Death to the Emperor by Simon Scarrow

Death to the Emperor Cover

Publisher: Headline (Trade Paperback – 15 November 2022)

Series: Eagles of the Empire – Book 21

Length: 466 pages

My Rating: 4.75 out of 5 stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Boys from Biloxi by John Grisham

The Boys from Biloxi Cover

Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton (Trade Paperback – 18 October 2022)

Series: Standalone

Length: 454 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

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Legendary crime fiction author John Grisham returns with another impressive read, this time combining a complex, multi-generation character narrative with some excellent legal thriller elements to create the amazing novel, The Boys from Biloxi.

As I have mentioned a few times on this blog, last year I finally got the chance to read something from renowned author John Grisham.  The author of multiple iconic legal thrillers, Grisham was a major author whose work I had only consumed by way of film adaptations.  Luckily, I was able to fix that by checking out his 2021 release, The Judge’s List, which followed a complex investigation into a dangerous serial killer who was also a successful judge.  I had an outstanding time reading The Judge’s List, and it made me determined to check out some more of Grisham’s books, especially his new releases.  This included the fantastic short-story collection he released earlier this year, Sparring Partners, and his latest book, The Boys from BiloxiThe Boys from Biloxi is an intriguing standalone novel that proved to be quite excellent, and I am very glad I got my hands on it.

In the heartlands of Mississippi, the city of Biloxi is notorious for its vice, lawlessness and general lack of morals.  A successful fishing and tourism spot on the coast, over time Biloxi became known as a place where all manner of gambling, drinking, drugs, girls and every other vice could be found.  However, the battle for the soul of Biloxi is about to begin as two families go to war.

Jesse Rudy and Lance Malco are both second-generation Americans.  The sons of hardworking immigrants, Jesse and Lance grew up on the streets of Biloxi, learning the value of the American way and hoping to make something for themselves by choosing very different paths in life.  While Jesse chose to become a lawyer, working himself tirelessly to get his degree, Lance used his father’s money to invest in the seedy clubs of Biloxi.  Both are happy in their respective lives, but, despite the close friendship of their sons, Keith Rudy and Hugh Malco, the two families are about to go to war.

After years of watching the corruption of Biloxi reach new heights, Jesse Rudy embarks on a mission to clean up the coast and works to become the city’s district attorney.  His first target is Lance Malco, whose has become Biloxi’s biggest crime lord, controlling multiple illegal night clubs and bringing a brutal gang war to the city.  As the two men go head to head, their sons soon follow in their footsteps, with Keith going to school to become a crusading lawyer, while Hugh becomes a thug for his father.  Before long it becomes clear that only one family can remain in Biloxi, and the loser will not survive their defeat.

Grisham continues to showcase why he is so highly regarded with another awesome and captivating read in The Boys from Biloxi.  Making great use of historical Biloxi, this fascinating crime fiction novel told a wonderful tale of crime and legal shenanigans that turned two families against each other over the course of decades.

I got pretty hooked on this novel right away, especially as Grisham started everything off by painting a cool picture of Biloxi, which promised to be quite a unique setting.  The author swiftly compounded my interest by quickly and effectively introducing the reader to the Rudy and Malco families and showcasing their history.  The early chapters of the book seek to build up the four main characters of the story, Jesse Rudy and Lance Malco, and their sons, Keith and Hugh.  Grisham paints a multi-generational tale around them, simultaneously diving into how each character grew into their destined roles, as well as the friendship that Keith and Hugh had as children.  These key characters are built up extremely quickly at the start of the novel, and before long you are really invested in their narratives, especially as there are some interesting contrasts between the adults, with Lance becoming a vicious criminal, while Jesse works hard to find his calling as a lawyer.

After all this substantial but necessary character and setting development, Grisham starts diving into the meat of the story, the conflict between the two families, and the wider fate of Biloxi, all of which is shown from the perspective of an intriguing range of characters.  This starts when Jesse Rudy decides to run for district attorney, promising to clean up Biloxi and shut down the illegal clubs owned by Lance Malco, leading to a protracted battle over many years.  The two sides engage in all manner of endeavours, including political runs, criminal investigations, turf wars and more, all while the younger characters grow up and start getting interested in their respective father’s worlds.  There are some great scenes spread out through this elaborate narrative, including several entertaining trials, where the lawyer characters battle it out in the courtroom.  Grisham clearly has some fun with these courtroom scenes, not only because the legal thriller elements are his bread and butter, but because it gives him the opportunity to come up with some ridiculous and fun legal manoeuvres that the characters utilise to win their cases.

The battle between the two families soon becomes the primary focus of the book, eclipsing some of the other storylines and character arcs going on simultaneously.  There are some key and memorable scenes chucked into the centre of the book that really change the nature of the story, and it helps to focus the plot onto the younger generation of the respective families as Keith and Hugh continue their father’s war.  The pace really picks up in the second half, and Grisham does an amazing job of bringing all the various plot points together, with some key moments cleverly set up much earlier in the book.  Everything wraps up extremely well towards the end, and the characters all end up in some interesting and emotionally heavy positions.  While the conclusion is mostly satisfying, Grisham does end everything on a rather sorrowful note that will stick in the reader’s mind.  An overall exceptional read, and you will find it extremely hard not to get swept into this powerful and captivating narrative.

One of the things that I felt really enhanced this already cool story was the great setting of Biloxi, Mississippi.  Now, I must admit that I thought Biloxi was a fictional city while I was reading this book (I had honestly never heard of it before), especially as Grisham really built it as the vice capital of the south.  However, I was pleasantly surprised to find that it was real, and I was really impressed with the way that Grisham utilised it as a background setting in this book.  Grisham spends a substantial amount of time exploring and examining Biloxi throughout the book, and the early chapters of The Boys from Biloxi, contain a very in-depth and fascinating look at Biloxi’s history, culture, and the people who lived there.  While the characters of this story are fictional, some of the key plot events are real, and I loved how Grisham was able to work historical events, such as hurricanes, the influence of the Dixie Mafia, and Biloxi’s changing society into his compelling narrative.  The author really shows all sides of Biloxi throughout this book, including its position as a hub for immigration early in the 20th century, its role during World War II, as well as how it became known for its clubs, casinos, and other areas of vice throughout its history.  Due to how the story is structured, Grisham spends quite a lot of time examining various parts of Biloxi’s culture and position in Mississippi, and you really get to understand its heart and soul, even with some of the over-the-top story elements.  I also appreciated seeing the characters interacting with the city throughout the lengthy course of the book’s plot, and it was great to see some of the characters grow from children to adults, all while living in Biloxi.  This was an amazing setting for this very clever book, and I really appreciated the outstanding story that Grisham was able to wrap around Biloxi.  I will certainly not be forgetting that Biloxi is a real city for a very long time, and it sounds like a very interesting place to visit.

Finally, I must highlight the many great characters featured throughout The Boys from Biloxi.  Grisham writes a compelling cast for this impressive story, and I enjoyed getting to know the various fictional inhabitants of Biloxi, especially as the author decided to make most of them very big personalities.  Most of the focus is on the key members of the Rudy and Malco families, particularly the family patriarchs and their eldest sons, around whom this war is fought.  As such, Grisham spends quite a lot of time building these four characters up and showing the key events that turned them into the men who would fight over the soul of Biloxi.  These characters proved to be very compelling to follow, and Grisham writes a compelling and heartfelt tale around them, filled with love, regrets and the powerful influences that change people.  I did feel that, at times, Grisham did make the four main characters a little too perfect, as all of them tend to succeed and excel at everything they put their mind to, and frankly it did get a little tiring to see them be the very best at every sport, job and academic pursuit they tried out.  However, you do really get close to these characters, especially once their war gets even more personal and dangerous.  Throw in a massive group of distinctive and memorable supporting characters, most of whom have personalities and personas to match the outrageous city of Biloxi, and The Boys from Biloxi has an excellent cast who help to enhance this very entertaining read in so many fun ways.

John Grisham presents another exceptional and highly entertaining crime fiction read with the brilliant new book, The Boys from Biloxi.  One-part historical fiction read, one-part character-driven tale, and one-part legal crime thriller, The Boys from Biloxi was an amazing read that follows a feud between two families that lasted generations.  Deeply compelling and filled with some exciting and fun scenes, The Boys from Biloxi is a highly recommended novel that I had a wonderful time reading.

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Call of Empire by Peter Watt

Call of Empire Cover

Publisher: Macmillan (Trade Paperback – 25 October 2022)

Series: The Colonial series – Book Five

Length: 368 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

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Australia’s master of the historical adventure returns with another deeply exciting and highly intriguing character driven read that follows one historical family as they embark on war and adventure across the world, Call of Empire by Peter Watt.

Towards the end of each year, I always know that I am about to have my historical action and adventure quota filled as the new Peter Watt is coming out.  Watt has been a particularly enjoyable and compelling Australian author for years, producing intriguing historical fiction books with a focus on Australian history.  His works have so far included the long-running Frontier series and his compelling Papua trilogy, both of which contained some remarkable historical adventures.  However, I personally have been really getting into his currently body of work, The Colonial series, which I have had a wonderful time reading in recent years.

