The Emperor’s Exile by Simon Scarrow

The Emperor's Exile Cover

Publisher: Headline (Trade Paperback – 10 November 2020)

Series: Eagles of the Empire – Book 19

Length: 434 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

One of the top authors of Roman historical fiction, Simon Scarrow, returns with the latest exciting novel in his Eagles of the Empire series, The Emperor’s Exile.

Rome, 57 A.D.  Following their adventures in Parthia, Legionary veterans Tribune Cato and Centurion Marco return to Rome with the remnants of their Praetorian Cohort.  Thanks to the ever-shifting politics of Rome and the fickleness of Emperor Nero’s court, Cato faces a hostile reception from some of Nero’s advisors, who hold him responsible for the military disasters experienced in the Parthian campaign.  Soon Cato has his command taken away from him, while Marco decides to resign from the Legions in protest, determined to live out his retirement in Britain.

Isolated in Rome, Cato is forced by one of Nero’s advisors to take on a new and dangerous mission.  Nero’s mistress, the beautiful Claudia Acte, has risen too high too quickly, and Nero’s political enemies have manipulated him into sending her into exile.  Travelling with a select group of Praetorian officers and his new advisor, the spy Apollonius, Cato must escort Claudia to the location of her exile, the island province of Sardinia, where he has another mission to accomplish.

Sardinia has long been plagued by tribes of bandits living wild in the centre of the island.  These proud decedents of the original inhabitants of Sardinia have been causing problems in recent months, raiding the local villages and ambushes caravans.  Taking command of Sardinia’s entire garrison, Cato begins to work out a strategy to defeat the locals and regain his position in Rome.  However, this proves harder than originally anticipated as Cato needs to contend with a disorganised military force, a dangerous plague that is beginning to overwhelm the island and a surprisingly competent group of bandits with unparalleled knowledge of the local landscape.  Worse, Cato begins to have dangerous feelings for Claudia, feelings which his enemies will exploit and which could set the entirety of Rome against him.  Can Cato pacify Sardinia before his entire force is decimated, or have his adventures finally come to an end?

This was another fantastic and highly enjoyable historical fiction novel from one of my favourite authors, Simon Scarrow, who has produced an impressive new entry in his long-running Eagles of the Empire series.  The Eagles of the Empire books are easily among the best Roman historical fiction series out there at the moment, and I have had an amazing time reading every single entry in this series, including the last two novels, The Blood of Rome and Traitors of RomeThe Emperor’s Exile is the 19th Eagles of the Empire book and the author has produced another impressive story, featuring great historical elements and some fantastic character work.  I had an awesome time reading this book and it is definitely worth checking out.

The Emperor’s Exile contains an extremely fun and captivating narrative which follows Cato work to defeat a new enemy in a new historical setting.  Scarrow sets up an exciting and fast-paced story for this latest book, with the protagonist forced to deal with all manner of politics, intrigue and various forms of deadly peril in rather quick succession as he is assigned his mission and attempts to complete it.  This naturally results in all manner of impressive action sequences which are a lot of fun to watch unfold, including one particularly good extended siege sequence.  It is not all action, adventure and historical undertakings, however, as the book also has an intriguing focus on its central protagonist, Cato.  Cato, who has been evolving as a character over the last 18 books, continues to develop in The Emperor’s Exile in several dramatic and emotionally rich ways.  Not only does he have to adapt to a major change in his personal circumstances with the retirement of a great friend but he continues to question his role in the Roman army and whether he wants to remain a brutal killer.  Throw in an ill-conceived romance, his continued regrets about his past actions and his disastrous first marriage, as well as a certain major change in his appearance for the future, and this becomes quite a substantial novel for Cato which also opens up some intriguing storylines in the future.  I had a wonderful time reading this book and, once I got wrapped up in the story, I was able to power through the book extremely quickly.

In addition to having a great story, The Emperor’s Exile also serves as a key entry in this impressive, long-running series.  While readers who want to check out this book do not particularly need to have read any of the previous Eagles of the Empire books, mainly because Scarrow does an excellent job of revisiting story aspects and characters from prior novels, those established fans of the series are going to find this book particularly significant and memorable.  This is because one of the main protagonists of this series, Centurion Marco, who has been a major part of all 18 previous novels, retires from the Legions 100 or so pages into the book then subsequently disappears off to Britain, leaving Cato to his own adventure in Sardinia.  Scarrow has been telegraphing Marco’s plans to retire for the last couple of books, and it is a natural consequence of the author realistically aging his characters (15 years have elapsed within the series at this point).  While it was somewhat expected, it was still weird and a bit sad not to have Marco fighting along Cato in this latest adventure, especially as their comradeship is one of the defining aspects of this series.  That being said, Cato has grown a lot over the last 18 books and the natural progression of Cato and Marco’s dynamic as characters did necessitate them splitting off at some point.  It will be interesting to see how Scarrow features Marco in the future, especially if he plans to continue the Eagles of the Empire series for several more books (I personally would love it if he goes all the way into The Year of the Four Emperors, as it would wrap up the Vitellius and Vespasian storylines from the earlier books quite nicely).  Based upon how The Emperor’s Exile ends, it looks like Marco is going to appear in the next book, but it is uncertain whether he will continue on as a central protagonist, become an occasional character or go down in a final blaze of glory.  I personally think that Scarrow is planning to permanently retire Marco as a character soon, potentially replacing him with new character, Apollonius.  Apollonius is the dangerous and insightful spy who Cato teamed up with during the previous novel, and who followed Cato back to Rome in this book.  Apollonius served as Cato’s aide, scout and confident during The Emperor’s Exile in place of Marco, and it looks like he will be a major character in the next book as well.  I quite liked Apollonius as a character and it will be interesting if he ends up as Marco’s replacement, especially as he shares a very different dynamic with Cato than Marco did.  All of this makes The Emperor’s Exile quite an intriguing entry in the overall series and I am extremely curious to see what is going to happen to these amazing protagonists next year in the 20th book in the series.

As always, this novel is chock full of fantastic historical detail and storytelling as the author sets his story in some intriguing parts of Roman history.  Not only does the reader get a great view of Rome under the control of Emperor Nero (whose chaotic rule as described in this novel has some interesting modern parallels) but the main story takes place in the island province of Sardinia, off the Italian coast.  Sardinia is a fascinating province that I personally have never seen used before in Roman historical fiction novels and which proved to be a fantastic setting for most of this book’s story.  Scarrow really dives into the history, culture and geography of the island, explaining how it became a Roman province, examining some of the key towns and ports and highlighting the difference between the locals and the Roman settlers.  There is a particularly compelling focus on the tribes who controlled the centre of the island and it was rather interesting to see how a group of rebellious barbarians managed to survive so close to Italy during this period.  Scarrow also provides the reader with his usual focus on the Roman legions/auxiliaries, providing impressive details and depictions of how the Roman war machine operated and what their usual tactics and strategies are.  All of this really helps to enhance the novel and I had an amazing time exploring Sardinia with the Roman protagonists.

Another intriguing aspect of The Emperor’s Exile was the plague storyline that saw the inhabitants of Sardinia, including Cato and his soldiers, have to contend with a deadly infectious sickness.  This plague added an excellent edge to the storyline, serving as a hindrance to the protagonists and ensuring that they constantly have to change their plans while dealing with their enemy.  Not only does this serve as a clever handicap for the Romans but readers cannot help but make some comparisons to modern day events.  While I could potentially be reading a little too much into this and it is possible that Scarrow always intended to feature a plague in this book, I cannot help but think that this was a deliberate choice by the author.  Either way, it proved to be an extremely fascinating part of the book and it was fun to compare the reactions of these historical characters to the actions of people in the real-world.  While this story inclusion may potentially prove to be a little tiring for readers sick of any mentions of disease, infection and quarantine in their day-to-day lives, I thought it was a great addition to the novel, especially as it raised the dangerous stakes of this exciting novel.

With his latest novel, The Emperor’s Exile, Simon Scarrow continues to show why he is one of the top authors of Roman historical fiction in the world today.  This latest novel serves as a key entry in his amazing Eagles of the Empire series and it takes the reader on an outstanding, action-packed adventure, loaded with some great character moments and some impressive historical settings.  I had a fantastic time reading this book and I cannot wait to see how Scarrow continues this epic series next year.  Luckily, I only have to wait a few more months for my next dose of this author’s work as his World War II crime fiction novel, Blackout, is set for release next March.

Assault by Fire by Lt. Col. Hunter Ripley Rawlings IV

Assault by Fire Cover

Publisher: Recorded Books (Audiobook – 29 September 2020)

Series: Tyce Asher – Book One

Length: 10 hours and 11 minutes

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

From the military mind of debuting solo author Lt. Col. Hunter Ripley Rawlings IV comes Assault by Fire, an intense and action-packed novel that sees the Russians invade and take over America.

After losing his leg in the Middle East, Marine officer Tyce Asher believes that his military days are over.  Forced to babysit reserve troopers during exercises, Tyce is suddenly drawn into action when the Russians launch a sudden and unexpected invasion of America from land, sea and air, devastating the nation’s defences and swiftly gaining control of the Government.  With the bulk of the United States forces deployed to the Middle East, it falls to reserve forces, such as the one Tyce commands, to fight back against the invaders.  With minimal supplies, ammo, armoured vehicles or reinforcements, Tyce is forced to lead his combined regiment of Army and Marine reservists into the West Virginian mountains in order to regroup and avoid detection.  Recruiting what civilians, mountain men and veterans he can, Tyce forms an effective fighting force that has the potential to do some damage against the invaders.  Will Tyce’s small army be enough to hold back the tide of Russians, or are these the last days of American independence?

Assault by Fire is an exciting and entertaining novel that places the reader right into the heart of a Russian invasion of America.  This was a really cool novel from Rawlings, who first came into literary prominence last year with Red Metal, a novel he co-wrote with thriller writer Mark Greaney.  I was a major fan of Red Metal, as it was one of my favourite books (and audiobooks) of 2019, and I was keen to see how Rawlings’s first solo novel would turn out.  I ended up having a great time listening to this fantastic novel.  Rawlings has successfully utilised the always-intriguing concept of an invasion or war on American soil and ended up writing quite an enjoyable story around it.  Assault by Fire is the first novel in Rawlings’s Tyce Asher series and after how much I enjoyed the first book I am definitely planning to check out the rest of the series in the future.

This was a pretty good debut from Rawlings, who has come up with an intense and enjoyable modern military thriller novel.  Assault by Fire is a particularly fast-paced novel chock full of memorable and vivid action sequences that are guaranteed to get the readers blood pumping.  Rawlings makes good use of multiple perspectives, including from the point of view of several Russian characters, to tell a rich and clever story about a foreign invasion of the United States.  I loved some of the awesome ideas that Rawlings inserted into the compelling novel, and this ended up being a really fun book to check out.  I do need to point out that there was an occasional lack of consistency throughout the book which was a little distracting at times and some of the characterisations were a little weird or unrealistic.  However, these issues did not take away from the story too much and I think that Rawlings has the potential to improve as an author in the future.  Overall, this was an intriguing and captivating novel that is worth checking out.

