the inclusion of Gary Mitchell throughout the course of the book. In the show, Mitchell only appeared in one episode and was the original helmsman of the Enterprise before becoming the eventual antagonist of the episode Where No Man Has Gone Before. In this episode it is explained that Mitchell was one of Kirk’s oldest and closest friends, and Bennett spends a lot of time exploring this friendship in this book. Mitchell is shown to be a major influence on Kirk’s personality during the early days of him being a captain, helping him relax and become less beholden to Starfleet’s rules and regulations. Their friendship is an important part of the book, although it is a little tragic when you consider how it is destined to end. The book also features a few scenes with Lt. Kelso, who is killed by Mitchell in Where No Man Has Gone Before, and it is interesting to see some of his interactions with Mitchell and Kirk, considering his appearances in the show. It is curious to note that Bennett appears to have switched the roles of Mitchell and Kelso around, as Kelso is portrayed in the book as the helmsman, while Mitchell is the navigator. Nonetheless, the author uses the inclusion of Kelso to explain why Sulu was the ship’s physicist in this episode rather than helmsman, and why he was given the job in subsequent episodes.

Bennett has included some pretty deep Star Trek lore in this book, but do you need to be a major Star Trek fan to enjoy The Captain’s Oath? In my opinion, you do not. Obviously, hardcore Star Trek fans will get a lot more out of this book, no doubt appreciating all the references, minor characters and the backstory that Bennett has concocted. However, this book is easily enjoyable for people who only have a passing knowledge of the Star Trek shows or universe. Bennett makes the story extremely accessible, and many features from the franchise or history relevant to the story are explained in full detail, ensuring no one is left in the dark. Indeed, due to the awesome story, connection to The Original Series and the focus on such an iconic character, this is a great book to check out if you are curious about Star Trek books and want to see what they are like, and a lot of general science fiction readers will like some of the unique scenarios explored throughout the book. This would also be a really interesting book for those people whose only exposure to Star Trek has been the recent movies set in the alternate timeline, as this book shows a very different version of Kirk. Overall, I think that quite a wide audience can appreciate The Captain’s Oath, and it is a fantastic Star Trek tie-in book to check out.

While I did receive a physical copy of The Captain’s Oath, I decided to check out the audiobook version instead in order to fit it into my reading schedule. The audiobook format of this book is narrated by Robert Petkoff, who has a narrated a large number of previous Star Trek tie-in books, as well as several Star Trek novels coming out later this year. The Captain’s Oath audiobook runs for a pretty typical length of time for a Star Trek book, at just under 12 hours long, meaning that dedicated listeners should be able to get through this quite quickly. I really enjoyed listening to the audiobook format of this book, and I found that listening to the story helped enhance certain aspects of the plot, such as making the action sequences more exciting and providing the full impact of several of Kirks inspirational speeches. Petkoff is an excellent narrator whose work I have previously enjoyed when I listened to Available Light a couple of months ago. I noted back than that Petkoff did an amazing job imitating several key members of the Star Trek: The Next Generation cast, and I was very curious to see how he would go with characters from The Original Series. Petkoff’s voice work in The Captain’s Oath was pretty impressive, as he did an exceptional job bringing characters such as Spock, Scotty, Sulu and McCoy to life and making them sound very similar to their original portrayals in the show. Petkoff also did a pretty good Kirk, and I liked how he attempted to reproduce the captain’s iconic speech patterns from the show. Petkoff also had the opportunity to bring a huge range of different nationalities and alien species to life, and these were also very impressive, as he was able to produce some distinctive voice types from the show, including the specific vocal patterns of the Vulcans as well as several distinctive human accents. All of this made for an incredible listen, and I fully intend to check out the audiobook formats of any future Star Trek books narrated by Petkoff. Indeed, the next audiobook I am planning to listen to, The Antares Maelstrom, is narrated by Petkoff, and I look forward to listening to this latest book.

Star Trek: The Captain’s Oath is an exciting and captivating novel that does an outstanding job exploring the early life of Captain Kirk and examining some formative events that made him the character we all know and love. Author Christopher Bennett has created a compelling story that utilises multiple timelines and a series of intriguing missions to tell a complex tale that I had an amazing time reading. This is an excellent piece of Star Trek extended fiction that I would whole-heartily recommend for anyone who has ever been curious about learning more about Kirk’s story and the Star Trek universe prior to The Original Series.

Throwback Thursday – Star Trek: Boldly Go, Volume 1 by Mike Johnson and Tony Shasteen

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Publisher: IDW Publishing

Publication Date: 25 July 2017

Length: 136 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Reviewed as part of my Throwback Thursday series, where I republish old reviews, review books I have read before or review older books I have only just had a chance to read.

In this Throwback Thursday, get ready to explore the first volume of an intriguing Star Trek comic book series, Boldly Go, which presents the reader with clever new story directions spinning off from the alternate timeline Star Trek movies.

I think it is time to admit to myself that I am starting to get rather hooked on Star Trek extended universe fiction. Like my obsession with everything from the Star Wars extended universe, all it took for me to dive into this new fandom was reading a few compelling Star Trek books. Amazing titles such as Available Light and The Captain’s Oath made me realise that there are some pretty interesting Star Trek books out there. I just started listening to another Star Trek audiobook today (The Antares Maelstrom by Greg Cox, which is pretty good so far). As a result, when I recently saw some other reviewers talking about a cool-sounding Star Trek comic book series that came out a couple of years ago, I immediately went and grabbed a copy of the first volume (I am very impressionable like that). What I found was an extremely compelling Star Trek adventure that had some truly intriguing and clever elements to it.

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Star Trek: Boldly Go was an ongoing canon comic book series which started in 2016 and was set in the same continuity as the 2009 Star Trek film and its sequels. This continuity is an alternate timeline to the main Star Trek universe, which is known as the Kelvin Timeline due to the deviation that started with the time traveller Nero’s destruction of the U.S.S. Kelvin (Kirk’s father’s ship). This series was written by Mike Johnson, who has a lot of experience writing Star Trek comic book series, and featured contributions from several different artists. Boldly Go was the second ongoing series set in this timeline, following the 2011 Star Trek series which ran for 60 issues and was also written by Mike Johnson (which apparently had some really interesting-sounding storylines and which I might have to check out as well).

