The Coward by Stephen Aryan

The Coward Cover

Publisher: Angry Robot (Audiobook – 28 April 2021)

Series: Quest for Heroes – Book One

Length: 14 hours and 50 minutes

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

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Prepare for a legendary quest with a complex and damaged hero as bestselling author Stephen Aryan presents the first book in his new fantasy duology, The Coward.

Aryan is an awesome fantasy author who has been writing some great books over the last few years.  Aryan debuted back in 2015 with Battlemage, the first book in The Age of Darkness trilogy, which focused on a brutal magical war.  After finishing this initial trilogy, Aryan released a sequel trilogy, the Age of Dread trilogy, which was set 10 years after the events of the first trilogy, which focused on the consequences of the first trilogy, especially the fear and prejudice its magical war brought on every mage in this fantasy world.  I ended up reading the second book in this trilogy, Magefall, and quite enjoyed its interesting story.  Unfortunately, I never got a chance to finish the trilogy off or go back and check out some of the earlier books, which I kind of regret.  But I did get the chance last year to read the first book in his new series, The Coward, the first instalment of the Quest for Heroes duology.

Everyone in the Five Kingdoms knows the legend of Kell Kressia, the most renowned hero in all the lands.  At the young age of 17, Kell volunteered to join a band of legendary warriors and heroes on their greatest quest ever: travelling to the far north and killing the Ice Lich to save the world.  Twelve men ventured to the north, and only Kell returned, having slain the Ice Lich, leaving the land’s greatest heroes behind in death.  Kell’s fame as a hero spread throughout the land thanks to song and story.  However, not everything you hear in stories is true.

Ten years later, Kell is living the simple life on his family’s farm, content with the peace and quiet and avoiding people where possible.  However, fate has a funny way of catching up with heroes, and when word reaches the kingdoms of further trouble in the north, Kell is called for once again.  A terrible evil is said to have taken root in the fortress of the Ice Lich, and their power threatens the entire world.

Taking up his famous sword and ready to revisit the dangers up north, Kell sets out.  However, Kell is carrying a dark and desperate secret: he is no true hero; instead he is just a lucky man broken by his experiences and with no intention of returning to hell.  However, caught up in his own legend, and with a new band of heroes forming around him, Kell has no choice but to once again venture forth, even if it means his death.  Everyone is convinced that Kell will once again save the world, but can the hero win when he doesn’t even believe in himself?

This was a fantastic and clever fantasy novel from Aryan that I had an excellent time reading.  Aryan came up with an outstanding story for The Coward, based on a complex protagonist forced to relive his worst experiences.  I deeply enjoyed this cool novel and I managed to power through its entertaining and compelling narrative in no time at all.

The Coward has an awesome and captivating plot that quickly draws the reader in and ensures that they are held captive by the compelling quest.  I was honestly a fan of this book the moment I read the first line: “Kell Kressia, slayer of the Ice Lich and saviour of the Five Kingdoms, tripped on a rake and fell into a pile of horse shit.”  This perfectly set the scene for the entire novel, and showcased Aryan’s fun and compelling take on classic fantasy quest heroes.  The story initially develops primarily around Kell and showcases his severe emotional damage, as well as the fact that the legendary events of the past are mostly false, no matter what the bards and histories say.  Quickly dragged back into the fray by an ambitious king, Kell is tasked with travelling back to the scene of his last adventure and killing whatever evil he discovers there.  Naturally Kell, having learnt his lesson the first time, graciously accepts the request, and then tries to run away the first chance he gets.  However, thanks to a starstruck young man following in his footsteps, Kell is trapped into the mission and decides the best way to survive is to recruit a new bunch of heroes, and soon pulls together a small, eclectic group of rogues and warriors to take up the quest.

Most of these events take place in the first half of the book, and you really get to grips with the central characters while also fully understanding Kell and his pain.  Interspersed with flashbacks to the true story of the original quest, Aryan does a wonderful job of painting the risks of the upcoming journey to the reader, and you know that some brutal events are in store for the protagonists in the future.  At the same time, there is an excellent subplot that shows political intrigue throughout the Five Kingdoms, as a nefarious church attempts to take control of the lands, while the kings use Kell and his quest as pawns in a great political game.  This results in some dangerous moments for the protagonists on their way to their destination, and I liked the compelling and thrilling change of pace the dive into court politics presented.

Everything leads up to the big trek up North that dominates the second half of the book.  What follows is a bleak and captivating series of events that ensures that Kell and his companions hit every single monster and deadly creature that the author could think off, including wraiths, cunning ice sharks and an aggressive herd of lethal arctic beasts.  These scenes are all written extremely well, and Aryan does an excellent job of showcasing the deadly stakes of the mission, and there is even a memorable, and frankly surprising, tragedy just before the final major sequence.  This sequence, which sees the heroes re-enter the Ice Lich’s fortress, is paced extremely well, and leads to a brutal and intense final confrontation with their enemy.  While I did think that Aryan was a little too mysterious when it came to who or what this antagonist was, they certainly left their mark on the story, and it was fascinating to see their impacts.  Aryan fits in a couple of concluding chapters to set up the characters for the next book, while also containing some interesting surprises that will come into play in the future.  The reader comes away from The Coward extremely satisfied, and I felt that this was a very well-crafted narrative that not only stands on its own, but which leaves the reader curious to find out what happens next.

I deeply enjoyed the way that Aryan set this entire narrative up, and I felt that all the distinctive narrative threads fell into place extremely well.  Running at a swift and enjoyable pace, The Coward’s fantastic and elaborate story quickly drags you in, especially with its focus on a damaged protagonist and his new quest.  The author was extremely good at balancing deep and damaging character insights with a fast-paced action narrative, and you really had to feel for the protagonist as he revisited his trauma, while also selfishly encouraging him to keep going with the quest.  There is an excellent layer of dark humour over the entire story, and I liked how the action and adventure of the main storyline was well balanced by the alternate scenes of political intrigue that also set up the main villain of the second book.  I also deeply appreciated the captivating and clever dive into the dark side of an epic fantasy quest, and the traumatic memories of the events really shape the protagonist and the narrative in some excellent ways, while also proving to be an interesting and fun alternate perspective of classic fantasy novels.  Aryan features several fun allusions and homages to other iconic fantasy works in this book, and I appreciated his distinctive take on how a classic fantasy story adventure would really go.

I also quite enjoyed the fantastic and impressive new fantasy landscape that Aryan introduced in The Coward.  This first book is set in the Five Kingdoms, a collection of lands who are currently experiencing hardship, especially with a poor harvest and the increasing cold.  Despite the efforts of the authoritarian Church of the Shepherd to quash them, rumours abound that the Five Kingdoms are facing a threat from the north again, just like they did years before.  Aryan does a great job setting up the Five Kingdoms, and you swiftly get an idea of the many problems and conflicts befalling them, especially as their church is slowly increasing its influence and power, attempting to undermine its kings.  This proves rich ground for the early part of the narrative, and it was amazing to get introduced to this land.  I particularly loved the exploration of the myth of the protagonist throughout the lands, and the impact it had on the people, both in terms of morale and celebration, as well as politically.  Having multiple characters recite a famous in-universe retelling of the original quest was particularly fun, especially as the inconsistencies and blatant lies attached to them soon become extremely apparent.  The best setting in the entire book, however, was easily the North, were much of the second half of the book takes place.  Although it is similar to other famous fantasy winter landscapes, Aryan works to make his fairly distinctive, especially with the unique creatures and threats that lurk within.  The author really makes the landscape seem as brutal, barren and isolated as possible, and it is very intense to see the characters travel through it, particularly when Kell encounters remnants of the original quest, and is forced to relive his previous horrors again.  I had a lot of fun exploring Aryan’s intriguing world in this book and I look forward to seeing how it is expanded out in the sequel.

While I deeply enjoyed the narrative and had a great time exploring the new fantasy realm, easily the best thing about this book is the character work.  Aryan has done a real masterclass with some of the characters in The Coward, and you swiftly get attached to the main band of heroes, especially the protagonist Kell Kressia, all of whom are damaged or hiding something.  Watching them endure through terrible hardship and come together as a group is just wonderful, and I loved how attached I ended up feeling them as the novel progressed.

Most of the focus of the plot is directed to Kell Kressia, the titular coward.  Kell is a fantastic and memorable figure who draws you in with his unique story of woe.  The lone survivor of a legendary quest he undertook as a naïve teenager, Kell suffered a lot during the previous journey, and despite the renown and love lauded upon him, Kell ended up with nothing to show for his quest and has lived a simple life ever since.  In the current story, Kell has grown up significantly and is now content to be alone.  However, when he is sent on another quest, he attempts to flee, only to be dragged in against his will.  I really appreciated the development that Aryan put into Kell, especially as I figured that the twist would be that he’s a fraud.  However, despite the title, you realise that Kell isn’t really a coward; instead he is a deeply traumatised man who is now wise enough not to repeat the mistakes of his youth.  Rather than seeking battle, he tries to avoid it, but when he is forced to complete the quest, he reveals himself to be quite competent and able to lead his companions, even if he doesn’t want to.  I had an amazing time with Kell in this book, and you really sympathise with him once you find out the whole truth behind him.  I loved seeing how much he matured since the original quest, and the canny and realistic new hero is a very understandable figure as a result.  Aryan builds in a bit of closure for Kell in The Coward, especially as he comes to terms with the dark events from his past and finally starts to move on, but he does have to suffer some more tragedy along the way.  I also liked seeing him manipulate and utilise his status as a legendary hero throughout the book, even if he doesn’t believe it, and it was fun to see people who knew in the past underestimate him, not realising how much he’s grown up.  Kell is an excellent and impressive protagonist, and I can’t wait to see what Aryan puts him through next.

Another major character I need to highlight is Gerren, a young and idealistic teenager.  Following Kell’s example from the stories, Gerren finds Kell on his quest and stubbornly follows along, attempting to become a hero in his own right, despite Kell’s many attempts to get rid of him.  Realising that Kell doesn’t want to be there and means to run away, Gerren becomes quite angry and uses Kell’s own legend to trap him in the quest.  However, the further he travels with Kell and the heroes, the more he realises that Kell was right, and he soon regrets his decision.  I loved how Aryan used Gerren in The Coward, as the character essentially ends up being a younger version of Kell, making all the mistakes that his hero did, and becoming a dark mirror to him.  Watching Gerren mimic Kell’s life is pretty moving for all involved, and I loved seeing Kell’s reaction, especially as he tries to save Gerren from all the pain he suffered, which results in some amazing scenes.  Aside from being an emotional anchor on Kell, Gerren also goes through quite a lot of development in his storyline, as he grows from naïve kid to serious adventurer.  Watching his resentment to Kell grow and then fade when he realises what Kell was trying to protect him from is amazing, and you really wish that he would turn back at some point, not just for his sake but for Kell’s.  You also grow really attached to Gerren as the book goes on, and he served as an intriguing companion to the protagonist and really helped amp up the dramatic heft of Kell’s trauma.

Aside from Kell and Gerren, I really must highlight the rest of the fantastic band of heroes that travel with him, as Aryan brings together an eclectic and complex group, each of whom are there for very different reasons.  This includes the mysterious but entertaining bard Vahli, the hilarious pairing of Bronwyn and Malormir, two outrageous heroes with many a tale behind their deeds, and the monstrous but heroic non-human character of Willow.  Willow is probably the most intriguing out of these, as her entire species is something of a mystery, with a strange connection to the events of the plot.  Willow grows to be quite a significant figure as the book continues, and I am looking forward to seeing how the author expands on her in the future.  All these characters and more (the villainous Revenant Mother Britak was a fantastic secondary antagonist), were very impressive, and their unique and powerful adventure, as well as the many deep secrets in their past, help to turn The Coward into an exceptional character driven novel.

Like many great epic fantasy books, I would strongly recommend The Coward’s audiobook format.  Narrated by actor Matt Wycliffe, The Coward flows along at an excellent pace as an audiobook, and you really get caught up in the adventure and epic fight scenes out on the snow.  Wycliffe does some amazing and fitting voices for the various characters, and you really get caught up in their personalities and emotional depths through this narration.  With a run time of just under 15 hours, this is a slightly lengthy audiobook to get through, but I found myself powering through a very short amount of time thanks to the compelling story and characters.  A wonderful way to enjoy this amazing and clever novel.

Overall, The Coward by Stephen Aryan was one of the more captivating and intriguing fantasy novels of 2021 and it is one that is well worth checking out.  I loved elaborate narrative and impressive character work in this outstanding read, and readers will find themselves getting dragged into its compelling adventure tale.  I had an exceptional time with The Coward last year, and I really regret not reviewing it sooner.  I will hopefully read the next book in this duology, The Warrior, in the coming weeks, and I have no doubt it will be just as awesome as The Coward.

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Throwback Thursday – Warhammer: Runefang by C. L. Werner

Runefang Cover

Publisher: Black Library (Paperback – 24 June 2008)

Series: Warhammer Fantasy

Length: 413 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

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Welcome back to my Throwback Thursday series, where I republish old reviews, review books I have read before or review older books I have only just had a chance to read.  For this week’s Throwback Thursday I have a look at a classic Warhammer Fantasy adventure novel with the entertaining fantasy thrill ride, Runefang.

I have been reading an awful lot of Warhammer 40,000 novels lately, but deep down my heart will always belong to the Warhammer Fantasy franchise, as that was the game that I played back in the day.  Even though the Warhammer Fantasy game has ended (replaced by The Age of Sigmar), while it was going the Black Library invested a lot of time into creating some excellent novels in this setting, which I have also been enjoy recently.  This includes the awesome Broken Honour and some of the earlier entries in the iconic Gotrek and Felix series (including Trollslayer, Skavenslayer, Daemonslayer, Dragonslayer and Beastslayer).  Even after reading these, I am still in the mood for more fun Warhammer Fantasy adventures and so I just read Runefang by established Warhammer fiction author C. L. Werner.  Werner, whose other writing credits include the Witch Hunter, Thanquol & Boneripper and The Black Plague series, came up with a compelling idea for this novel which I had a lot of fun getting through.

As civil war, discord and political instability rock the human realms of the Empire, a far greater threat marches upon it from the south.  A massive horde of undead creatures has been raised from the grave and is  cutting its way through the heavily populated province of Wissenland.  As the forces of Wissenland gather to fight, they are disheartened to find that these are not the typical shambling herd of undead horrors, but a well-organised, highly disciplined force of relentless fighters with dangerous magic backing them up.  Worse, the leader of this force is a true monster, the wight lord Zahaak, an ancient general of the legendary dark necromancer, Nagash, who has risen from his last defeat to finally achieve the victory he promised centuries before.

After several devastating slaughters, it becomes apparent that the undead force before them is unstoppable and the only way to defeat it is to kill the unkillable undead general.  In desperate need of anything that will save his realm, the Count of Wissenland and his advisors come up with an unlikely plan: recovering the Solland Runefang.  Lost years before when an orc raid destroyed the former province of Solland, the stolen Runefang, one of the legendary 12 swords signifying rulership of the Empire’s provinces, is rumoured to be the only weapon capable of killing Zahaak.

The task of finding the Runefang falls to Baron von Rabwald, who pulls together a small expedition of soldiers, knights and adventurers and leads them to the Runefang’s purported hiding place in the Worlds Edge Mountains.  However, this is no easy quest, and the chances of success are low, especially as the Worlds Edge Mountains are a notorious haunt for monsters, orcs and innumerable other dangers.  Worse, they are not the only group seeking the lost Runefang, and the fell magic of Zahaak is never far behind.  Can the expedition recover the Runefang before it is too late, or will Wissenland fall at the hands of its greatest foe from the past?

This was an outstanding and extremely exciting Warhammer Fantasy novel that I had a wonderful time reading.  C. L. Werner did an excellent job providing readers with an amazing fantasy adventure, and Runefang has a lot of great elements that will appeal to a wide range of readers.

At the heart of Runefang lies a captivating and highly enjoyable fantasy narrative that quickly drags the reader in with its impressive action, enjoyable characters, intriguing examination of the Warhammer world, and exciting adventure narrative.   Starting off with a fantastic introduction that sees the Wissenland army’s first disastrous attack against the undead horde, you are swiftly brought into the middle of the conflict as you witness the aftermath of the defeat, which also introduces several of the main characters.  Following some compelling exposition about the enemy they are facing, the story splits into two parts, with Baron von Rabwald leading most of the supporting cast off to find the lost Runefang, while the rest of the story focuses on the Count of Wissenland’s attempts to delay the undead army to give the adventurers time.  This split works really well, and seeing the disasters unfolding in Wissenland heightens the stakes of the expedition’s adventures and ensures that the reader is even more invested in its outcome.  The expedition storyline encounters multiple obstacles throughout their adventure, including monsters, traps, and orcs and goblins.  They are also forced to deal with a rival force of humans who are also hoping to claim the Runefang, untrustworthy mercenaries, as well as a traitor within their ranks who is helping the enemy.