I really enjoyed the cool American invasion concept that Rawlings utilises for Assault by Fire.  Russian invasions are something that Rawlings has explored before in Red Metal, with the Russians invading Europe and Africa in that novel while striking at US military targets.  Potential invasions of America have formed the basis of several intriguing novels and movies over the years (Red Dawn probably being the most prominent example) and I felt that Rawlings did an awesome job coming up with his own unique take on this story idea.  Throughout the book, Rawlings presents an interesting scenario where America is only able to be invaded after the majority of its troops are deployed to the Middle East, most nuclear weapons have been disarmed worldwide, and gun control has been introduced in America, taking away everyone’s assault rifles (I’m going to avoid getting into a gun control debate over the last point).  The way in which the Russians invade and manage to take over America is very cool and dramatic, and it was interesting to see how Rawlings, who apparently worked on several scenarios during his time working in the Pentagon, envisioned a potential invasion going down.  The initial invasion sequence is pretty awesome, and features several great scenes of Washington DC falling and other key locations getting hit, much to the surprise of the characters watching it.  Another aspect of this invasion scenario I enjoyed was the way in which the American troops were the ones who lacked resources and support after all their strategic bases and headquarters were destroyed or seized during the initial invasion.  This forced the characters to fight like insurgents and engage in guerrilla warfare, and there were several discussions from some of the veteran soldiers about using the tactics that they themselves had experienced while fighting in the Middle East.  Watching the protagonists adapt to this change of circumstances was rather fascinating, and Rawlings has clearly put some thought into how a war on American soil could actually be fought.  I really enjoyed some of the ideas he came up with for these fights, and I was especially amused by the use of some World War II relics in one major battle scene.  I do kind of wish that Rawlings had expanded the scope of his story to encompass the entirety of America and beyond.  While the events in Virginia and West Virginia were cool, I would have absolutely loved to see how the war was being fought across the entire country, and a story with multiple protagonists across America and outside of it might have been a little more impressive.  Still, I liked the way in which Rawlings explored this concept, and it made for a great story.

The real strength of this novel is the way in which Rawlings imports his substantial military knowledge into the story, creating a ton of amazing action sequences that really make an impression on the reader.  Rawlings clearly knows his stuff, as he provides a ton of details about the various weapons, vehicles, technology and tactics that the soldiers are utilising.  This added detail, as well as the impressive descriptions of how the armaments work and what they can do, really help to make the already cool action sequences even more vivid and you get a real sense of what a modern soldier experiences during battle.  A number of awesome scenes really stick in the mind as a result, from some excellent sniper scenes, a cool pitched battle with some historical technology and some particularly cool combat sequences between armoured vehicles that occurred towards the end of the novel.  Rawlings also ramps up the authenticity of the story by utilising a ton of military jargon and acronyms, so you get a real sense of being in the midst of a tactical discussion by soldiers.  The author also attempts to get into the head of the various soldiers, especially the commander, Tyce Asher, in order to show the doubts, fears and concerns that they experience during combat or while making command decisions.  I felt that all of Rawlings’s military experiences translated across into the novel extremely well, and it really helped to enhance the overall story.

I ended up grabbing the audiobook version of Assault by Fire, which was narrated by Graham Winton.  The Assault by Fire audiobook has a run time of just over 10 hours, and I was able to get through it in about a week.  Winton did a good job of narrating this fun book, and it was rather cool to hear the events of the book unfold, as the narration helped bring the listener right into the middle of the fighting.  The audiobook ended being a great way to enjoy this book, especially as the story clips along at a swift pace in this format, and I would recommend the audiobook for anyone interested in checking out Assault by Fire.

Assault by Fire by Hunter Ripley Rawlings is an awesome modern military thriller that places the reader right in the midst of a Russian invasion of America.  Featuring an impressively exciting narrative based around a cool story concept, Assault by Fire is a lot of fun, and readers can expect a high-octane, action-packed novel.  This turned out to be a rather fantastic debut from Rawlings, and I look forward to seeing where this series goes in the future.

Aurora Burning by Amie Kaufman by Jay Kristoff

Aurora Burning Cover

Publisher: Allen & Unwin (Trade Paperback – 5 May 2020)

Series: Aurora Cycle – Book Two

Length: 497 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

The powerhouse writing team of Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff, two of Australia’s best authors, return with the second book in their epic young adult science fiction series, the Aurora Cycle, with Aurora Burning.

Far in the future, and the universe has never been in more trouble.  A sinister new threat has emerged in the galaxy, the ancient menace known as the Ra’haam, plant-like parasites that wish to incorporate all life in the universe into their hivemind.  In order to facilitate their goals, the Ra’haam have taken over humanity’s premier intelligence organisation, the GIA, and are using them to manipulate everyone towards war.  Luckily, a squad of the intergalactic peacekeeping organisation, the Aurora Legion, is on the case, desperate to stop the Ra’haam at any cost.  Unfortunately for us, the scrappy and mismatched Squad 312 are a bunch of hormonal teenagers with some serious personal issues.

Following the tragic events that occurred on Octavia III, which saw one of their members fall, Squad 312 needs to regroup and rethink their strategy.  Already disowned by the Aurora Legion and hunted by GIA, their task becomes infinitely harder when they are framed for a terrible crime and become the most wanted beings in the galaxy.  Worse, the squad’s Syldrathi tank Kal’s long lost sister is also on their trail, determined to achieve a fatal family reunion, and she has a small army of genocidal Syldrathi warriors backing her up.

As the Squad flees from those hunting them, they attempt to work out a plan to save everyone.  Their only hope is to get their resident psychic girl out of time, Auri, to the Trigger, a powerful weapon left behind by an ancient enemy of the Ra’haam, which Auri can use to wipe the plant parasites out and save everyone else.  However, they have no idea where it is, and their only clue is the salvaged remains of the colony ship Auri was trapped on for hundreds of years.  Attempting to recover the ship’s black box, the Squad soon find themselves in a whole new world of trouble.  Can they overcome their various problems and opponents before it is too late, or is the whole universe doomed?

I actually read this book a little while ago, and while I did do a short review of it in the Canberra Weekly I have been meaning to do a longer review for a while as I did have a great time reading this book.  Aurora Burning is another fun and fast-paced novel from Kaufman and Kristoff that serves as an amazing follow up to the epic first entry in the Aurora Cycle, 2019’s Aurora Rising.  This was an absolutely fantastic book that features an amazing young adult science fiction story based around several excellent characters.  Readers are guaranteed an awesome read with Aurora Burning, and it was an absolute treat to read.

At the centre of this book is a fast-paced, action-packed, character-driven narrative that follows the adventures of a mismatched and entertaining group of protagonists as they attempt to save the universe.  The story is deeply enjoyable and very addictive, allowing readers to power through this exciting novel in a remarkably short amount of time.  The story starts off extremely strong, and readers are quickly catapulted into all the fun and excitement as the team encounter all manner of problems and obstacles that they need to overcome in their own special and chaotic way.  The plot is also extremely accessible to those people who have not had the chance to read Aurora Rising first, especially with the exceptionally detailed character synopsis and history contained at the start of the book and the succinct plot replays from the various characters.  I loved the excellent science fiction adventure story that Kaufman and Kristoff have come up with for Aurora Burning, especially as it contains a great blend of action, adventure, drama and romance, all wrapped up with the series’ unique of sense humour.  I also really liked where the story went throughout the course of the book.  The authors drop in some big twists and reveals throughout Aurora Burning which have significant impacts on the plot and ensure some rather dramatic moments in the story.  All of this proves to be extremely compelling, especially as the plot leads up to some high stakes and memorable cliff-hangers at the end of the book, with the fate of many of the characters left to chance.  This pretty much ensures that I am going to have to get the next entry in the series when it comes out next year, and if the authors keep up the amazing writing that they did in Aurora Burning, I really do not have a problem with that.

Just like in the first book, Aurora Burning’s story is told from multiple perspectives, as all of the surviving members of Squad 312 serve as point-of-view characters throughout the course of the novel.  There are currently six members of the squad, including Aurora (Auri), the physic girl who the squad rescued in the first book, Tyler the team’s Alpha (leader), Kalis (Kal) the Tank (fighter extraordinaire), Scarlett the Face (team diplomat), Finian the squad’s Gearhead (mechanic) and Zila the Science Officer.  These protagonists are an eclectic and damaged group of characters, and I liked how each of them represented different young adult fiction character archetypes.  For example, Auri is the powerful chosen one, Tyler is the charismatic leader trying to live up to his heroic father’s legacy, Kal is the broody outsider with secrets, Scarlett is the team’s voice of reason and overconfident heartbreaker, Finian is the insecure one who overcompensates with sarcasm, while Zila is the brilliant but socially awkward one.  Each of these protagonists narrates several chapters throughout the book, which allows the authors to dive into their history and feelings, showing their opinions and thoughts on the events that occur throughout the course of the book.

I personally really enjoyed each of these central characters as individuals as each of them have their own unique personalities and idiosyncrasies which the authors highlight in each character’s various point-of-view chapters.  It was interesting to see how each of them has developed since the first books, with the squad coming together as a team and working together and supporting each other, as well as how the revelations and tragedies that occurred at the end of Aurora Rising have impacted them.  Each of these protagonists have their own specific story arc in Aurora Burning, and the story sees several of the characters get separated from the rest of the group and embarking on their own adventures.  There are some really interesting developments that occur throughout the book, with some characters having more of their backstory revealed, while others have major revelations about themselves be made public.  While the focus of the book is generally split rather fairly between the members of Squad 312, Auri and Tyler did rather stand out in the first novel as the main characters.  This continues in Aurora Burning, although Kal also gets a substantial amount of focus, not only due to his romance with Auri, but because his sister is introduced as a determined antagonist, resulting in secrets from his past coming out.  This does mean that Scarlett, Finian and Zila do get a little less focus, although substantial time is spent on exploring them and their personalities, such as Zila’s previously hidden past, or certain hinted relationships or personal revelations.  These entertaining and neurotic point-of-view characters are one of the main reasons this book was such a fantastic read and I really liked where the authors took their various relationships and story arcs.  It will be really interesting to see where they end up in the third book, and I am looking forward to finding out their final fates.

As a result of where the story goes, the authors continue to explore and expand on the fun and compelling universe that Aurora Burning is set in.  There are a number of interesting new elements to this book as a result, including some great new side characters, such as Kal’s murderous family, more alien races, a dive into the history of this universe and an examination of the Ra’haam and their ancient, long-dead enemies the Eshvaren.  I rather enjoyed learning more about this universe, and I particularly liked how the authors use Aurora’s defective uniglass Magellan (think an advanced iPad with an annoying and snarky AI personality), to explore extra details.  Not only does Magellan act as a sort of seventh protagonist for the book, but he also provides in-universe information summaries at the start of several chapters, as well as providing the readers with the detailed character bios at the start of the novel.  These information summaries are rich in historical and social details about several elements of this universe, and they really help to expand on the information provided throughout the story.  Naturally, Magellan provides entries that are a little more personalised and different that a standard history or encyclopedia record would be, and it was often quite amusing to see the humorous and light-hearted changes that are added in.  Overall, the novel features some rather big and dramatic reveals about the universe and what has been happening in it, resulting in some major story moments with significant and captivating consequences.