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Following the destruction of the U.S.S. Enterprise in Star Trek Beyond, the entire crew have been temporarily reassigned to new posts while they wait for their ship to be rebuilt. While Spock and Uhura are living on New Vulcan and Scotty is a lecturer at Starfleet Academy on Earth, Sulu, McCoy and Kirk are still serving out amongst the stars. Kirk has taken command of the U.S.S. Endeavour with McCoy begrudgingly at his side, and Sulu is serving a one-year exploration mission aboard the U.S.S. Concord.

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Events outside of their control will soon bring the former crew of the Enterprise back together, when the Concord encounters a ship of unknown design on the edge of Federation space. The ship is extremely powerful and technologically advanced and it attacks without warning, easily carving off pieces of the Concord with its destructive weapons. As alien boarders abduct members of the crew and devastate the ship, only one thing is certain: resistance is futile!

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The Borg Collective, one of the most dangerous races in the entire galaxy, have arrived in this version of Federation space nearly 100 years earlier than they were supposed to. Their motives are unclear, but as they attack several Federation vessels and settlements it is clear that they are en route to the capital of the Romulan Empire, Romulus. Answering the Concord’s distress call, Kirk and the Endeavour follow the Borg sphere after picking up Spock and Uhura. Forced to enter Romulan space, can Kirk and his crew save the abducted humans and defeat the Borg, or will actions provoke war with the Romulans? And what connection do the Borg have to the events that made this alternate timeline and formed this version of the Enterprise’s crew?

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This first volume of Boldly Go is a massive ball of fun that I had a great time reading. Not only does it feature a captivating and enjoyable story with some real cool twists; it also takes this Star Trek universe in some interesting directions. Featuring issues #1-6, this first volume starts a few months after the events of Star Trek Beyond and continues several of the fun storylines explored in the movies and the 2011 ongoing comic book series.

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This first volume features a bunch of interesting storylines. Issues #1-4 contain the volume’s major storyline, the invasion of the Borg into Federation and Romulan space. This is an extremely action-packed storyline, and I really enjoyed seeing the Borg, who are probably the best Star Trek antagonists ever created, go up against the classic crew of the Enterprise. The entire Borg storyline is cleverly written, with high stakes and explosive action sequences, and it has some really cool moments. If you have ever wanted to see what would happen if the Borg tried to assimilate Spock (and let’s face it, who wouldn’t find that awesome) then this is the comic for you.

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Issues #5 and #6 contain two different, intriguing storylines. Issue #5 contains a rather emotional story that examines the history of the fan-favourite character from Star Trek Beyond, Jaylah. Told chronologically backwards, this issue shows Jaylah’s tragic life trapped on the planet Altamid, and then goes further back to explore how she and her family were marooned there and the events of her past that would eventually lead her to Starfleet. The sixth and final issue in the volume continues some of the storylines from the first four issues of the series, reunites the always funny Scotty with the rest of the main characters and shows a rather curious story about an extremely advanced species of aliens interfering with the Endeavour in violation of their own version of the Prime Directive.

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While all of the storylines featured within this first volume are compelling and filled with emotional plot developments, it was also cool to see this version of the Enterprise crew once again. I really liked seeing how their adventures continued post-Star Trek Beyond, especially because, at the moment, it looks like Beyond is going to be the last film in this particular series of Star Trek films (which is a real shame, as some of the plans for the next instalment sounded particularly awesome). I did feel that the creative team of this comic did a fantastic job capturing the tone of the new movies and the personalities of these versions of the characters, and overall I found the story within this volume to be quite impressive.

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In addition to the great story, dedicated Star Trek fans will find some of plot inclusions to be extremely interesting, as they draw on some unique pieces of Star Trek lore. This volume features alternate timeline versions of characters from the original series, such as Captain Terrell, an older version of whom previously appeared in The Wrath of Khan, and there are intriguing hints at features of the Romulan Empire, such as the feared Tal Shiar. I also cannot get past how awesome it was to see the Borg in this timeline. Jackson has previously experimented with having this version of the original Enterprise crew interact with classic villains from other Star Trek shows. For example, they encountered Q in Jackson’s previous comic book series set in the Kelvin Timeline. However, it was particularly cool having the crew fight the Borg, and it resulted in a number of amazing scenes.

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I found the explanation for why the Borg were in Federation space during this time period to be extremely clever. In the main Star Trek universe, the Borg did not attack the Federation until the events of Star Trek: The Next Generation, set around 100 years after the start of The Original Series. However, in this comic, the Borg were attracted to the Federation much sooner than expected. The reason for this is eventually shown to be because Nero, the antagonist of the 2009 Star Trek film, constructed his massive ship, the Narada, out of Borg technology. This naturally drew the attention of the Borg, who travelled to Federation space at a much quicker rate than they did in their original appearance. While this explanation is pretty fascinating by itself, it actually results in some interesting connections with the main Star Trek universe. Technically, this alternate timeline is still considered to be within the canon of the main universe, as it was created when characters from this timeline, Nero and Spock from The Original Series, travelled back to the day Kirk was born. As a result, if the Narada contained Borg technology, then it is reasonable to assume that the Romulans are experimenting with captured Borg material in the main universe after The Next Generation ended. This has subsequently been somewhat confirmed, as the recent Comic Con trailer for the upcoming television series Picard showed images of Romulans dissecting Borg prisoners. As Picard is going to be set after the destruction of Romulus in the main Star Trek universe, it appears that this comic actually predicted events from the show before it was even in production (or else the creators of the show read this comic). This deep dive into Star Trek lore is really cool, and it is interesting to see ideas spawned in this comic have impacts in an upcoming show.