This all translates into a very good and action-packed adventure, and I loved seeing all the epic events unfold through the eyes of the varied characters.  The story chugs along at a quick and exciting pace, with a good combination of action, dark moments and some fun, if grim, humour that I quite enjoyed.  Werner also ensures readers are in for a wild ride by not being sentimental when it comes to character survivability.  This became really apparent around halfway through Runefang when several key characters, many of whom had been built up in a big way for most of the narrative, were very suddenly killed off, and one of the supporting cast took the reigns as lead protagonist.  While this was a little surprising, I think it worked rather well, and it added to the suspense and drama of the tale, as the new protagonist is forced to make some big choices and deals to keep the quest alive.  Following this, the story keeps advancing at a great pace, with new foes and dangers appearing the closer the protagonists got to their goal.  This leads up to the epic final sequences of the expedition narrative, and it was fantastic to see the surviving protagonists go up against all the villains that had been chasing them in a big, extended confrontation, and Werner kept continuously hitting the reader with twists, surprises and dangers.  The reveal about the traitor in the ranks was pretty good, especially as Werner threw in an excellent red herring character (although by the time it is revealed, there were limited potential characters who it could be).  Everything comes together extremely well, with all the storylines and character arcs reaching their natural end, and I felt that it was an excellent, if rather bittersweet, conclusion.

I have to say that this was a particularly good and accessible entry in the wider Warhammer Fantasy canon, which is very well suited to this sort of immense and powerful story.  While Werner could have just phoned in Runefang with a generic adventure story set in the universe, he does a great dive into the lore.  This novel is set well before the events of most Warhammer Fantasy novels and takes place during the Age of the Three Emperors, where the Empire was split by a raging civil war.  As such, the province of Wissenland is on its own throughout the novel and must also deal with the substantial machinations of its neighbours as it fights to survive, which gives it a great additional edge of intrigue.  The author also spends a great deal of time focusing on the ruined province of Solland and the importance of its lost Runefang.  It was fascinating to see the ruins of Solland in Runefang, as it was still badly scarred by the orc invasion that destroyed it, and the impact of Wissenland’s absorption of it was quite interesting.  I also really appreciated the fantastic portrayal of the notorious Worlds Edge Mountains, the former realm of the dwarfs that is now controlled by orcs, bandits, and monsters.  The author did a really good job showing this to be a desolate and dangerous place, and he really did not disappoint when it came to featuring the variety of cool creatures and threats it contains, forcing the protagonists up against dangerous odds again and again.

Finally, I must highlight the author’s excellent use of the undead army in this book.  Rather than using the armies of the Vampire Counts or the Tomb Kings (which were the two undead factions at the time of Runefang’s release), Werner features a historic army of undead creatures who have risen after their defeat during the early days of the Empire to have their vengeance.  As such, they are a unique force of undead creatures, and I loved seeing them in action, particularly as you get some awesome reactions of terror from the human characters observing them.  Overall, I really loved the cool use of Warhammer Fantasy elements, history and settings in Runefang, and I felt that this was the sort of Warhammer novel that any fantasy fan could pick up and enjoy.

I also need to highlight all the impressive action featured throughout Runefang, and Werner has a clear talent for making fight scenes come to life in a big way.  There are so many battles throughout this book, and each of them is showcased to the reader in exquisite detail.  Whether it be a small skirmish, a one-on-one fight, a brawl against a giant monster, or a large pitched battle between armies, the author ensures that the reader gets the full sense of everything that his happening.  It was extremely cool to see all these fights unfold, and I was able to mentally see every sword swing, desperate charge and epic moment.  I liked how some of these fights emulated the battles from the table-top Warhammer Fantasy game, and you could really envision how they would have looked being played out on the board.  These action scenes combined well with the awesome and exciting story, and I think that they strongly enhanced my enjoyment of Runefang.

The final thing I want to talk about is characters, as Runefang features an excellent and massive cast of distinctive protagonists and villains.  Now, I am not going to go into too much detail about character arcs or development here, as to do so might ruin which key characters are killed off early.  However, I have to say that I was really impressed with the awesome way that Werner introduced each of the major figures in the book.  As such, you quickly grow to like many of the figures in Runefang, especially as Werner goes out of his way to feature a unique and often damaged group of protagonists to fit the story around.  I will say that I deeply enjoyed the Baron’s notorious and scarred champion, Kessler, who has some great moments; the dwarf Skanir, who serves as cantankerous guide; and the fantastic duo of the halfling Theodo Hobshollow and his ogre sidekick, Ghrum, who were an excellent and entertaining comic relief team.  There are also some really good villains in this novel, including the bandits who are also after the Runefang (featuring a brilliantly despicable leader and an entertaining pair of cowards), and an extremely dangerous orc warlord, Uhrghul Skullcracker.  Uhrghul was a particularly fun character, and I liked both his philosophical insights about being an orc leader as well as his effective way of questioning human prisoners (eating my legs in front of me probably would get me to talk).  I did think that the main villain of Runefang Zahaak was a tad underdeveloped, even if he was shown to be an epic badass with major historical cred to his name.  However, this might have been a deliberate choice by Werner to highlight the uncomplicated nature and motivations of the undead compared to the more insidious, evil, or animalistic plots of the humans and orc villains.  I had an amazing time following these characters, just try not to get too attached to any of them.

Filled with fantastic action, a compelling adventure storyline, fun characters and great use of the Warhammer Fantasy setting, Runefang was an outstanding novel from C. L. Werner that I had an amazing time reading.  Werner really went out of his way to create the most impressive and exhilarating fantasy adventure he could, and the result is really worth checking out.  A highly recommended Warhammer fantasy novel that you are guaranteed to have fun with.

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Throwback Thursday – Warhammer: Broken Honour by Robert Earl

Warhammer - Broken Honour Cover

Publisher: Black Library (Paperback – 22 February 2011)

Series: Warhammer Fantasy

Length: 411 pages

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

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Welcome back to my Throwback Thursday series, where I republish old reviews, review books I have read before or review older books I have only just had a chance to read.  For my latest Throwback Thursday, I look at a cool standalone entry in the Warhammer Fantasy canon with the 2011 novel, Broken Honour by Robert Earl.

Damn it has been fun getting back into Warhammer fiction over the last couple of years, especially as there have been so many amazing and epic recent additions to the franchise.  I have really been having fun with the huge variety of stories associated with these iconic tabletop games, and while I have been mostly focused on the science-fiction based Warhammer 40,000 novels, I have also been dabbling with the Warhammer Fantasy subgenre.  Set in a chaotic and war-ridden world filled with all manner of creatures from classic fantasy, the Warhammer Fantasy novels contain fun and dark adventures, such as the Gotrek and Felix novels (check out my reviews for Trollslayer, Skavenslayer, Daemonslayer, Dragonslayer and Beastslayer).  I was lucky to recently find several cool Warhammer books in a second-hand shop, and I immediately dived into a particularly fun fantasy novel, Broken Honour, written by a new-to-me author, Robert Earl, who had written various other interesting Warhammer novels.  Set before the 2015 destruction of this setting and the start of the Age of Sigma, Broken Honour was a fantastic and entertaining read with a great story to it.

Chaos has once again invaded the realms of man, this time in the Imperial state of Hochland.  The ravenous beastman hordes are emerging from their deep forest lairs to begin their annual raids of the human settlements to destroy, despoil and feast on the people within.  As the armies of Hochland gather to repel them, they find themselves outmatched and outsmarted at every turn.  A powerful and dangerously intelligent beastman lord has risen to command the herd, and his unusual tactics may spell the end for every human living in Hochland.

As the Hochland baron and his advisors attempt to withstand the new threat advancing towards them, they desperately seek out any fighting men they can find.  Sensing opportunity, mercenary Captain Eriksson, a veteran fighter for sale currently only missing a regiment to command, arrives at the capital.  Keen to take advantage of the current chaos, Eriksson buys the freedom of a large group of prisoners to form a new free company.  Promised freedom and pardons for their crimes if they fight, the prisoners form a reluctant and ill-trained regiment, the Gentleman’s Free Company of Hergig, who hope to avoid the brunt of the battle in the back.

However, Eriksson and his troops soon find themselves in the very thick of the fighting, as those above them seek to use his unit to in the very worst ways.  Forced to contend with ravenous monsters, political intrigue, and a villainous lord with everything to lose, Eriksson and the Gentleman’s Free Company of Hergig will need to come together and hone their skills if they are to survive.  Can this band of rogues, thieves and criminals regain their lost honour and find redemption on the battlefield, or will they find only death and destruction as humanities most bestial enemies come to claim them?

Broken Honour was an awesome addition to the Warhammer Fantasy canon that I had an amazing time getting through.  Earl produced an exceedingly exciting and action-packed read that is essentially The Dirty Dozen in the Warhammer Fantasy universe (it is also comparable to the Last Chancers series from Warhammer 40,000).  Obviously, with a plot like that, I knew that I was going to have a lot of fun with this book, and Earl really did not disappoint.  While the narrative is a tad by the numbers, it is a pretty cool military fantasy narrative that is worked well into the Warhammer Fantasy setting.  The entire story flows really well, with the antagonists introduced up front and the protagonist, Eriksson, and his unwilling soldiers brought in quickly after that.  From there you follow the paroled Free Company as they are dragged from one conflict to the next and forced to contend with overwhelming odds.  As such, the book is loaded with a ton of outstanding action and brutal fight sequences that are guaranteed to keep you entertained.  Earl makes excellent use of multiple character perspectives to tell a deep and wide-ranging narrative, and you soon get dragged into several different character arcs, including several surrounding the antagonists.  Not only do you get to see into the heart of the beastman camp, but there are several brilliant sequences told from the perspective of a villainous Hochland noble who is trying to kill the protagonists.  This all ends up being a pretty exciting and fantastic story, and I found myself getting really caught up in the novel, powering through it very quickly.  Everything comes together really well into a great self-contained adventure, although a couple of character arcs didn’t get the conclusions that they deserved, and some storylines are never revisited, despite Earl leaving the story open for a sequel.  Despite that, Broken Honour was an excellent, easy novel to check out, and you are guaranteed to have a great time reading it.

I really liked how well Broken Honour slotted into the established Warhammer Fantasy setting, and this was a great addition to the overall canon.  Earl focuses his narrative around two particularly intriguing factions from the game here, the villainous beastmen and the human armies of the Empire, specifically from the state of Hochland.  I loved the insight into both, especially the beastmen, and the author really brings them to life in exquisite detail.  You can really feel the monstrous power, the Chaos infused evil and the beast-like mentalities contained within these creatures, and they prove to be excellent and brutal antagonists for the entire novel.  At the same time, there are some awesome insights into the soldiers of the Empire, and I loved the various depictions of their battle tactics and the various regiments.  While Earl does dive into these various Warhammer factions throughout Broken Honour, readers don’t need to know too much about them to enjoy the series, as the author does an amazing job introducing them and explaining what they are, and any fan of fantasy or dark fantasy would have a great time with this book.  Indeed, Broken Honour would serve as an excellent introduction to the Warhammer Fantasy canon for those readers unfamiliar with its details, as the story encapsulates the constant struggles and battles that occur within it, as well as the fun and larger-than-life characters it focuses on.  As such, this is a really good and entertaining Warhammer novel that will really appeal to both established fans and potential newcomers.

I really must highlight some of the great characters featured within Broken Honour, as Earl has come up with a wonderful and compelling group of figures to set the story around.  Most of the plot naturally revolves around the members of the Gentleman’s Free Company of Hergig, who are formed to face the threat within it.  Made up of over 120 former criminals, you don’t get to know all the members, but most of the ones who are featured are extremely fun and very memorable.  The leader, Captain Eriksson, proves to be a canny veteran who can manipulate events and his superiors in his favour to field a force in the war and get a lot of money.  Despite his mercenary attitude, Eriksson proves to have a conscious and builds up a fair bit of loyalty to his men, and this character growth really helps endear him to the reader.  Most of the other named Free Company members are a rather interesting and cool.  The drummer boy, Dolf, for example, proves to be an excellent human MacGuffin in the narrative as political plots revolve around his survival.  Other members of the Free Company that stood out to me include the tired veteran Sergeant Alter, the possibly mad former warrior priest Gunter, and the wily quartermaster Porter, whose moneymaking schemes and remarkable survival ability rounds out the character dynamics extremely well.

While I had fun with these protagonists, the best characters within Broken Honour are easily the baddies, with several great antagonist figures really coming together perfectly throughout the book.  The most prominent of these is Beastlord Gulkroth, who leads the beastman armies in the book.  Empowered by dark magics which have enhanced him even further than the rest of his kind, Gulkroth proves to be an intimidating and compelling figure in the novel, especially as his grasp of strategy, tactics and patience are highly unusual amongst his race.  Gulkroth spends the bulk of the novel balancing this newfound intelligence against his bestial nature, and it proves extremely interesting to see both sides of his personality come into conflict, especially as it impacts how his army attacks.  While Gulkroth is a fascinating figure, the best antagonist is Viksberg, a cowardly noble who was the sole human survivor of the first battle in the book thanks to his spinelessness behaviour.  Despite this, he manipulates the situation to make him appear as a hero and gets promoted as a result, killing anyone who knows the truth of his actions.  This eventually forces him to contend with Eriksson’s regiment, as one of them is a witness to his crimes, and he tries to get all of them killed on multiple occasions.  Viksberg’s continued attempts to kill the protagonists through indirect means really adds to the intrigue and enjoyment of the entire novel, and it was exceedingly entertaining to watch his various plots unfold.  Earl really goes out of his way to make Viksberg as despicable as possible, and you end up really disliking the entitled bugger, especially as he gets better characters killed.  You end up rooting against Viksberg in the hope that he’ll get his just deserts, only to be disappointed when he manages to survive to fight another day, which is both frustrating and extremely fun.  These brilliant antagonists, and all the other characters, add so much to the overall plot of Broken Honour, and I really appreciated the work that Earl put into his various characters.

Overall, Broken Honour by Robert Earl was an awesome and deeply entertaining Warhammer novel that I had a delightful time with.  The straightforward story is very exciting and contains some impressive character arcs that unfold to produce a riveting tale, while also providing all the action and bloodshed I could ever want in the iconic Warhammer Fantasy setting.  While I am a little disappointed that Earl didn’t write any additional novels featuring the characters in Broken Honour, I still had an awesome time with this book and it’s a great read for both Warhammer fans and those general fantasy readers.  Highly recommended!

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The Hunger of the Gods by John Gwynne

The Hunger of the Gods Cover

Publisher: Orbit (Audiobook – 14 April 2022)

Series: The Bloodsworn Saga – Book Two

Length: 22 hours and 57 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

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Extremely talented dark fantasy John Gwynne returns with one of my most anticipated fantasy novels of 2022, The Hunger of the Gods, the epic second entry in The Bloodsworn Saga.

Last year, the fantasy world was aflame with discussion about a certain novel from acclaimed author John Gwynne, best known for his The Faithful and the Fallen series and its sequel Of Blood and Bone trilogy.  While I wasn’t initially intending to check this book out, the sheer amount of positive feedback and reviews convinced me that I was clearly missing out, so I grabbed a copy and ended up being deeply impressed by the elaborate fantasy saga it contained.  That novel was The Shadow of the Gods, a Norse inspired dark fantasy tale that saw three intriguing protagonists explore a deadly new fantasy world wrecked by the last battle of the dead gods, and filled with monsters, warbands and powered humans tainted by the divine ancestors.  I had an exceptional time with this great book, which really met all my expectations and ended up being one of my favourite books and audiobooks of 2021 (it also topped my favourite new-to-me authors list and best covers of 2021 list, it was just that damn awesome).  I deeply enjoyed the fantastic and elaborate tale this novel contained, and I could not wait to see how it would be continued.  As such, when I received a copy of the sequel, The Hunger of the Gods, which featured another awesome fantasy cover and plot synopsis, I immediately started reading it and was once again thrust into world of gods and heroes.

The dread dragon god, Lik-Rifa the soul-stealer, has been released from her ancient tomb and now all of Vigrid lies in peril.  Determined to unleash a new era of blood, death and conquest upon the lands, Lik-Rifa immediately begins to gather around her horde of Tainted warriors, including her own descendants, the dragon-born, terrible monsters and a cult of followers, all slaved to her will.  Hope looks bleak, especially as the warring human kingdoms remain unaware that Lik-Rifa is free and about to unleash fresh horrors upon them.