Aurora Burning is marketed towards the young adult fiction crowd, and in many ways it is a great book for a younger audience, featuring a group of diverse teens rebelling against authority and doing things their own way.  However, due to the mild sexual content, which includes quite a bit of innuendo, this is probably best suited to older teenagers who will no doubt enjoy the exciting narrative and dynamic characters.  Like many young adult fiction novels, Aurora Burning is also quite a good book for older readers who are interested in the story.  Indeed, this is one of the easiest young adult fiction novels for adult readers to get into, as the story is quite well written and exceedingly entertaining.  As result, this second book in the Aurora Cycle is a great read to check and I think that it will appeal to a wide and diverse audience of readers.

I have to say that I had an incredible time reading Aurora Burning and it turned out to be quite an excellent read.  Kaufman and Kristoff do an outstanding job of continuing the fun and action packed narrative that started in Aurora Rising and I loved the blend of fast-paced storytelling, universe building, humour, all told through the eyes of six distinctive and fantastic point-of-view characters.  This book comes highly recommended and I cannot wait to see how these awesome Australian authors finish off this series next year.

Queen of Storms by Raymond E. Feist

Queen of Storms Cover

Publisher: Harper Voyager (Hardcover – 14 July 2020)

Series: The Firemane Saga – Book Two

Length: 471 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Legendary fantasy author Raymond E. Feist returns to his new series, The Firemane Saga, with Queen of Storms, an amazing and exciting fantasy novel that takes the reader on some intriguing adventures.

I have long been a fan of Raymond E. Feist and his epic works of fantasy.  His long-running Riftwar Cycle books were amongst some of the first fantasy novels that I ever read and many of them, including the excellent Empire trilogy that he cowrote with Janny Wurts, are still some of my favourite books of all time.  After finalising the Riftwar Cycle back in 2013, Feist released King of Ashes in 2018, which was the first book in The Firemane Saga.  I really enjoyed the fun and compelling new story featured within King of Ashes, and I have been looking forward to seeing how the series continued for a while now.  This second book, Queen of Storms, continues right after the events of King of Ashes and has some intriguing new twists and turns for readers.

In the ancient and magical world of Garn, war is coming to continent of Tembria and its first blow will fall on the trading town of Bernan’s Hill.  Many people call Bernan’s Hill home, but none are more mysterious than the new owners of the town’s inn, Hatushaly and his wife Hava.  Despite their simple outward appearances, Hatu and Hava were born on the secret island of Coaltachin and both serve their continent-spanning criminal and spy network.  A series of mysterious events have been occurring throughout the kingdoms and lands of Tembria, and Hatu and Hava are tasked with observing Bernan’s Hill and reporting anything out of the ordinary.

Having befriended the town’s blacksmith, Declan, Hatu and Hava appear content in their new lives and are they are planning to be officially married during the midsummer festival.  However, even their training and information will not prepare them for the horrors that are about to be visited upon Bernan’s Hill, as a new and mysterious force attacks without warning, plunging the entire continent into war.  Separated from each other, each of these young people embarks on their own adventure.  While Hava attempts to find her lost husband, and Declan sets out to get revenge, Hatu is kidnapped by those who wish him to fulfill his fiery legacy as the secret heir to the kingdom of Ithrace.  His family, the legendary Firemanes, have long been rumoured to contain a spark of magic, and Hatu, as the last remaining Firemane, may hold the key to the survival of magic itself.  As these three young people set out to realise their destinies, they will experience horrors and tragedy as it soon becomes apparent that a whole new threat seeks to destroy all within Tembria.

Queen of Storms was a captivating and fun book which I found myself reading in only a couple of days due to how much I enjoyed it.  Feist has come up with a fantastic and impressive story within this novel, and I liked how it followed a group of excellent characters caught up in the chaos of a mysterious war.  There is all manner of action, adventure, subterfuge, character development and exploration of a new fantasy universe that comes together extremely well into a compelling overall narrative.  Readers should be forewarned that Feist makes some rather bold plot choices throughout this book, with a major event around halfway through the book really altering the course of the story in some interesting and dramatic ways.  I also liked how Queen of Storms served as a great sequel to King of Ashes, and there are a number of amazing reveals and revelations that add to the storylines established in the first book.  For example, the real antagonists of this series are revealed in more detail in this sequel after they were foreshadowed in the previous novel while the reader focused on a different antagonist, who had the potential to be the main villain.  This bait-and-switch came together well in Queen of Storms, and I enjoyed uncovering more about these antagonists and their motives.

Queen of Storms contains a multi-character narrative which follows several key protagonists as they explore this new world from Feist and get involved in the politics and battles of the world.  The majority of the story is told from the perspective of the novel’s three major characters, Hatu, Hava and Declan.  Each of these characters gets some substantial focus throughout the course of this novel, with some interesting storylines.  For the first part of the book their various storylines are very closely intertwined, as all three are based in the town of Bernan’s Hill in various capacities.  However, after the novel’s major event around halfway through, these three characters are separated and each of them embarks on their own exciting and enjoyable adventure.  Hatu’s story is a classic tale of a chosen one finding his destiny, which sees him journey off into the unknown to learn more about his past and his secret abilities.  As Hatu is the most central protagonist, this storyline got a lot of focus, and it was interesting to learn more about his role in the world and about how his life is bonded to the world’s magic.  Declan’s story becomes an interesting one about a young man learning to become a solider to avenge the death of his loved ones.  Declan had some life events occur throughout this book and while it was a little sad to see some of the things he fought for in the first novel go up in smoke, it does serve as a good motivation for his character and it looks like Feist has some interesting plans for him in the future.  Out of the three, I think I ended up enjoying Hava’s storyline the most.  Hava attempts to find out what happened to Hatu and gets captured by slavers.  She ends up using her abilities to free herself and her fellow slaves and becomes a successful ship’s captain, chasing after her husband while also exploring the lands outside the continent of Tembria.  All three of these main character arcs are really enjoyable and together they form a fantastic heart for Queen of Storms, allowing for a rich and powerful narrative.

In addition to these main characters, Feist also utilises several minor point-of-view characters who add in some extra narrative threads to the book.  For example, Donte, Hatu and Hava’s childhood friend who was captured by sea witches in King of Ashes, returns and a small part of the book is dedicated to his attempts to find Hatu and kill him.  You also get several parts of the book told from some of the key players in fight for the continent, such as Baron of Marquensas Daylon Dumarch, the sinister adviser Bernardo Delnocio, as well as a handful of other characters.  Each of these minor point-of-view characters provide their own insights and priorities to the mix and their various storylines and actions add a lot to the narrative and provide some interesting support to the main storylines.  I also liked some of the supporting characters who rounded out the cast of Queen of Storms and several of them proved to be quite enjoyable and likable, even if they have a greater chance of getting killed off.  Overall, Feist continues to write some great characters in this novel, and I look forward to seeing where each of these intriguing protagonists end up next.

The author also did a good job of continuing to expand on the amazing new fantasy world that the series is set in.  While a substantial part of the novel is set around Brenan’s Hill, which was introduced in the prior book, the story eventually starts to examine some other parts of the world.  In particular, several storylines are set around the islands and continents on the other side of the planet, none of which have been explored by any of the point-of-view characters.  These new additions to the story proved to be quite intriguing, especially as the character’s various explorations revealed some shocking truths about the world, as well as some troubling revelations about the series’ main antagonists.  It looks like the next book is set to feature some new areas of the world and should provide some more fascinating expansions down the line, which will no doubt provide some interesting backdrops and settings from the narrative.

While I did really enjoy Queen of Storms, I did find that some of the elements within it might be a little hard to follow if you had not read the first novel in the series.  Feist does do a good job of recapping the major events of the first book throughout the course of the story, but there were a few moments in the story when the significance of certain characters, locations and events were not as highlighted as they could have been, and new readers might get a little lost at this point.  There were even a few points at which I lost track of who a new character was, mainly because of the two-year gap between reading King of Ashes and Queen of Storms.  Still, I was usually able to remember who the character was after some prompting, and it worked out fine.  While this lack of certainty might occasionally impact the flow of the story for new readers, I think they can generally follow without too much difficulty.

Queen of Storms was an outstanding and exciting second entry in this fantastic new series from one of my favourite authors of all time, Raymond E. Feist.  This was an amazing and enjoyable novel, filled with adventure, great characters, and a compelling narrative.  I had an awesome time reading this book and I cannot wait to see how Feist continues The Firemane Saga in the next book.  A must-read for fans of fantasy fiction; this one is really worth checking out.

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Demon in White by Christopher Ruocchio

Demon in White Cover 1

Publisher: Gollancz (Trade Paperback – 28 July 2020)

Series: Sun Eater Sequence – Book Three

Length: 776 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

One of the most impressive new science fiction authors on the block, Christopher Ruocchio, returns with the third incredible novel in his epic Sun Eater series, Demon in White.

Far in the future, most of humanity is part of the Sollan Empire, which controls vast systems of space and countless people within them.  The Sollan Empire has long reigned supreme and unopposed in the galaxy, but now it faces its greatest threat, a protracted war against the vicious alien race known as the Cielcin.  While the Cielcins typically engage in random raids and attacks at the leisure of their various chieftains, now a series of coordinated strikes are crippling the borders of the Empire.  The mastermind of these attacks is a powerful new Cielcin ruler, Syriani Dorayaica, who has managed to forge together a mighty alliance with one purpose, the complete destruction of the Empire and every human within it.

As the Empire struggles to combat this threat, all eyes turn to an unlikely hero, the rogue nobleman, adventurer and former gladiator, Hadrian Marlowe.  Following his infamous exploits across the galaxy, Hadrian has been made a knight in service of the Emperor and now finds himself stationed on the Empire’s capital, Forum.  Thanks to a series of successful campaigns against the Cielcin, Hadrian’s popularity and fame has spread across the Empire and many view him as the best hope to defeat the alien menace.  In addition, rumours of his unnatural survival of a lethal wound from a Cielcin prince and his prophetic visions of the future have created a cult-like following around him, heralding him as a divine saviour of humanity.

However, fame and popularity have a price, and Hadrian must now contend with threatened and jealous lords, politicians, and members of the royal family as they plot to undermine and disgrace him.  After several attempts on his life, Hadrian leaves to pursue his true agenda, research into the mysterious celestial being known as the Quiet, who has been manipulating Hadrian’s life while showing him terrifying glimpses of the future.  Hadrian’s mission will take him to some new and dangerous places throughout the universe, until finally he comes face to face with Syriani Dorayaica, who is determined to destroy Hadrian no matter the cost.  Hadrian’s road to the future seems set, but will he truly become the man who commits the greatest act of slaughter in the galaxy, or does a darker fate lie in store for him?

Now that was one heck of an awesome and expansive piece of science fiction.  Ruocchio has been absolutely killing it over the last couple of years ever since he burst onto the scene in 2018 with his debut novel and the first book in his Sun Eater series, Empire of Silence.  I loved this incredible debut and I was especially impressed when he managed to follow it up with an amazing sequel, Howling Dark.  I have had a blast reading Ruocchio’s prior novels, and both of them have been amongst my favourite books of 2018 and 2019 respectfully.  As a result, I have been really looking forward to Demon in White, and Ruocchio certainly did not disappoint as he has produced an outstanding and intensely captivating third entry in this series.