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This volume of Star Trek Beyond features some fantastic artwork from a variety of skilled artists. The main artist for the first five issues is Tony Shasteen, with Davide Mastrolonardo serving as colourist. Their combined artwork is pretty spectacular, and I really enjoyed it. Not only did they do a fantastic job of recreating the alternate timeline versions of the Enterprise crew, but the drawings of space, battles and the destruction of the Borg are amazing. I particularly liked the character designs of the Borg drones, especially when some of the Starfleet characters are converted into drones. I was also really impressed by an extended sequence that took place in Spock’s mind, where the Borg infiltrated his memories of several events of the 2009 film, and they made for a great scene. Issue #6 was drawn by Chris Mooneyham, with J. D. Mettler doing the colours. This naturally results in a noticeably different art style for this final issue, but this team does a great job of portraying some interesting scientific anomalies in space. Overall, the artwork featured within this volume is exciting and very well-done, and I had a great time seeing how the artists rolled out this adventure.

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Volume 1 of Star Trek Beyond is a fantastic comic book that is really worth checking out. The creative team have done a wonderful job portraying a new story that takes place in the aftermath of the last Star Trek movie. There are some really compelling story ideas taking place in this volume, and Johnson made sure to go big by bringing in a fantastic bunch of antagonists from The Next Generation. Best read by existing fans of the Star Trek franchise who will enjoy the creative team’s unique take on the characters and their adventures, this comic will also be appreciated by casual Star Trek fans who have only seen the more recent movies. I am extremely glad I decided to explore this Star Trek comic book series, and I will definitely be grabbing the next two volumes of this series when I next visit the comic book shop. This first volume gets four and a half stars from me and is an outstanding piece of Star Trek fiction.

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Red Metal by Mark Greaney and Lt. Col. Hunter Ripley Rawlings IV. USMC

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Publisher: Audible Studios (Audiobook – 16 July 2019)

Series: Standalone/Book One

Length: 21 hours and 21 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Get ready for World War III, because bestselling author Mark Greaney has teamed up with Lt. Col. Hunter Ripley Rawlings IV. USMC to create an absolutely incredible military thriller, Red Metal, which looks at how a potential invasion from Russia would unfold.

After years of war in the Middle East, the United States and their allies are preparing themselves for the next conflict. Many believe that this war will occur in the Pacific Ocean against China, especially after the Chinese begin to interfere in Taiwanese politics in an attempt to reunify the island nation with the mainland. As Chinese troops gather just outside of Taiwan and the United States military is rocked by a debilitating scandal, hardly anyone is expecting a move from Russia.

Since the end of the Cold War, Russia has been in an economic decline, and it desperately requires access to various advanced resources to remain a world power. An ambitious Russian colonel has come up with a complex plan to secure a vital Rare Earth mine that has the potential to secure the country’s future. Launching a high-speed and ruthlessly coordinated attack as Christmas falls, Russian forces stream across the border into Europe, crippling NATO and cutting the continent off from the United States. As America and NATO attempt to work out the extent of Russia’s plans in Europe and counter them, they are left distracted from Russia’s true goal as a second Russian army is secretly heading towards the African coast in order to reach the mine in Kenya.

As Russia continues its advance, the fate of the free world lies in the hands of several different individuals. In Washington, a veteran Marine Lieutenant Colonel and his colleagues attempt to decipher the Russian strategy before it is too late, while in Africa, a wily old French Intelligence agent and his Special Forces son must uncover why undercover Russian agents are abroad in Djibouti. In Europe, a mixture of unprepared NATO soldiers, including a young member of the Polish militia, an out-of-his-depth American tank commander and a high-flying US pilot must fight against the odds to push back against the invading Russian force. As epic battles erupt across several countries, one thing is clear: the world will never be the same again.

Wow, just wow. A few months ago, I predicted that along with The Kremlin Strike, Red Metal was going to be one of the top military thrillers of 2019. I am more than happy to report that I was 100 per cent right, as this was an outstanding read that I had an absolute blast listening to. The team of experienced thriller writer Mark Greaney, who is best known for his work on Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan Universe and his own bestselling Gray Man series (make sure to check out my review for the latest book in this series, Mission Critical, here) and debuting author Lt. Col. Hunter Ripley Rawlings IV. USMC, have created a sensational book that I have no choice but to award a full five stars to.

Contemporary military thriller is a genre that I have only started getting into recently, although so far I have enjoyed some great examples, including The Moscow Offensive by Dale Brown, Treason by Rick Campbell and Red War by Kyle Mills. However, in my opinion Red Metal stands heads and shoulders above all of these books and it is probably the best pure military thriller that I have read. The authors of this book have come up with a truly fascinating military scenario that sees Russia sweep across two continents and influence conflict in a third. The Russians in this book have a really clever and effective military strategy that results in a massive, widespread conflict, and the reader gets to see every step of it unfold. This entire plan seems exceedingly realistic, and it is clear that Greaney and Rawlings have put some real thought into how war could break out and how the various participants would react. They really dive into the minutiae of the whole scenario and try to cover all the angles of an invasion of Europe and Africa, including cutting off communications, setting up an alternate navigation system, hacking the US and creating a number of plausible diversions. Never before has a discussion about the different sized rail tracks and rail switching stations in Europe been so fascinating. The scope of this conflict is really impressive, and the authors do a fantastic job showcasing the various types of battle that would occur in this sort of modern-day war between major superpowers. As a result, this book is filled with fighting on land, sea, air, underwater and even in cyber space, in an impressive thought exercise which translates into a compelling piece of fiction.

I really liked how the authors chose to tell this story from a variety of different perspectives, as Red Metal features a huge number of point-of-view characters. While the story is mostly focused on a few key characters, a number of minor characters often get one or two scenes, and the reader gets to see how the war unfolds from both sides of the conflict. As a result, the reader gets a much fuller understanding of how this potential scenario would unfold and how various countries or organisations such as NATO would react to war breaking out. The authors also make great use of the various perspectives to ratchet up tension throughout the book as the readers are privy to the full extent of the Russians plans. This results in the reader being fully aware of all the mistakes that the Americans and their allies are making in this war, and by the time they get their act together it seems like it is too little, too late.