Amongst this chaos, the deadly Orka continues her hunt for her stolen son, taken by Lik-Rifa’s followers.  Now revealed as the legendary and infamous warrior, the Skullsplitter, Orka will not rest until she has her son and her vengeance, no matter the obstacles.  While Orka continues her quest, her former warband of secretly Tainted warriors, the Bloodsworn, head south, determined to rescue one of their members, while their newest initiate, Varg, continues his attempts to find vengeance for his sister.  Meanwhile, Elvar is forced to fulfil the blood oath she took to rescue another child from the dragonborn, and needs to convince her now leaderless warband, the Battle-Grim, to follow her.

As these brave warriors each take their own steps to destiny, they will all face dangerous challenges and horrendous odds.  Orka will need to come to grips with the wolf lying deep in her heart as she attempts the impossible: defying a god.  Varg and the Bloodsworn will travel to a distant land to achieve their goals, only to meet tragedy and loss.  Elvar finally attempts to claim the responsibility of leadership that she has always desired.  However, despite all their bravery and skill in arms, none of these heroes are going to be capable of fighting Lik-Rifa directly.  Instead, Elvar and her company will attempt a desperate plan, using forbidden magic to bring a dead god to life and bind it to their will.

Wow oh wow, what an incredible and awesome read.  Gwynne continues to showcase why he is one of the best current authors of fantasy fiction with The Hunger of the Gods, which perfectly continues the impressive Bloodsworn Saga in a big way.  Featuring tons of bloody action, impressive new fantasy elements, complex characters, and a powerful and elaborate narrative that is the very definition of epic, The Hunger of the Gods was another five-star read from Gwynne that is easily one of the better books I have read so far this year.

The Hunger of the Gods has an outstanding and impressive story that instantly grabs the reader’s attention and ensures that they are unable to put the book down until the very last page.  This sequel kicks off right after the epic conclusion of The Shadow of the Gods and quickly follows up on all the big revelations and events that occurred there, especially the release of the giant dragon god, Lik-Rifa, who serves as a suitably sinister and epic main antagonist for the series.  Just like the first book, The Hunger of the Gods’ narrative is told from a series of split storylines, each one focused on a specific point-of-view character.  All three character-specific storylines from The Shadow of the Gods are continued here, following Orka, Varg and Elva.  These existing storylines go in some exciting and interesting directions in The Hunger of the Gods, and I loved how the author expanded on the character’s growth and individual journeys from the first novel, while also keeping some of the existing dynamics and elements.  Gwynne also adds in two new point-of-view characters, as antagonists Gudvarr and Biorr, who were good secondary characters from The Shadow of the Gods, get their own intriguing storylines here.  These new character arcs are impressively entertaining, providing great alternate perspectives to deepen the story, while also working into the existing storylines extremely well.  All five storylines go in some great directions throughout the course of the novel, and there are some absolutely brilliant moments, twists and revelations that occur throughout, especially as many of these storylines started to come together more.  I had an excellent time seeing where everything went, and Gwynne really did a great job taking all these character stories in some appropriate directions.  Every single storyline end on an amazing note and the conclusions are guaranteed to drag readers back for the third Bloodsworn novel.

This second book in The Bloodsworn Saga is written pretty damn perfectly as Gwynne continues his magic to produce an addictive and distinctive read.  The Hunger of the Gods retains the excellent tone introduced in the first novel, ensuring that everything comes across as a Norse adventure story set within a unique, dark fantasy realm.  Everything about this book is handled extremely well, from the exceptional pacing, which ensures that you fly through this massive novel, to the intense and brutal action that is installed in every section of the book, guaranteeing that readers get that much needed adrenalin rush.  Gwynne utilises an interesting writing style here that really emphasises repetition and unique dialogue to help to make the story feel more and more like an epic Norse saga.  Just like the preceding novel in The Bloodsworn Saga, I think that The Hunger of the Gods had just the right blend of action, humour, character growth, world building and darker elements to create an excellent and enticing read.  I also have to say that I was quite impressed with how Gwynne was able to avoid middle book syndrome here, as in many ways The Hunger of the Gods was even better than The Shadow of the Gods.  While the story does slow down in places to help build up certain settings or plot elements, there is always something interesting or compelling going on, and I can honestly say that I was not bored at any point in the book.  You could almost read The Hunger of the Gods by itself with no knowledge of the preceding book and still have a brilliant time with it, especially with the detailed synopsis of the prior novel at the start.

The best thing about how this story is written is the exceptional use of multiple character perspectives.  The story perfectly flits between the five separate characters arcs throughout the novel, with a different character being focused on with each new chapter.  Thanks to the inclusions of two new characters, readers of this sequel get to enjoy a much deeper story here, especially as the new characters are associated with some of the series’ antagonists, providing some fantastic new elements.  I think the additional characters worked really well, as while the existing three protagonists are great, their storylines needed to be spaced out more in this sequel.  All five separate character storylines play off each other perfectly as the novel continues, telling an immense narrative that, while connected, still contains a fair bit of individuality as you follow their specific adventure.

I liked finally being able to see some interactions between the various protagonists and I loved seeing these outstanding and well-written characters finally come together in some intense scenes, allowing the reader to see these distinctive characters viewed through the eyes of the other protagonists.  The author had a great sense of which perspectives needed to featured at certain times, and there were some amazing contrasts as certain exciting storylines were played off each other, especially when you were able to see two sides to certain major battles or events.  In addition, this is one of those rare multi-narrative fantasy novels where it is near impossible to choose a favourite storyline or character to follow.  Each of the five storylines offers the reader something different, from a bloody revenge story, to an intriguing look at the book’s main antagonists, and all of them work extremely well in the context of the wider story.  I will say that Orka’s brilliant quest for her son has some amazing action scenes and powerful character moments, while the camaraderie and excellent larger-scale battles of Varg’s storyline ensured that I was excited to hear from this character.  In addition, Gudvarr provides some great political intrigue from the perspective of a true weasel, which was so very fun to watch.  However, I honestly had a great time with every single character, and there was not a moment that their individual stories did not enhance the overall quality of The Hunger of the Gods.

I really must highlight the incredible dark fantasy setting of The Bloodsworn Saga that is expertly used again in The Hunger of the Gods after Gwynne took the time to set it up in the first novel.  The harsh land of Vigrid, with its warring Jarls, terrifying monsters, long-dead gods, glory-seeking warbands and the feared and exploited Tainted, works so well as a background to this epic story and it really helps to expand the bloody adventures featured within.  I loved how Gwynne uses classic Norse elements like shield walls, longboats, weaponry and mindsets, and I still really love seeing this in a fantasy context, especially when combined or used against the monsters and Tainted characters.  This is further enhanced with the continued use of Norse inspired terms and dialogue throughout the novel, and it helps to give this entire series such a distinctive feel (although I kind of wish that he would stop trying to continually make “thought cage” an alternative to a person’s skull).  While the author spends a bit of time continuing these elements from the first book, The Shadow of the Gods also features some brilliant world building as Gwynne provides intriguing enhancements to the existing gods, land and people, which were already extremely intriguing.  There are also some examinations of the neighbouring nation of Iskidan, which was mentioned a few times in the first book.  Iskidan, which has elements of historical China, the Middle East and the Byzantine Empire in its construction, serves as an intriguing counterpoint to Vigrid, and it was fascinating to learn more about it.  I also loved a couple of cool, if freaky new monsters, that were featured in this book, although the flesh burrowing insect monster and the nightmare inducing tongue eaters, are a bit on the gruesome side (readers who don’t like body modifying monsters are warned to stay away).  All these awesome elements are fitted in the book perfectly, and I loved this continued dive into the dark and gruesome world Gwynne has lovingly created.

While the awesome narrative, clever storytelling and dark fantasy setting are amazing parts of the book, I would be extremely remiss if I didn’t highlight the incredible character work that Gwynne did within The Hunger of the Gods.  Just like the first book in The Bloodsworn Saga, The Hunger of the Gods features an impressive and captivating cast of characters, each of whom are expertly featured and who add some fantastic elements to the overall story.  This is particularly true for the wonderful and memorable characters from whose perspective this epic tale unfolds.  Gwynne did an incredible job introducing these excellent characters in the first book, and it was great to see two previous supporting characters promoted up to the central cast.  All five main characters are exceptional and their unique personalities and goals ensure that every chapter is different from the last which helps to produce an awesome and expansive read.

The first of these characters is Orka, an incredibly dangerous warrior who is hunting for her lost son and vengeance for her murdered husband.  Orka is a brilliant and complex figure who is easily one of the most exciting and enjoyable characters in the entire series.  Due to her single-minded determination and bloodlust, pretty much all Orka’s chapters read like a bloody revenge trip that is essentially a dark fantasy version of Taken.  Gwynne continues this excellent trend with Orka in this second novel and it was great to see this implacable warrior travel across this land, killing everyone who gets in her way as she takes big risks.  However, Gwynne adds in some extra elements to Orka’s tale in The Hunger of the Gods, especially following the revelations made at the end of The Shadow of the Gods that Orka is both Tainted and the former leader of the Bloodsworn, the legendary killer known as the Skullsplitter.  Orka actually comes across as a lot more bestial in this second book, especially after the big massacre she created at the end of The Shadow of the Gods that unleashed her inner monster.  As such, there are more scenes of Orka trying to contain her rage and anger, and there were some fantastic and clever portrayals of her inner beast throughout the book.  We also see some of Orka’s guilt and regret as the novel explores how she left the Bloodsworn and the relationships she sacrificed for the sake of her unborn son.  I also quite enjoyed seeing her as a reluctant leader in this novel as she finds herself in charge of a small team of warriors and monsters.  This enhances her sense of guilt and remembrances of her previous time with the Bloodsworn, and it adds some fun drama and even a mentoring arc as continues her work with her young student, Lif.  Orka’s storyline goes in some great directions throughout The Hunger of the Gods, and you will be enthralled with her tale right up until the last line of this book.

I also had a lot of fun with Varg in this book.  Varg, or as his warband knows him, Varg No-Sense, was probably my favourite character in The Shadow of the Gods and he continues to be an excellent part of this sequel.  While he doesn’t develop as much as some of the other characters in The Hunger of the Gods, Varg still remains an enjoyable figure.  Most of the appeal revolves around his friendship and growing sense of acceptance with his fellow Bloodsworn, and I liked seeing him continue to develop as a warrior and a free person, especially as starts to create some meaningful relationships.  Like Orka, a lot of Varg’s personal storyline deals with his desire for vengeance, as well as his issues controlling his Tainted rage, and I liked seeing how this complemented and contrasted with Orka’s experiences.  This is particularly noticeable when it comes to how he deals with loss, something he is not good at, especially when some good friends fall throughout the story.  As a result, there are some great moments for Varg in this novel, and his chapters are filled with some of the funniest supporting characters and best battle sequences.  I did find it interesting that Varg didn’t have the biggest impact on the overall storyline in this novel, even during his own chapters, but Gwynne is clearly planning some big things for him in the future, which I am really looking forward to.

Elvar, also has a great storyline in The Hunger of the Gods, and I honestly think that out of all the characters, she has the most development in this book.  Due to where her story from The Shadow of the Gods ended up (dragon gods rising and all), I was extremely excited to see more from Elvar in this novel, and it really did not disappoint as she immediately gets into action, resurrecting gods and bending them to her will.  Quite a lot of major plot elements occur through Elvar’s eyes, and she proves to be an excellent focus for all these key storylines.  I liked how Elvar grew up quite a lot in this sequel, especially after the traumatic betrayals of the previous book, and she ends up with a very different mindset throughout this sequel, especially when it comes to leadership and her need for fame.  Watching her grow and take control of the Battle-Grim is a compelling part of this novel, and it was awesome to see her come to terms with her new responsibilities.  It was also great to see how a lot of Elvar’s story comes full circle in this novel, especially when it comes to her personal history and family, and her final chapters in this novel are some of the best in the book.  I am once again extremely keen to see how Elvar’s story continues in the rest of the series, and Gwynne has left her in an incredible spot for the future.

Like I mentioned above, I was really impressed with Gwynne’s decision to start utilising two additional point-of-view characters in The Hunger of the Gods, and it really helped to turn this sequel into a much more detailed and compelling read.  Part of the reason this works so well is that these two additional characters are both complex and excellent characters, and their chapters act as a great continuation of some of the minor storylines from the first book.  The first of these characters is Biorr, former member of the Battle-Grim who was revealed to be a spy planted by Lik-Rifa’s followers and who ended up betraying and killing the Battle-Grim’s leader.  While it would be easy to hate Biorr for his actions, he becomes quite a sympathetic character.  Not only does he spend most of the book feeling intense guilt for his actions, but he also paints a pretty grim picture of his previous life as a slave, showcasing the hardships he and his fellow Tainted have suffered.  As such, you can understand many of his reasons for why he is helping Lik-Rifa, especially as she is promising a new world order for people like him.  Despite this he is still quite conflicted, and he acts as a more moderate antagonist.  This changes towards the end of the book, especially after he meets a certain divine being, and he starts to become a bit colder and more determined to support Lik-Rifa.  Despite being one of the least action-packed storylines in the novel, Biorr’s chapters were an excellent and entertaining part of the novel.  I particularly enjoyed the intriguing alternate views they gave of the main group of antagonists, making them seem more reasonable and complex, and the inclusion of Biorr greatly enhanced the entire narrative for the best.

The other new point-of-view character is Gudvarr, the conceited lordling who hunted Orka in the last book and was a particularly annoying antagonist.  I must admit that I was initially surprised that out of all the great supporting characters, Gudvarr was the one who was upgraded to main cast.  However, it soon became apparent why he was used, as Gwynne had some real fun turning him into one of the entertainingly despicable characters in the entire novel.  Gudvarr is the absolute epitome of arrogance, petty cruelty and cowardice throughout this book, and it is near impossible to have any respect for him, as he lies, brownnoses and attempt anything to gain power and reputation, often with disastrous results.  Gwynne goes out of his way to make him seem as conceited and cowardly as possible throughout the novel, mainly through his inner monologue, where he constantly hides all his insults and most cowardly thoughts to avoid getting into trouble with actual warrior.  He is such a little arseling in this novel, and you can’t help but hate him, especially as he has the devil’s luck and frustratingly manages to wiggle out of every single disaster he finds himself in.  Despite this, or perhaps because of it, I grew to really enjoy Gudvarr’s chapters as everything he did was hilarious in a sneaky and spiteful way, and it is just so damn entertaining to see him get pushed around then overcome more powerful and confident characters.  The Gudvarr chapters also provide some fantastic insight into another group of antagonists, loaded with political intrigue and deceit from one of the main courts of Vigrid.  I had an absolute blast following Gudvarr throughout the novel, and the way that his storyline in this novel comes to an end is just so perfect and really showcases what an absolute cowardly snake he is.  I cannot wait to see him get his eventual just deserts (or maybe he’ll be the only survivor), and he ended up being on of my surprisingly favourites in The Hunger of the Gods.

Aside from these main five characters, The Hunger of the Gods is filled with a massive raft of supporting characters, with a distinctive cast associated with each of the point-of-view storylines.  Gwynne handles these supporting characters beautifully; despite the cast list going on for six pages, you get to know all of them and fully appreciate everything they bring to the story.  Most of these characters support their respective storylines incredibly well and many of the characters either stand on their own as distinctive figures or have some brilliant interactions with the main characters.  Many of my favourites were members of the Bloodsworn band, with the hilarious and witty Svik being the best example of this with his tall tales, love of cheese, and calming attitude towards Varg, while an additional storyline about his connection to Orka adding some intriguing depth to his character.  You really get to enjoy many of the key Bloodsworn members, although this does mean you become way too emotionally strained when they get hurt or killed.  I also really grew to enjoy returning character Lif in this book as he continues to grow as a warrior through Orka’s tutelage.  Watching him develop is a great part of the Orka chapters, and he proves to be an excellent foil to the brutal main character.  I loved the deeper look at many of the series’ main antagonists throughout The Hunger of Gods, especially with the two new character perspectives, and it was great to see a different side to their plans and motivations.  The multiple resurrected or freed god characters proved to be an excellent addition to this second novel, with the main characters brought into their renewed war one way or another.  These gods really changed the entire story, and it was fascinating to see their interactions with the main characters, as well impact they have on everyone’s psyches.  These great characters, and many more, all added a ton to the story, and I loved how their various arcs and storylines came together.  It will be fascinating to see if anybody else becomes a point-of-view protagonists in the future (my money is on Lif), and I can’t wait to see what happens to these brilliant characters in the future.