The Colonial series started of back in 2018 with The Queen’s Colonial, an intriguing read that followed young Australian Ian Steele in 1845 as he switched places with an English nobleman to take up his commission in a British regiment.  Becoming Captain Samuel Forbes, Steele found himself drawn into several of England’s deadly 19th century wars, while also forced to confront several dangers back in England as the real Samuel Forbes’ family sought to have him killed.  This fantastic series continued for two more books, The Queen’s Tiger and The Queen’s Captain, both of which were excellent reads.  Watt continued the series last year with The Colonial’s Son, which jumped ahead a couple of decades to follow the main character’s oldest son as he followed in his father’s footsteps and become a soldier in the Queen’s army.  I had a great deal of fun with these exciting books, and I was very happy when I received the next entry in the series, Call of Empire.

Starting in 1885, several years after the conclusion of The Colonial’s Son, Call of Empire sees protagonist Ian Steele finally living the quiet life in New South Wales, enjoying time with his family and friends, and expanding his business empire.  However, the British Empire is constantly finding itself in conflict across the globe, and soon the young New South Wales colony is called upon to send troops to assist the British campaign in Sudan.

Determined to serve the Empire once again, Ian’s oldest son, Josiah, takes a commission in the New South Wales army and journeys to Africa to fight the Sudanese forces for the British.  However, his decision will alienate him from the love of his life, Marian Curry, who is determined that he stop fighting in imperialistic wars.  At the same time, Ian’s younger son, Samuel, is learning the family business out in the Pacific with the family’s friend, Ling Lee.  However, Samuel and Lee are soon dragged into a dangerous plot to smuggle guns for the Chinese, as Lee’s obsession with freeing China from European control leads them into mortal danger.

Soon the entire Steele family finds themselves in deep trouble across the world, and only the most daring of actions will help them survive.  But as the Empire’s wars continue and the Steele family and their friends are drawn into even more conflicts, can even their legendary luck continue?  Death and tragedy awaits them all, and soon the Steele family will face a loss they never expected.

This was another fantastic and deeply exciting novel from Watt, who continues to dazzle with his fast-paced writing and impressive historical insights.  I loved the awesome story contained in Call of Empire, and I ended up powering through this book in less than a day.

Watt produces another exciting and ultra-fast paced story for Call of Empire that takes the reader on a wild and captivating journey through some interesting parts of late 19th century history.  Starting in 1885, Call of Empire primarily follows the three male members of the Steele family as they attempt to overcome the various challenges they face in their respective endeavours.  Watt tells a multi-layered, multi-generational, character driven story that follows multiple characters simultaneously as they engage in their own story.  This means that readers are often treated to a range of different storylines in the same chapter, having one character engaged in war, while another deals with issues at home, and at the same time a third finds themselves caught up in adventures at sea.  This makes for quite a complex read, although the range of storylines are well balanced and never oversaturate or confuse the story.  Indeed, Watt is a pretty clear and concise writer, and the reader is able to have a lot of fun with several of the storylines at the same time.  Watt features an outstanding range of storylines throughout Call of Empire, and I loved the blend of war, politics, exploration, business, romance, character development and legal concerns that were featured at various points throughout the 15 year long plot.  This reminded me a lot of the author’s previous Frontier novels, especially the focus on one big family, and I had a wonderful time seeing the elaborate narrative he wove around his characters.  Watt really takes this story in some interesting directions, and there are a few big surprises, as well as some tragedies that established readers of this series will be hit hard by.  This proved to be quite an addictive read, and I loved seeing his characters continue to traverse through life in their chaotic and adventurous ways.  The book ends at the start of the new century, and it looks like Watt will be taking his characters in World War I next time, which I am sure will be suitably traumatic.

Easily my favourite thing about this book was Watt’s excellent dive into the always eventful colonial history of Australia.  In particular, Watt examines several lesser-known wars and conflicts from the 19th century, with a particular focus on the role of New South Wales.  This starts early in the plot with one of the characters getting involved in the Suakin Expedition in Sudan, which was part of the larger Mahdist War.  This deployment saw a battalion of New South Wales soldiers travel to Sudan as part of the war effort and was the very first military force to be raised and deployed overseas by Australia.  While there wasn’t a lot of fighting involved with this campaign, I was deeply intrigued by the history and the politics behind it, and Watt did a wonderful job of exploring it in great detail throughout the book by inserting his characters.  Watt continued this trend throughout the rest of the book, which saw several of his characters involved in both the Boer War and the Boxer Rebellion in China.  Both conflicts had Australian soldiers involved, fighting on the side of the British, and Watt took exquisite care to explore what role the Australians played in them, and how they came to be involved in the conflict.

Out of all of them, I particularly enjoyed the captivating examination of the Boer War in Africa, which was one of the more deadly wars Australians fought in during the 19th century.  This war, and one of the character’s roles in it, dominated a good part of the book, and Watt did an amazing job of bringing different parts of the conflict to life.  The author really captured just how dark and bloody this war was, from snipers in the African bush, to the horrors inflicted on the Boer settlers.  However, Watt saves some of his best writing for the Battle of Elands River, a protracted battle that saw the Boers surround a force of Australians and their allies in a brutal siege for 13 days.  Naturally, one of the characters is right in the middle of this fight, and Watt really showcased the carnage and terror that the Australians would have felt being surrounded and bombarded.  I honestly didn’t know a great deal about some of these early Australian military conflicts, and it was absolutely fascinating to see them come to life in the hands of this talented author.  Having this great historical background really enhanced the overall quality of the novel, and I had a wonderful time diving back into these sometimes overlooked parts of Australian military history.

As I mentioned above, Call of Empire was a very character focused book that featured a range of fantastic point of view protagonists through whose eyes the story unfolded.  Watt features a great combination of characters, with a compelling mixture of younger figures who were the focus of The Colonial’s Son, and even a few characters from the first three Colonial books.  There was quite a range of different character storylines in Call of Empire, and you swiftly get drawn into the various unique adventures of each of the characters.  It was fascinating to see how the older characters had evolved since their original adventures, and I liked how Watt started focusing more on the next generation, including by expanding the role of the younger Steele son, Sam, who had an amazing outing here.  There is a great examination of the events that help to form these figures character, and it was fantastic to see them overcome so much adversity at various parts of their life.  I will say that some of the male Steele characters did tend to blend personality wise as the book proceeded, mostly as they are cut from the same adventurous cloth, but you still grow to like all of them, and you ended up getting touched when bad things happen to them.  There are some very interesting and powerful developments that hit the main characters in this book, and this ended up being a very key novel in the family history.  I had a wonderful time seeing the latest exploits of the Steele family, and with the next generation being introduced towards the end of the book, you know that they have even more adventures to come.

Peter Watt continues to showcase his talent as Australia’s premiere author of the Australian historical adventure with his latest Colonial novel, Call of Empire.  Bringing back several of his fantastic protagonists from the previous books, Watt crafts together another exciting read that dives into some intriguing parts of Australia’s military history.  Fast paced and full of awesome action, Call of Empire is another amazing read from Watt, and one that I had a lot of fun getting through.

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Star Wars: The High Republic: Path of Deceit by Tessa Gratton and Justina Ireland

Star Wars - Path of Deceit Cover

Publisher: Disney Lucasfilm Press (Audiobook – 4 October 2022)

Series: Star Wars: The High Republic – Phase Two

Length: 8 hours and 10 minutes

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

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The second phase of The High Republic begins with an absolute banger as the team of Tessa Gratton and Justina Ireland introduce Star Wars fans to a bold new young adult novel that ends up being epic in all the right ways with Path of Deceit.

For the last two years, Star Wars extended fiction has been firmly focused on the compelling multimedia project, The High Republic.  Set centuries before the prequel films, The High Republic takes readers to a whole new period of Star Wars history, where the Republic and the Jedi were at the absolute height of their power and influence.  However, not everything is perfect, and the Jedi characters are soon forced into conflict with dangerous forces bent on destroying them.  The first phase of The High Republic introduced readers to this new time period extremely well, while also setting up several fascinating characters, as well as the villainous Nihil, a group of space marauders who seek to destroy the order that the Republic represents.  I quickly fell in love with this cool new Star Wars subseries, and I enjoyed the massive range of different media present in this first phase, including comics, manga, children’s books, audio productions and a ton of novels.  The main story of this series is expertly told across the three main adult books, Light of the Jedi, The Rising Storm, and The Fallen Star, while other compelling, and often vital, stories take place in young adult books like Into the Dark, Out of the Shadows and Midnight Horizon, the associated comic series, as well as the audio production Tempest Runner.  This entire first phase came together extremely well, and I was really impressed with the range of stories they told, as well as the excellent new characters and elaborate new universe expansions that occurred.

After completing the first phase earlier this year, the various writers associated with The High Republic project, have just embarked on their ambitious second phase of High Republic fiction.  The second phase goes back even further into Star Wars history by being set 150 years before the events of the previous High Republic books.  The idea is that the second phase will act as a prequel to the first, showing how the Nihil were formed and the reasons behind their leader’s hatred for the Jedi.  These details will no doubt become extremely important for the third phase, while also helping the reader understand why the events of the first phase unfolded.  The first book in this second phase is Path of Deceit, written by the team of Star Wars fiction newcomer Tessa Gratton and established Star Wars writer Justina Ireland, who made a name for herself in the first phase with her young adult and middle school books.  Both authors really throw their heart into Path of Deceit, and the result in a fantastic and captivating read that presents Star Wars fans with something very epic indeed.