The use of various perspectives also helps to create a number of different characters that the reader can really get invested in. While many of characters introduced only have small roles in the overall narrative, the authors do some detailed explorations of the backgrounds and story arcs of several key characters. Some of these characters have really well-written and have some enjoyable or intriguing storylines. I personally enjoyed the story of Paulina, a young recruit in Poland’s Territorial Defence Force (a volunteer military reserve) the most. Paulina finds herself thrust into the middle of the Russian invasion and is quickly transformed from an innocent girl to a hard-eyed killer in a few short days thanks to the horrors of war. Paulina’s story is extremely captivating, and it is potentially the character that most non-soldiers reading this book are going to identify with as they are left thinking how they would react in a similar situation. It was really quite interesting to see what role people in the various scenarios could potentially play, and I really liked seeing what sort of difference a small group of determined soldiers could make in a conflict such this.

One of the things that I really loved about this story was the realistic portrayal of the various armed forces involved in this book and the detailed examination of everything that needs to be considered in a war. This book is chocked full of military terminology, descriptions of various weapons and tactics, slang, military history and a variety of other complex features. You have to imagine the inclusion of all of these details is largely thanks to Rawlings and his extensive military experience, and I really enjoyed how the authors were able to seamlessly insert all of this knowledge into the story. Having all this information as the story progresses is extremely fascinating and I learnt a lot of cool facts. It also really amped up the realism of the whole story, in my opinion, and I found the story to be a whole lot more compelling as a result.

It is important to point out that Red Metal is not the male character dominated, exceedingly pro-American story that some military thrillers are; instead the writers went out of their way to produce a more balanced story. For example, the book features a number of great female characters, most of whom are involved in the war in some way or another, and it was cool to see how women are utilised in the modern military. The authors also take the time to show Russia’s side of the conflict and explain their motivations for engaging in this battle against the west. While a number or Russian characters are pretty villainous and/or murderous, they do tend to have some reasonable motivations for their actions, and indeed they see themselves as the good guys in this conflict. There are also a few more pragmatic Russian officers featured in the book who are a lot more likeable, especially as they come across as a bit more compassionate and less eager for war and destruction. The United States is also not heavily portrayed as the world’s most awesome country, as some military thrillers do. Instead the country is shown to be extremely unprepared for a Russian invasion, their military command is initially easily manipulated and a response to Russia’s actions is hampered by politics or pettiness from a superior officer. That being said, the book does feature a number of extremely pro-American scenes and sentiments, and there is even a sequence where an American pilot flies into combat shouting “die Commie die”, although to be fair, it is described as a historical military mantra developed in the Cold War to help pilots time their length of fire. The end result of the conflict between America and Russia is also what you’d pretty much expect, but it still makes for one hell of a read.

While the authors have added some interesting depth to this story, at its heart it is a military thriller, and that means that this book is chocked full of action. There are a huge number of fantastic and extended battle sequences throughout the entire book, some of which are truly epic in their size and content. Readers are really spoiled for action in Red Metal, as the authors have included all manner of different types of battles with a huge range of different vehicles and weapons. This book features battles in the air, at sea, underwater in submarines, on the ground with the grunts and in a variety of locations with Special Forces regiments. There are a number of impressive and memorable sequences, including a large amount of tank on tank combat, as two enemy armoured regiments face off against each other. I personally really enjoyed a particularly brutal ambush of Russian tanks in Poland, as Polish militia attempt to defeat a superior force in the middle of a city. The main set-piece has to be an extended battle between a variety of Russian units, and a force of United States Marines down in Africa. This battle down in Africa is particularly impressive, as the authors do an awesome job of bringing the fighting to life, and the sheer chaos of war and the ferocity of both sides as they try to win through any means necessary. All this action is pretty darn amazing, and the authors really outdid themselves with it.

I chose to listen to the audiobook format of Red Metal, which is narrated by experienced audiobook narrator Marc Vietor. I am really glad that I picked up the Red Metal audiobook as it was an amazing way to enjoy this fantastic book. Vietor did an excellent job narrating this book, and I felt that listening to the story brought all the intense action to life and helped place me in the centre of the story. Due to the book featuring a huge number of different nationalities, the story featured a range of character accents, all of which Vietor did extremely well, producing distinctive and memorable voices for each of his characters. The Red Metal audiobook runs for 21 hours and 21 minutes and it is an excellent format to consume this incredible novel.

Red Metal is a tour-de-force from Greaney and Rawlings, who have produced one hell of a military thriller. These two authors are a potent writing team, as Greaney’s experience as a thriller writer and Rawlings’s military knowledge helps create an epic read that just pumps the reader full of intense action, clever storylines and memorable characters. I really hope that these two authors continue to work together in the future, as Red Metal was a really impressive first collaboration. Five out of five stars all the way, you have to check out this book.

Spaceside by Michael Mammay

Spaceside Cover

Publisher: Harper Voyager (Ebook – 27 August 2019)

Series: Planetside – Book Two

Length: 336 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Last year, Michael Mammay debuted an absolutely incredible book, Planetside, the outstanding science fiction thriller that absolutely blew me (and the planet of Cappa) away with its inventiveness, addictive story and explosive conclusion. Now Mammay attempts to follow up this amazing first novel with a second book in his Planetside series, Spaceside.

I mentioned several times already on my blog how much I loved Planetside last year. Mammay’s first book was a spectacular story that blended a science fiction story about an advanced human military occupying an alien planet with an intriguing thriller around a missing soldier. Planetside was easily one of the best books I read in 2018, and I still cannot get past that epic finale to the story.  As a result, when I found out that Mammay was following it up this year with Spaceside, I knew that I would have to read it, and featured it in both a Waiting on Wednesday post and my Top Ten Most Anticipated July-December 2019 Releases list. I was lucky enough to get an advanced electronic copy of Spaceside from Mammay and the publisher, and it did not take me long to dive in and read this book. I had pretty high expectations, considering how good the first entry in the series was.