While I was lucky enough to receive a physical copy of The Hunger of the Gods, I ended up listening to the audiobook version of it instead, which was an extremely awesome experience.  With a runtime of just under 23 hours, this is a pretty lengthy audiobook (the 19th longest audiobook I’ve ever listened to) and requires a substantial investment of time.  However, this is more than worth it as hearing this epic tale read out to you is a brilliant experience.  Not only does it ensure that you become deeply trapped in the elaborate story and are able to absorb all the great detail, but it also fits with the book’s inherit theme of an oral saga.  One of the best features of this audiobook is impressive narrator Colin Mace, a man with a ton experience narrating elaborate fantasy and science fiction audiobooks (such as The Black Hawks by David Wragg).  Mace has a commanding and powerful voice that really fits the theme of this universe and perfectly conveys all the violence, grim settings and powerful elements of the dark fantasy world.  He does a particularly good job with the character voices as well, as every character has a distinctive tone that fits their personality and actions extremely well.  I loved some of the great voices that he comes up with, including deep-voiced warriors, snivelling cowards, strange creatures, ethereal gods and more, and it helped to turn The Hunger of the Gods audiobook into quite an experience.  As such, I would strongly recommend this audiobook format as the way to enjoy The Hunger of the Gods, and I fully intend to check out the rest of this series on audiobook when it comes out.

John Gwynne continues to dominate the fantasy genre with his incredible Bloodsworn Saga.  The amazing second entry, The Hunger of the Gods, is another exceptional read that takes you on a wild and deadly adventure through Gwynne’s impressively put together dark fantasy world.  Containing an epic and powerful story, chock full of action, Norse fantasy elements and impressive characters, The Hunger of the Gods was one of the best reads of 2022 so far and I had an outstanding time reading it.  In some ways The Hunger of the Gods ended up being a better novel than the first entry in the series and is an absolute must read for all fantasy fans.

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Throwback Thursday: Star Wars: Kenobi by John Jackson Miller

Star Wars - Kenobi Cover

Publisher: Random House Audio (Audiobook – 27 August 2013)

Series: Star Wars Legends

Length: 13 hours and 36 minutes

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

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Welcome back to my Throwback Thursday series, where I republish old reviews, review books I have read before or review older books I have only just had a chance to read.  For this week’s Throwback Thursday I take another look awesome book from the Star Wars Legends range, Kenobi by John Jackson Miller.

As I mentioned last week, I have been going out of my way to read some of the older Star Wars Legends tie-in novels, especially after all the fun I had recently reading and reviewing Darth Plagueis.  Despite no longer being considered canon since the Disney buyout, the Star Wars Legends range contains some cracking reads, including the awesome horror read Death Troopers, the brutal prison novel Maul: Lockdown, and the fun heist novel Scoundrels.  I have been meaning to check out some other great Legends novel for a while, but the one that I have been particularly excited to read is the 2013 novel, Kenobi.

Kenobi, which was one of the last novels released as part of the Legends line, is an intriguing read that follows Obi-Wan Kenobi in the aftermath of Revenge of the Sith and follows his early adventures on Tatooine.  Not only does this book have an intriguing plot, but the upcoming release of the new Obi-Wan Kenobi television series has got me more curious about this novel and I really wanted to see what differences occur between it and the show.  I was also drawn to fact that Kenobi was written by the supremely talented tie-in author John Jackson Miller.  Miller is a great author, who has written not only some intriguing Star Wars books but also some fantastic Star Trek novels, including Die Standing, which was particularly awesome.  As such, I was pretty sure I was in for an outstanding time reading Kenobi, and I definitely wasn’t disappointed.

Star Wars - Kenobi Cover 2

These are dark days for the galaxy.  The Republic and the Jedi have fallen, and the Empire, along with its Sith masters, has risen in its place.  All hope looks lost, except for an orphaned baby boy, now living on Tatooine, and watched over by a solitary protector, former Jedi Master Obi-Wan Kenobi.  After failing to save his fallen apprentice, Obi-Wan has retreated to the wilds of Tatooine, determined to hone his abilities, protect his charge, and wait for the day that hope is ready to return to the galaxy.  Sticking to the outskirts of the planet, Obi-Wan has taken on a new persona of Ben, a mysterious bearded and robed stranger, living alone in the desert and hiding from his past.  However, despite all his attempts to blend in, Ben is still a Jedi, and trouble follows him wherever he goes.

A deadly conflict is brewing in the deserts of Tatooine as enterprising moisture farmers clash with desperate Tusken Raiders.  The settlers are terrified of a new and ruthless Tusken war chief who has leading raids against their farmsteads, resulting in series of brutal retaliatory attacks.  When the fight seeks to engulf some of Ben’s new friends, he is again dragged into a war he never asked for.  Discovering a grave injustice as innocents are killed for a matter of greed, Ben will once again call upon the powers of the Force to ensure justice is done.  But can he achieve his goals without revealing to the entire planet that he is a Jedi, or will his greatest secret be uncovered along with the galaxy’s last hope?

Wow, this was a pretty impressive and captivating Star Wars novel from Miller that does a wonderful job showing a unique period in an iconic character’s life.  Featuring a brilliant and surprising story, set in the iconic backdrop of Tatooine, Kenobi is an excellent read that I had an amazing time getting through.

I must admit that I was a little surprised with how this story turned out.  With a name like Kenobi, you would assume that the narrative would be primarily told by Obi-Wan as he tried to settle in and survive on Tatooine.  However, Obi-Wan isn’t even a point-of-view character in this book, instead the story revolves more around some of the local people of Tatooine as they encounter Obi-Wan (or Ben, as he is known to them).  While on paper this might sound weird, it actually works really well and Miller tells a taught, powerful and compelling narrative that perfectly utilises its titular character as a mysterious and somewhat unknown figure.  Focusing on a growing battle between Tatooine settlers and the Tusken Raiders, the story shows the impact of the arriving Ben on these long-standing communities.  Miller does a great job of introducing several excellent and impressive new characters who become connected to this early version of Ben Kenobi.  Their story soon devolves into a fast-paced, character-driven adventure as Ben finds himself caught between the opposing sides.  The growing war between them takes some interesting turns, including monsters, gangsters and hidden Jedi, and introduces a fantastic villain with some clever motivations.  Miller does a great job of working the desolate setting of Tatooine and the excellent characters into this story, and you soon become attached to both as they enhance the overall the story.  Everything comes together into a captivating and moving conclusion that is exciting, emotional, and a little dark in places, bringing everything together in a satisfying way.  This intriguing story proves to be exceeding addictive and I really love the distinctive tale that Miller came up with.

This proved to be a particularly good entry in the Star Wars Legends canon, and Miller does an outstanding job of tying this story into the wider universe.  Set right after the final scene of Revenge of the Sith, you get some intriguing views of the new galaxy under the Empire, as well as Kenobi’s early attempts to settle into obscurity on Tatooine (including the answer to the question: why did he keep the last name Kenobi? The answer may surprise you).  Thanks to Miller’s excellent writing and the close relationship to the third prequel film, Kenobi is an easy novel to get into for anyone who has seen the films, and most readers will really appreciate the cool story it contains.  There are multiple references to all three prequel films and A New Hope in this book, and I know a lot of people will appreciate seeing how several of these events impacted the wider Tatooine community in surprisingly ways.  Miller also makes sure to provide a ton of compelling references to some more obscure Star Wars Legends elements, including multiple characters and events from certain comics, such as Outlander arc of Star Wars: Republic and the Star Wars Legacy series.  Some references are pretty ingrained in certain part of the Tusken Raider character’s backstories and motivations, although readers can probably get away without knowing too much about them as Miller does summarise the most relevant details.  As such, there is a lot here for the hard-core Star Wars and Legends fans to enjoy with this book, and most readers will enjoy seeing how it ties into the former canon.

Star Wars - Kenobi Cover 3

I have to say that I was quite impressed with how Miller utilises the barren and desolate planet of Tatooine as a setting in Kenobi.  This book serves as a particularly good guide to Tatooine in the Legends canon, and you are soon immersed in the various cultures and landscapes of this deadly planet.  Not only are there multiple breathtaking and powerful depictions of the unforgiving desert landscape that the characters are forced to survive on but there are some fantastic looks at some of the creatures, monsters and threats that exist in the desert, most of which are encountered by the protagonists at some point.  The readers are also treated to an intensive look at some of the main groups of people living on Tatooine, particularly the moisture farmers and the Tusken Raiders.  I loved the depictions of these two different groups, with Miller amping up the resemblance to old West settlers and Native Americans in their cultures, disbursement, and conflict (the phrase “dancing with Tuskens” was used at one point).  I learnt a surprising amount about moisture farming in this novel, which was pretty fun, and it was really interesting to see some of the outcasts and settlers who take up the hard lifestyle.  However, the best depictions involve the Tuskens, who are featured pretty heavily thanks to the use of supporting character A’Yark.  You get some fascinating looks at the tough and often unexplained Tuskens throughout Kenobi and end up coming away with some compelling looks at their culture and lifestyles, as well as some mentions about their most distinctive members in the Legends canon.  I really appreciated the way that Miller portrayed them as a desperate people, thanks to several distinctive events from the films and the comics, and this becomes a major part of their motivations for fighting the settlers and coming into contact with Obi-Wan.  You really get a deep look at this entire setting and its people throughout the course of the story and I am extremely glad Miller featured them so heavily

Unsurprisingly, considering the title of this novel, the reader gets quite an intriguing look at the character of Obi-Wan Kenobi.  This version of Obi-Wan is recently arrived on Tatooine, only just removed from delivering baby Luke to his aunt and uncle, and now trying to find his place in the new, darker universe.  I really enjoyed how Obi-Wan was portrayed in this novel, especially as Miller made the interesting choice not to use him as a point-of-view character.  Instead, you see him purely through the eyes of the rest of the cast as the mysterious and weird hermit, Ben.  This actually works really well on many levels, providing at times a distant view of the protagonist that is reminiscent of Ben’s initial introductions in A New Hope.  I really enjoyed the other character’s impressions of Ben, especially as the character is trying to hide his Jedi abilities, and the fun reactions to his apparently odd actions are quite entertaining at times.

Despite Kenobi not being a point-of-view character, you do get some quite detailed impressions of his current state of mind, and it soon becomes apparent that Obi-Wan is emotionally raw after the events of Revenge of the Sith.  The other characters are quick to notice his apparent sadness, especially through certain noticeable reactions to particular topics, such as his past or the state of the galaxy.  While these other characters may not understand their significance, the reader certainly does, and Miller does a good job of showcasing his deep pain.  This troubled emotional state is also highlighted by several interludes that feature Obi-Wan’s attempted conversations with Qui-Gon Jinn in the Force, which summarise some of the recent events from Ben’s perspective while also examining his state of mind.  As the novel continues, certain events and revelations start to push Kenobi’s buttons, especially the actions of the book’s antagonist.  This eventually leads up to a big emotional outburst from Ben as he talks to one of the other characters about his failings in his past.  Watching him beat himself up for Anakin turning to the Dark Side, as well as the fall of the Jedi and the death of all his friends, is pretty heartbreaking, and it makes for the best scene in the entire novel.  I found it fascinating to see all these emotions unfurl as the plot continue, and the use of other character’s as the primary witnesses and interpreters of this, did a surprisingly good job of exploring the character’s mental state and showcasing just how alone and damaged he truly was.

While Obi-Wan does get a substantial amount of focus throughout Kenobi, the story is primarily told through the eyes of three separate point-of-view characters who Obi-Wan interacts with in different ways.  All three characters are pretty fascinating in their own right, and Miller sets up some brilliant and clever storylines around them.  My favourite of these is probably rancher and businessman Orrin Gault, who has an impressive and captivating character arc in Kenobi.  Initially portrayed as a compassionate, generous and ambitious moisture farmer who has set up the settler militia to oppose the Tusken Raids, Orrin appears to be a decent and noble figure.  However, Orrin has a dark side brought on by hidden motivations and dealings, and it soon becomes clear that many of the issues impacting the other characters are the result of his machinations.  Miller slowly reveals the full extent of Orrin’s misdeeds throughout the course of Kenobi, and he eventually turns into quite a conniving and distinctive antagonist.  The author provides some outstanding and powerful moments for Orrin throughout the book, and there are some interesting similarities between his fall and that of Anakin Skywalker.  I deeply enjoyed the full extent of his powerful arc in Kenobi, especially as Miller comes up with a particularly dark end to his story, and his inclusion really added to overall impact and strength of this book’s narrative.

The other major human character is Kallie Calwell, a store owner who runs the local watering hole and supply shop with her children and who has a close relationship with Orrin Gault.  Kallie ends up becoming one of the leading figures of the book after she and her daughter are the first settlers in the area to encounter the mysterious Ben and are instantly enthralled by his mysterious persona.  Kallie serves as a good narrator for a large portion of the novel and ends up being the central point of view figure for most of the interactions with Ben due to her romantic interest in him.  While I must admit I wasn’t the biggest fan of Kallie’s character (she was a bit too one-note and her constant family issues got tiring), she did have some intriguing scenes, especially when she interacted with Ben.  She ended up getting the most out of him emotionally, and her connection got him to open up at times to discuss his issues.

The other major point of view character was the deeply fascinating figure of A’Yark, the leader of the Tusken Raiders who have been raiding the local settlements.  Given the title of Plug Eye by the locals due to only having one mysterious red eye, A’Yark stands as a hard and uncompromising figure, determined to save their dying tribe without losing their traditions and sense of honour.  Thanks to A’Yark’s powerfully written scenes, you get a real sense of what it is to be a Tusken Raider, and they serve as captivating figure in comparison to the other characters in the book.  A’Yark has great story arc in this novel, and the intriguing growth, as well as their ability to adapt to certain situations, made them particularly fun to watch.  They also have some interesting connections to Obi-Wan and the Jedi Order, thanks to their former brother-in-law, and this results in some compelling scenes as A’Yark knows what Kenobi is and what he can do.  All these characters, and more, add some fascinating elements to the Kenobi novel, and I really appreciated the powerful and complex story that Miller wove around them.

Star Wars - Kenobi Cover 4

I doubt anyone would be surprised that I checked out Kenobi’s audiobook format, as I have a great love of the Star Wars audiobook format.  Naturally this worked out very well for me as the Kenobi audiobook was pretty damn awesome.  With a run time of just over 13 and a half hours, this was a relatively easy audiobook to get through and I managed to power through it over the course of several days.  Like most of the Star Wars audiobooks, Kenobi featured a great selection of iconic Star Wars sound effects and music with which the producers use to produce an atmosphere and help listeners visuals all the cool things going on.  Both were really good throughout Kenobi, with the sound effects in particularly being put to great use.  I did think that the use of John William’s epic score was a little more subtle here than in other books, but it still ended up enhancing some key scenes throughout the novel and giving them some extra emotional power.

I was also very impressed by the narration of the Kenobi audiobook, especially as the producers made excellent use of one of my favourite audiobook narrators, Jonathan Davis.  Davis is a brilliant narrator who has lent his epic voice out to multiple Star Wars productions over the years, including Master & Apprentice, Lords of the Sith and the Dooku: Jedi Lost audio drama.  He does another exceptional job with Kenobi, perfectly portraying all the characters of this novel with real aplomb.  He does a pretty good job with Obi-Wan, making himself sound as much like Ewan McGregor as possible, and I loved how intense he became during some of his more dramatic scenes.  Davis also provides distinctive voices for all the new characters in the novel, which I felt did a great job portraying their relevant personalities.  I particularly loved the scratchy and coarse voices of the various Tusken Raider characters, such as A’Yark, and you got a real sense of their rage and despair they have at their current situation.  This epic voice work really added to the quality of the Kenobi audiobook, and when combined with the usual awesome Star Wars sound effects and music, ensured that this was an absolute treat to listen to.

Overall, Kenobi by John Jackson Miller is a brilliant and powerful Star Wars novel that did an outstanding job of examining this complex and pivotal figure.  Perfectly examining the early days of Obi-Wan Kenobi’s life on Tatooine, this impressive Star Wars Legends novel contains an intriguing, character driven novel that provides an interesting perspective on this hidden Jedi master which I deeply enjoyed.  Making full use of some great new characters and the desolate desert setting, this was a compelling and addictive narrative that is really hard to put down.  Highly recommended, especially in its audiobook format, Kenobi is a great entry in the Star Wars Legends range and I look forward to seeing if any elements from it are used in the upcoming Obi-Wan Kenobi television show.