It is a time of exploration and discovery in the galaxy as the Republic enters an age of expansion.  Under the guidance of the Jedi, teams have been sent into the furthest corners of the Outer Rim, seeking out new planets, civilisations, and people to add to the delicate tapestry of life, diplomacy and trade that forms the basis for the Republic.  However, not all the discoveries being made are good, and many dangers lurk out in the far reaches of space.

Of these dangers, the most benign appear to be a small Force cult on the remote planet of Dalna.  Known as the Path of the Open Hand, this group believe that the Force should be free, and that no one should have the power to use and abuse it, including the Jedi.  Led by the charismatic Mother, the Path of the Open Hand is small, but features a fervent congregation of believers, including a hopeful young woman, Marda Ro.

Marda Ro always dreams of leaving Dalna to preach the message of the Path throughout the galaxy.  However, protected by her free-spirited cousin Yana Ro and held back by the Mother, Marda appears destined to remain always on Dalna.  That is until two Jedi, Jedi Knight Zallah Macri and her Padawan Kevmo Zink, arrive on Dalna, investigating the theft of several Force artifacts from surrounding systems.  Believing that the thefts are related to the Path, the two Jedi begin to investigate the group, and Marda and the young Kevmo soon form a tight bond as their connection grows.  However, not everything is as it seems on Dalna, and soon the Mother reveals a dark secret that will reverberate throughout the galaxy for centuries to come.

I have to admit that even before I started reading Path of Deceit, I kind of had some doubts about whether I was going to really enjoy it.  Not only was I surprised that this second phase of the High Republic was starting out with a young adult book, rather than the upcoming adult novel, Convergence, but I was also apprehensive about the reverse time skip between phases.  Setting this second phase 150 years before the events of the first phase was a bold choice, especially considering that The High Republic is a prequel series in itself.  However, if Path of Deceit is any indication of what is to come, then the entire second phase of The High Republic is going to be pretty damn impressive and fit into the wider High Republic extremely well.  The team of Gratton and Ireland did a remarkable job here, producing a slick, slow-burn Star Wars story that introduces many key elements of this new timeline while also giving some fantastic hints of what is to come.  I had an absolute blast getting through this book, and it is has definitely gotten me excited for the next round of High Republic fiction.

I was deeply, deeply impressed with the captivating story that the authors came up with for Path of Deceit.  Due to its position in this new High Republic phase, Gratton and Ireland had to achieve quite a lot during the narrative, not only introducing key characters and settings, but also tying them into the wider High Republic history.  However, I think they achieved this goal extremely well, and the subsequent story is very intriguing and intense.  I do need to warn people that the Path of Deceit does start of fairly slow and takes a long while for all its excellent storylines to pay off.

The book is primarily set on the planet of Dalna and follows three young central characters as they find themselves caught up in the actions of the mysterious Path of the Open Hand.  These central characters include Marda Ro, a devout member of the Path, her cousin Yana Ro, who leads the Path’s covert unit that steal Force artifacts, and Kevmo Zink, who arrives on the planet to investigate the Path and the recent thefts.  The first half of the book sees the various characters gradually get to know each other, while Marda and Kevmo grow closer, despite their different viewpoints of the Force.  As the story continues, you start to see some cracks in the serene appearance of the Path, with Yana growing more and more determined to leave as she begins to see the Mother for what she really is.  However, even with a few action scenes and a great flood sequence, the story is still moving at a gradual pace, with the authors laying down some subtle hints of what is to come.  All that changes in the last quarter of the novel, as everything comes together in a big and shocking way.  While the narrative appears to be heading in one certain direction, the authors suddenly unleash a pretty major twist that really surprised me.  This twist was extremely brilliant, not only because of how well set up it was but because its execution was very sudden and a major gamechanger.  The entire tone of the novel changes after that, with the characters taking on new roles, and you see just how well-connected Path of Deceit is to the books of Phase One.  This twist honestly makes you really appreciate the slow and careful pace of the rest of the book, and you realise just how cleverly they were setting everything up.  The entirety of Path of Deceit ends on an excellent and powerful note, and the reader is left eagerly looking forward to seeing how the rest of this second phase comes together.

The team of Gratton and Ireland set out this story in a very awesome way, and I felt that everything came together extremely well to enhance the fantastic narrative.  The split between the three main perspectives helped to produce a balanced and multifaceted narrative, and I liked seeing the distinctive alternate viewpoints of the cool events occurring.  While the pacing was initially a bit slow and there was a little less action than your typical Star Wars novel, Path of Deceit makes up for it by focusing more on the characters, setting up the new version of the universe, and featuring a great young adult story that will really appeal to the teenage audience.  The way that the characters interact and focus on their attractions is very typical of most young adult books, but I felt that it didn’t get too over-the-top.  Instead, it is just enough to help bring the younger reader in, while also still being intense and compelling enough to keep older readers still attached and entertained.  I personally deeply enjoyed how the story was presented, especially once the pace increased towards the end, and this entire novel was an absolute joy to read.

As I mentioned before, quite a lot of importance is attached to whether Path of Deceit did a good job featuring the relevant Star Wars and High Republic elements.  I say that Gratton and Ireland strongly succeeded, as they not only provided a great viewpoint of this new period of Star Wars fiction but they also provided some captivating and clever links to the first phase.  While most of the focus of Path of Deceit is primarily on one planet, so you don’t get the full galaxy view, I did like the initial glimpse of this universe.  There is a real Western frontier vibe to the entire setting, with explorers, settlers, pilgrims, and people looking for a fresh start interacting with new elements from the Outer Rim.  There are also some hints about how this version of the Republic and the Jedi are set up, and there is a very good mixture of elements that I think are going to come together very well in the future.  I also really enjoyed the mysterious and captivating Path of the Open Hand, who were introduced as an alternative Force cult who are completely opposed to the actions of the Jedi.  Their curious viewpoint of the Force, and their methods for preserving it, make for quite a fascinating group and I deeply enjoyed how they developed.  As for connections to the first High Republic phase, well let us say that Path of Deceit is a very key novel regarding this, as several key characters with connections to the future are brilliantly set up here.  So many key elements or organisations from the first phase are introduced in a completely different form here, and you will be surprised at the origins of some of the best bits from the established High Republic books.  I loved some of the impressive set up that Gratton and Ireland featured in Path of Deceit, and this young adult novel is a very key part of this phase of the High Republic, with story elements from it set to reverb through certain upcoming books all the way to the future in the third phase.

Now, one of the main questions I am sure many people are wondering is how much knowledge of the High Republic and wider Star Wars universe people need to enjoy Path of Deceit.  Naturally, as the introductory book in the second phase of an established Star Wars sub-series, people who have read the previous High Republic books are going to have a better time with Path of Deceit that readers who have not.  Not only do you have a better idea of what the earlier Star Wars period are going to look like, but you also will appreciate some of the revelations that appear in this book and have a better ability to make connections between this phase and the previous one.  As such I would strongly recommend checking out all the key previous High Republic content first (the three adult books at the very least), as you a really going to have a better time with Path of Deceit that way, especially as the big twist towards the end makes a lot more sense if you do.  However, this isn’t the absolute worst book to start the High Republic with, and maybe reading the prequel second phase first is a better way of enjoying these books.  Either way, Gratton and Ireland do a good job of making this book pretty accessible to new readers, and I think that anyone with a decent knowledge of Star Wars fiction will probably be able to enjoy and appreciate this book.

Path of Deceit contains a great group of central characters that the authors do an excellent job of introducing.  This includes three intriguing teenage protagonists who have a complex and fascinating narratives that see them engage with this new world in very different ways.  Marda Ro is the devoted adherent to the Path of the Open Hand, who believes in their mission and their leader with all her heart.  Marda has a deeply compelling and well-laid-out story arc in Path of Deceit that eventually sees her question her believes and connections to the Path once she meets Jedi Padawan Kevmo Zink.  Already feeling disconnected from the galaxy and people due to her species, which is renowned and reviled for unknown reasons, Marda was a real emotional tinderbox in this book, and her relationship with Kevmo only complicates this further.  However, the events of the book change her in a way no-one could really predict, even with the hints her name contain, and her metamorphosis from sweet character to something else is very clever and quite impactful.  I have a feeling that she is going to have one of the best character arcs in the entire second phase, and I look forward to seeing how her narrative completely unfolds.

I also like the storylines surrounding the main Jedi character, Padawan Kevmo Zink, and Marda’s cousin Yana Ro, both of whom have their own distinctive arcs that I was quite intrigued by.  Kevmo Zink is a great young Jedi character who is drawn by his own romantic urges and desire for connections as much by the Force.  Kevmo serves as a great newcomer character to Dalna and the Path of the Open Hand and provides a great alternate perspective to Marda’s strict commitment to their ways.  He also serves as an intriguing love interest to Marda, and the classic Star Wars relationship between a conflicted Jedi and a forbidden girl made for some great reading, without being too silly or over-the-top.  I had a lot of fun with Kevmo, and I liked his infectious humour and his extremely positive view of the universe.  His storyline also goes in some very surprising directions, and this ended up being a very intriguing character to follow.  Yana Ro on the other hand is a more wild and exciting addition to the cast, who acts extremely differently to her cousin Marda.  A less indoctrinated member of the Path, Yana knows that there is something rotten at their heart, and seeks a way out, mainly by stealing Force artifacts for the Mother.  Her journey is very emotionally rich, and a little bit tragic, and I had a wonderful time seeing her storyline come to fruition, especially as it puts her in a very exciting position for future entries in the series.  Yana’s realistic viewpoint of the Path, as well as her own species’ inclinations and reputation, stands in great contrast of that of Marda, and her more grounded and aggressive mindset also makes her stand out compared to Kevmo.  As such, there is a good balance of personalities in Path of Deceit amongst the point of view protagonists, and this helps to produce a fantastic and compelling read.