In Planetside, veteran soldier Colonel Carl Butler is sent to the planet of Cappa to find a young officer who mysteriously disappeared following a mission against an insurgent group of the local aliens, the Cappans. Butler’s mission quickly revealed a massive conspiracy where elements of the occupying human military had been working with the Cappans to genetically modify humans with Cappan DNA, creating a dangerous hybrid species. After uncovering the existence of these hybrids and the full extent of the technology that had been traded to the Cappans, Butler is forced to make the terrible decision to initiate a major missile strike against Cappa to prevent a huge number of Cappans and hybrids from escaping into the wider galaxy. His actions stop the planned exodus and devastate the planet, killing a huge number of Cappans. Butler is subsequently arrested, frozen and sent back home for court martial, with his fate unrevealed in the last book.

Spaceside begins about two years after the events of Planetside, and reveals that Butler is now the most infamous man in the galaxy. While many view him as a hero, others consider him a genocidal monster. Forced out of the army, Butler now has an easy job as Deputy VP of Corporate Security for Varitech Production Company, a high-tech military company on the planet of Talca Four. In theory he helps protect the company against corporate threats, but in reality his job is to impress clients and utilise his substantial military connections for his bosses’ benefits.

As a result, he is surprised one day when he is called into the CEO’s office and given an actual security assignment. A rival tech company, Omicron Technology, has had a breach in their supposedly unhackable computer systems, and Varitech wants to know how it happened and whether their own systems are vulnerable. With no obvious leads and no-one claiming credit for the hack, Butler reaches out to one of his contacts working at the impacted company. However, shortly after their meeting, Butler’s contact is found dead and Butler is now the police’s prime suspect.

Determined once again to find out the truth no matter what, Butler starts to dig around at Omicron and discovers that they were working on a secret project with links to his time on Cappa. When information arrives from the most unlikely of places, Butler is once again drawn into a massive conspiracy that he is not meant to survive. Can he find a way out of this, or will he be forced to redo his greatest mistake?

Wow, just wow. This was another exceptional book from Mammay, who has once again produced a fantastic science fiction thriller hybrid with some amazing moments in it. I absolutely loved this follow-up to Planetside, which not only contains another addictive story with an amazing protagonist but also serves as an excellent sequel to the first book. I powered through Spaceside extremely quickly and loved every minute I spent glued to my screen. This gets another five out of five stars from me, and I reckon that I will once again be placing Mammay’s latest book on my top reads of the year list.

Just like the previous book in the series, Spaceside, is a compelling thriller set in a great science fiction environment and with some intriguing military thriller and science fiction elements thrown into it. However, in this book, the protagonist is no longer an official investigator for the military but a civilian involved in events that appear to be corporate espionage. This results in an intriguing change of pace from the first book that I quite enjoyed. Butler is much more of an outsider in this book, and his methods of investigating the potential crime and attempting to uncover the conspiracy are a lot more clandestine than before. Mammay takes this thriller based storyline to some interesting places and forces the protagonist to make some surprising alliances in order to survive and get to the bottom of the investigation. While the story is more focused on corporations than the army, there is still a strong military element to the book, as Butler is investigating military technology companies. There is also a strong amount of military action towards the end of the book as Butler once again sees combat against an enemy. Mammay writes some strong military action based sequences in his books, and the reader can almost see the detailed and well-written fight scenes. All of this results in an extremely strong main storyline that leaves open the potential for another intriguing entry into this series.

I was really happy that Mammay continued to follow the adventure of his protagonist from Planetside, Carl Butler. Butler, who serves as the story’s narrator and point-of-view character, is a fantastic protagonist who was one of my favourite parts of the first book. Butler is a blunt and honest old character, whose craggy, veteran solider outlook on life infects his narration of events and helps the reader connect with his story. Just like in Planetside, Butler is reluctantly dragged into the events of this book and goes up against a seemingly superior opponent, who thinks that they know how to manipulate the old soldier. However, Butler is a wily operator who is able to turn the situations to his advantage through his rough charm and experience of dealing with people, especially former military personnel, who assist him with his investigation and help keep him alive. I particularly liked the clever way that he was able to manipulate the situation towards the end of the book by playing on certain character’s weaknesses, military training and humanity, and while his final plan did not have the explosiveness of his actions at the conclusion of Planetside, it was still a great scene. I look forward to seeing what sort of trouble Butler gets up to in any future instalments of this series, as he is a truly enjoyable protagonist.

I felt that Spaceside also did a great job following on from the story established in the first book of the series. I really enjoyed seeing how the author followed through with several of the storylines left open at the end of Planetside, as well as how he explored a number of the consequences of the protagonist’s actions. The main way that this was achieved was by showing the reader how Butler’s life changed following his bombing of Cappa. Because the story is told from Butler’s point of view, we get to see how the guilt from his actions and the events that led up to them has affected his psyche. Despite the tough outer shell he shows most people, Butler is struggling with whether he did the right thing and must now deal with being the most infamous person in the galaxy, receiving glares or praise wherever he goes. These events and inner thoughts impact how he reacts to certain events later in the book, and it is a clever and natural progression for the character.

In addition to the focus on Butler, Mammay makes sure to include several characters from the first book so the reader gets to see how their storylines progressed. Not only does this help bring in a previously established sidekick for Butler, as well as a sassy reporter contact who gives him intel and clues, but it also brings back Butler’s old mentor and friend, General Serata, for a tense scene. Serata was the man who sent Butler to Cappa in the previous book, and in many ways he is responsible for the destruction on Cappa as he knew how his old friend would be forced to act in response to what was going on there. It was great seeing these two characters awkwardly try to discuss the events of the previous book and come to terms with Serata’s manipulation of Butler. All of this makes for a gripping follow-up to the first book, and I really enjoyed seeing how the author addressed some of the events from Planetside.