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The Kaiju Preservation Society by John Scalzi

The Kaiju Preservation Society Cover 2

Publisher: Tor (Trade Paperback – 29 March 2022)

Series: Standalone

Length: 264 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

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Prepare to save all the monsters as bestselling and madly inventive science fiction author John Scalzi presents his latest captivating and funny novel, The Kaiju Preservation Society.

I have a lot of love for imaginative author John Scalzi, who is probably best known for his Old Man’s War and The Interdependency series, both of which make great use of high-concept science fiction elements.  I personally first experienced the author when I read his standalone novel, Redshirts a couple of years ago.  This cool and clever book served as the ultimate parody of Star Trek, focusing on an Enterprise-esque spaceship whose regular crew are extremely aware that something is very wrong as they keep dying in ridiculous situations.  I had an absolute blast with Redshirts and I have been keeping a very close eye out for anything else Scalzi was writing.  As such, I was extremely excited when I saw that his new book, The Kaiju Preservation Society was coming out this year, especially as it had such a unique and interesting plot to it.

As COVID-19 starts to run rampart through New York City, Jamie Gray’s entire life is thrown upside-down when his terrible boss steals his ideas and fires him.  Forced to work as a driver for the same food delivery app he developed, Jamie despairs at his now dead-end life, until one delivery leads to a chance encounter with an old acquaintance of his, Tom, who works for a mysterious animal rights organisation.  In desperate need of a new team member to help with their next expedition, Tom offers the job to Jamie, who jumps at the chance at a high-paying job.

However, Jamie is unprepared for just how unusual his life is about to become as the expedition first journeys to the heart of Greenland, and then through a portal into a parallel Earth filled with lush jungle, an untouched atmosphere, and giant mountain-sized creatures named kaiju.  It turns out that his new employers, known as the Kaiju Preservation Society, specialise in researching and preserving these vast creatures, while also working to keep them from leaving their own, human-less world, and traversing the barrier to ours.

Enraptured by the strange new world and exciting opportunities they present; Jamie soon takes to his role as a member of the Kaiju Preservation Society.  However, his complex and dangerous new employment is about to get even harder when strange events start occurring around camp.  It soon turns out that others have found a way to cross the boundaries between worlds and they have designs on the kaiju.  Jamie and his friends must find a way to stop these intruders before their carelessness destroys a kaiju and millions of people on our world.

Scalzi has done it again, producing a clever and wildly entertaining book that makes brilliant use of a distinctive and unique idea.  I had an incredible time reading The Kaiju Preservation Society, and I really loved the cool ideas, intelligent science fiction elements, and exciting story it contained.

The author has come up with an excellent story for The Kaiju Preservation Society that proves incredibly easy to get into and enjoy.  This is a very intriguing and captivating read that quickly drags in the audience and gets them exceedingly addicted to the plot.  Being a relatively short novel, it is an extremely fast paced, self-contained read that requires no prior experience of Scalzi’s books.  It doesn’t take long for the events of the novel to unfold, with the reader soon introduced to the key characters, new friends, and the necessary set-up for the eventual dive into kaiju land.  Once through the portal, the reader is given a crash course on the rules and attributes of the new world, the various issues the staff there are forced to contend with, and the crazy people who would choose to live amongst the monsters.  After several fantastic and action-packed sequences, often broken up by several elaborate and comedic discussions between the protagonist and his friends, the book heads towards its intriguing final third, which identifies the main threat of the book and forces the characters to act.  This final bit is extremely exciting and fun, and there are several intense moments as the characters face death, tragedy and one of the smarmiest villains I have had the pleasure of reading about.  This leads up to an amazing conclusion that wraps everything up nicely and ensures everyone leaves the book incredibly satisfied.

I mostly liked how Scalzi wrote this book, especially as he clearly had a lot of fun introducing this bold new world and its many awesome features.  The author does a lot in a short amount of time, and you are soon immersed in the excellent world of Kaijus.  Told perfectly from the perspective of the main protagonist, who, like the reader, is seeing everything in this world for the first time, you quickly get a sense of all the craziness that occurs in this land, and the various issues they experience.  I loved all the unique elements Scalzi came up with, from the impossible, nuclear-powered, mountain sized monsters with their complex biology and giant parasites, to the mass of strange creatures haunting the land, the unique landscape, and the various other awesome elements.  You get a great sense of everything in this world, and Scalzi ensures that the science is both realistic and easy to understand at the same time.  This proves to be such an impressive setting for this fantastic read, and you will wish that the author had made the book even longer just to see more of this strange new world.  While there is a good focus on monsters, exploration and science, Scalzi also makes sure to lace The Kaiju Preservation Society with a great amount of comedy that proves to be extremely entertaining and amusing.  This book is filled with so many fantastic and clever jokes, which range from comedic reactions to the outrageous events occurring around them, to fun, if random, pop culture references (for example, one of the villains is inspired by Trading Places), and multiple entertaining interactions between the eccentric central cast.  You end up really getting into this excellent story as a result and it is so very fun to read.

I did have some minor issues with some of the dialogue in The Kaiju Preservation Society, as certain exchanges came across as a little clunky.  I must note the somewhat overuse of dialogue tags (he said, she said, I said) after direct speech, which is something I noticed when I read Redshirts.  While it was not as obvious or problematic in The Kaiju Preservation Society, possibly because I read a physical version rather than the listening to the audiobook, the overuse of them still stood out a little and spoiled the flow of the book at times.  I also really wish that Scalzi could be a bit more descriptive with his writing in places, especially when it comes to the kaiju and some of the characters.  For being such a key part of the plot you often don’t fully grasp what these creatures look like, with only very general descriptions of their size and shape being featured, unless an attribute is essential to the plot.  There was also a complete lack of character description throughout the book, which I found to be a little distracting, especially as I often had no idea what a person looked like.  For example, I didn’t realise character was nonbinary until halfway through the novel when they started getting a little more focus and the them/they pronouns started being used with more regularity.  While some of this stuff is a little annoying, I felt that the strong and entertaining story more than overcomes it and you end up overlooking these minor stylistic problems.

The insanely brilliant John Scalzi continues to shine with his latest kooky and compelling science fiction read, The Kaiju Preservation Society.  Filled with a wild and captivating exploration of a distinctive alternate Earth, you will quickly fall in love with this exciting and humorous story.  I had an absolute blast getting through the awesomeness that is The Kaiju Preservation Society and I would strongly recommend it to anyone looking for something light and fun to get through.

The Kaiju Preservation Society Cover

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Throwback Thursday: Usagi Yojimbo: Volume 14: Demon Mask by Stan Sakai

Usagi Yojimbo - Demon Mask Cover

Publisher: Dark Horse Comics (Paperback – March 2001)

Series: Usagi Yojimbo – Book 14

Length: 224 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

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Welcome back to my Throwback Thursday series, where I republish old reviews, review books I have read before or review older books I have only just had a chance to read.  In this latest Throwback Thursday I once again dive into the awesome and elaborate world of Usagi Yojimbo as I check out the 14th epic volume, Demon Mask.

It feels good to be on a Usagi Yojimbo review streak here at The Unseen Library, and I have been having a lot of fun diving into some of the awesome middle volumes of one of my absolute favourite comic series.  My last two Throwback Thursday reviews of the 12th Usagi Yojimbo volume, Grasscutter, and the 13th volume, Grey Shadows, were really fun to pull together, and I really had no choice but to also have a look at the 14th volume this week with Demon Mask.

Usagi #31

Demon Mask is another excellent addition to the Usagi Yojimbo series that unsurprisingly gets a full five-star rating from me.  Exclusively written and drawn by Stan Sakai, this impressive entry once again follows the rabbit ronin Miyamoto Usagi as he continues his action-packed adventures through the anthropomorphic animal filled version of feudal Japan this series is set in.  Containing issues #31-38 of the Dark Horse Comics run on the series, as well as a few additional issues from associated magazines, Demon Mask continues the trend of featuring several shorter stories, while also leading back towards the next volume, Grasscutter II, which will contain a big crossover story.  I deeply enjoyed all the cool stories in this volume, and there are some real classics here.

The first story contained within Demon Mask is the entertaining and elaborate tale, The Inn on Moon Shadow Hill.  In this story, a travelling Usagi comes across a mysterious inn surrounded by strange sights and an unusual group of patrons.  The land surrounding the inn is apparently haunted, filled with all manner of monsters, demons and obakemono (haunts), which attracts many wealthy individuals to the safe inn to watch.  However, Usagi is soon drawn into a hefty wager with an arrogant merchant and must travel outside the inn to encounter the haunts and the forces behind them.

This is quite an amusing story that perfectly combines Sakai’s fantastic humour with his love of classic Japanese monsters and haunts.  The entire story comes together really well, first introducing the situation, and then forcing Usagi outside to face the ghosts after making a bet.  The subsequent reveal of the various monsters and creatures is pretty spectacular, and Sakai goes out of his way to include as many uniquely Japanese legendary creatures as possible, especially in one breathtaking and elaborate panel.  I really enjoyed the fun twist that occurred here, especially as it allowed Usagi to win his bet with the merchant, and his over-the-top explanation of what he experienced was pretty damn amusing with all the exaggerated facial expressions and reactions from Usagi and his audience.  This ends on a very satisfying and entertaining note, and The Inn on Moon Shadow Hill ended up being a fantastic and light-hearted start to the entire volume.

Usagi #32

Following on from the first fun story is the touching tale, A Life of Mush.  In this story Usagi encounters a brash peasant boy, Eizo, who wishes to become a warrior to avoid the farmer’s simple lifestyle (a life of eating mush).  However, Eizo soon grows tired of Usagi’s honourable warrior philosophy and attempts to befriend a group of bandits, only to discover that there is more to life and battle than brashness and toughness.  This was a great shorter story that presents an interesting outside perspective on the life of a warrior in this setting.  I liked the comparison between a child’s view of a warrior to Usagi’s intense dedication and spiritual thoughts, which in fairness, does seem a little more boring.  The subsequent events provide a fantastic lesson on perception and life choices, as Eizo and the bandits he encounters discover just how tough a true warrior like Usagi can be.  A compelling and thoughtful addition to the volume, A Life of Mush was a powerful and clever read.

The next story is a shorter entry, Deserters, which brings us back to the iconic Neko Ninja and their leader, Chizu.  Deserters examines a tragic tale of two Neko Ninja, Take and Saruko, who attempt to leave the Neko Ninja and start a new life together.  Captured by their fellows, they are taken before Chizu for trial, and must soon face the treachery and manipulation of Chizu’s ambitious second in command, Kagemaru.  This was another excellent shorter entry in Demon Mask, especially as it combines some quick, but efficient, character introductions, with some inherent tragedy and betrayal.  The result of the story, while a little predictable, ends up being very moving, and you can’t help but feel for the star-crossed lovers.  I also really like how this shorter entry turns out to be an interesting bridging story between several of the plot lines in the 11th volume, Seasons, and some of the big storylines in the next few volumes.  A surprisingly important and powerful story, Deserters is a great read that adds a lot to the overall volume.

Usagi #33

Up next, we have the rather entertaining and fun story, A Potter’s Tale, which makes great use of amusing coincidences to create a fantastic and hilarious story.  A Potter’s Tale sees the notorious thief, Samo, steal a precious jewel from a wealthy merchant and have to stash it.  Choosing an unfired pot in a small pottery shop, Samo makes the vessel distinctive before he is brought in for questioning.  Unfortunately, Usagi is staying with the same family of potters and chaos ensues when Usagi and his friends take a liking to Samo’s inadvertent innovation.

This is a great story that always gets a good laugh out of me when I read it.  While a rather quick story, Sakai manages to achieve a lot with it, setting up the base of the humour quickly and ensuring that the reader becomes invested with both the potters and the caddish thief.  The subsequent fantastic use of surprises, reveals and coincidences results in some amusing scenes, especially when the unlucky thief discovers that he must give up all his ill-gotten loot to fix his mistake.  The reveal that all his endeavours are for naught and his loot has returned to its original owner, in a roundabout way, is pretty entertaining, as is the ironic comeuppance he gets for his actions.  Sakai makes sure to enhance this story by featuring a compelling look at traditional Japanese pottery making (I love it when he examines authentic Japanese industries or art forms), and there are some beautiful sequences drawn as a result.  Easily one of the most entertaining stories in this volume, I deeply enjoyed A Potter’s Tale, and it is always guaranteed to crack me up.

Usagi #34

Sakai follows this funny story with another shorter entry, The Missive, which sees Nakamura Koji’s request for a duel reach Usagi’s master, Katsuichi.  Reflecting on the matter of honour brought before him, Katsuichi remembers a moment from Usagi’s childhood and the lessons it contains.  This was another quick but excellent entry from Sakai, which once again highlights how much he can do with only a few short pages.  Not only do we get an excellent bridging storyline between a good entry in the 11th volume, Seasons, and another future volume, but you also get an interesting reveal about a major supporting character.  Throw in an amusing childhood tale about a young Usagi, and you have an entertaining and unique entry that helps to break up the flow of the overall volume.

Now we get to the main event of the volume, with the three-issue story, The Mystery of the Demon Mask.  After receiving a dire warning about his future, Usagi ventures into a new town, only to witness a deadly duel between a fellow ronin and a mysterious opponent wearing a demon mask.  Encountering the police, including the venerable Inspector Kojo, Usagi soon learns that the killer, known as Demon Mask, has been targeting and killing ronin around town.  Helping with the investigation, Usagi encounters all manner of potential suspects as he also finds himself firmly in Demon Mask’s sites.

Usagi #35

The Mystery of the Demon Mask is probably the best story in the entire volume, and Sakai has put a lot of effort into developing a powerful and elaborate murder mystery storyline in this unique Japanese setting.  The entire story has a great flow to it, quickly introducing the villain, the murderous Demon Mask, and then introducing Usagi to the various players involved in the investigation.  From there Usagi is thrust into several dangerous situations as Demon Mask stalks him and other masterless samurai around the town.  There are several complex and intriguing characters introduced during this story, each of whom is a potential suspect.  This story ends on a big finale, with Demon Mask exposed as he faces off against Usagi in a deadly duel.  Sakai does a brilliant job of revealing who the killer is, and I really appreciated the various subtle clues scattered throughout the story to set this up.  This ended up being quite a fantastic murder mystery story that works extremely well despite the limitations of the shorter comic form.  The motivations behind the killer are pretty heartbreaking, and I really appreciated Sakai’s portrayal of their madness and grief.  There is an excellent focus on fighting and duels throughout this story, especially as Demon Mask engages several skilled samurai in personal combat, and I loved seeing all these fights unfold.  An excellent entry that has a brilliant balance of mystery, complex characters, classic Japanese elements and comic book action.

Following on from this awesome murder mystery story, we have another intriguing dive into Japanese mythology and monsters with the spooky story, Kumo.  In this story, Usagi, who is eager to reach his friends, takes a shortcut across the mountains and finds himself in an isolated village, surrounded by an unusual number of spiders and an insane amount of webbing.  When the innkeeper’s daughter is kidnapped in an improbable attack, it becomes apparent that something more is haunting the village, and that Usagi’s only hope might be another traveller in town, Sasuke.

Usagi #36

This was another particularly good entry in Demon Mask; I always love Sakai’s more supernatural narratives.  The story premise is somewhat typical, with Usagi arriving in a troubled town that needs his help, this time in defeating the monsters haunting them.  The subsequent conflict with this threat gets pretty wild, not just because of the cool monster (in this case a Spider Goblin and her giant spider minions), but also because it introduces the intriguing side character of Sasuke.  Sasuke, also known as The Demon Queller, is a mystical monster hunter who travels around Japan taking down supernatural threats (no doubt with Kansas blaring in the background).  Sasuke goes on to become a major recurring character within this series, having most recently appeared in the 34th volume, Bunraku and Other Stories (where he does some cool Demon Slayer-esque sword fighting).  However, he gets a very awesome introduction here in Kumo, with Sakai perfectly setting up the character’s mystique, as well as his powerful magical abilities.  This story literally sees Sasuke summon up a giant frog to fight a Spider Goblin, which has so many levels of awesome to it, and I loved seeing the magic on monster fight that ensures.  Another fantastic story that makes excellent use of Japan’s rich spiritual and mythological past, I always have an outstanding time reading Kumo.