There are also several great side characters who add their own spice to the story.  The most prominent of these is Kevmo’s Jedi master, Zallah Macri, an extremely serious Jedi Knight who serves as Kevmo’s mentor and guide.  Zallah is a suitable cautionary figure throughout the book, trying to keep Kevmo focused on the Force and their investigation, despite his obsession with Marda.  The other side character I really want to focus on is the Mother, the Path of the Open Hand’s mysterious leader who has managed to take over the cult through to her apparent strong connection to the Force.  The Mother serves as a rather compelling antagonist throughout the book, especially as you spend most of the time wondering if she is really Force sensitive, or whether she is running a long con on her followers.  An aloof and secretive antagonist, it soon becomes very clear that the Mother has her own objectives and plans that run contrary to that of her followers, and the full extent of them proves to be very exciting and destructive.  I felt that the Mother was an excellent alternative character for Path of Deceit, especially as her plans have some major long-term impacts on the point-of-view characters, and she has some dark secrets that need to be explored further.  These, and other characters, really add to the overall strength on the novel and I deeply enjoyed the way that Gratton and Ireland introduced them and took them through a fascinating emotional ride.

As with most Star Wars novels, I chose to check out Path of Deceit’s audiobook format, which was a pleasurable and fun experience as always.  At just over eight hours, this was a relatively quick audiobook, and I managed to knock it out pretty quickly.  This format did an excellent job of presenting Path of Deceit’s compelling narrative, and I had fun having this book read out to me.  However, the real joy of a Star Wars audiobook always lies in the excellent extra production elements that have been added in.  The classic Star Wars sound effects are used very well throughout Path of Deceit’s audiobook, and hearing blasters, lightsabers and even the sounds of people in the crowds, helps to drag listeners into the story and its surrounding universe.  However, I am always more impressed with the fantastic use of the iconic Star Wars musical score that is threaded through multiple scenes in the audiobook.  Path of Deceit has a pretty cool selection of scores playing throughout it, and I liked how the music often reflected the more rural setting and the mystical elements it was exploring.  The various bits of music work extremely well at enhancing key scenes throughout the book, and there were several times when the careful application of these tunes enhanced the emotional impact of the entire book.

On top of the cool sound effects and powerful musical inclusions, much of my enjoyment of Path of Deceit’s audiobook lies in the excellent narrator who was telling the story.  Path of Deceit is narrated by actress Erin Yvette, who has done a lot of voice work recently in the video game space.  While Yvette hasn’t provided narration for too many Star Wars books yet, she did a great job here in Path of Deceit, and I loved how she read out the book.  Yvette’s voice fits the young adult tone of this Star Wars novel extremely well, and she ensures that the compelling tale is effectively shared out to the listener.  In addition, she also provides a range of excellent voices to the various characters featured throughout the book.  Each of her voices really fits the respective character, and you get a real sense of their nature, their bearing, and their emotional state as you hear Yvette narrate them.  Not only does she capture the youthful nature of characters like Kevmo Zink and Marda Ro well, but she also gets the proper Jedi character Zallah Macri, the more self-serving voice of Yana Ro, and the mystical, manipulative voice of the Mother, down perfectly.  This voice work is pretty damn impressive, and when combined with audiobook’s sound effects and outstanding Star Wars music, it helps to turn the Path of Deceit audiobook into an outstanding experience.  This was such an awesome way to enjoy this latest High Republic novel, and audiobook remains my absolute favourite way to enjoy a Star Wars tie-in book.

I am feeling a heck of a lot better about the second phase of the High Republic after powering through Path of Deceit.  The wonderful team of Tessa Gratton and Justina Ireland produced an outstanding young adult Star Wars novel that did a lot of remarkable things.  Featuring a well-crafted story that slowly but surely hooks you and some fantastic characters, Path of Deceit charts its own course while also brilliant tying into the High Republic novels that have come before.  I can’t wait to see where this phase goes following this impressive story in Path of Deceit and I am planning to read the next High Republic book as soon as I can.

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Desert Star by Michael Connelly

Desert Star Cover

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

Series: Ballard and Bosch – Book Four

Length: 393 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Warhammer 40,000: The Wraithbone Phoenix by Alec Worley

The Wraithbone Phoenix Cover

Publisher: Black Library (Audiobook – 30 August 2022)

Series: Warhammer Crime

Length: 11 hours and 6 minutes

My Rating: 4.75 out of 5 stars

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The entertaining team of Baggit and Clodde return for another Warhammer Crime adventure in the rip-roaring and deeply exciting science fiction thriller romp, The Wraithbone Phoenix by the impressive Alec Worley.

Last week I presented a review that talked about the intriguing Warhammer Crime series that combined crime fiction narratives with elements of the iconic Warhammer universe to create some amazing reads.  While some Warhammer novels already feature some intriguing crime fiction elements, such as in Necromunda novels like Kal Jericho: Sinner’s Bounty by Joshua Reynolds, the Warhammer Crime books are a much more complete melding, with cool thriller plots and complex mysteries.  I was rather intrigued by this concept, especially as I love it when authors combine wildly different genres together, and I mentioned how I planned to try out one of those books next.  Well, that book was The Wraithbone Phoenix by Alec Worley, an awesome and captivating read set in the Warhammer 40,000 universe.  A follow-up to Worley’s 2020 full-cast audiobook, Dredge Runners, The Wraithbone Phoenix is a full-length novel that brings back the protagonists of the original audiobook and puts them in another unique and deadly situation.

In the far future of the universe, there are few places more corrupt and chaotic than the crime-ridden city of Varangantua.  Life is cheap on the mean streets of Varangantua, and death waits around every corner, especially if you have a massive bounty on your head.  Unfortunately, the most wanted in the city currently are the abhuman deserters turned criminals, Baggit and Clodde.  Baggit, a tricky ratling always looking for the next score, and Clodde, his ogryn friend with a rare facility for thought, have made an enemy of one of the most dangerous men in the city, and now everyone is after their heads.  Hiding out within one of the city’s industrial salvatoriums, Baggit and Clodde have taken on new identities until the heat dies down.  However, the twos natural inclination for getting into trouble soon breaks their cover, and they are soon forced out into the open.

Desperate to find a way to pay off their debts, Baggit hears an interesting bit of news that could change all their fortunes.  One of the nearby salvatoriums is dismantling the decommissioned Imperial Navy ship, Sunstriker, the reputed home of a long-lost treasure, a xenos artifact known as the Wraithbone Phoenix.  Guided by the rumours he heard when previously served about the Sunstriker, Baggit believes that the Wraithbone Phoenix is still hidden aboard, and its value is more than enough to get rid of their bounty.

But no secrets every remain safe in Varangantua, and as Baggit and Clodde make their preparations to sneak into the Sunstriker, news of their location and their potential treasure leaks out.  Soon every criminal, bounty hunter, treasure hunter and mercenary is on their way towards the Sunstriker, desperate to claim either the bounty on Baggit and Clodde’s head, or the Wraithbone Phoenix.  Forced to face off against the very worst killers that Varangantua and its main criminal cesspool, the Dredge, has to offer, Baggit and Clodde attempt to do the impossible, recover the artefact from the ship and get out with their heads intact.  But can even the clever Baggit and the indomitable Clodde escape the deadly wave about to crash down upon them?

Wow, now this was one of the most entertaining and thrilling Warhammer 40,000 novels I have read all year.  Worley has produced an amazing novel in The Wraithbone Phoenix that did a wonderful job blending Warhammer elements with an impressive crime fiction narrative.  Filled with a ton of action, some amazing humour, and so many outrageous characters, The Wraithbone Phoenix is an outstanding read that proves to be extremely addictive.