Demon in White is the third act in an expansive and compelling space opera that chronicles the life of Hadrian Marlowe, a man destined to destroy a sun, which will make him both humanity’s greatest hero and its most reviled monster.  The story is told in chronicle form from the perspective of an older Hadrian as he writes the account of his life after the events of this book.  Just like with Howling Dark, the story within Demon in White is set many years after the events of the previous book and details the next major stage of Hadrian’s life.  Ruocchio does an amazing job of reintroducing the readers to his universe and also examining the events that occurred during the gap between the two books (some of which occurred during the 2019 novella, Demons of Arae).  Despite the year-long gap between reading the second and third novels and the substantial amount of detail and information that they contained, I was able to pick up and continue the story without too many issues, quickly remembering who the characters where and what events they had experienced with the protagonist.  I do think that reading the prior two novels in the series first is a must, as I could easily see readers unfamiliar with the Sun Eater books having hard time following the expansive plot of Demon in White at this late stage of the overall story.  Still, this book’s ambitious and exciting narrative might prove enough to keep them going, especially if they make use of the substantial index and character list contained in the rear of the novel.

I really can not speak highly enough of the intense and clever story of Demon in White, as Ruocchio produced an epic and addictive narrative that drew me in and refused to let go.  The author does a fantastic job of bringing together a ton of great elements, including the tale of a doomed protagonist, a galaxy-spanning war, a deep dive into the history of the universe and so much more, into one impressive narrative that I had an absolute blast reading.  One of the things I liked the most about the book was the fact that the first half of the novel is primarily set on the capital planet of the Sollan Empire, essentially a science fiction version of Rome, which results in the protagonist getting involved in all manner of plots and political intrigue.  Due to the protagonist’s popularity with the people, and the rumours that he is unkillable, Hadrian is targeted by politicians, lords, members of the Royal Family, military administrators and the Empires powerful religious organisation, and he has to deal with a number of tricky situations.  I really liked this more intrigue and politics laden part of the story, and it was an interesting change from some of the previous novels.  Ruocchio also dives into some more cosmic and action based inclusions as well and there are some explorations of the universe, examinations of the unknown and a several major and enjoyable battle sequences.  All of this comes together extremely well, and I found myself powering through this 700+ page book to find out how it ended.

Another fantastic part of Demon in White’s story that I really enjoyed was the continued examination of the fascinating and compelling protagonist, Hadrian.  Hadrian is a fantastic and intriguing protagonist for the series, since the reader knows far in advance his story is going to end in fire and death.  The chronicling of his life story that is contained within these novels is always quite enjoyable, especially as the older Hadrian compiling these tales adds in his own spin to the story, ensuring that the novel is filled with his regrets and revelations made in hindsight.  The protagonist also goes through some interesting character development throughout the course of the book.  Not only is he introduced to a number of key figures who will have substantial impacts on his future life but he also starts to come to grips with his eventual destiny.  The younger Hadrian is given some tantalising and terrifying glimpses into the future and he struggles to comprehend his potential fate as a result.

The Hadrian in this book is also a very different character than in the prior novels.  Rather than the idealistic dreamer who hopes to one day make peace with the alien Cielcin, Hadrian is far more mature and battle hardened, especially after the traumatic events at the end of Howling Dark.  This version of Hadrian is convinced that there is no hope of peace with his foe, and he has become more ruthless and determined as a result.  However, despite these revelations, there are still fragments of the old Hadrian scattered throughout the novel, which contrasted well with his newer persona.  The sense of wonder he got at seeing a group of alien auxiliaries was very reminiscent of the Hadrian we saw in the first book, especially as this wonder ended up getting him in trouble.  I also liked the scenes that showed Hadrian trying to come to terms with his own legend, as his deeds and adventures have given rise to a cult-like following, with many people convinced that he is some form of divine champion or immortal being.  This proved to be a fantastic aspect of Hadrian’s character throughout Demon in White, as he does not want this attention or praise, not only because it will result in conflict with the various factions in the Empire but also because he does not want to be anyone’s worshipped hero.  However, many of the events that are focus of this cults worship, such as surviving being beheaded or his visions of the future, are actually true (in a sense), and he ends up having to rely on these abilities to survive the events of this novel, which is going to result in some interesting consequences.

There are also some major and fantastic emotional moments for the protagonist scattered throughout the book, such as when a long-running side character leaves him, or when he encounters a major figure from his past again.  I also enjoyed seeing more of his relationship with his main love interest, Valka, and their unconventional romance has flourished over the centuries that this series has been set.  Valka serves as a fantastic grounding force for Hadrian, and it is quite nice seeing them together, although the reader’s joy at seeing them together is somewhat tempered by the narrator’s hints that something tragic is bound to happen between them.  All of this makes for a very intriguing protagonist, and I have enjoyed seeing him flourish and grow over the course of the first three books, moving towards his eventual destiny.  I look forward to seeing how his story continues in the next novel, especially after the major events that occurred at the end of Demon in White.

I have always been impressed with the detailed and massive science fiction universe in which Ruochhio has set his series, and each of the Sun Eater books have added some new depth and unique features to this overarching setting.  Unlike the prior book, Howling Dark, which was set out in the wilds of space and alien planets, Demon in White returns to the confines of the Sollan Empire, a repressive, technophobic and tradition bound galactic kingdom that is stylistically based on ancient Rome.  I really enjoyed this creative science fiction setting, as it is a very dark and gothic location which clashes well with the mostly good-natured protagonist and narrator.  Demon in White adds a huge amount of detail to this universe, especially as the first two thirds are primarily set on new Imperial worlds, including the capital planet Forum.  As a result, there are a ton of intriguing new details and discussions about the politics, history and administration of the Sollan Empire, as well as the introduction of many significant characters, including the Emperor who Hadrian is destined to kill.  The later part of the book also contains some terrific new detail, and we get a really intriguing view about how this dark Empire was founded, including more details about the war against the machines created by the precursor empire, the Mericannii (Americans).  I really liked some of these dives into the past, especially as Ruocchio does a fantastic job of portraying a historical timeline that has been altered or hidden by war, destruction and political or religious censorship.  As a result, the protagonists believe in a very different version of history, and wildly incorrect discussions about historical events are often quite amusing, especially their ideas about American history.  Ruocchio also provides the clearest view of the origins and nature of the cosmic entity, the Quiet, who has been an overarching influence over the prior two books.  This was a rather intriguing, and at times metaphysical, examination of this being, and some of the revelations in this book, including about the connection the Quiet has with Hadrian, the Sollan Empire and the Cieclin, are rather major, and will have significant impacts in the next few books.  All of this proves to be exceedingly fascinating and I cannot wait to see how the author will expand on this setting in his future novels.

I also really have to highlight some of the incredible action sequences that occurred throughout Demon in White.  While a substantial amount of the plot is dedicated to the political intrigue that the protagonist finds himself involved with, there are some great action sequences in this book, including a major war sequence against the Cieclin in the last quarter of the book.  Ruocchio has done an amazing job building the Cieclin up as a major threat and the various bloody battle sequences against them help to reinforce this.  I particularly enjoyed the great scenes where the protagonist faces off against his foe in tight and confined spaces, such as on a ship or in the depths of a city, and the author ensures that the reader gets to enjoy them in all their claustrophobic glory.  Ruocchio adds to the horror by introducing a new form of antagonists in the form of giant Cieclin warriors who are cyborg hybrids enhanced with Extrasolarian (rogue human scientist) technology.  These terrifying hybrids act as very dangerous opponents for Hadrian and his allies, resulting in some dramatic and high-stakes battles.  Hadrian also gets some new combat abilities in this book, which add some intriguing new elements to the fight scenes and are generally quite fun to check out.  Overall, those readers who are interested in seeing some intense science fiction action will not be disappointed with this book as Demon in White delivers some impressive and memorable fight sequences that really help to get the heart pumping.

In this latest novel, Christopher Ruocchio has delivered another extraordinary and captivating science fiction epic that does a terrific job expanding on his fantastic Sun Eater series.  Demon in White contains an incredible and exciting story that sends its complex protagonist on a series of intriguing adventures throughout this rich and unique science fiction universe.  I had an awesome time reading Demon in White and I cannot recommend it highly enough.  This outstanding book gets a full five-star rating from me and if you are not already reading the Sun Eater series you need to start now!

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Star Wars: Shadow Fall by Alexander Freed

Star Wars - Shadow Fall Cover

Publisher: Del Rey (Trade Paperback – 23 June 2020)

Series: Star Wars: Alphabet Squadron – Book Two

Length: 393 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Strap in and prepare yourself for some intense combat out in the black of space, as Alexander Freed returns with another exciting and compelling Star Wars novel, Star Wars: Shadow Fall.

In the wake of the death of the Emperor and the destruction of the second Death Star above Endor, the once mighty Galactic Empire is on its last legs as they face a determined and continuous assault from the forces of the New Republic.  Amongst the New Republic troops fighting to end the tyranny of the Empire are the ragtag fighter group known as Alphabet Squadron.  Formed by New Republic Intelligence and serving under legendary Rebel General Hera Syndulla, Alphabet Squadron’s mission is to hunt down and destroy the elite TIE fighter pilots of the 204th Imperial Fighter Wing, known as Shadow Wing, who have been terrorising the galaxy and are one of the greatest threats to the New Republic’s success.

Following their recent victory, which saw Shadow Wing’s base destroyed and their commanding officer killed, Alphabet Squadron are assisting with the lengthy siege of the Imperial system of Cerberon.  Led by former Imperial pilot Yrica Quell, herself a deserter from Shadow Wing, the five pilots of Alphabet Squadron are finally starting to work together as a team.  However, while they are happy to help Syndulla with her latest vital campaign, the squadron is still determined to finish off the remaining members of Shadow Wing before they cause more chaos and destruction.  Working with their New Republic Intelligence handler, Caern Adan, Quell believes she may have come up with a plan to trap her former Imperial comrades.  However, Quell has severely underestimated just how ruthless Shadow Wing has become.

Quell’s former mentor and commanding officer, Imperial fighter ace Soran Keize, has returned and taken control of Shadow Wing.  Determined to keep his people alive while inflicting as much damage as possible to the New Republic, he launches an attack against the Cerberon system that manages to bypass the trap laid for him.  Scattered, the members of Alphabet Squadron must each fight their own battles throughout Cerberon as they all attempt to survive and strike back.  However, as they face their greatest challenge to date Alphabet Squadron soon begins to realise that their most dangerous threat may not be the pilots of Shadow Wing, but the terrible secrets their own leader is keeping.

Star Wars: Shadow Fall is a fantastic and impressive Star Wars novel that examines the immediate aftermath of the original Star Wars trilogy while focusing a group of complex and damaged characters.  Shadow Fall is the fifth Star Wars novel from science fiction author Alexander Freed, and it serves as the second book in his Alphabet Squadron trilogy, which started last year with Star Wars: Alphabet SquadronAlphabet Squadron was an excellent first novel in this series, thanks to its exciting story which did an amazing job introducing the reader to each of the main characters of the titular Alphabet Squadron (so called because each member flies a different model of Rebel ship, i.e. one X-Wing, one Y-Wing and so on).  Freed’s latest novel is an outstanding sequel to Alphabet Squadron which continues the amazing character arcs and war-based narrative, while also adding in some excellent new elements.  While I really enjoyed the prior novel from Freed, I personally felt that Shadow Fall was a stronger book than Alphabet Squadron and I ended up really getting into this powerful and action-packed story.