Spaceside is an incredible second outing from Michael Mammay, who has a truly bright future in the science fiction genre. I once again found myself drawn into the excellent story and fantastic central protagonist of this book, as Mammay does an outstanding job crafting together a clever and addictive narrative that does a spectacular job following on from the author’s amazing debut, Planetside. Spaceside gets a full five stars from me, and I am already looking forward to Mammay’s next enjoyable book.

Howling Dark by Christopher Ruocchio

Howling Dark Cover

Publisher: Gollancz and Recorded Books (16 July 2019)

Series: Sun Eater – Book 2

Length: 679 pages or 28 hours and 3 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Outstanding new author Christopher Ruocchio, who blew me away last year with his debut novel, Empire of Silence, returns with the second book in his brilliant Sun Eater series, Howling Dark.

Empire of Silence was one of my favourite books from last year, easily making my Top Ten Reads for 2018 list, and I absolutely loved the author’s highly addictive story and its vast new science fiction universe. This was a fantastic first book from Ruocchio, and when I finished it, I really wanted to know what happened next. As a result, I have been waiting to read this sequel for a while, having done a Waiting on Wednesday article on it and including it on my Top Ten Most Anticipated July – December 2019 Releases list. I was pretty excited to receive a copy of this book a few weeks ago, especially as Ruocchio was nice enough to mention my blog in his acknowledgements (this has not affected my review or rating in any way). However, due to having a huge number of other books that were high priority reads, I ended up listening to the audiobook format of Howling Dark instead, which is narrated by Samuel Roukin. I had extremely high hopes when I started reading this book, and I was definitely not disappointed by the final result.

The Sun Eater series is set far in humanity’s future, where humans have left Earth and expanded out to thousands of worlds. While humanity, mostly in the form of the Roman-inspired Sollan Empire, has flourished, for the last four hundred years they have been fighting a brutal and destructive war with the Cielcin, a spacefaring race of aliens who have destroyed hundreds of colonies and billons of humans. Each of the books in the series is written as a part of the autobiographical chronicle of series’ protagonist, Hadrian “Halfmortal” Marlowe, otherwise knowns as the Sun Eater. Hadrian is the man who will one day destroy a sun in order to burn every Cielcin to a cinder, and in doing so become both history’s greatest hero and most infamous monster. However, these events are set to occur much further on in the future, and these earlier books focus on the events that formed Hadrian’s character, and show how he became the man to end it all.

In Howling Dark, the story is set some 50 years after the events of Empire of Silence. During this time Hadrian Marlowe has been wandering the outer fringes of the galaxy trying and failing to find a myth. Leading a band of mercenaries, former gladiators and disguised Imperial legionnaires, and carrying a cargo of frozen Cielcin prisoners, Hadrian hopes to travel the lost planet of Vorgossos. The planet’s mysterious master apparently has a way to contact the Cielcin, who Hadrian hopes to finally negotiate peace with, ending the brutal war that has ravaged both races.

However, finding Vorgossos has proven far more difficult than Hadrian initially anticipated. The legendary planet is well hidden, and the only way to uncover its location is to deal with the Extrasolarians, a group of humans who live outside of Imperial control and whose reliance on technology and enhancements borders on the heretical. As Hadrian and his companions locate a promising lead, they are suddenly ordered back to the fleet as the war against the Cielcin needs every soldier.

Determined to bring his plan for peace to fruition, Hadrian and his companions disobey these orders and go rogue. Entering the worlds of the Extrasolarians, the Exalted and other grim horrors at the edge of the known universe, they are able to obtain passage to Vorgossos. However, what they find at their destination may be even worse than the alien foes they are attempting to contact. Between facing technological monstrosities, a cruel, immortal king and the appearance of humanity’s oldest and most feared enemy, Hadrian has his work cut out for him. But the further along his path he travels, the more Hadrian begins to understand the grim destiny in front of him and the terrible cost he will have to pay.

This is another epic book from Ruocchio! Howling Dark is a dark, gothic science fiction masterpiece that was an absolute treat to read, and which really highlights the author’s creativity and ability to create a wide-ranging universe with some unique and captivating features.

This was another incredible and ambitious story from Ruocchio, who takes the reader on an extended and powerful adventure through his great universe. The Howling Dark contains a lengthy and compelling plot which goes in some very interesting directions. While this is a long book, Ruocchio does a great job of pacing the story out, and there is rarely a moment where the plot is not progressing in an intriguing way, or where the reader is left bored. I really enjoyed some of the dark places that the author took the story in this book, and there are a variety of cool new locations, antagonists and other monsters that the protagonist and his friends need to deal with in one way or another. Hadrian goes through some notable character development in this story as he takes more and more steps down the road to becoming the biggest legend in the universe. Howling Dark has a pretty epic conclusion to it, with some major plot developments occurring in the last 100 pages or so, and I really liked how Ruocchio wrapped up the storyline. Overall, this book has an intense and captivating storyline to it, and I am exceedingly glad I got a chance to read it.

I did find that the start of the book was a tad hard to get into. Due to the complex storylines (and possibly because I have read so many different books in the last year) it took me a little while to remember whom some of the characters were and where the plot was up to. It did not help that the story had jumped ahead by 50 years, and some of the events that occurred during this break are mentioned a few times at the start of the book. However, once I was able to get my bearings, it did not take me long to get hooked on the story and I had no problems following the enjoyable plot, especially as the author does a great job explaining these missing events and offering the reader several recaps of the events from the first book. Readers of the physical copy of Howling Dark will also be helped by the detailed dramatis personae, index of worlds and lexicon of terms that is included at the back of the novel, which can really help to clear up some confusion about the events that have occurred. I would say that readers would probably be best served checking out Empire of Silence first before trying to read Howling Dark, but I believe that new readers will be able to fully enjoy this story once they reach the recaps and get a sense of what happened in the previous books.