I had such a brilliant time with The Wraithbone Phoenix, especially as Worley pulled together an extremely impressive and intense narrative that is very hard to put down.  Set in a particularly crime-ridden and corrupt city, the novel sees the chaotic duo of the ratling (halfling/hobbit) Baggit and the ogryn (ogre) Clodde, get into all manner of trouble.  Featuring a range of character perspectives, the first third of the book is pretty firmly focussed on the main duo, with some fun scenes from the contemptable villain Lemuel Scratchwick.  Forced into hiding due to past mistakes, Baggit comes up with an ambitious plan to recover the Wraithbone Phoenix, a legendary xenos treasure that is rumoured to be hidden in a nearby ship being scrapped (the theft and hiding having been cleverly set up in some early interludes).  However, after Lemuel overhears and spills the beans in a very public way, the entire city knowns what the two are planning, and a horde of killers and thieves head towards the ship.  The book starts spreading its focus to several other outrageous figures, all of whom are interested in either the Wraithbone Phoenix or killing Baggit and Clodde.  The author does a wonderful job introducing each of the characters, and you soon become invested in their hunt, as all of them are pretty amusing in their own way.  The action ends up in the decommissioned ship, were everyone starts their search for the missing treasure, and it doesn’t take long for everyone to start fighting each other in a series of bloody battles.  You honestly have no idea who is going to survive the various encounters, and it is very fun to see the distinctive characters dying in surprisingly and compelling ways.  At the same time, the characters also attempt to solve the mystery of the hidden Wraithbone Phoenix, and the various hints about its initial disappearance are cleverly woven into the modern tale, requiring the protagonists to solve it.  Eventually, only a few characters are left, and there is a great series of twists and turns that sees everyone get what they truly deserve.  While I did think that Worley perhaps went one twist too far (the final one was a bit too metaphysical for my taste), the reader comes away extremely satisfied, and highly entertained.

I had a wonderful time with this awesome book, and I think that Worley did a great job setting the entire narrative out.  The combination of crime fiction elements and the great and grim Warhammer 40,000 setting worked extremely well, and you ended up with a high-octane thriller that saw futuristic and half-crazed killers go against each other in a deadly contest for money and treasure.  The use of various perspectives allows you to get to know the various outrageous killers and participants in a very short amount of time, and you are soon invested in them and their various personal struggles as they duke it out.  I was getting a very cool and cinematic vibe from this story that put me in mind of films and books like Smoking Aces, Snatch or Bullet Train, with big casts all working against each other for the same goal.  While you are generally rooting for the main two characters, it is also very fun to see the other players in action, and the multiple unique interactions all these crazy figures have results in an impressive and frenetic read.  Worley backs this up with a ton of brilliantly written and highly detailed action sequences, and you really won’t believe the range of destruction and deliciously devious deaths that occurs.  There are so many impressive and cleverly set up moments throughout this narrative, and the deaths of several characters are usually the result of some well-placed bit of trickery that occurred chapters ago.  All this action, intrigue and character development is perfectly bound together by the book’s overarching humour, which helps to balance out the more intense elements of the novel, while also keeping everything darkly funny.  There are so many good jokes or hilariously over-the-top moments scattered throughout the novel, and I had a lot of great laughs as I powered through it.  Heck, even the title, The Wraithbone Phoenix, is a play on the classic noir book/film, The Maltese Falcon.  Everything comes together so perfectly throughout the book, especially as Worley also includes several outstanding interludes, some brilliant flashbacks, and even some hilarious in-universe text excerpts and announcements, all of which add perfectly the funny, but grim, tone of the book.  This was an incredibly well written and captivating read, and it proves quite impossible to put down at times.

While The Wraithbone Phoenix does have an outstanding crime fiction narrative, this book wouldn’t be anywhere near as good if it weren’t set in the grim future of Warhammer 40,000.  Worley did a remarkable job setting the book in this futuristic world, and it was great to see the various technologies and factions from the game being utilised in a crime story.  The author really works to explain many different elements from the Warhammer 40,000 lore here, and readers new to the franchise can easily dive into this book and start appreciating its clever story and settings.  I particularly loved the primary location of the corrupt city of Varangantua.  The author expands on this city a lot in this new book, giving more depth than it had in Dredge Runners, and you see more of the massive industries the planet supports, and the terrible conditions the people forced to work there endure.  Worley continues to hammer home just how much of a dark, dystopian society Varangantua, and the larger Imperium, really is for ordinary human citizens, and that their supposedly enlightened rulers are in many ways just as bad, if not worse, than the various monsters and the forces of Chaos they fight against (at least Chaos worshippers are honest about their intentions).  You can really sense the woe and control that Varangantua’s rulers have over the populace, and this is only enhanced by the various propaganda announcements that are played at various intervals throughout the book.  The propaganda posts are very obviously biased in their attempted manipulations and exhalations for service and order, that they are all extremely funny, even as they show just how bad things are by denying them.  However, Worley takes this even further by showing the darker, criminal side that surrounds the city, and it was really cool to see just how much worse things could get.

One of the most intriguing Warhammer 40,000 elements that Worley explores in The Wraithbone Phoenix is how the Imperial abhumans are treated.  Abhumans are genetically diverse humans who come in many shapes and sizes, like the small and sneaky ratlings and the gigantic, but dumb, ogryn.  Tolerated by the Imperium for their usefulness, these abhumans are treated as second-class citizens, looked down on by everyone just for the way they were born.  While this has been explored in other books, Worley really hammers it home in The Wraithbone Phoenix, especially as the two main characters are both abhumans.  You get a brilliant examination of how abhumans are regarded throughout the Imperium, both in the Astra Militarum and in general society, and the results are pretty damn grim.  Not only do all the humans treat them terribly and generally tell them they are worthless (there is an entire litany they need to learn about them being abhorred, unclean, but forgiven), but there are multiple examples of abhumans being killed or maimed, just for what they are.  Not only is this fascinating, while also enhancing the dark nature of the Imperium and the supposedly righteous humans, but it also becomes quite a key plot point throughout the book.  There are multiple scenes that focus on the protagonists struggling to deal with the prejudice they have suffered throughout their life, which defines them and drives them.  In addition, the plot around the hidden Wraithbone Phoenix is down to a mistreated ratling trying to get his revenge after being unfairly targeted and left filled with hate.  This proves to be quite a fascinating and well-written aspect of The Wraithbone Phoenix, and I loved being able to see everything from the abhumans perspective.

I also have a lot of love for the excellent characters that Worley set his story around.  There is such a great range of distinctive and captivating characters throughout The Wraithbone Phoenix, and you really get drawn into their individual tales and battles for survival and redemption.  Most of the focus ends up going around the main characters of the book, Baggit and Clodde, abhuman Astra Militarum deserters turned criminal entrepreneurs who were introduced in Dredge Runners.  Worley ensures that new readers can quickly pick up who Baggit and Clodde are, and it was so much fun to follow this ratling/ogryn combination, especially as they continued their chaotic lives of crime.  Both protagonists have their own brilliant characteristics, including Baggit’s (I assume the name is a fun homage to Bilbo/Frodo Baggins) enjoyment of plans and schemes that never work out, and the surprisingly smart and philosophical nature of Clodde (that’s what happens when you get shot in the head).  The two characters play off each other perfectly, with Baggit taking on the role of leader and carer for his big comrade, and Clodde letting him, while also not allowing him to get away with anything, thanks to the increased understanding he has.  We get a bit more history surround these two characters, including their time in the army, and while it is not fully explored yet, you get to see the fantastic bond they have.  Baggit ends up getting a bit more of a focus in this book than Clodde, mainly because the central plot point is so tightly tied to the fate of a mistreated ratling.  Baggit, who suffered his own abuse from humans while serving, becomes obsessed with the fate of this long dead ratling, and he is determined to find out what happened to him and whether he got his revenge.  Baggit really emphasises with him as the story continues, and his obsession for answers lead him to make some big mistakes, especially once he learns all the ancient ratling’s secrets.  Both Baggit and Clodde are extremely likeable, and you can’t help but fall in love with the scheming ratling and the sweet, if brilliantly weird, ogryn.

Aside from Baggit and Clodde, Worley also fills The Wraithbone Phoenix with an eclectic mix of characters, with some very diverse storylines and characteristics to them.  The most iconic and heavily featured are the various assassins, bounty hunters and other individuals who are flocking to the Sunstriker for various reasons, be it money, treasure, or a chance of redemption (sometimes all three at once).  This list of crazy characters includes a genetically enhanced killing machine, a cult of phoenix-worshiping wackjobs, a team of elite mercenaries, an ageing bounty hunter trying to regain his reputation, a sadistic archaeologist with a love of whips, another ratling with a past connection to Baggit and Clodde, a disgraced and drunk Imperial Navy officer with a dream of finally impressing his dead mother, and the mysterious hooded assassin known only as Death.  Worley did a really good job of introducing each of these unique figures, and you swiftly get drawn into their compelling personal stories and outrageous personalities, especially after witnessing several scenes from their perspective.  While I could go on for ages about all of these dangerous people, I’m mainly just going to give a shoutout to the character of Lemuel Scratchwick, a steward at the plant Baggit and Clodde were working at, who really grows to hate the pair.  Dragged down from his high perch by them, Lemuel spends the rest of the book trying to get even and comes across as the most arrogant and detestable villain.  It is so amusing to see Lemuel in action, especially as his pride often gets the better of him and nothing goes his way, much to my delight.  He forms quite an unhealthy rivalry with Baggit which draws them both into taking stupid risks.  All these over-the-top, but deeply likeable characters, really enhanced my enjoyment of this book and I can’t wait to see what impressively outrageous figures appear in Worley’s next novel.