This latest book from Freed contains an epic and enjoyable character-driven war story that follows the pilots of Alphabet Squadron as they attempt to subdue the Empire once and for all.  This proves to be a rather elaborate and multifaceted narrative as Freed utilises the key members of Alphabet Squadron as point-of-view characters.  While Shadow Fall initially has all the squadron members together, each of them goes on their own adventures throughout the book, breaking it up into several distinctive storylines.  Each of these storylines is rather intriguing and emotionally charged, especially as all the characters go through their own voyages of discovery.  These storylines are all confined to the same star system and each has its own take on the war occurring throughout Cerberon, especially as Freed also features a number of chapters from the point-of-view of the novel’s main antagonist, which allows the reader to see the plans and issues surrounding Shadow Wing.  All of this helps to create a compelling and exhilarating read, particularly as Shadow Fall contains a number of exciting and well written action sequences, including a series of amazing and impressive ship to ship combat scenes.  The characters get into some unique and deadly battles throughout the course of this book, and I really loved seeing all the intense fighting out in space.  Overall, this was a fantastic story and it ended up being quite a remarkable and addictive read.

One of the big things that I liked about Shadow Fall was the way that it continued to explore the turbulent period of Star Wars history that follows in the immediate aftermath of the death of the Emperor.  This period within the Star Wars universe has so much potential for great fiction and I feel that Freed does an outstanding job utilising it within his novels and showing off the battles that occurred.  There is a real gritty and dark feeling to this book, as both sides are involved in a lengthy and bitter conflict.  I really liked the darker and more desperate conflict that Freed portrays throughout this book, as both sides get pushed into some corners as they battle throughout the system.  This turned out to be an excellent setting and I really found it fascinating to see this vision of the post Return of the Jedi universe, especially as there was no instant victory for the Rebels as the movies suggest.  I look forward to seeing more of the war as the Alphabet Squadron series progresses and it will be interesting to see what battles and scenarios occur in the final book.

Readers interested in checking this series out do not need to have too much knowledge about the Star Wars extended universe; a general knowledge of the movie franchise should suffice.  However, like all pieces of tie-in fiction, those readers who are familiar with the more obscure bits of the fandom’s lore and history will get a lot more out of these books than casual readers.  I would also strongly suggest that people who want to read Shadow Fall should go back first and try Alphabet Squadron, as this will allow readers to get a better idea of the various characters and their histories and ensure that their actions have greater impact.  However, if you are determined to start here, I felt that Freed made Shadow Fall pretty accessible, summarising certain key events from the prior book and also providing some wider background information about the Star Wars universe during the period the novel is set.

One of the reasons that this story is so impactful and enjoyable is that Freed has anchored his narrative on the memorable and flawed characters that are Alphabet Squadron.  Thanks to the author’s use of multiple character viewpoints, the reader gets an in-depth understanding of all the key characters and their various story arcs and development.  A large amount of the book’s plot continues to focus on the leader of Alphabet Squadron and X-Wing pilot, Yrica Quell.  Quell is a former Imperial pilot and member of Shadow Wing, who defected after the end of the war, claiming that she attempted to stop her squadron from implementing Operation Cinder, a series of genocides ordered by the Emperor in the event of his death.  However, it was revealed at the end of Alphabet Squadron that she was actually a willing participant in Operation Cinder and only defected because her commanding officer, Soran Keize, ordered her to leave.  Quell is still haunted by her actions and is attempting to find redemption by working for the New Republic to hunt down her old squadron, while at the same time being blackmailed by her handler, Caern Adan, who is keeping the information about her crimes secret.  There are several great scenes throughout this book that deal with Quell’s guilt and fear of being found out as she attempts to come to terms with all she has done and tries to become the good person everyone believes she is.  However, chaotic events towards the middle of the book undo some of her progress and force her to really look deep into herself.  Quell easily has the best character arc entire book and her entire dramatic storyline is extremely well-written and emotionally rich.  It looks like Freed is taking this character in some interesting directions and it will get see what happens next.  I also enjoyed certain LGBT+ inclusions surrounding Quell (and some other characters), and it always great to see more of that added into the Star Wars universe.

Several other members of Alphabet Squadron get their own fascinating storylines and character arcs.  First up you have Wyl Lark, the team’s young A-wing fighter pilot, who is still shaken after his encounters with Shadow Wing during the first book.  Lark is a complicated character within this novel, as due to the past trauma he has started to experience some real weariness at all the fighting.  He also bears some inner conflict thanks to his past interaction with an unnamed member of Shadow Wing, who he knows only as Blink (due to the condition of their TIE fighter in the first book), which has made him believe that the Imperials are more human than most New Republic fighters believe.  This makes him act out in some odd ways, potentially endangering himself and others.  Regardless, Lark also takes on a big leadership role within this book as he finds himself in charge of a mixed force of New Republic soldiers and pilots who he must rally together to stop the machinations of Shadow Wing.  This forces him to make some tough decisions and results in some excellent character development, which is probably going to become a key part of the next entry in the series.

The book also focuses on Chass na Chadic, the pilot of the squadron’s B-Wing.  Chass is also an emotional mess throughout the book, which causes her to act out in an aggressive and reckless manner.  However, Chass’s difficulties are a result of her own addiction to combat and danger and her worries about what she is going to do after the war.  Chass also has a rather intriguing storyline that sees her forced to seek shelter with a growing cult after she is shot down.  This only adds to her emotional confusion as, while this organisation has some very valid points about the war, Chass has her own problematic history with cults which severely colours her opinions.  A fourth member of Alphabet Squadron who also gets a fair bit of attention is Y-Wing pilot Nath Tensent.  Nath gets a little less use than Quell, Lark and Chass in this book, and rather than getting his own individual storyline he ends up being more of a supporting character to the other members of Alphabet Squadron.  I liked how Nath, after getting the revenge he desired in the first book, started taking on more of a mentor role within the team and he ends up being the glue that keeps them somewhat together.  His experience, easygoing manner and ability to socialise with everyone really helps to balance out the team, and I think it was good decision from Freed to have at least one point-of-view protagonist not be an emotional wreck.  I have to admit that I really liked seeing all of these complex and damaged protagonists and their various storylines and development became a powerful part of the book’s story.

Aside from these main four members, Shadow Fall also features several other great New Republic characters.  This includes the fifth and final member of Alphabet Squadron, Kairos, the mysterious scarred alien pilot of the team’s U-Wing.  Kairos does not get a lot of use throughout this book and is barely seen or mentioned after the first 100 pages.  Despite this, there are a few minor reveals about her shrouded past, and I can only hope that we find out a lot more about her in the final book.  There is actually a lot more of a focus on the supporting character of Caern Adan, the New Republic Intelligence officer who has been leading the hunt for Shadow Wing, as well as his companion, IT-O, a former Imperial torture droid turned therapist.  I found Caern’s use within Shadow Fall to be rather compelling, especially after he was portrayed as such a despicable and self-serving character in the first novel.  Freed dives into this Caern’s background in this novel and shows how he became the harsh, calculating person you met in Alphabet Squadron, as well as exploring his history with IT-O and Kairos.  This examination into his past, as well as his present-day adventures with Quell, helps generate a bit of sympathy for him and he ends up becoming a bit of a tragic character as a result.  I was also really glad to see more of New Republic General Hera Syndulla, who fans would know as one of the main protagonists of the Star Wars Rebels animated television show.  Hera was a great character on the show and in recent years she has been featured as a key Rebel commander in the expanded fiction (with her ship, Ghost, having brief cameos in two separate live action Star Wars movies).  I am always happy to learn more about Hera’s story post-Star Wars Rebels, especially as she has a great role as the wise overall commander throughout this book, and Star Wars Rebels fans will get sad in one or two places, such as when she wistfully asks if anyone has a Jedi hidden away.  Overall, these were some great supporting characters and I enjoyed Freed’s focus on them.

In addition to all the members of the Alphabet Squadron and the various New Republic supporting characters, Shadow Fall is also a tale of Imperial pilot Soran Keize.  After spending most of the first book trying to forget his past and exploring the post Imperial galaxy, Soran returns to claim his place as leader of Shadow Wing.  Soran is another compelling character who ends up serving as an alternate point-of-view character for roughly a third of the book.  I always love it when authors show the story from the antagonist’s perspective, and this ended up working incredibly well in this novel.  Not only do we get to see Soran’s complex motivations for returning to his wing and restarting the fight with the New Republic, but through his eyes we also get a better idea of how the Imperial remnant is fighting and surviving at this point of the war.  Freed adds some real desperation to the Imperial characters as they start to deal with the fact that they are going to lose the war, and there are some interesting discussions about the Imperial pilots having to change tactics, as they no longer have access to the vast resources they were previously used to.  Despite his at times merciless tactics, Soran’s viewpoint really helps to humanise the Imperial antagonists and, in many ways, they are mirrors to the New Republic characters, as both teams are fighting for their ideals and beliefs.  That being said, none of the Imperial characters aside from Soran popped out to me, and I had a hard time really caring about them in any way or remembering who they were.  Still, it was great to get more of an Imperial viewpoint in this novel, and I look forward to seeing what happens to them in the final entry in the Alphabet Squadron series.

Star Wars: Shadow Fall by Alexander Freed is another outstanding and enjoyable Star Wars novel that serves as an exceptional sequel to last year’s Alphabet SquadronShadow Fall is an extremely captivating and addictive read, especially as Freed features an amazing action-packed story, fun Star Wars elements and some incredibly complex and compelling characters whose damaged personalities and scarred pasts really stick in the reader’s minds.  I had an awesome time reading Shadow Fall and I cannot wait to see how Freed finishes off this darker Star Wars series.

Throwback Thursday – Kill Switch by Jonathan Maberry

Kill Switch Cover

Publisher: Macmillan Audio (Audiobook – 26 April 2016)

Series: Joe Ledger – Book Eight

Length: 17 hours and 56 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.

I recently found myself in the mood for another intense and crazy thriller novel, and luckily I knew exactly the book to check out, as I ended up listening to the eighth entry in the fantastic Joe Ledger series by Jonathan Maberry, Kill Switch.

People familiar with my blog will know that I have been really getting into Maberry’s writing over the last couple of years.  In particular, I have been making my way through the Joe Ledger series, which follows the titular agent as he investigates all manner of weird science and world-ending plots.  This has swiftly become one of my favourite series of all time thanks to the incredible stories that Maberry has come up with, and my intention is to finish off all the Joe Ledger books before the end of the year.  As a result, I knew far in advance that I was going to enjoy Kill Switch and I ended having an amazing time reading it.

In this eighth novel, Joe Ledger, agent for the clandestine Department of Military Sciences (DMS), is investigating a strange anomaly down in the Antarctic.  A secret military research facility has gone offline, and Ledger and his team need to find out why.  However, what at first appears to be a routine mission quickly devolves into an unnatural horror show as the DMS agents uncover a mysterious facility deep beneath the ice.  The things that Ledger and his team see will haunt them for the rest of their lives, and by the time they escape all three are infected with a deadly disease that places them into a coma.