The final major story in this volume is the intriguing tale, Reunion.  Usagi returns to the monastery of his friend, priest Sanshobo, only to discover it under attack by brigands, apparently after a rich merchant sheltering inside.  Working with Sanshobo and a recovered Gen, Usagi must find a way to overcome the brigand horde and save the monastery from attack.  However, the real threat may already be inside the walls, and soon Usagi, Sanshobo and Gen must overcome a dangerous enemy determined to take the most precious treasure, the legendary sword Grasscutter.

Usagi #37

Reunion was another fun entry which ended the main Demon Mask stories on a compelling and interesting note.  While a distinctive story itself, Reunion is primarily focused on setting up the events of the following major volume, Grasscutter II.  This presents a fun scenario where Sanshobo’s temple is attacked (again, it honesty gets attacked a lot), while the real danger remains inside the wall.  There are several fun parts to this story, from Usagi’s attempted infiltration of the gang, the many fight scenes against to the bandits, to the dangerous confrontation against the disguised adversaries within the temple.  This proved to be an excellent story, and it was great to see Sanshobo and Gen again, especially as they prepare for their next epic adventure.

While Reunion concludes the main stories, this volume also has a couple of shorter stories that were contained in other publications, such as Dark Horse Presents (vol. 1) #140, Dark Horse Presents Annual #3, Wizard Magazine #3, Oni Double Feature #11, and Dark Horse Extra #20-23.  These short stories provide a couple of quick, highly amusing tales which leave the reader smiling as they close the volume.  Sakai achieves a lot in these shorter stories, and each has an entertaining or moving story, even if they only last for only a page.  The most detailed of these was the entertaining Death and Taxes, which sees Usagi fighting bandits for a conniving and amusingly clever peasant.  There is also the sweet little story, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Tournament, which shows a young Usagi meeting his future friend (and love interest) Tomoe Ame when they were children.  The short but powerful Netsuke sees Usagi reflect on a former comrade, while The Leaping Ninja has a hilarious one-page tale about an acrobatic infiltrator who leaps before he looks.  The final story was the intense Tsuru, which sees Usagi encounter a member of the Koroshi assassins with a love for paper cranes, who has a contract out on Usagi, resulting in a fantastic duel.  Despite their length, each of these stories features all of Sakai’s usual attention to detail and excellent story writing, and it was great to see these excellent examples of the creators shorter writing style.

Usagi #38

I must once again highlight all the incredible artwork featured in this impressive volume, as Sakai continues to showcase all his amazing artistic talent.  Pretty much every panel in this volume is filled with some excellent and powerful art, as Sakai tells his complex tales.  There is the usual brilliant focus on Japanese landscapes and towns, and Sakai has such a talent for capturing all the elaborate cultural elements of the period, as well as the beautiful locations that dotted Japan.  While all the art is really well drawn in this volume, I definitely have to highlight a few panels in particular.  The first story, The Inn on Moon Shadow Hill, has so many great drawings of creatures and haunts from Japanese folklore, and there is one brilliant panel were all of them are they facing Usagi at once.  The spider goblin and her minions in Kumo are also very cool and spooky, and the various scenes where they fight a samurai like Usagi and the magical Sasuke are pretty extraordinary.  I also loved the awesome character design on the antagonist Demon Mask from the main story.  Not only does it bear an interesting similarity to Usagi’s main foe, Jai (who himself is based on a character with distinctive mask), but it looks so dangerous and intimidating, especially when they silently engage in battle.  I deeply enjoyed the exceptional artwork in Demon Mask, and Sakai has once again shown how much feeling and emotion he can portray with his brush and ink.

Another week, another epic and incredible Usagi Yojimbo volume reviewed on my blog.  The 14th volume of this outstanding series, Demon Mask, was another awesome comic as Stan Sakai provides his usual blend of impressive writing, stunning artwork, and powerful characters.  Featuring several memorable and exciting short stories, Demon Mask serves as an excellent and wonderful entry in this wider series, and it is one that I always look forward to reading.  A highly recommended read, Sakai really can do no wrong with this exceptional series.

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Star Wars: The High Republic: The Fallen Star by Claudia Gray

Star Wars - The Fallen Star

Publisher: Del Rey/Penguin Random House Audio (Audiobook – 4 January 2022)

Series: Star Wars – The High Republic

Length: 13 hours and 31 minutes

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

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The awesome new focus of Star Wars fiction, the intriguing High Republic range, continues to shine brightly with the latest epic adult novel, The Fallen Star, a dark and impressive entry by the extremely talented Claudia Gray.

Ever since its start at the beginning of 2020, the High Republic multimedia project has presented some unique Star Wars stories that I have deeply enjoyed.  Set in the golden age of the Republic and the Jedi, hundreds of years before the films, The High Republic focuses on a different generation of Jedi facing off against the murderous raiders known as the Nihil.  This series has so far produced some excellent gems across various forms of media, including novels, comics, audio dramas and other cool entries written by some of the best authors of Star Wars fiction.

While there is an interesting spread of fiction in The High Republic, the key storylines are generally contained in the main adult novels such as The Fallen Star, and the previous novels, Light of the Jedi by Charles Soule, which introduced the High Republic era and the Nihil, and The Rising Storm by Cavan Scott, which saw the Nihil launch a bold attack at the very heart of the Republic.  Other cool entries, such as the young adult novels Into the Dark and Out of the Shadows, and the audio drama Tempest Runner, added to this tapestry, and it has resulted in a fantastic and compelling overarching narrative and setting.  As such, I have been very excited to see where this franchise goes next, especially as The Fallen Star acts as one of the finales to the current phase of High Republic fiction.  Written by Claudia Gray, who previously authored the incredible Master & Apprentice (one of my favourite Star Wars novels), this was an epic book with a fantastic adventure story.

Following the brutal Nihil attack on the Republic Fair, the entire galaxy is hunting for the Nihil, determined to destroy them and their mysterious leader, the Eye, once and for all.  However, the Republic and the Jedi are unaware that the true Eye of the Nihil is the fearsome Marchion Ro, who plans to devastate the Jedi and the Republic headquarters, Starlight Beacon.  A massive space station out in the Outer Rim, Starlight Beacon was intended to bring light and cooperation to the most remote areas of the galaxy.  Staffed by some of the most powerful Jedi, Starlight Beacon stands a symbol of hope and determination, but that is about to change.  Determined to make the Jedi and the Republic pay, Ro sends his cohorts on a deadly mission to destroy Starlight Beacon from the inside, causing a massive explosive that rips through the station, causing chaos and destruction, as Starlight Beacon loses all power.

Determined to save the station and its inhabitants no matter what, the Jedi try to restart the station before it is too late.  However, something else is aboard Starlight Beacon, something ancient, unseen and bearing an insatiable hunger that drives it to hunt and feast on Jedi.  With their abilities to connect with the Force disrupted by the foul beasts stalking them, the Jedi will need the help of everyone on the station, including weird pilots, annoying droids and rogue Nihil, to save the people around them.  But even their combined abilities might not be enough to save Starlight Beacon from its imminent destruction, nor from monsters capable of turning even the most skilled Jedi into dust.

The Fallen Star was an incredible book from Claudia Gray that does an excellent job of continuing the impressive High Republic storylines.  Gray has come up with a very unique Star Wars tale that sees some of this era’s best characters trapped in an impossible and dangerous situation.  Loaded with a ton of action, some major plot moments, interesting storyline continuation and a ton of character development, this was an excellent novel that proves very easy to get drawn into.

Honestly the best way to describe The Fallen Star’s story is as a nautical disaster story, like Titanic or The Poseidon Adventure, in space.  This novel begins with the initial stages of the disaster as a small team of Nihil saboteurs infiltrate Starlight Beacon and systematically take out the station.  These early parts of the novel have a great sense of tension, as the reader is forced to watch the Nihil continue to succeed while the Jedi remain oblivious.  The story starts to pick up as the Nihil plan goes into effect, not only because of the explosion that knocks Starlight Beacon out of orbit, but because several unseen creatures immediately start to attack the Jedi in brutal mind-bending ways while also disrupting their connection to the Force.  The true disaster narrative takes over from here as the characters attempt to survive the destruction while also trying to save the station.  Gray really dives into character psychology here, as the Jedi are forced to overcome their guilt and the building fear of the creatures attacking, while the other characters try to determine whether to focus on self-preservation or helping those around them.  The last two-thirds of the book is purely devoted to the attempts to survive the station’s slow destruction, and Gray really does not let up the plot intensity.  Every time the protagonists seem to make some progress or success they are immediately hit with obstacles or tragedy that seek to overwhelm them.  This leads to some impressive and confronting moments throughout the book, and you honestly will be surprised and shocked by some of the deaths or twists that occur.  While there are one or two fake-outs designed to ramp up the feels, you will come away from this book being extremely moved and a little emotionally drained.

This was a very well put together novel; it has an amazing flow to it, and once the various disasters start up, the pace and stakes of the novel just keep jumping higher and higher.  The use of multiple character perspectives helps to tell a massive and impressive story, and you really get the full sense of how deadly and disastrous the events of the book are.  I loved how well Gray layered tension and grief into the non-stop action of the plot, and you are honestly left reeling or yelling at the book, wishing to help the characters you have become extremely attached to.  Gray also is also very skilled at detailing some fun and compelling action and disaster sequences, which works extremely well to showcase all the chaos and destruction occurring around.  I did find that there were a few plot gaps here and there throughout the novel, most likely because the full extent of this event will be featured in other High Republic media, such as the main comic series, although this didn’t impact the story too dramatically.  Overall, thanks to its powerful moments, character growth and great action, and you have an outstanding narrative that hits all the right notes at the right time.

In addition to its excellent narrative, The Fallen Star is also a great new entry in the High Republic sub-series.  Gray does an impressive job of continuing the events from the previous pieces of High Republic fiction, and aspects from most of the preceding novels are strongly featured here.  I deeply enjoyed seeing the return of several great characters and the continuation of some interesting story arcs, and Gray brings them together to create an outstanding Star Wars story.  Like most of the High Republic series, The Fallen Star is probably best read by fans of the expanded literary universe, especially as much of the build-up for this period was in the prior novels.  While I would recommend at least reading The Light of the Jedi and The Rising Storm first, people with a basic knowledge of Star Wars should be able to follow what is happening here, as Gray does a good job of recapping key events.  While there are a few good reveals here, there is still an aura of mystery around other parts of the book, particularly the character of Marchion Ro and the real motivations of the Nihil.  An epic conclusion to this phase of the High Republic novels, I will be interested to see if any other reveals or revelations occur in the connected comics.

Star Wars - The Fallen Star Cover 3

To support her fantastic narrative, Gray makes use of an excellent collection of great characters, and I loved the mixture of protagonists and antagonists that she chose.  Not only are the protagonists of the previous adult High Republic books heavily featured, but Gray also makes strong use of characters from young adult novels like Into the Dark and Out of the Shadows.  This amazing blend of character perspectives really helped to craft a unique and interesting book, and it was great to see the different protagonists react to the situation.  Readers should be aware that Gray has gone on a bit of a killing spree here, and several fan favourite characters may not survive.  These deaths really help to ratchet up the tension and emotional weight of this novel, and you will really be left reeling.  While I might question the wisdom of killing off as many characters as they did, especially as the High Republic has a greater need of recognisable characters than other Star Wars novels, I think they all worked in the context of the plot and served the overall narrative extremely well.

The most prominent characters of The Fallen Star are the Jedi protagonists of Light of the Jedi and The Rising Storm.  These Jedi go through some big moments in The Fallen Star, especially as they face disaster and failure on a scale they have rarely seen before.  Gray works in some very interesting changes in the various Jedi’s characterisation because of the unseen monsters let loose on the station who disrupt the Jedi’s connection to the Force, which messes with their heads.  As a result, for most of the book the Jedi are scared, uncertain and irritable, which is a fun and clever change of pace that I felt added to the high-stakes disaster narrative extremely well.  The most prominent of these characters include Stellan Gios, Bell Zettifar, Elzar Mann, who have had some excellent character arcs in the previous novels, and it was great to see them again.

The first of these is Elzar Mann, who has been a standout figure due to his battles with his emotions, his romantic feelings towards fellow Jedi Avar Kriss, and his inadvertent connection to the Dark Side of the Force.  Following this dark moment, Mann has gone into a deep meditation retreat with a unique spiritual guide, who is teaching him to have a different perspective on life.  As a result, when Mann returns to Starlight Beacon just before the first attack, he has mostly cut himself off from the Force.  While this impacts his ability and mentality as a Jedi, his lack of a Force connection ensures that he is one of the only Jedi not incapacitated by the monsters roaming the station, which forces him take on more responsibility during the crisis.  I liked seeing this side of Mann, and it was great to watch him attempt to step up and protect his more responsible friends.  Unfortunately, Mann also experiences some big losses and failures in this novel which really strike him hard.  The final few chapters of The Fallen Star have some major moments for this character, and there was some brilliant development occurring here.  Gray did an incredible job expanding on one of the best and most complex High Republic protagonists here, and I loved Mann’s story in this book.

I also deeply enjoyed the story arc that surrounded apprentice Bell Zettifar.  Bell has gone through a lot in the last two books, especially as his master was killed before him in The Rising Storm.  This has led to some excellent and dark moments for Bell, and Gray does a wonderful job continuing them here as Bell struggles for most of this book, dealing with intense doubt and a sense of failure that gets enhanced by the influence of the strange creatures stalking the station.  I enjoyed seeing Bell slowly regain his confidence as he finds himself in the middle of another crisis and it led to some great and heartfelt moments, even as Bell suffered even more personal tragedies.

I must also highlight the continued story of Stellan Gios, the Jedi Master and rising star of the Order who was such a fantastic figure in The Rising Storm.  Stellan starts this book off as the new Marshal of Starlight Beacon, but he is still impacted by the doubts and trauma of the last Nihil attack at the Republic Fair.  Thanks to this and the influence of the Nihil’s monsters, Stellan shows a very different side to his character in The Fallen Star, being more petty, angry, and dispirited.  This is such a substantial change to what we have previously seen out of Stellan that it really hammers home just how dangerous the Nihil monsters are.  Watching Stellan battle with his emotions is pretty intense, and it proved to be exceptional to see him slowly overcome everything that is happening to him.  Gray writes an amazing couple of moments for Stellan in this book, and you end up with an impressive appreciation of this character by the end of this awesome book.

Aside from these main three figures, The Fallen Star also features an interesting array of supporting Jedi characters.  This includes the friendliest and fluffiest Jedi of all-time, the Wookie Burryaga, who everyone loves due to his kind nature and innate connection to the Force.  Burryaga forms a moving friendship with Bell, and he is easily one of the best supporting characters in the entire novel.  I also liked the reappearance of the Jedi Wayseeker, Orla Jareni, a semi-rogue Jedi who offers her own insights into the Force.  I will say I was surprised that there was barely any Ava Kriss in this novel.  Kriss, who is frequently touted as the main protagonist of the High Republic, has barely appeared in any of the novels since The Light of the Jedi, being more of a feature in the comics.  I feel that she leaves a noticeable absence in the novel, especially as the other character seem to reference how awesome she is in every second sentence.  Still, I think it worked without her, although I hope they use her more in the future.

Aside from the Jedi characters, Gray also makes exceptional use of an interesting collection of other characters trapped aboard the station who offer a great alternate viewpoint to the various Jedi.  What is interesting is that most of these characters are creations of Gray’s who first appeared in her last High Republic book, Into the Dark.  This includes the crew of the Vessel, a unique and unusual ship that transports Mann and Orla Jareni to Starlight Beacon and then gets trapped there.  The Vessel is crewed by a very entertaining trio of characters who balance each other out nicely.  This includes owner Affie Hollow, who plays straight woman to her unusual crew, and is a great central adventurer and emotional base for much of the book.  However, Affie is very much overshadowed by the rest of the crew, including captain Leox Gyasi, who is essentially a space hippy.  Leox is a wildly entertaining figure, with his Zen mindset, pacifistic tendencies, unique way of talking, and outrageous sense of humour, and you will quickly fall in love with him as the book progresses, especially in the few scenes where he gets serious.

The most solid member of the Vessel’s crew is Geode, a Vintian who ends up being the heart and soul of not only the Vessel but all of Gray’s High Republic novels.  Geode is essentially a sentient rock who never talks, rarely moves, and for most of his first appearance in Into the Dark, you were half convinced was some sort of elaborate prank and was really just a rock.  However, Geode ends up being a remarkable figure, capable of great feats of ingenuity and courage, while also being a social genius and a massive flirt.  I cannot emphasise how hilarious it is to see all the outrageous things that the other characters attribute to this silent, giant rock, especially as he just sits there for the entire book.  However, the other characters can apparently all see the “facial” expressions he gives off, and he is apparently quite an emotional and thoughtful character, who ends up being the solution to several problems.  Honestly, having a motionless rock as a major supporting character should not work, but it really does in The Fallen Star, and I loved every second that was spent on him.  I enjoyed seeing all these characters return, and I hope that Gray brings them back in the future, although I do worry the Geode joke might eventually becomes too overused.