Unsurprisingly, I chose to listen to The Wraithbone Phoenix on audiobook, which is really one of the best ways to enjoy a great Warhammer book.  This was a moderately long audiobook, coming in at just over 11 hours, and I found myself getting through it in a relatively short amount of time, including powering through the last several hours in a day trying to get to the conclusion.  This was a very fun and entertaining audiobook, and I had a great time listening to the awesome humour and intense violence unfold, especially as the narration by Harry Myers painted quite an impressive picture.  Myers, whose work I previously enjoyed in another recent Warhammer 40,000 novel, Day of Ascension by Adrian Tchaikovsky, does a pretty epic job in The Wraithbone Phoenix, and I loved his narrative take on the captivating story.  Every character in this audiobook is given their own distinctive and fitting voice, which I deeply enjoyed, especially as it helps the listener to connect more to them and the story.  Myers clearly had a lot of fun when it came to voicing all the outrageous figures and some of the voices he came up with were very amusing.  I really appreciated the squeakier voice he used for the rattling characters, as wells as the deeper boom of Clodde, and the rest of the voices he came up with were not only distinctive and fun, but they also helped to enhance the inherent traits of the character it was associated with.  For example, he really conveyed the deep arrogance and distain contained within the character of Lemuel Scrathwick, as well as he dramatic decline in sanity as the book unfolded, and I really appreciated the narrator’s attention to detail with that.  Myers really impressed me as a narrator in The Wraithbone Phoenix, and I liked how some of his scenes, namely those depicting the in-universe propaganda, were enhanced with some serious and inspiration music and sound effects, which made the absurd declarations even more hilarious.  This was such a good audiobook, and I cannot recommend it enough as a way to enjoy this epic Warhammer novel.

Overall, this was an outstanding first Warhammer Crime novel from me, and I had such an incredible time getting through this book.  The Wraithbone Phoenix is an impressive and highly addictive Warhammer 40,000 read, and I loved the elaborate story that Alec Worley came up with for it.  Containing some brilliant characters, a highly entertaining story, and a great combination of crime fiction and Warhammer elements, The Wraithbone Phoenix comes highly recommended, and you are guaranteed to have an exceptional time reading this witty and intense read.

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Star Wars: The Princess and the Scoundrel by Beth Revis

Star Wars - The Princess and the Scoundrel Cover

Publisher: Del Rey (Trade Paperback – 16 August 2022)

Series: Star Wars

Length: 348 pages

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

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Outstanding author Beth Revis presents an intriguing and enjoyable new entry in the extended Star Wars canon, with the fantastic tie-in novel, The Princess and the Scoundrel.

2022 has been a rather interesting year for Star Wars fiction.  While the focus has primarily been on the High Republic sub-series, several great authors have produced some awesome reads set around the various film trilogies (such as Star Wars: Brotherhood by Mike Chen).  However, one of the most exciting recent Star Wars tie-in novels is a character-driven read that focuses on the relationship between Han Solo and Princess Leia, The Princess and the Scoundrel, which was written by exciting author Beth Revis.  Revis, who already has some experience with the Star Wars canon, having written the 2017 novel, Rebel Rising, came up with an awesome story in The Princess and the Scoundrel that I had a wonderful time reading.  Not only does The Princess and the Scoundrel explore an interesting period of the complex and inspiring Star Wars canon, but it also contained a fantastic romantic heart that will appeal to a wider range of readers.

Goodreads Synopsis:

The Death Star is destroyed. Darth Vader is dead. The Empire is desolated. But on the forest moon of Endor, amongst the chaos of a changing galaxy, time stands still for a princess and her scoundrel.

After being frozen in carbonite, then risking everything for the Rebellion, Han is eager to stop living his life for other people. He and Leia have earned their future together, a thousand times over. And when he proposes to Leia, it’s the first time in a long time he’s had a good feeling about this. For Leia, a lifetime of fighting doesn’t truly seem over. There is work still to do, penance to pay for the dark secret she now knows runs through her veins. Her brother, Luke, is offering her that chance—one that comes with family and the promise of the Force. But when Han asks her to marry him, Leia finds her answer immediately on her lips . . . Yes.

But happily ever after doesn’t come easily. As soon as Han and Leia depart their idyllic ceremony on Endor for their honeymoon, they find themselves on the grandest and most glamorous stage of all: the Halcyon, a luxury vessel on a very public journey to the most wondrous worlds in the galaxy. Their marriage, and the peace and prosperity it represents, is a lightning rod for everyone in the galaxy—including Imperial remnants still clinging to power.

Facing their most desperate hour, the soldiers of the Empire have dispersed across the galaxy, retrenching on isolated worlds vulnerable to their influence. As the Halcyon travels from world to world, one thing becomes abundantly clear: The war is not over. But as danger draws closer, Han and Leia find that they fight their best battles not alone but as husband and wife.

I had a fantastic time getting through The Princess and the Scoundrel as Beth Revis wrote a pretty awesome and captivating Star Wars novel that covered a lot of bases.  Split between the alternating perspectives of Han and Leia, The Princess and the Scoundrel takes off right after Return of the Jedi.  While the victorious Rebellion plans their next moves, Han and Leia decide to make the most of their sudden freedom to get married after their traumatic year apart.  While both are still reeling from the events of the original trilogy, they come together in a fun wedding scene, before leaving on a glamorous trip that will be part honeymoon part propaganda show.  While initially trying to enjoy their honeymoon, both quickly fall into their old patterns, with Han chafing at the formality, while Leia continues to try and do her work as an ambassador and planner.  Arriving at an isolated ice planet, Han and Leia soon discover a destructive Imperial plot and must come together as a couple to thwart it.  This ended up being a really distinctive read, as Revis worked a more romantic plotline into the always entertaining Star Wars canon.  I loved seeing this fantastic tale of Han and Leia’s first adventure as husband and wife, and Revis ensured readers got an excellent blend of action, intrigue, and character development, as you witnessed these two amazing protagonists try to come together as a married couple.  There is a little something for everyone in this great read, and I found myself getting caught up in the action and the impressive focus on two of my favourite fictional characters.  An overall brilliant book that is really easy to enjoy and appreciate.

The Princess and the Scoundrel proved to be a very interesting addition to the current Star Wars canon.  While the romance between Han and Leia was strongly explored in the previous Legends canon, the current Disney canon has not featured it as much, and as such you see some fascinating events from their lives here for the first time.  Revis paints quite a fun picture of the sudden wedding these two have, which features entertaining interruptions from several key characters, some tricky manoeuvrings from Lando to get Han into a nice outfit, and, of course, a ton of Ewoks, while the honeymoon is as chaotic as you would expect from these two.  As such, this is a pretty key book for all fans of these two iconic characters, and I think that Revis hit an excellent tone when it came to some of these key events.  The author also fits in a lot of fantastic references and moments that a lot of Star Wars fans will appreciate, most of which are covered in a very fun way.  For example, the characters finally address that infamous kiss between Luke and Leia at the start of The Empire Strikes Back, with Han and Luke having a rather awkward conversation about it, before agreeing never to bring it up again.  Revis also makes quite good use of an interesting Han Solo villain from one of the previous canon books, and it was great to see some continuation from the previous intriguing storyline.  That, and several other amusing references, help to make this quite a key book for Star Wars fans, and I had a wonderful, nerdy time getting through it.

Aside from the direct references to the book, I was personally intrigued to see more about the period of Star Wars history that occurred in the immediate aftermath of the Death Star’s destruction in Return of the Jedi.  Despite the death of the Emperor, the war between the Empire and the Rebellion (now renamed as the New Republic), is still ongoing, and indeed some of the toughest fighting is still to come.  Several authors have covered this frenetic period in the current canon with some recent books, such as the Alphabet Squadron trilogy by Alexander Freed (made up of Alphabet Squadron, Shadow Fall and Victory’s Price).  However, I particularly enjoyed how The Princess and the Scoundrel covered this period, as it shows events literally hours after the end of the film.  Quite a bit is shown of the Rebellion’s initial strategies following the battle of Endor, as well as the Empire’s reactions to the death of the Emperor and the sudden shift in power.  While some of the wider campaigns aren’t shown, you get an interesting idea of what the military and political situation was at the time, which I deeply enjoyed.  Revis also spends time examining how members of the general public reacted to the news, and there is an interesting variation of responses.  Not only did some people straight out disbelieve that the events even occurred, with many assuming it was fake propaganda from the Rebellion, others who were associated with the Empire, or who had members of their family aboard the Death Star, acted quite hostile to the change in the established status quo.  These diverse reactions not only reflected some current real-world societal issues, but also provided a compelling insight into just how much influence the Empire had, even on the way to its downfall.  Throw in some hints and previews of the upcoming Operation Cinder, and this proved to be a very interesting addition the Star Wars canon that many established fans will really enjoy.

One of the strongest elements of The Princess and the Scoundrel is its impressive focus on the two main characters, Han Solo and Princess Leia.  While this book does contain a lot of action, intrigue and fantastic Star Wars elements, at its heart it is a romance novel between two well-established and complex characters, both of whom have experienced a lot of trauma and anguish in recent years.  Revis does a remarkable job of diving into both characters throughout the course of The Princess and the Scoundrel, and you really get a sense of their feelings, concerns and traumas following their victory.  However, there is also a great focus on their relationship, and you can really see the strong bond they have, even if they are still coming to terms with their feelings and their wildly different personalities.  I felt that Revis painted a realistic view of their relationship, which contains some difficulties early on, especially with their independent streaks.  However, the author also shows that the two characters are much stronger together, and they can work through any issues that come their way.  I think that this much better than just showing them having a fairy tale relationship, and I really appreciated the authors compelling take on one of the most iconic relationships in fiction.