Awakening several days later, Ledger discovers that much has happened in his absence.  America has been targeted by a ruthless terrorist organisation that apparently has access to an advanced EMP weapon that can turn off all power and technology in a certain area with devastating effects.  Worse, thanks to the consequences of the mission down in Antarctica and other recent failures, the DMS no longer has the confidence of the President, who refuses to give them the case.

Frustrated at being left out in the cold, Ledger and the DMS investigate where they can and soon come across several strange and seemingly unconnected events.  Able to piece together a pattern that no one else can see, Ledger soon finds himself in the heart of a vast conspiracy that aims to launch a shocking attack on the American people.  However, before they can intervene, Ledger and his team find themselves under attack from the most unlikely of places.  Can even the legendary Joe Ledger defeat an opponent who can attack him in his own mind, or will America face a wave of death and destruction the like of which they have never seen before?

Kill Switch was another fantastic and amazing novel from Maberry that continues the amazing Joe Ledger series.  This eighth book contains a captivating story that combines several different genres together to create an exciting and fast-paced read with some rather enjoyable elements to it.  I had an awesome time listening to this book, and while it is not my absolute favourite entry in the Joe Ledger series (I would have to give that honour either to The Dragon Factory or Code Zero), it was still a very impressive book that gets a full five-star rating from me.

In this eighth Joe Ledger novel, Maberry once again uses his distinctive style to tell another impressive and intriguing story that draws the reader in and ensures that they cannot turn away until it is finished.  Kill Switch contains a rather clever thriller storyline that deals with the protagonist attempting to stop another terrible terrorist plot utilising advanced technology.  While some of the elements to Kill Switch’s story are familiar, Maberry really gives this book a distinctive dark horror tint, as the novel deals with a number of Lovecraftian horror elements.  While this genre is not something that I have ever really gone out of my way to check out, I did enjoy its use in Kill Switch, especially as it sent its already unstable protagonist through some particular vivid and trippy vision sequences.  The various horror, science fiction and thriller aspects of the book’s narrative work together extremely well and it is a testament to Maberry’s skill as an author that the plot did not get too convoluted or hard to follow.  Instead, Kill Switch has an extremely elegant and fast-paced story with some great flashes of humour, enhanced by the author’s trademark use of multiple perspectives and interludes set before the main plot.  Maberry rounds this out with the return of the series enjoyable and long-running cast of characters, including protagonist Joe Ledger, who provides a first-person narration for around half the story.  Ledger’s warped and eccentric view of all the events going on around him adds so much enjoyment to the plot, resulting in much of the book’s humour.  This all ensures that Kill Switch contains another top-notch story that was an absolute pleasure to read.

The key parts of any Joe Ledger novel are the complex and memorable antagonists and the elaborate and destructive plots that they weave.  Maberry does another great job of this in Kill Switch, introducing some compelling villains and associated side characters who have some fascinating motivations for initiating the events of this book.  Thanks to a series of interludes and short chapters that are told from the perspective of the antagonist and their puppets, you get a full sense of why these characters are doing what they are doing, especially when you get a glimpse into several key moments of their lives.  Seeing so much of the antagonist’s past and the formation of their plans adds quite a lot of depth and tension to the story, and I always really appreciate the way that Maberry tries to expand these character’s narratives.  I was also quite enraptured by the complex and detailed plan that the antagonist set in motion, especially as it required using some unique technology in some novel ways.  I especially enjoyed the cunning way in which the villains went after Ledger and the DMS, including by destroyed their image and their influence, and I appreciated the way in which it was easier for them to achieve this due to an inadvertent backlash at the organisations prior extreme successes and advanced technology.

Kill Switch ended up being a major part of the overall series with some big moments occurring and some interesting connections to the prior novels, ensuring that this is a must-read for established Joe Ledger fans.  This book ended up continuing a bunch of key storylines that were introduced in the fifth novel, The Extinction Machine, with several plot points from that story revisited, as well as some antagonists.  In addition, several of the story elements introduced in Kill Switch are heavily utilised in future novels, such as in the tenth book, Deep Silence, which also matches its Lovecraftian horror vibes and story.  In addition, readers might also really appreciate the cameo appearance of Maberry’s alternate zombie-filled universe that is used as a setting for several of his other series, such as the Dead of Night books and his iconic Rot & Ruin/Broken Lands young adult novels, all of which feature a different version of Joe Ledger as a character.  There were also a couple of references to the town of Pinedeep, which served as the setting for Maberry’s first series, and which Ledger visited in the short story Material Witness.

While Kill Switch does have some intriguing connections to some of Maberry’s other works, this novel is incredibly accessible for those readers unfamiliar with the Joe Ledger books.  Like all the novels in this series, Kill Switch’s narrative is mostly self-contained, and you can start reading this book without any issues.  While there are a number of references to the events of the prior books, Maberry also makes sure to cover the relevant backstory, expertly inserting anecdotes about prior books and description of key plot points into the story often in a great entertaining manner (mainly because the protagonists still cannot believe that these previous events actually occurred).  This ensures that readers have more than enough background information to follow the story and understand who all the various characters are and what their personalities are like.

While it is extremely possible to read Kill Switch out of order, I would strongly suggest that readers read this series from the first novel, Patient Zero, rather than starting at the eighth book.  Not only does this allow you to see the various characters develop and progress throughout the course of the series, but it also enhances the emotional attachment that readers will have to the events of this book, including a couple of key character deaths.  Reading the series in order also helps to cut down on spoilers for some of the prior books.  This was something that I particularly noticed while reading Kill Switch, due to the fact that I have already read the sequel novels Deep Silence and Rage.  Both of these books make several references to the events of Kill Switch, so I had an idea of some of the events that were going to occur, as well as the identity of who the main antagonist was going to be.  While this did not derail my enjoyment of Kill Switch by too much, it did slightly reduce the suspense, which was not ideal.

I cannot review a Joe Ledger novel without commenting on the impressive and graphic action sequences that occurred throughout the course of the plot.  Maberry always does such a fantastic job writing his action scenes and the various close combat fights and shoot outs that occur throughout these novels feel extremely realistic as the protagonist and the narrator provide detailed explanations of what is occurring and its destructive impacts.  Kill Switch contains some very impressive action sequences as Ledger and his comrades are placed in some unique fight situations.  While there are the usual swift and one-sided fights against nameless goons, the characters often find themselves facing off against unexpected opponents who visit surprising violence upon them.  This makes for some truly shocking scenes, especially as Maberry’s excellent writing ensures that the reader fully understands the various characters’ surprise and despair.  You also have a unique situation where Ledger, generally considered to be one of the deadliest killers on the planet, finds himself severely handicapped in several fights due to the machinations of the antagonists.  This adds a whole new element to the typical fight sequences from this series, and it is nice to see the protagonist have some new challenges.  All this action helps to pump the reader up as they enjoy the excellent story and it is an amazing part of the overall book.

It should come as no surprise to anyone who has read my prior Joe Ledger reviews that I ended up listening to the audiobook version of Kill Switch, which in my opinion is the best format for enjoying these fantastic novels.  The Kill Switch audiobook has a run time of just under 18 hours, which I was able to get through incredibly quickly, and it was once again narrated by Ray Porter, whose voice work is easily my favourite thing about this format.  I have extolled the virtues of Porter’s narration in several of my other reviews due to his impressive vocal skills and his ability to move the story along at a swift and exciting pace.  Very few narrators are as in touch with the characters that they voice than Porter especially when it comes to the series’ titular protagonist, Joe Ledger.  Porter always does such an outstanding job capturing Ledger’s intense emotions and sweeping personality, and this enhances the listener’s experience when it comes to these books.  Porter also does amazing and consistent personifications for all the other characters in these books and it was great to hear all the familiar voices of the series’ recurring characters again.  This first-rate narration from Porter makes the audiobook format of these novels, including Kill Switch, an absolute treat to listen to and the audiobook format remains my preferred format for enjoying this series.

Kill Switch by Jonathan Maberry is an excellent and impressive thriller novel that served as a great eighth entry in the incredible Joe Ledger series.  I had an absolute blast going back and reading this book, and I really enjoyed the clever and intriguing story that Maberry cooked up for Kill Switch, especially as it contained an outstanding blend of different genres.  This was a fantastic read and it comes very highly recommended.  At this point in time I only have one more Joe Ledger novel to check out, Dogs of War, which I am really hoping to read before the end of the year, and I am also looking forward to checking out Maberry’s new upcoming novel, Ink.

The Gates of Athens by Conn Iggulden

The Gates of Athens Cover

Publisher: Michael Joseph (Trade Paperback – 4 August 2020)

Series: Athenian – Book One

Length: 443 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

One of the top authors of historical fiction in the world today, Conn Iggulden, returns with an exciting and deeply impressive novel that chronicles the chaotic formative years of the birthplace of democracy in The Gates of Athens.

In 490 BC, Darius, King of Persia, rules a vast and powerful empire of millions.  None dare oppose him except the city states of Greece who openly defy him and refuse his demands to bow to his authority.  Determined to conquer them, Darius leads a powerful fleet across the sea towards the city of Athens.  However, the people of Athens are unlike any opponent that Darius has faced before.  Having only recently overthrown their own tyrants, they will never again bow down to a single man, no matter the cost.

As Darius’s army lands near the city on the plains of Marathon he finds a host of Athenian hoplites waiting for him ready to defend their home.  This fierce battle will set of a series of events that will not only change the life of everyone in Greece but also serve as the defining moment for several citizens of Athens, including the charismatic and scheming Themistocles, the clever and honest Aristides and the mighty warrior Xanthippus, father of Pericles.

As these leaders of Athens battle for the future of their city the choices they make will have far reaching impacts as, years later, another king of Persia, Xerxes, will lead an immense invasion of Greece in order to satisfy his father’s honour.  However, despite his vast armies and navies, Xerxes will face surprising opposition as a small force of determined Greeks decides to hold against him on both land and at sea at a place called Thermopylae.  Will the bravery of few be enough to save many or will freedom and democracy be crushed before it can truly begin?

Well damn, now that was an epic book.  I have been saying for a while that I thought that The Gates of Athens was going to be one of the best historical fiction books of 2020.  Well, just like the oracle of Delphi when she prophesised the fate of Leonidas, it turns out that I was right, as this new novel turned out to be an exceptional historical tale that proved extremely hard to stop reading.  Mind you, the awesomeness of this prediction is rather tempered by the fact that this was a historical fiction book written by Conn Iggulden, so it was a bit of a given that it was going to be damn good novel.  I am a major fan of Iggulden, having read several of his prior books including entries in both his incredible Emperor and War of the Roses series, as well as his standalone novel, The Falcon of Sparta.  This latest book from Iggulden serves as the first entry in his Athenian series, which is set to be a fantastic series over the next couple of years.