Former Nihil members Nan and Chancey Yarrow perfectly rounded out the main cast aboard Starlight Beacon.  Both have had some interesting appearances in the young adult books, and it was great to see them here.  Nan is another character created by Gray and is a young and zealous Nihil member, while Chancey is a brilliant scientist working for the Nihil while also promoting her own agenda.  After leaving the Nihil and starting their own partnership, Nan and Chancey get captured by the Jedi and are being questioned about Starlight Beacon when events kick off.  Freed by the Nihil infiltrators, they spend most of the book on the fence about where their loyalties lie as they try to find their own way to escape.  This results in a fantastic and compelling alternate viewpoint to the book, and I loved seeing these two morally grey characters interact with the more selfless protagonists.  Gray comes up with a great dynamic between Nan and Chancey, which is semi mother-daughter in nature, and there are some interesting moments as Nan struggles to overcome her loyalty to the Nihil.  Their storyline comes to a very interesting and powerful end, and I will be deeply intrigued to see what happens to them next.

I want to make a final mention about the antagonists of The Fallen Star, especially as there is a rather unusual dynamic with this book.  This because, in many ways, the main villain of the story isn’t the Nihil, but is instead time, despair, impossible choices, panic, and human nature.  To a degree, these basic, uncontrollable elements end up causing more damage, and the impossible battle against them results in much of the book’s most dramatic and powerful moments.  There are a few proper villains in this book, such as series antagonist Marchion Ro.  Despite only being in it for a short while, Marchion cuts a distinctive and menacing figure in The Fallen Star, especially as he instigates the next stage of his master plan.  There are some interesting developments around Marchion here, and although they are probably saving any major revelations for his upcoming comic limited series, I felt that he continues to shine as the main villain of The High Republic.  The rest of the Nihil aren’t shown as much in this book, although I did enjoy the examination of the fear and hatred associated with them, especially after all the pain and suffering they caused.  I was very intrigued by the mysterious Nihil controlled monsters that infest Starlight Beacon and mess with the Jedi.  Despite the fact you never see them, they are incredibly intimidating, effortlessly defeating the Jedi and sending them on some dangerous head-trips.  I cannot wait to find out more about them in the future, especially as they are bound to explore their history more, and it should lead to interesting discoveries.  Overall, The Fallen Star had an exceptional group of characters and their intense, compelling and entertaining story arcs really elevated this around exciting novel.

I will come as very little surprise to anyone familiar with this blog that I chose to check out The Fallen Star audiobook.  I have so much love for Star Wars audiobooks, and this ended up being a very good example of how fantastic this format could be as it combines impressive narration with clever sound effect and epic music.  With a run time of 13 and a half hours, this is a somewhat shorter Star Wars audiobook.  I had a wonderful time getting through the story in this format, and I found that the compelling narrative became even more intense when read to me.  This is particularly true in such a trauma and action laden book like The Fallen Star, with the awesome medium of the audiobook helping to enhance the danger and despair of the situation.  The use of sound effects and music was once again superb, and I loved how hearing the distinctive sound of blasters, lightsabers and other pieces of Star Wars technology, helped to bring me into the story and enhance the events being described.  I also cannot overemphasise how awesome it is to hear the incredible and iconic Star Wars music during this plot as well.  Whenever the music is played, especially during some of the more dramatic or action-packed sequences, it really enhances the impact of the moment, drawing the listener in and ensuring that they are perfectly entrapped by the events occurring.

You can’t talk about this audiobook without mentioning the epic voice work of the narrator Marc Thompson.  At this point in his career, Thompson is essentially Star Wars royalty, as he has narrated so many amazing Star Wars audiobooks over the years.  He is easily one of my favourite audiobook narrators and I loved his work on previous audiobooks like Thrawn, Chaos Rising, Greater Good, Lesser Evil, Scoundrels, Dark Disciple and more.  He once again does a great job on The Fallen Star, bringing all the characters to life and moving the story along at a swift pace.  I loved the consistency in voices from all the previous High Republic books he narrated, and he also did a great job voicing characters from other books he hasn’t worked on.  All the characters have very distinctive and fitting voices, which included some very distinctive accents, which helped to highlight the characters and what they did.  I also loved the sheer emotional range that Thompson was able to fit into these great characters, ensuring that all the intense emotions were on full display.  It was pretty intense hearing all the character’s despair, anger and grief as everything they knew and loved was burned around them, and it makes for some incredible sequences.  This was easily the best way to enjoy this cool Star Wars novel, and I would strongly recommend The Fallen Star audiobook to anyone interested in checking this book out.

Overall, Star Wars: The Fallen Star by Claudia Gray is an excellent read that I would strongly recommend.  Featuring a clever, action packed, and emotionally rich, character driven story, The Fallen Star brilliantly continues the outstanding High Republic series, and you will love the dark places this story goes. I deeply enjoyed this cool book and I cannot wait to see what happens in this brilliant sub-series next.  Long live the High Republic!

Star Wars - The Fallen Star Cover 2

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Throwback Thursday – Warhammer: Dragonslayer by William King

Dragonslayer Cover Combined

Publisher: Black Library (Paperback – November 2020)

Series: Gotrek and Felix – Book Four

Length: 271 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

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For this week’s Throwback Thursday I check out another volume in the incredibly entertaining Gotrek and Felix Warhammer Fantasy series, Dragonslayer, by William King.

I have been having fun over the last year checking out several cool Warhammer 40,000 and Warhammer Fantasy tie-in novels, especially as all of them place great stories inside their respective elaborate extended universes.  Some of the most exciting and compelling of these Warhammer books have been part of the Gotrek and Felix series, which follows a doomed dwarven Slayer and his human companion as they face all manner of monsters and evils across the Warhammer Fantasy landscape.  I have so far had a lot of fun reading the first three books in this series, Trollslayer, Skavenslayer and Daemonslayer, all of which were some of the best pre-2021 releases I read this year.  I recently grabbed a couple more Gotrek and Felix novels second-hand, and I had a great time quickly reading the next entry in the series over the Christmas break, Dragonslayer, another fun and enjoyable read that has an action-packed narrative to it.

After their daring exploits in the Chaos Wastes, dwarf Slayer Gotrek Gurnisson and his rememberer, Felix Jaeger, return to the lands of Kislev in triumph, having rescued the survivors of a lost dwarven stronghold.  However, their victory is short lived, as danger begins to assail them the moment they return in the form of the skaven forces of their arch-enemy Grey Seer Thanquol.  Worse, their voyage has revealed a giant horde of Chaos warriors advancing towards the lands of Kislev, determined to bring destruction and death to all before them.

To warn the people of Kislev, Gotrek, Felix, and their companions travel by dwarf airship towards the capital.  However, their voyage is disrupted by an unnatural storm and an attack from a legendary dragon determined to rip them asunder.  Barely escaping with their lives, the adventurers find themselves stuck in the World’s Edge Mountains and forced to pull into the Slayer Keep of Karak Kadrin.  There they discover that the dragon that attacked them, Skjalandir, has been terrifying the mountains for months.  Determined to finally meet his mighty doom, Gotrek and his fellow Slayers head out to destroy the beast, accompanied by a reluctant Felix and their Kislev allies.  Beset on all sides by ravening orcs, desperate bandits, and a massive dragon of immense destructive potential, can even the legendary team of Gotrek and Felix survive, or will Gotrek finally find his longed-for death at the hands of the mightiest beast in the realm?

This was another very fun and intense novel from King, who once again provides the reader with an exciting and compelling dive into the Warhammer Fantasy universe.  Dragonslayer was a very good entry in the long-running Gotrek and Felix series, and I deeply enjoyed its cool and fast-paced narrative that sees the protagonists fight all manner of foes and dangers.  Filled with impressive monsters, a hilarious sense of humour and all manner of action, Dragonslayer was a fantastic read that I powered through in a few short days.

Just like all previous Gotrek and Felix novels, Dragonslayer starts off fast and never really slows down, as the various characters are thrust into one dangerous situation after another all the way up to the last page.  The first quarter of the book is firmly focussed on continuing the antagonist-centric storyline from Daemonslayer, with Grey Seer Thanquol’s planned attack from the last book finally coming to fruition.  This opening scene is pretty fun, even if it does feel a little disconnected from the following narrative, and I loved seeing more of enjoyable antagonist Thanquol.  Following this enjoyable first encounter, the protagonists head off on a new quest which is quickly detoured by an encounter with a dragon.  The dragon’s first big appearance is pretty devastating, and I loved how much of a threat this monster is made out to be, especially as the protagonists don’t come out unscathed.  The next section of the book is mostly devoted to character development and world building, as the protagonists prepare for their next adventure and gain some interesting new companions.  At the same time, Thanquol engages in another mostly unconnected storyline that sees him encounter and set up the dangerous Chaos horde that will be the major threat of the next novel.  The final third of the novel is primarily dedicated to the protagonist’s quest towards the dragon’s lair, where they encounter not only the beast but various other foes as well.  This leads up to some amazing battle sequences, the highlights of which include the deadly confrontation with the wounded and mutated dragon, and a fun full-on war scene between two forces determined to kill each other and the protagonists.  The book had an entertaining and exciting conclusion with a fun lead-in to the next novel, and I had a fantastic time getting through this brilliant and excellent read.

King has a great easy-to-read style that I really connect with in the Gotrek and Felix novels, which ensures that all fantasy fans can easily enjoy it, especially with the fast-paced narrative and crazy action scenes.  I like the author’s use of multiple character perspectives to tell a rich and impressive adventure story, and you get some fun alternate viewpoints and storylines as a result.  This is particularly apparent in the action sequences, as you see the various participants of the battle as they encounter the same foes or other narrators, and results in a much fuller and bloodier picture.  The action scenes themselves are great, filled with compelling fights that really get the blood pumping as the protagonists face off against a variety of foes.  While a couple of fights were a little shorter than I would have liked, King more than makes up for it with some of the big encounters, especially against the dragon.  I loved the two major dragon scenes, and King crafts some excellent and hard-hitting fight sequences against it, loaded with character deaths and intense brutality.  I also loved one fun final battle sequence that read like a pitched battle from the Warhammer Fantasy universe, Goblin Fanatics and Doom Diver catapults included.

Like most of the previous Gotrek and Felix books, Dragonslayer is pretty accessible to new readers, and there is no major requirement to check out any of the previous novels first, especially as King’s books tend to repeat certain elements from the preceding entries.  As such, unfamiliar readers can easily jump in here, although the Thanquol attack at the start of the books does come a little out of nowhere if you haven’t read Daemonslayer.  I would say that Dragonslayer did feel like a bit of a bridging novel in places, especially as it continued several plot points from Daemonslayer while also taking the time to set up a potentially bigger evil in the next book, but I still had a lot of fun with it.  I still really believe that the Gotrek and Felix novels are an excellent place for new Warhammer fans to start out, especially as they mostly read like classic fantasy novels rather than intense tie-in reads.  The readers get some great details about the extended Warhammer Fantasy universe here, and King expertly introduces several key locations while also featuring some of the more recognisable factions.  I really appreciate how King makes sure to reintroduce all these races in each of his novels, and it ensures that new readers can appreciate what is going on and why certain factions are acting the way they do.  This ended up being a particularly strong Gotrek and Felix entry, and I cannot wait to see what happens in this universe next.

Dragonslayer has a rather interesting cast headlined by the two central characters, Gotrek and Felix, who have another great adventure here.  Gotrek is his usual gruff self in this novel, and you don’t get a lot of development surrounding him in Dragonslayer, especially as King never shows his perspective, no doubt to highlight his secret past and the aura of unbreakable strength and confidence he gives off.  Felix, on the other hand, gets most of the plot’s attention, and it was fun to see him continue to grow as a character.  While he still has certain understandable apprehensions about the quests he follows Gotrek on, Felix has grown into quite a capable adventurer over the last few books, and it was fun to see him accompany his friend into near-certain death once again.  I enjoyed the intriguing storyline around his magical sword which was quietly introduced in the first book and which reaches its full potential here as a dragon-slaying item.  I also enjoyed the compelling examinations of Felix’s personality and resolve, especially when it comes to the oath he swore to Gotrex, as he is forced to make some big decisions here when faced with an alternate future.

Dragonslayer also features a fun supporting cast, including several intriguing characters from Daemonslayer who get an extended role here.  This includes Felix’s love interest (and the only significant female character), the Kislev noblewoman Ulrika, who ends up accompanying the main protagonists on their latest adventure.  Ulrika is an interesting character who I have mixed feelings about during the book.  While I did like how King featured a strong and complex female character (something lacking from some of his previous novels), I honestly could not stand the terrible romance that she has with Felix.  The two of them continuously bounce from being madly in love to hating each other over petty things, and it ends up getting annoyingly repetitive.  This terrible relationship made me hate Ulrika a little as the book progressed, and I kind of wanted her to get eaten by the dragon (in my defence, it would have made for a good dramatic moment).

Another character who got an expanded role in this book was the human wizard Max Schreiber, who becomes quite an intriguing addition to the plot.  Max becomes a key part of the team in this book, and his insight into magic and the wider events of the Warhammer Fantasy universe are great additions to the plot, helping to expand the reader’s knowledge.  At the same time, Max also comes across as a bit of a creeper due to his unrequited love of Ulrika, which causes him to do some stupid things.  You honestly start to worry that Max is going to do something sinister as the story continues, and I have no doubt that will become a major plot point in the future.

I also must quickly mention the mad dwarf engineer Malakai, who goes on a fun mission of vengeance here in this book to fight the dragon who crashed his beloved airship.  Malakai, who speaks with a Scottish brogue just to make him seem even wilder, is a deeply entertaining figure in this book, combining a Slayer’s death wish with a love of advanced weaponry.  It was so much fun to see this insane character advancing on his foes with explosives and giant guns, and I am still laughing about his cart-loaded gatling gun.

While there is a great focus on recurring characters, King also spend some time introducing several interesting new characters.  The best of these are the four new dwarf Slayer characters, Steg, Bjorni Bjornisson, Ulli Ullisson and Grimme, who accompany the protagonists on their quest to slay the dragon.  All four Slayers have diverse personalities, backgrounds and fun quirks that make them interesting in their own way.  King ends up doing a lot with these four characters in the 100 or so pages that they end up being featured, and there are some great story arcs drawn around them.  I quite enjoyed the compelling narrative around Ulli, a young dwarf forced to become a Slayer for his cowardice, especially as it had a good resolution.  I also must highlight Bjorni’s constant lewd stories and declarations, which add so many laughs to the book, especially as he makes some outrageous claims about his romantic conquests.  I did think he could have done a little more with the intriguing and incredibly taciturn Grimme, but overall these four characters were great additions to the plot and I look forward to seeing some of them again in the future.

The final characters I need to point out are the extremely amusing antagonist team of Grey Seer Thanquol and his minion Lurk Snitchtongue, two skaven characters who serve as secondary antagonists for Dragonslayer.  Thanquol and Lurk are really amusing characters who perfectly encapsulate the snivelling and duplicitous skaven race, with their constant talk of betrayal, self-gain and incompetence.  It is always so much fun seeing the two of them at it, and every one of their scenes is chock full of hilarious statements and continuous thoughts of treachery.  King adds in a very fun change to the dynamic between these two characters in Dragonslayer, with the previously small and deferential Lurk having been mutated into a massive beast, which gives him increased confidence.  This makes him strongly consider killing Thanquol several times throughout the book, and the two are constantly eyeing each other off.  This proves to be a hilarious addition to the plot, and I loved seeing Thanquol on the back foot with his minion after two books of pushing him around.  While they are not the most dangerous of villains at this point, they do make for an intriguing alternate viewpoint, especially as their storylines are mostly separate from that of the protagonists.  While they are a tad detached from the main narrative, their encounters and experiences add to the general tapestry of the series and help to set up the villains of the next Gotrek and Felix book.

With Dragonslayer by William King, the Gotrek and Felix books continue to impress me as one of the all-time best and most enjoyable Warhammer tie-in series.  I had an amazing time getting through this cool book, especially as it features all the best aspects of the series, including tons of fun action, great characters, and major Warhammer Fantasy settings.  Readers are guaranteed to have a blast with this book, and I loved every single second of danger, combat and dragon fighting Dragonslayer contained.  A fun and fantastic read, I look forward to checking out the rest of the books in this series, especially the fifth entry, Beastslayer.