I really enjoyed how Ruocchio continued to write his story in the chronicle format that worked so well in the first book. Each of the books in the Sun Eater series are presented as part of a self-written chronicle of Hadrian’s life, penned some years in the future after he destroyed the sun. As a result, the story is told exclusively from Hadrian’s perspective and features his memories of the various events that formed his character. This is a great way to tell the story, mainly because the reader gets to see a contemplative version of the narrative. There is a real and palpable sense of regret in Hadrian’s narration, which really adds to the book’s grim tone, as the reader gets to hear the protagonist recount events that are not only traumatic for him, but which set him down the path to his defining moment. Due to Hadrian’s lifetime of self-reflection, you also get a far more in-depth examination of the character’s motivations for taking certain actions, as well as an analysis of why other characters acted the way did, which adds a great edge to the story. I also liked how the protagonist hinted at some of the key moments that occur later in the book or may occur in later books. This dramatic irony does a wonderful job of keeping a sense of tension in the air, as the reader knows that the worst is yet to come. Ruocchio’s use of the chronicle format for these novels is cleverly done, and I really enjoyed how it helped enhance the overall story.

Possibly Ruocchio’s biggest strength as a writer is his amazing ability to come up with a widespread and intriguing new universe to use as a setting for his fantastic story. This was one of my favourite things about Empire of Silence, as I loved the large, sprawling human empire that Hadrian lived in during the first book. This Sollan Empire was created after a major war with artificial intelligences thousands of years before, and therefore any technology that is too advanced or which thinks for itself is considered heretical by a controlling religious organisation. The massive empire is heavily inspired by the Roman Empire, with a similar government, military system, social castes and culture. This also affects the overall tone of the story, as the narrator, Hadrian, is a true son of this empire, and thus has a classical education that guides his overall view of life. As a result, the story is filled with the Hadrian quoting a number of historical verses and aphorisms to tell his tale, which really helps to give the overall story a more classic tone in the science fiction environment. I really liked this cool combination of science fiction elements with this antique mindset, and the general history of the Sollan Empire, with its veneration of other historical empires such as the Romans or the Victorians, is deeply interesting. This Sollan Empire actually reminded me a bit of the Imperium from Warhammer 40k, which also has a Roman inspiration and overarching gothic theme to them. As a fan of Warhammer 40k, it was cool see a universe built along similar ideas, and Ruocchio comes up with a number of clever and unique new elements to make his Sollan Empire stand out. Although most of the story in Howling Dark is spent outside of the main empire, the author still spends time expanding on elements of this massive organisation, and the reader gets more of a sense of them. I especially enjoyed seeing the Imperial legions in battle during this book, and it results in a number of incredible scenes that I really enjoyed.

Ruocchio also does an outstanding job introducing a number of intriguing new universe elements to this book in the form of the Extrasolarians. I found the dive into the world of the Extrasolarians to be extremely fascinating, especially as Ruocchio let his creativity run wild during this part of the books, coming up with all manner of technological marvels, body augmentations, genetic modifications and other science fiction wonders. However, many of these technologies have a darker side to them, which the protagonist and his friends find out the hard way. Some of these modifications are downright creepy, and this really helped the author create a dark and distinctive expansion to his universe. I was especially impressed with one of the new antagonists of this story, Kharn Sagara, a sinister, technologically enhanced ancient with hidden motivations (check out the cover below to see how cool his character design is). The reader also gets a much more in-depth look at the Cielcin in this book, as the protagonist starts to understand more about them and how they think. Ruocchio does a fantastic job exploring the mindset of these creatures and showing them as truly alien beings with very little similarities to humanity, and the reader starts to get an understanding of why Hadrian will eventually be forced to destroy them. All of this is really cool, and I could honestly go on for pages about all the cool world building that Ruocchio does in this book, it was that impressive.

As I mentioned above, I ended up listening to Howling Dark’s audiobook format. The audiobook runs for 28 hours and 3 minutes and is narrated by Samuel Roukin, who does a fantastic job bringing this story and the characters to life. This is a lengthy audiobook, and readers will need to make a bit of room in their listening schedule to get through it. It is actually the longest science fiction audiobook that I have ever listened to (so far) and would easily make my Top Ten Longest Audiobooks That I Have Listened To list. I found that Howling Dark’s audiobook format was a great way to enjoy this epic novel. I always find that listening to a complex story helps me absorb a lot more of the story and universe details, making for a much fuller read. This was definitely true for Howling Dark, as I was able to really appreciate the huge amount of gothic science fiction detail that Ruocchio installed in his work. I also found that Roukin’s narration also did a wonderful job of capturing Hadrian’s inherent regret and despair, and this really helped me appreciate the entirety of the book’s story. Roukin also creates some terrific voices for the various characters and does a fantastic job bringing them to life through the audiobook. This was a fantastic format to enjoy Howling Dark with, and I will strongly consider listening to the audiobook of the next book in this series.

Overall, I think that Christopher Ruocchio does an excellent job following up on his spectacular debut, Empire of Silence. Howling Dark is an amazing read that I absolutely loved. Ruocchio has come up with a complex story for this book, which is massively enhanced by his clever writing style and impressive imagination. Clearly, Empire of Silence was no fluke, as Howling Dark gets a full five stars from me. I am really looking forward to checking out the next book in the series, especially as Ruocchio has left a huge number of intriguing storylines open, and I fully intend to stick with this series until Hadrian destroys that sun.

Howling Dark Cover 2

The Lost Ten by Harry Sidebottom

The Lost Ten Cover

Publisher: Zaffre (Hardcover – 18 April 2019)

Series: Standalone

Length: 351 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

One of my favourite authors, Harry Sidebottom, returns with another excellent piece of Roman historical fiction, The Lost Ten.