The Gates of Athens contains an extremely impressive and sprawling historical storyline that showcases and recreates some of the early defining moments of ancient Athens.  The story starts off with the battle of Marathon and then explores the aftermath of the war and its many consequences.  This results in a great multi-character narrative which shows how the various decisions of the protagonists impacted the events of the second half of the book, which is set several years later and examines the battle of Thermopylae.  Iggulden utilises a number of different character perspectives throughout the course of the plot, allowing the reader a larger view of the events occurring, while also providing some alternate viewpoints about the same events.  While there is an obvious focus on the major battles against the Persians, The Gates of Athens has a lot of different elements to it and at many points this awesome novel changes focus to examine political intrigue, social struggles, personal relationships and intense character development.  Iggulden does an outstanding job writing all of these different elements and it really comes together into an amazing overarching historical narrative.

In addition to The Gates of Athens’s fantastic story I also have to highlight the book’s detailed and intriguing historical setting.  As the title suggests, The Gates of Athens is primarily set within the ancient city of Athens, and Iggulden has done an incredible job bringing this iconic historical location to life.  The author spends significant time examining several different aspects of the city.  This includes an in-depth look at its history, its recently introduced democratic political structure, its military defences, its economic status and its layout, and an exploration of the day-to-day lives of its citizens.  Iggulden also attempts to dive into the mindset of the people of Athens, showing their collective feelings and opinions, including the immense pride that they had in being a unique and unprecedented society that extols the values of democracy and freedom (you know, except for all the slaves).  All of this comes together into a rich tapestry of culture and society that acts as a love letter to ancient Athens and everything it represented.  All of this proves to be an excellent setting for the story, and I really appreciated the lengths that Iggulden went to in order to show the reader what being an Athenian was all about.

Another fantastic part of this book was the compelling people that the author set the complex story around.  All the major characters in this novel are real-life historical figures who had a significant hand in the history of Athens, including Xanthippus, Aristides and Themistocles.  Each of these three people are extremely fascinating individuals who achieved many great things, and Iggulden does a fantastic job exploring some of the major events that occurred to them during the years that The Gates of Athens was set, including the roles they played in battles and political gambits, their impact on the city and their various rises and falls in fortunes.  I had an amazing time seeing each of their individual stories unfold.  I particularly enjoyed the way that Iggulden portrayed each of these characters, showing Themistocles (a person Iggulden praises very heavily in his Historical Notes sections) as a self-made political climber with limitless ambition, Aristides as a relentless honest person, and Xanthippus as a honourable but hot-headed individual.  Each of these main characters engage in various political battles against each other, adding significant drama and intrigue to the story, although it proved to be rather heartening to see them come together for the good of Athens and its people at various points in the book.

I also have to highlight the use of Xerxes, King of Persia, who acts as the book’s main antagonist.  Iggulden spends a good amount of time exploring this fascinating figure and examines his various motivations for invading Greece in the way that he did.  Xerxes serves as intriguing counterpoint view to the major Greek characters, and I liked this more grounded portrayal of him as a man who has inherited unlimited power and does not quite know what to do when he encounters Greeks who refuse to bow down before him.  Overall, Iggulden did an outstanding job with each of these characters, and I also really appreciated how he started setting up several other secondary characters, such as Pericles, who will probably be the protagonists of future books.

This book also has plenty for those readers who love some historical action as The Gates of Athens contains a number of major battle sequences, which showcases the fights between the Greeks and the Persians, including the battle at Marathon, and the conflicts that took place around Thermopylae.  These battle sequences are written extremely well and provide excellent and detailed reconstructions of how these battles are played out.  Iggulden has obviously done his research when it comes to these ancient battles, as each of them are chocked full of historical detail, providing the reader with immense amounts of information.  I really liked all the tactics, equipment, disposition and manoeuvres that featured and the actions of various participants during each of these fights, all of which really helps to paint a picture for the reader.  While the various land battles are very impressive, including great depiction of the Spartans’ stand against the Persians at Thermopylae (with a historically accurate number of combatants), I really have to highlight the fights that occur at sea.  As this is a book about Athens there is a major focus on the Athenian navy and their allies and the combat that they saw at Thermopylae.  Iggulden really dives into all the aspects around these naval battles, including showing all the preparation and training that the Greek sailors did before the invasion, as well as the various tactics and naval combat techniques that were developed.  The eventual fight against the Persian armada is really impressive with some amazing action sequences that show the rival fleets against each other.  These depictions of ancient combat and classic battles were extremely awesome, and they were a key part of why I had such a great time reading this book.

The Gates of Athens by Conn Iggulden is an impressive and expansive piece of historical fiction that proved to be a fantastic book to get lost in.  Iggulden once again shows why he is one of the most talented writers of historical fiction in the world today with this outstanding epic that combines masterful storytelling with compelling historical elements, great characters and some exciting action sequences.  This is easily one of the best historical fiction books of 2020 and it gets a full five-star rating from me.

Stormblood by Jeremy Szal

Stormblood Cover

Publisher: Gollancz (Trade Paperback – 4 June 2020)

Series: The Common – Book One

Length: 538 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

In the mood for an epic and elaborate science fiction debut?  Then you will definitely want to check out Stormblood by Australian author Jeremey Szal, a compelling and ingenious novel that was a heck of a lot of fun to read.

In humanity’s far future, our species has just emerged from a brutal and destructive civil war between the seemingly benevolent Harmony and the ruthless Harvester empire.  Harmony were able to win the war by creating the Reapers, elite soldiers who were injected with stormtech, the DNA of an extinct alien race, which permanently altered their bodies, making them stronger, faster and more effective soldiers.  However, stormtech also had terrible side effects, making the host become addicted to their own adrenaline, which impacted on their minds and dramatically increased their natural aggression.

When the war ends, millions of Reapers are left shells of their former selves, having to deal with the terrible addictive impact of the alien DNA in their system, while stormtech became widely traded as an illicit drug across the galaxy.  Amongst these former soldiers is Vakov Fukasawa, a member of an elite Reaper fireteam, who has managed to overcome his addiction to stormtech and now makes a living taking on dangerous odd jobs on Compass, a mega-city built into a massive asteroid.  Vakov has grown vastly disillusioned with Harmony and their methods, but when he is approached by their agents to assist with an investigation, he is once again compelled into their service.

Somebody is killing his fellow former Reapers by poisoning the stormtech being passed around the city.  In order to save the comrades he fought beside, Vakov agrees to help with the investigation, especially when it is revealed that Harmony’s only lead is Vakov’s estranged brother.  However, the more Vakov investigates, the more people keep trying to kill him, and he soon finds himself caught in a vast conspiracy that threatens Compass and the entirety of Harmony.  Can Vakov put a stop to this horrifying plot, or will untold death and destruction rain down on him and everything he fought for?

Stormblood is an intriguing and impressive new science fiction novel that takes the reader on an action-packed thrill ride.  This is the debut novel from Australian author Jeremy Szal, which also serves as the first book in his The Common series of books.  I have been looking forward to this science fiction release for a while as I thought it sounded like a rather interesting novel, and I was really glad when I received a copy.  I ended up having a fantastic time reading this amazing and clever novel, and it is one of the best debut books I have so far read this year.

At the centre of this novel lies a captivating and exciting narrative that follows the adventures of the book’s primary protagonist, Vakov Fukasawa, as he tries to uncover who is trying to kill all his fellow former soldiers.  This results in a fast-paced military thriller storyline filled with all manner of action and adventure as Vakov jumps from one lead to the next in order to get to the bottom of the plot he is investigating.  This story goes in some dramatic directions, and I had fun unravelling the complex conspiracy storyline that emerged.  The combat comes very hot and heavy throughout the entirety of the story, with some unique science fiction elements added in to really make them pop.  Readers should also be prepared for some rather dark sequences, such as a rather claustrophobic torture scene.  Szal also spends a lot of time building up and exploring his protagonist, Vakov, showing him to be a complex character who is haunted by his past and strongly concerned for the people he is close to.  Several chapters within this book are dedicated to showing the events that formed him, including his traumatic childhood and his military service.  There is also a compelling focus on the strained relationship between Vakov and his brother, which becomes a major part of the plot as the two eventually face off as adversaries in some fantastic dramatic scenes.  I became really engrossed with this elaborate storyline and I ended up reading the entire book rather quickly, despite its somewhat substantial length.  An overall outstanding story, I cannot wait to see what happens in the next books in the series, but I have a feeling I am really going to enjoy them.

One of the key highlights of Stormblood is the outstanding new science fiction universe that Szal has come up with as a setting for the story.  Szal clearly has considerable imagination, as he produces a vast and exhilarating science fiction location populated with a multitude of different people and alien races.  The majority of the story is set within the gigantic space city of Compass, an amazing expanse of different places, climates and structures, all laid out in vertical levels.  This was a really cool place to explore, and this is clearly the tip of the iceberg as Szal hints at a number of other intriguing locations and planets throughout the book, and I can easily see future entries in the series expanding out to a bunch of other locations.  I was also extremely impressed with all the different technology, biological enhancements, spaceships, and alien races that appeared throughout the novel.  There are a number of new and fantastic science fiction ideas here, and I really enjoyed the way that Szal worked all of these technologies and aliens into the book’s plot, especially as most of them provide some amazing enhancements to the story.  A number of the book’s intense sequences really stand out due to the technology that the author comes up with, such as weird weapons, advanced combat suits, all manner of enhanced opponents, and a particularly freaky security room that is keyed to a person’s biology (you do not want to know what happens when the owner dies).  All these proved to be a lot of fun, and Szal has an awesome and imaginative vision of the future.

Out of all the cool science fiction elements in this book, I really have to highlight stormtech, the alien DNA that is injected into humans to give them enhanced abilities.  Stormtech is a key part of Stormblood as a plot device and because of the impacts that it has on the book’s point-of-view character.  Quite a lot of the story is dedicated to examining the transformative qualities of stormtech and the effects that it has had on former Reapers like Vakov.  In particular, the alien DNA has left him addicted to his own adrenaline, and it is constantly driving him to perform risky or aggressive acts so that he can get the accompanying adrenaline high.  This proved to be a fascinating part of Stormblood’s story, as the author spends a lot of time examining how stormtech impacts his protagonist’s mind and his constant struggle to control it.  Several of the flashback scenes are particularly well utilised here, as they show Vakov and his fireteam’s initial experiences with stormtech during the war and the terrible effects it had on them the more action they saw.  The version of Vakov who was introduced at the start of the main story is one who has managed to gain command over his addiction, although he is constantly struggling to maintain that control, especially as the events of plot compel him into more and more dangerous situations and new experiences with experimental stormtech, resulting in some dramatic consequences.  This was an extremely captivating aspect of the Stormblood’s narrative, and Szal does an outstanding job examining the impacts of addiction on the protagonist and then using it to add additional compelling layers to his main character.

Stormblood is an excellent and exciting science fiction novel from talented new Australian author Jeremy Szal.  Szal’s creativity and ability to tell a complex and thrilling story really shines through in his debut book, and I had an outstanding time enjoying this epic read.  I fully intend to grab the second book in this series when it comes out and I have a feeling that Szal is going to have a major impact on the science fiction genre in the next few years.

We are the Dead by Mike Shackle

We are the Dead Cover

Publisher: Orion (Audiobook – 8 August 2019)

Series: The Last War – Book One

Length: 18 hours and 6 minutes

My Rating: 4.75 out of 5 stars

Honour, loyalty, service and death! I finally get around to checking out one of last year’s hottest fantasy debuts with this review of We Are the Dead by Mike Shackle.