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The Bone Ship’s Wake by R. J. Barker

The Bone Ship's Wake Cover

Publisher: Orbit/Hachette Audio (Audiobook – 28 September 2021)

Series: The Tide Child Trilogy – Book Three

Length: 20 hours and 49 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

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One of the fastest rising fantasy authors in the world today, the brilliant and exceedingly talented R. J. Barker, brings The Tide Child trilogy to an end in epic fashion with the exceptional and powerful The Bone Ship’s Wake, one of the best fantasy reads of 2021.

There have been some really impressive fantasy authors producing great reads over the last few years, but in my opinion none have been as consistently amazing and addictive as R. J. Barker.  Barker burst onto the scene in 2017 with Age of Assassins, the first book in The Wounded Kingdom trilogy, and soon followed it up with two additional outstanding reads, Blood of Assassins and King of Assassins.  While I have a lot of love for this brilliant trilogy, especially the final novel King of Assassins, Barker has since eclipsed it with his second series, The Tide Child trilogy.

The Tide Child trilogy is a grim and powerful series that follows a unique set of characters in an exceptional, character driven, adventure tale.  The Tide Child books are set in a dark fantasy world, primarily made up of deadly oceans and seas which have produced a harsh breed of warring humans.  The inhabitants of this world traverse these oceans in ships made of the harvested bones of sea dragons, known as the keyshans, the creation of which led to the mass extinction of these dragons.  The first novel in this series, The Bone Ships, set the scene for this great series and introduced the primary characters as they set out on an epic quest to hunt the last sea dragon aboard the boneship, Tide Child.  This was an exceptional read that ended up being one of the best books and audiobooks of 2019.  Barker followed this up in 2020 with Call of the Bone Ships, a great sequel that saw the crew of Tide Child engage in a rebellion against the established order.  Call of the Bone Ships ended on a pretty massive cliffhanger that set the scene for an exceptional and stunning conclusion.  As such, the final entry in this trilogy, The Bone Ship’s Wake, was one of my most anticipated reads of 2021, and Barker did not disappoint here, as he produced an epic and captivating read.

It has been a year since the climactic battle that saw the boneship Tide Child and the rebel fleet barely escape the wrath of the Hundred Isles after being forced to abandon shipwife Meas Gilbryn.  In that time, loyal deck keeper Joron Twiner has taken on the mantle of leadership for the rebel black ships and turned them into a fleet of marauding pirates.  Now known by all as the feared Black Pirate, Joron constantly raids the Hundred Isles, determined to weaken its fleet and devastate its defences for an invasion from the rival Gaunt Islands, Joron’s only true priority is to discover the location of his lost commander and rescue her.

After a particularly vicious raid nearly sees the destruction of Tide Child, Joron is only more determined to find the shipwife before the entire fleet is lost.  With time running out for Joron thanks to the insidious keyshan’s rot that is slowly eating away at his body, Joron embarks on an ambitious plan to find and rescue Meas by returning to the most dangerous place in the world, the capital city of the Hundred Isles.

Accompanied by a small crew, Joron hopes to infiltrate the city and force Meas’s location from the ruthless rule of the Hundred Isles, Meas’ estranged mother.  However, all Joron will discover is blood and betrayal, as dangerous forces seek to take control of the oceans for their own nefarious ends.  Worse, Joron must continue to struggle with the dangerous legacy of the magical gullaimes, who believe that he is the Caller, the man who can sing up the keyshans and use them to destroy the world.  Will Joron and his crew succeed against impossible odds, or will the final voyage of the Tide Child result only in the death of everyone and everything Joron loves and cares about?

Well damn, now that was an incredibly awesome book.  I have said time and time again that Barker seems to get better with every book he writes, and I honestly believe that The Bone Ship’s Wake is the very best so far.  The Bone Ship’s Wake has an exceptional narrative filled with emotion, tragedy and powerful action on the high seas, which perfectly wraps up this epic series and provides the reader with an emotional and captivating goodbye.  Easily one of the best books of the year, The Bone Ship’s Wake gets a full five-star rating from me.

This final entry in The Tide Child trilogy has an extremely powerful, character-driven narrative to it, which perfectly continues the epic tales told in the preceding novels while also providing an extremely satisfying and moving conclusion to the entire series.  Told nearly exclusively from the perspective of central protagonist Joron Twiner, The Bone Ship’s Wake starts one year after Call of the Bone Ships, with some major changes occurring to the world and the characters during this period.  Told in three parts, this book has a bit of a slower introduction, which Barker uses to full effect to highlight the situation the characters find themselves in, while also reintroducing all the key elements of the fantasy world.  The first part of the novel is primarily used to show how far Joron has come, placing him in command of a ship as he faces off against his enemies.  This outstanding introduction sets up several key storylines while also featuring a tense and detailed chase out on the seas, with deadly and monstrous consequences.  The second part of the novel follows a desperate Joron, after leaving his ship and most of his crew behind, as he embarks on a dangerous all-or-nothing quest to save his shipwife and bring her back to the fleet.  This second part is loaded with some major dramatic moments, intrigue, treachery, and politics, which does an outstanding job expanding the already captivating storylines, while also serving as a great buffer from the nautical heavy start and end of the novel.  The story goes in some amazing directions here, and Barker throws in some captivating and surprising twists that alter everything you thought about how the story would end.

All this leads up to the conclusion of the novel, which sees the surviving primary characters caught in a desperate situation on the high seas.  After some daring actions and clever plans which have some unfortunate costs, all the characters are perfectly set up for their final places the series’ brilliant storyline.  This last part of the novel is deeply thrilling and powerful, and it honestly proves impossible to put it down as you wait to see how everything comes to an end.  Barker really amps up the desperation and hopelessness during this part of The Bone Ship’s Wake, as the crew of Tide Child and its allies are pressed in some destructive naval actions.  It all leads up to one final gambit, with the lives and the hopes of the survivors held in the balance.  This epic conclusion is extremely dramatic and powerful, with some big sacrifices and major character moments that will leave you breathless and deeply moved.  I thought that this amazing conclusion perfectly wrapped up the entire series, with all the key storylines and character arcs coming to a very satisfying and emotional end.  I loved every single second I spent getting through this exceptional story, and every brilliant turn, clever revelation and powerful character moment is still firmly engrained in my mind.

I really need to highlight Barker’s fantastic writing style, which brings this brilliant story to life.  It has been an absolute pleasure to see Barker grow as an author throughout the last few years, especially as he utilises more and more complex techniques with each passing novel.  The Bone Ship’s Wake is a particularly good example of this, as an amazingly well paced novel that slowly builds momentum as the story requires, with the intensity of the book turning on a dime, from the deep slowness of sailing to the fast pace of an epic nautical battle.  This is often accentuated by the author’s great use of repetition, with key sentences throughout the novel repeated multiple times to build up tension or to highlight the rapidity of duty aboard a ship.  This pacing and repetition almost gives The Bone Ship’s Wake a pulse, and you can feel the rhythmic build towards the high points of a novel.

I was once again deeply impressed by Barker’s incredible ability to produce a nautically focused novel.  Nautical novels require an insane amount of detail and dedication to work, and Barker has done that in spades throughout The Tide Child trilogy.  Thanks to Barker’s ultra-detailed writing style, life aboard the boneships is brought to life for the reader, showcasing every single action of the crew or movement of the ship.  The reader gets an amazing sense of what is happening aboard Tide Child, and you feel that you are aboard the ship itself, watching the crew in action.  This works particularly well during some of the intense, high-concept naval battles, where the actions of multiple ships are followed, ensuring that the reader gets a great idea about what is going on.  Barker also works in a lot of ship details that are unique to the series’ fantasy universe, allowing for a much more distinctive and compelling time at sea.  The combination of traditional nautical elements and fantasy features, such as ships crafted from dragon bone, ultra-powerful bolt throwers, wind calling bird men and the various monsters stalking the deeps is particularly striking and really helps this cool trilogy stand out.  This is honestly one of the best series set on a ship you are ever likely to read, and I am still so impressed with how well Barker was able to feature it in his novels.

I also must highlight the cool, dark fantasy world that Barker has created for this series.  Throughout this trilogy Barker has put an amazing amount of work into crafting this complex and deadly fantasy world, containing hostile oceans with only a few small islands, where the inhabitants are forced to fight on ships made from dragon bone.  I have had an outstanding time exploring this complex and compelling landscape, and I have a lot of love for some of the more unique details, including the enslaved gullaime (bird-like windtalkers), crazy monsters, the gender reversed human society which includes subtle changes like ships being consider male by their crews, and the constant naval warring and raiding such a landscape has created.  Barker does some very interesting expansions in this final entry, resulting in some substantial changes and journeys to new locations within the world.  There are some cool new creatures, including a mist-spewing kraken, as well as some fascinating and intense developments amongst the established creatures, including the gullaimes and the keyshans.  I similarly appreciated the way Barker examined the troubles with his female dominated society, especially as the motivations for some of the antagonists are closely tied into it.  Overall, I had a wonderful time with my last exploration of this unique and dangerous setting, and I cannot wait to see what sort of distinctive setting Barker comes up with next, although I already know it will be pretty incredible.

You cannot talk about any novel in The Tide Child series without praising the outstanding character work that Barker has done.  Each of these novels has done an exceptional job of building up all the major characters, from the central point-of-view perspective, to the various supporting characters found upon the central ship setting.  I have deeply enjoyed seeing each of these characters develop into better and well-rounded figures as this series has progressed, and Barker makes sure to give them an impressive send-off in this final entry.  Pretty much all the key surviving characters get some great moments throughout The Bone Ship’s Wake, and most of their associated storylines come to an end, one way or another.  This naturally results in some intense emotional moments throughout the novel, especially as readers of this series will have become deeply attached to a lot of these characters, and you will not be prepared for how some of these characters go out!

Just like in the previous two novels, the central focus of The Bone Ship’s Wake was on Joron Twiner, the deck keeper (first mate) of Tide Child, who has grown from scared drunkard to experienced officer within the course of the series.  Twiner has gone through an incredible amount during the last two books, and when we first see him again in The Bone Ship’s Wake, he is a very different person.  Joron has since lost a leg and is now infected by the keyshan’s rot, an incurable disease that is slowly eating him alive.  Despite this, he has finally taken on command of his vessel and an extended fleet and fashioning himself a new persona, that of the Black Pirate, a notorious killer of ill-repute.  This is a fascinating change for Joron, and it is absolutely amazing to see how the differences between this character and the one we first saw in The Bone Ships.  While this change is substantial, it has been well built up in the last few books, and it was great to finally see Joron take on the command he was always meant to have.  Despite this, Joron still has some uncertainty dogging his steps that proves great to explore, especially as he is hesitant to risk the lives of those under his command on his missions.  Joron is also forced to deal with the insane prophecy and power hanging over his head, as he is forced to contemplate his ability to summon the sea dragons and potentially end the world.  Throw in his unwillingness to take on the role of his mentor, and the extreme guilt he feels for all the lives he has taken in her name since the conclusion of the last book, and you have a quite a conflicted figure, desperate to do anything to redeem himself.  This makes for some amazing character moments, and I really appreciated the sheer amount of development that went into Twiner in this novel.  A lot of Twiner’s storylines come full circle in this novel, and there are some extremely satisfying moments  between him and the other characters in the novel.  I deeply enjoyed this flawed and uncertain protagonist throughout this series, and Baker ensures that he is given a fitting and powerful ending.

The novel also spends a lot of time examining Tide Child’s shipwife, Meas Gilbryn, also known as Lucky Meas.  When we last saw Meas, she was surrendering herself to the Hundred Isles to give her fleet a chance to escape.  In the year that follows, she has been brutally tortured by her captors, who are attempting to gain all her secrets, especially regarding the sea dragons.  Due to her capture, and the primary focus on Joron, we don’t see that much of Meas for the first half of The Bone Ship’s Wake, and when we finally do, she is very different.  Rather than the always confident captain we are used to, we have a broken and brooding figure, unsure of the correct actions to take and unprepared for how much her legend has spread in the year she has been gone.  This makes for a very interesting counterpoint to the growth in Joron, and it is fascinating to see the slight role reversal that occurs between them.  I loved this exceptional character change that occurred around Meas, and Barker uses it to full effect to create some dramatic and emotionally charged moments.  The author also ensures that several lingering questions about Meas are answered, especially as she finally gets some closure with members of her family, such as her mother.  It was also amazing to see the unique relationship she forged with Joron come full circle, as the man she chose to be her second surpasses her.  The outstanding character work surrounding Meas, especially when it comes to her connection to Joron, added so much to the overall quality of this novel, and it was great to see how Barker altered and explored this character in The Bone Ship’s Wake.

I have to highlight the outstanding storylines surrounding the Gullaime, the ship’s windtalker of legendary power, who is destined to destroy the world alongside Joron.  This humanoid bird creature is always an entertaining figure in the novel, due to their unique appearance and outrageous behaviour and Barker does an exceptional job giving unique avian features to it.  However, like the other characters, the Gullaime goes through some big events in this final novel, especially once certain species detail is revealed, as well as the full scope of its powers and prophesised responsibilities.  Out of the all the characters in this series, the Gullaime is probably the easiest to like, and the end of its story cuts deep to the heart.

I also really appreciated Cwell’s storyline in this novel, especially after all the changes that occurred around her in this series.  Cwell initially started as a secondary antagonist who led a mutiny against Joron in the previous novel.  Despite this, Joron spared her life and kept her as his shadow, a silent bodyguard always watching his back.  This final book really explores the extent of this bond forged between them, as Cwell’s loyalty is tested multiple times throughout the course of the novel.  Barker is such a canny writer when it comes to Cwell, and it was fascinating to see some of her final depths in this book, especially as you honestly have no idea what she is going to do and whether she will end up betraying Joron.  It was also great to see more of Farys, the young woman Joron mentored through the series, and who now finds herself as his second.  Farys has a complex and compelling storyline in this novel, and I really appreciated how much time Barker put into enhancing her role in this final novel.  I also want to give callouts to recurring characters Mevans, Solemn Muffaz and Aelerin the courser, who all have some great moments in this novel, and whose roles each had their own emotional weight.  There is also a certain interesting reveal about one side character, right at the end of the novel that was a little surprising to me, but which I really appreciated, especially as Barker set up some great hints about them as the novel progressed.  Overall, all the side characters in this book are extremely awesome, and I am so deeply impressed with the work that Barker put into them, and the outstanding impacts that had on this already epic and captivating tale.

While I did receive a physical copy of The Bone Ship’s Wake, I ended up enjoying this novel in its audiobook format, not only for scheduling reasons but because I knew that I would have an amazing experience with it.  The Bone Ship’s Wake’s audiobook format has a substantial runtime of just under 21 hours, which does require a substantial time investment to enjoy.  I can guarantee that the time spent is well worth it, as the audiobook format perfectly gets the reader into the flow of the story and the detailed fantasy world of the series, and I found myself really absorbing all the many details Barker places into his writing.  I was also deeply impressed with the narration of Jude Owusu, who really threw himself into voicing the various books in The Tide Child trilogy.  Owusu has a brilliant voice that perfectly fit the epic, marine based tale, and which perfectly translated every single action and move to the listener.  Owusu has an excellent range of voices for the various characters featured throughout the novel, and each character ended up with a distinctive voice that perfectly fit their personality and demeanour.  I particularly enjoyed the weird and hyper-excited voices he utilised for the various gullaime characters, fully highlighting their birdlike characteristics in his voicing.  I felt that the narrator did an amazing job of injecting all the relevant emotion into the tale, and you have no doubt what the characters are feeling as they speak.  This brilliant and powerful voice work really helped to bring this epic tale to life, and I loved every single second of this fantastic audiobook.  This format comes very highly recommend, and it was easily one of the best audiobooks I have had the pleasure of listening to in 2021.

With The Bone Ship’s Wake, the final incredible and epic entry in The Tide Child trilogy, the unstoppable R. J. Barker has once again shown the world he is the future of the fantasy genre.  This outstanding and captivating nautical fantasy novel masterfully wrapped up one of the best trilogies I have ever read, ensuring that the reader will be emotionally blasted by this brilliant and clever tale.  The entire story came together perfectly, and fans of this series will be amazed and moved by the fates of so many well-established characters.  Not only was this Barker’s best book to date, but The Bone Ship’s Wake is also one of the most impressive novels I have enjoyed all year.  An exceptional five-star read that comes very highly recommended, especially in its audiobook format.  Anyone who loves fantasy needs to read this series!

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