Sidebottom is a particularly skilled historical fiction author who has written some amazing novels in the last 10 years, all of which have focused on the Roman Empire in the turbulent 3rd century AD. His works have included his excellent Warrior of Rome series, which features one of the first books I ever reviewed, King of Kings, and his well-researched Throne of the Caesars series. Sidebottom also wrote a fantastic historical fiction/thriller hybrid last year, The Last Hour, a truly awesome book that featured the protagonist of his Warrior of Rome series. The author has continued his intriguing experiment of combining historical fiction with other thriller sub-genres in his latest book, The Lost Ten, which I have been looking forward to for a while.

Rome, 265 AD. Junior Roman officer Marcus Aelius Valens is instructed to join a small squad of soldiers on a daring raid into Persia. Their objective is to infiltrate the country and make their way to the dreaded Castle of Silence, an impregnable prison high up in the mountains. Once there, they are to free young Prince Sasan, the King of Persia’s disgraced nephew, and bring him back to Rome.

Journeying to the Roman border, Valens joins up with an eclectic group of soldiers recruited from the frumentarii, Rome’s infamous secret agents. An outsider amongst these hard-bitten soldiers, Valens suddenly finds himself in command when an ambush kills their commanding officer. Aware of the consequences of abandoning their mission, Valens leads his troops onwards to Persia.

However, the closer they get to the Castle of Silence, the more misfortune seems to befall the small unit. As his soldiers die one at a time, Valens begins to believe that there is a traitor among them who does not wish for their mission to succeed. Can Valens unmask the saboteur before it is too late, or will the squad die trying to achieve their impossible mission?

This was another spectacular read from Sidebottom, who has once again done a fantastic job bringing modern thriller vibes to an ancient Roman historical setting. The Lost Ten is a fast-paced action adventure, with a clever plot hook and an excellent band of new characters that I had a lot of fun reading and which lived up to my high expectations for this novel.

While his Warrior of Rome books always had a bit of a thriller feel to them, as Ballista was usually hunting down some form of traitor or spy, Sidebottom has recently started to push the envelope even further by combining together Roman historical fiction with a variety of different thriller sub-genres. His previous novel, The Last Hour, was essentially 24 set in ancient Rome, and his next novel is apparently going to emulate a Scandi noir novel in the hills of Calabria. In The Lost Ten, Sidebottom utilises a special forces thriller storyline which sees Roman troops attempt an impossible infiltration deep into enemy territory. As a result, this novel reads a lot like an episode of Seal Team or The Unit if the team had to infiltrate antique Persia. In order to complete their objective, the team has to arrive at the border incognito, set up a cover story as traders, and then pass into Persian territory, fooling the locals and military as they near their goal. Once there, they have to find a way into the impenetrable fortress and then get their hostage out of Persia alive while being pursued by a massive army. This results in an extremely exciting and action-packed novel that was an absolute blast to read. I loved seeing all these classic spy scenarios play out in this classic Persian setting, and the special forces storylines work exceedingly well with the historical fiction background. Sidebottom has really hit onto a winning formula by mashing these genres together, and I am very excited to see how his next book turns out.

One of the aspects of The Lost Ten that I really enjoyed was the great characters who made up the Roman unit heading into Persia. Sidebottom has written a great group of protagonists with some rather interesting character traits and individual stories. The main character, Valens, who serves as the principle point-of-view character, has an intriguing arc that sees him go from being a naïve and disheartened young solider, to canny veteran troop leader throughout the course of the book. The rest of the Ten are a fantastic mixture of distinctive and rough killers who really don’t want to be going along on this mission. These troops help give the story a real Dirty Dozen vibe which I quite enjoyed, and it was also fantastic to see the group come together as they faced adversity.

In addition, it is revealed early on in the book that one of the squad characters is a traitor who is actively working to sabotage the mission. However, the identity of this double agent is not revealed until much later in the story. Instead, several chapters are shown from the perspective of the traitor, showing what actions he is taking to betray the team, such as killing the original commander or organising ambushes from bandits. As more and more misfortunes befall the group, Valens becomes suspicious and starts trying to identify the saboteur in the ranks, resulting in a wonderful storyline that plays into the thriller aspect of the book exceedingly well. Sidebottom does a clever job of hiding the identity of the traitor for the majority of the story, and the reader is fed a series of clues to slowly work out who it is. The reader is also shown the hidden character’s motivations for betraying the others, and the political and personal realities that are driving him. All of this comes to a fantastic conclusion, and this was an excellent part of the story that Sidebottom handles exceedingly well.

Sidebottom once again makes great use of the 3rd century Roman setting that has been a defining feature of all his previous novels. The Lost Ten is set in the same universe as all of Sidebottom’s other books and occurs in the same year as The Last Hour. There are actually several mentions of Sidebottom’s recurring protagonist, Ballista, and it sounds like he is getting into trouble campaigning in Gaul. The author does an amazing job showcasing the rough lands that lie between the Roman Empire and Persia and all the difficulties that would have occurred travelling to the Persian Empire. As the protagonists enter Persia, the readers get an interesting look at the landscape and Persian customs, many of which seem strange to the Romans and result in much contemplation and discussion. Sidebottom shows off several interesting areas of Persia, and it is clear that he has done his research into this location. The author also heads back to the familiar setting of ancient Rome, allowing the reader to get a good sense of the political situation in 265 AD. Sidebottom also examines the role of the frumentarii, Rome’s secret police/agents, who have appeared in several of his novels before. The various actions of this organisation are really intriguing, and it was cool to see modern spy tactics at work in this historical setting. There were some absolutely fascinating historical inclusions in this book that I had a lot of fun reading, and they proved to be an excellent backdrop to The Lost Ten’s thrilling storylines.

The Lost Ten is an outstanding book from Sidebottom that shows why he is one of the most captivating authors of Roman historical fiction in the world today. The author’s decision to combine a contemporary special forces thriller storyline with a well-researched historical setting payed dividends and resulted in a compelling and exciting read.   As a result, this book comes highly recommended and is a must-read for those people looking for an exciting historical thriller. I am looking forward to Sidebottom’s next book and cannot wait to see what he produces next.