Aside from their relationship, Revis also did a great job of diving into the complex emotional issues facing both central characters.  For example, Revis makes sure to explore the trauma surrounding Han after being trapped in carbonite for over a year.  Not only did he miss out on a lot of key events in his friends’ lives, but at this point of the book he has only been awake again for a few days, and some of his decisions are based on his concerns and fears about being trapped again.  Leia is also going through a lot after the discovery that Luke is her brother and, more importantly, that Darth Vader was her father.  As such, Leia spends much of the book attempting to reconcile the fact that her real father was a genocidal maniac who tortured her and is partially responsible for destroying her home planet.  This proves to be quite a deep and intriguing part of her character arc, especially since, unlike her newly discovered brother, she is unable to forgive Vader for everything he did.  There is also an interesting look at Leia’s early attempts to connect with the Force, after Luke reveals her Jedi potential.  Watching her attempts at using the Force is very fascinating, especially as she battles with her feelings about Vader while doing so and is reluctant to even try to use the abilities that he could do.  All these unique character examinations, and more, really help to showcase just how complex and traumatised Han and Leia were at this period, and how much their relationship helped them get past it.

Star Wars: The Princess and the Scoundrel by Beth Revis is an amazing read that provides Star Wars fans with something a little different to the typical tie-in novel.  Featuring a continuation of one of film’s most iconic romances, The Princess and the Scoundrels is at times touching and romantic, while also exploring the grim realities of the war-torn galaxy, all topped off with some classic Star Wars action and humour.  With an outstanding focus and understanding of its two main characters, The Princess and the Scoundrel was a fantastic novel that is well worth checking out.

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In the Shadow of Lightning by Brian McClellan

In the Shadow of Lightning Cover

Publisher: Macmillan Audio (Audiobook – 21 June 2022)

Series: The Glass Immortals – Book One

Length: 24 hours and 53 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

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One of the most inventive and compelling authors of fantasy fiction, Brian McClellan, kicks off an awesome new series with In the Shadow of Lightning, the first book in The Glass Immortals series.

Few authors over the last 10 years have had more of an explosive impact on the world of fantasy fiction then Brian McClellan.  Debuting in 2013, McClellan quickly set the world ablaze with The Powder Mage trilogy, which saw chaos and destruction unravel in a new fantasy world where gunpowder-powered mages face off against an enraged god.  I had a brilliant time with the first book in the series, Promise of Blood, and McClellan followed this initial trilogy off with the sequel, Gods of Blood and Powder trilogy, set in the same universe.  While I still need to finish the Powder Mage novels off, I was very excited to hear that McClellan was starting a new series with In the Shadow of Lightning, the first book in the author’s The Glass Immortals series.  This is an impressive and outstanding read that introduces readers to a distinctive new fantasy world, this time with a fascinating focus on glass magic.

Demir Grappo was once one of the most respected politicians, tacticians and glassdancers in the Ossan Empire.  A rising star in the assembly, a proven governor, and the only son of a prominent family, Demir’s promising career is suddenly shattered in the immediate aftermath of his greatest military victory when his army sacked and destroyed the entire city of Holikan, apparently on his orders.  Mentally broken by the massacre done in his name, Demir abandons his army and vanishes into the provinces, giving up his life of privilege for one of anonymity.

Now, nine years after the sacking of Holikan, Demir is a very different man, having spent the intervening time as a grifter with no true home.  However, everything changes when news reaches him that his mother was murdered, brutally beaten to death in public in an apparent political attack.  Determined to find her killers, Demir returns to the city of Ossa to reclaim his seat as the head of his family.  But not everyone is happy that he has returned, and Demir soon finds himself in the midst of several deadly conspiracies, while Ossa goes to war against its neighbour, all in the name of avenging his murdered mother.

To get to the centre of these conspiracies, Demir must find allies, including old friends and new acquaintances if he is to gain the power and influence he needs find answers, especially those hidden by the powerful guild families who rule Ossa.  However, as he searches, and soon finds a much more troubling secret: godglass, the source of magic within the world, is running out, and when it goes, chaos will reign.  The key to securing the future may lie in a device that could re-power inert pieces of godglass, and only one girl appears to have the skill to create such a device.  But as Demir fights to secure this new vital ally, he finds himself fighting against a mysterious new enemy, one that seems determined to destroy anyone who gets in their way.

McClellan impresses again with another incredible fantasy novel that had me instantly enthralled.  Presenting the reader with a multifaceted narrative that combines great characters with intriguing fantasy elements, In the Shadow of Lightning proved to be an outstanding start to McClellan’s new series and I had an exceptional time reading it.  Epic in scope, ambition and potential, In the Shadow of Lightning gets a full five-star rating from me and I am still reeling from just how good this was.

In the Shadow of Lightning is a particularly addictive novel, especially as McClellan presents the reader with an outstanding and complex narrative that pulls them in on so many levels.  Starting off with a compelling prelude that perfectly introduces central protagonist Demir Grappo and shows his dramatic and bloody fall from grace and sanity, the novel then undergoes a time skip which takes the reader into the current storyline, right as events are kicking off.  The initial focus is on Demir, who, after finding out his mother has been murdered, returns to Ossa to take over the family business and discover her murderers.  However, he soon finds that his mother was involved in complex dealings that might have led to her death, and that her assassination has been blamed on a neighbouring city Ossa is going to war with.  The story then splits as McClellan introduces three additional point-of-view characters, each other whom has their own distinctive story arc, closely related to Demir and the politics of Ossa.

These new characters include Thessa Foleer, a siliceer (godglass worker) from Ossa’s neighbour Grent, the breacher Idrian Sepulki and Kizzie Vorcien, an enforcer for a powerful guild-family who Demir hires to investigate his mother’s death.  Each of these new characters have their own individual storylines that tie into the plot points introduced in Demir’s initial chapters.  While these character arcs go in their own direction, their storylines are loosely connected together and form a great overarching narrative as they are dragged into war, imprisonment, political battles, conspiracies and criminal investigations.  I loved the cool blend of character-driven storylines, and everything comes together extremely well to show that something very rotten is going on within Ossa.  This is a very fast-paced story, and McClellan keeps multiple compelling plotlines running simultaneously to keep the reader’s attention, with some great reveals and amazing fight scenes scattered throughout the book.  Most of these reveals are set up and foreshadowed extremely well, with a couple of exceptions, and I didn’t see some of the twists coming, which was pretty fun.  Everything comes to a head towards the end of the novel, as all four characters find themselves in their own extremely dangerous and concerning situation.  Not only is there a massive battle for the future of Ossa but there are some shocking revelations about who is involved in the conspiracy and why.  The author leaves everything on an amazing note that not only leaves readers satisfied with the conclusion of some of the storylines but which also leaves a lot of questions unanswered and the reader wanting more.  An excellent and impressive story that dragged me in extremely quickly.

I was very impressed with how In the Shadow of Lightning’s story came together, as McClellan presented an epic and addictive offering that I snapped up extremely quickly.  I especially loved the use of four separate narrators to tell this story, and McClellan did an outstanding job of separating out their narratives.  Each narrator has their own unique story to tell, and what is really good is that they also explore a different aspect of the author’s new fantasy world, which often breaks across the associated genres.  For example, Thessa’s story focuses on the magical science behind godglass, and examines the political and social elements associated with this branch of magic.  Idrian’s tale comes across as a war tale as he is forced to participated in the deadly conflict between Ossa and Grent, where his particularly magical expertise makes him a living weapon.  Kizzie’s chapters come across as an investigation arc, as she attempts to uncover who killed Demir’s mother, and is forced to dive into the intrigues and shifting allegiances amongst the Ossan families, uncovering a deep conspiracy.  Demir serves as a bit of a joining figure; while he also has his own unique adventures, especially around Ossan politics, a lot of his arc involves interactions with the other three point of view characters.  Not only does this ensure that we get another viewpoint on the other character’s actions, as he gets involved in the godglass, espionage and the war elements that they are solely focussed on, but he helps to bring the other protagonist’s disparate storylines together into one solid and compelling narrative.

All four character-driven storylines are pretty exceptional in their own right, and this was one of those rare multi-perspective novels where you honestly can’t choose which character arc is the most intriguing or enjoyable.  I was particularly impressed with how McClellan brought these storylines together into one outstanding novel, and it makes for quite the epic read, especially as the author ensures you get the right blend of intrigue, action, magic and mystery throughout.  Despite its longer length, In the Shadow of Lightning has a pretty fast pace to it, and the readers are constantly treated to fantastic scenes that really keep your interest, either by being directly exciting, or featuring excellent examples of character development or world building.  I also really have to highlight the outstanding and amazing action sequences featured throughout this book.  McClellan has an impressive way of making these fight scenes really come to life in your mind, and it so easy to see all the epic events unfold.  These action scenes are particularly impactful when combined with the new magical features that the author has come up with, and I had so much fun seeing them unfold.  This really was an exceptional and highly entertaining read, and I loved how this entire amazing story was presented to the reader.