Generations ago, the nation of Jia was protected by powerful mages who wielded amazing magic that could shape the world around it. But when the magic faded, the people turned to the Shulka, their revered warrior caste, who held back the barbaric northern Egril tribes with their tactics, superior weapons and skills in combat. For hundreds of years the Shulka have successfully defeated the Egril raids, but their many victories have led to complacency.

During the latest raiding season, the Shulka are surprised when an organised and well-armed force marches upon them. Supported by demons and magic, the like of which has not been seen in an age, the Egril swiftly defeat the Shulka armies and conquer all of Jia in days. Their conquest is quick and brutal, and few are spared the bloody wrath of the Egril and their monsters. Those who do survive are forced in servitude and must worship the Egril’s terrible god or else suffer the consequences.

Now, six months after the invasion began, the country appears beaten, but there are always some heroes who are ready to fight back. In the capital city, Tinnstra, the disgraced, cowardly daughter of Jia’s greatest Shulka general finds herself drawn into a plot to save the royal family and soon finds the fate of the entire Kingdom resting in her hands. Elsewhere, a crippled Shulka warrior and his wheelchair-bound son attempts to lead an organised rebellion, but he soon finds that his greatest assets may be a young terrorist and a widowed mother who is trying to provide for her son. Can this unusual group of damaged heroes turn the tide against an all-powerful army or is it already too late to save their country from the control of a dark death god?

We Are the Dead is an intricate and impressive dark fantasy debut from talented new author Mike Shackle, which forms the first book in his The Last War series. This fantastic book came out last year, and it was one of the books I most regret not getting a chance to read in 2019, especially after I saw some of the very positive reviews being written about it. I really have been meaning to check this novel out for a while now, so I went out and grabbed the audiobook format of We Are the Dead a few weeks ago and started listening to it. I am extremely glad that I ended up reading this book, as I fell in love with this novel and its compelling character-driven story.

This novel contains an outstanding and exciting narrative that follows five unique and intriguing characters across eight days of rebellion and bloodshed in a conquered nation. We Are the Dead’s story starts off big; after a quick introduction to the world and a couple of the characters, everything soon blows apart as a destructive full-scale invasion occurs. The story than jumps forward six months and explores how the world has changed, and what has happened to the central group of characters. What follows is five intriguing and exciting separate storylines, each told from the perspective of a different character involved in various parts of the first major attempt from the Shulka resistance movement to strike back and restore their country. Each of these five storylines starts off by examining the unique adventures and experiences of that character and showing how they are brought into the latest round of fight. Each of the storylines starts off exclusively focusing on one point-of-view character, but they quickly start to connect as the plot of the book unfolds. All five separate storylines eventually come together exceedingly well into one extremely enjoyable and action-packed narrative that proves hard to put down. I really liked the way that all storylines all joined together, and it was fantastic to see the quicker narrative jumps between the various characters at the end of the book. I also enjoyed how the main story focused on eight days of conflict and adventure, with the various character arcs running concurrently with each other, as this allowed for a tight, powerful narrative. The various characters go through a lot of big and life-changing moments in the span of these eight days and there are some major cliff-hangers and surprising deaths that leave the reader in wild suspense. All of this makes for some great reading, and you will be on the edge of your seat for the entirety of this book.

Shackle chooses to tell his exciting story through the eyes of five separate point-of-view characters, all of whom have their own viewpoint and adventures within We are the Dead. Each of these characters have a fascinating character arcs, especially as most of the characters grow through adversity as they experience the horrors of war and learn the necessities of sacrifice, duty and loyalty.

The character who got the most focus within this novel was Tinnstra, the daughter of a legendary Shulka warrior who has a lot of high expectations weighing on her shoulders. Despite her heritage and her skill with a blade, Tinnstra starts the book dropping out of the Shulka academy, because she is a blatant and obvious coward. Managing to flee from the invasion, Tinnstra attempts to forge a new life for herself in the conquered capital, but eventually finds herself in the midst of the Shulka rebellion, with a particularly important package that could change the course of the war. At the start of this book, I really did not like Tinnstra, mainly because every second sentence in her chapters involved her pathetically doubting herself or calling herself a coward. Thankfully, this led to a rather good storyline about finding one’s courage and stepping up in a big way, and she eventually came across as a real badass with some fantastic and enjoyable chapters towards the end of the book.

Another great character is Jax, a former Shulka general who, after losing his arm during the initial invasion, becomes a determined resistance leader with his wheelchair-bound son. Jax is probably the most consistent protagonist throughout most of the book, serving as a steady and wise figure who is forced to face the reality of failing his country. Jax is an extremely likeable character, which makes it really hard for the reader when he goes through some incredibly dark moments that have the potential to break him.

Next up we have Dren, a teen terrorist who, after witnessing his family dying during the invasion, becomes a rabid killer, brutally attempting to take out any Egrils (or Skulls, as they are known, due to their distinctive helmets), not matter the collateral damage. Dren is a pretty unlikeable kid at the start of the book due to his overwhelming anger towards the Egrils, any Jian who associates with them and the Shulka resistance, who he hates just as much as the Egrils due to the way that they treated the peasants before the invasion and because of their failure in stopping the slaughter. However, as the book progresses, the reader gets more and more invested in Dren’s compelling story, especially when he starts spending time with Jax. Jax is a terrific mentor figure for Dren, who eventually learns the error of his ways and starts to take more responsibility for himself and the band of child terrorists he has recruited.

The final Jian character who the book focuses on is Yas, a single mother who attempts to earn a living working as a maid for the invaders. Yas is recruited as a spy by the Skulka resistance and ends up becoming more and more involved in their plots and schemes. Yas’s storyline is another fantastic arc, and there are some interesting similarities to Tinnstra’s arc, in that she finds her courage to fight back and do what is right. However, Yas’s story is more tied into the love of her family and her son, and how she wants a better world for her child to grow up in.

In addition to Jian characters, Shackle also tells a portion of the book from the perspective of Darus, an Egril Chosen, an officer who has been granted a magical ability by their powerful leader. Darus is a psychotic torturer with severe sister issues, who delights in causing pain and torment and who is determined to win glory and power. Darus’s powers are ironically that of healing, meaning that he is essentially an immortal antagonist who can also heal people that he comes into contact with. He uses this power throughout the book to heal his victims, bringing them back from the brink of death, so that he can torture them again and again in order to break their spirits. As you can probably guess, Darus is a rather reprehensible and unredeemable character, but one who offers an intriguing counterpoint to the protagonists. It is always cool to see something from the villain’s point of view, and I felt that Darus was a perfect antagonist for this dark and twisted novel.

All five of these characters proved to be extremely interesting to follow, and I really liked where all of their arcs went. Shackle does an impressive job making their portrayals and emotions seem realistic, and you can almost feel the fear, anger and hatred that several of the characters exude. I appreciated how none of the protagonists were perfect heroes, and most of them are victims or products of the war and the circumstances they find themselves in. I found it rather interesting to see how the various characters saw each other throughout the course of the story, such as when some of the characters viewed Tinnstra for the first time and mistake her expressions of terror and apprehension for looks of determination and impatience to get towards the enemy. I also have to highlight the raft of cool and likeable side characters featured throughout the course of the story, many of whom steal several scenes from the point-of-view characters. These are a fun collection of side characters, although readers really should not get too attached to them, as they tend to have a rather short lifespan within the course of the book. Overall, We are the Dead contains some excellent and enjoyable characters, and I really appreciated the complicated and captivating storylines that Shackle wove around them.

In addition to the impressive story and excellent characters, Shackle has come up with an awesome new fantasy world for We are the Dead. The entirety of the story is set within the nation of Jia, a cultured land with a proud warrior tradition, which is somewhat reminiscent of feudal Japan. Shackle does a fantastic job of setting up this landscape in the initial couple of chapters, before everything changes thanks to the invasion. The new Jia, six months after the brutal conquest, is a vastly different place, filled with hunger, fear and desperation as the survivors are forced to adapt to their new way of life. Shackle did an amazing job portraying a nation completely under enemy occupation, and I was put in mind of Nazi-occupied France, due to the round up of civilians, the inclusion of collaborators and snitches, retaliations against the populace and the careful resistance movements relying on help from a nation across the sea to survive. The Egrils also proved to be a great antagonistic nation for the plot of this book, and I loved how they were able to fool the conceited Shulka warriors by pretending to be tribal savages for years, before invading with an organised and advanced army, utilising magical and demonic assets to perfection. There were some distinctive Nazi elements to the Egrils, such as the way that they swiftly conquered all of Jia in a few days with Blitzkrieg-like tactics, their absolute devotion to their anointed leader (who is totally going to turn out to be the lost brother of the mage Aasgod, right?), their stormtrooper-like appearance and tactics, as well as the fact that the narrator of the audiobook format gave all the Egril characters a distinctive Germanic accent. All of this proved to be an excellent background for We are the Dead and I loved seeing the story unfold in this recently conquered fantasy nation.

Those readers who like some action in their stories will be extremely satisfied with We are the Dead, as Shackle has loaded his book with all manner of fights, battles and gratuitous violence (the best type of violence). This is an extremely action-packed novel, and I personally enjoyed all the cool fight sequences, from the small-scale battles between trained warriors, the brutal hit-and-run tactics of Dren’s fighters, and several larger fight sequences between opposing forces. Shackle proved to be very adapt at bringing these action sequences to life, and I found myself quite pumped up as a result of reading this book. Readers should be warned however that We are the Dead does feature a number of vivid and disturbing torture sequences, which are made even worse by the fact that the torturer, Darus, can heal his victim and keep inflicting pain, over and over again. As a result, if intense torture scenes make you uncomfortable, then you are probably better off avoiding this book.

As I mentioned above, I chose to listen to an audiobook version of We are the Dead, rather than grabbing a physical copy. The audiobook format has a run time of just over 18 hours, and it is narrated by Nicola Bryant. This is a lengthy audiobook and it took me a little while to get through it. Part of this is because the story is a tad slow at the start of the book, although I did end up absolutely powering through the last six hours extremely quickly in comparison to the first two thirds of the novel. I really enjoyed the audiobook version, and I found it to be an incredible way to absorb We are the Dead’s clever and detailed narrative. I was also impressed with Bryant’s narration, as she brought some real passion to the audiobook. You could hear the intense emotions in Bryant’s voice as she narrated the story, and you can tell that she was trying to emulate what the characters were feeling with her narration. Bryant also utilised a fantastic and distinctive set of voices for the various characters featured within the novel, and I think that she had an excellent grasp of their personalities and emotions. This proved to be an exception audiobook, and I would definitely suggest checking out this format of We are the Dead.

We are the Dead is an outstanding and deeply enjoyable fantasy novel from Mike Shackle, who really hit it out of the park with his debut novel. I had an amazing time listening to this book, and I loved the blend of compelling story, fantastic setting, complex characters and intense action sequences. This book comes very highly recommended, and I am regretting not picking up a copy of this book last year. I will not be making the same mistake later this year when Shackle’s sequel book, A Fool’s Hope, comes out in December, and I am looking forward to seeing where the story goes next.