One of the things that most impressed me about In the Shadow of Lightning was the way in which McClellan envisioned and introduced the reader to an entirely new fantasy realm, equipped with its own distinctive magical system, all of which was substantially different from the elements featured in his previous Powder Mage novels.  While there are some similarities, namely that the Glass Immortals series also features magic, firearms, and a similar level of technology, there are quite a few differences which really make this new series stand out.  Most of the book is set in the Ossan Empire and its capital city of Ossa, which proves to be an excellent background location for the complex story.  Ossa, as well as some of the other nations mentioned reminded me of an Italian city-state, and I felt that it was an interesting change of pace to the French/English influences of Powder Mage universe.  The city is ruled by rival merchant guild families who are constantly battling for dominance, while the influence of the cities extends out to various provinces in the extended empire.  There is an intricate society set up around Ossa, and I loved the compelling interplay of industries, politics and intrigue that resulted.  McClellan examines various aspects of Ossan society, including sports, leisure, the military, and the various social levels, all of which were pretty intriguing to discover, and which painted Ossa and its people in a compelling light.  I particularly enjoyed their innate love for intrigue, contracts and business above everything else, and the fact that their national sport involves two magically enhanced people beating each other with cudgels tells you a lot about them.  Throw in some compelling snapshots of other relevant nations, as well as some sneaky hints at other mysterious beings, and the reader is given a really impressive and detailed introduction to this new world in this first book in the series, which McClellan did an outstanding job setting up.

However, the most distinctive part of this new universe is the cool magical system that forms the basis for much of the plot.  Just like with the Powder Mage novels, there are actually several different variations of magic and magic users in this series, which are connected to various forms of glass.  The first of these is the magical godglass, empowered glass items that give its users various abilities, such as strength, intelligence and enhanced senses, or which can be used to control a person.  Godglass is the most common form of magic in this series, which anyone can use, and indeed the entirety of human society in this world is based around the use of these items.  Pretty much every action a character does in this book is helped out in some way with godglass, resulting in some excellent sequences, especially during fights, and McClellan spends a lot of time exploring how it fits into his new world.  This includes multiple scenes set inside glassworks, where the godglass is forged, and you get an idea of how it is made and the significance it holds to the people of this world, including the fact that many of the characters have piercings that allow them to attach godglass to them.  Godglass actually becomes a key part of the book’s plot, once it is revealed that the supplies of magical cindersand that is used to create it is running low, resulting in an undercover war to control the remnants or finding a means of regenerating it.

The other magical elements of this new series involve the inbuilt talents of several characters, who have various degrees of sorcery in them.  The most prominent of these are the glassdancers, sorcerers who can control glass (except godglass) to an astonishing degree, and use it as a weapon.  There are multiple glassdancer characters featured throughout In the Shadow of Lightning (including the central protagonist), and you get to see multiple fights involving them, which are pretty badass.  You would never consider just how dangerous someone controlling glass could be until reading this book, and the brutal and quick ways in which they kill their opponents are pretty damn impressive.  The other major form of magical user are glazalier, who have more of a passive ability that allows them to resist the negative impacts of godglass (too much magic starts to eat away at someone) while still being able to use them.  These glazaliers are deployed as breachers, heavily armoured soldiers equipped with a ton of godglass that make them unstoppable tanks in battle, capable of killing units of men by themselves.  Acting as both a hammer and shield to their comrades, they are a lot more brutal than the subtly lethal glassdancers, and I loved the compelling contrast between the two major magical soldiers featured in this book.  McClellan does an outstanding job introducing, explaining and showcasing all these different magical elements in this first book, and I deeply enjoyed seeing the many cool ways these magical abilities and the godglass could be used, especially in the book’s many awesome action sequences.  I look forward to seeing how McClellan expands on them in the future, and I am still so impressed by how much magic the author could work into glass.

Another area where McClellan really excels as a writer is with the complex and multi-layered characters he is able to create.  This was really evident in his new novel, where several great point of view protagonists and fascinating supporting characters are perfectly introduced to the reader and become exciting focal points for the brilliant plot.

The most prominent of these is central protagonist, Demir Grappo, a brilliant strategist and politician, whose entire life is shattered in the opening prologue.  Forced back into public life after the death of his mother, Demir takes control of his family and attempts to rebuild his legacy while also finding answers.  Utilising the swindling, bluff and manipulation skills he built in the decade he was away, Demir proves to be a tough political adversary and quite an interesting figure to follow.  I loved his impressive and unique storyline, and watching him regain his political skills and self-confidence was really enjoyable, especially as he acts as a deadly glass sorcerer, businessman, politician, leader and even a general.  There are great sequences that highlight his skills, and I loved how he was able to manipulate everyone in many different ways, from being an agreeable political ally, to acting like a smarmy lord who is able to bluff his way around by sheer force of personality.  While he does come across as arrogant at times, which is partially due to the fear and respect everyone gives him due to his sorcerous abilities, McClellan ensures that the protagonist is aware of it, and works to fix his character flaws as he goes.  However, the biggest character aspect of Demir involves the trauma he carries after his actions apparently led to the massacre of an entire city.  Still haunted by the scenes from that night, Demir is forced to revisit them throughout the course of the book, especially when he meets a survivor while trying to find out who was actually responsible.  His roiling emotions around these events are his one weak spot, and the author slips in some powerful and understandable scenes where he loses control.  McClellan did a great job setting up Demir in this first book, and I have no doubt his story is going to get even more complex and painful.

McClellan ensures that all his intriguing characters have their own distinctive and compelling motivations, as well as a dark history that is explored throughout the course of In the Shadow of Lightning.  This includes Thessa Foleer, whose heartbreaking narrative and past worked perfectly in concert with Demir’s, which was appropriate as their storylines were the most closely linked.  Thessa’s story is one of constant loss, especially as everyone who seems to get close to her dies or suffers in some way, and the character goes through some major grief and trauma as a result.  The author does a good job balancing the focus on her past and her feelings of loss, with the scenes depicting her work as a siliceer, and I liked how you get some of the best insights about this book’s primary fantasy elements throughout her chapters.  McClellan sets up Thessa as quite a major character in this novel, and it will interesting to see how her story progresses in the future.

The other two point-of-view characters are Idrian Sepulki and Kizzie Vorcien, who add a lot more excitement and fun to the story.  Idrian’s scenes are some of the most action-packed, and it is very cool to see him in battle, especially as he tends to plough through entire units of men like a human tank.  However, Idrian is one of the most caring and likeable figures in the entire novel.  Primarily concerned for the lives of his comrades, Idrian goes into the battle to protect them, and the close friendships he builds with his men help define him.  However, Idrian is also battling some inner demons, and it is clear that McClellan has some tragedy planned for him in the future.  This is a little heartbreaking, as you really cannot help but enjoy Idrian’s straightforward nature and natural integrity, and anything bad that happens to him is going to strike the reader twice as hard as a result.  Kizzie, on the other hand, is a scrappy enforcer, forced to survive the intense politics of the city’s guild families.  The bastard daughter of the Vorcien family head, Kizzie desperately seeks legitimisation and acceptance from her father, if only to protect her from vicious brother.  Dragged into Demir’s hunt for his mother’s killers, Kizzie dives into the world of political intrigue and family espionage, only to find herself conflicted by the answers she seeks.  Forced to choose between friends and family, as well as between her desires and what his right, Kizzie has some great moments in this book, and her inner conflicts add a great amount of drama to the plot.

These central protagonists are well rounded out by an impressive and enjoyable series of supporting characters, each of whom add to the plot in their own unique way.  McClellan does a great job introducing all the key supporting characters featured in the plot, and there are some amazing and distinctive characters featured here, from long-time friends of the characters, to bitter enemies with their own agendas.  My favourite supporting character would probably be Baby Montego, Demir’s adopted brother who returns to help Demir with his exploits and find out who killed their mother.  A massive brute of a man and a former cudgeling world champion, Baby is considered to be the deadliest man on the planet, even though he doesn’t have any magical abilities and can’t use godglass.  He more than lives up to this reputation throughout the book, and he has some of the most exciting and action-packed sequences in the entire novel as he casually deals out violence.  At the same time, he is also a cunning thinker, and his dry humour and complete self-confidence really make him standout.  It was fantastic to see amazing characters like Baby interact with the point-of-view characters, and you get some impressive moments as a result.  Honestly, every character featured in this book was amazing in their own way, and I cannot emphasise enough how well McClellan wrote them.

As I tend to do with most massive fantasy novels, I chose to check out In the Shadow of Lightning in its audiobook format, which proved to be pretty damn awesome.  Coming in with a runtime of just under 25 hours, this is a lengthy audiobook to listen to (it comes in at number 15 on my latest longest audiobooks I have listened to list), and it took me a decent amount of time to get through it.  However, I felt that was time well spent, as I was relentlessly entertained every single second I spent listening to In the Shadow of Lightning, and there were times I wished it was even longer.  This epic novel really came to life in the audiobook format, and I loved how impressive and cool some of the big action sequences and confrontations felt when being listened to.  While I did initially struggle to keep track of the side characters in this format (having the ability to easily go back and figure out who people were would have been helpful), I was soon able to figure out who everyone was, while also absorbing a heck of a lot more detail about the new universe and its unique elements.

I was also deeply impressed with the outstanding narration In the Shadow of Lightning featured, thanks to the work of Damian Lynch.  Lynch is a veteran audiobook narrator with several epic fantasy series under his belt and he swiftly made me a big fan with his great voice work here.  He really dove into the various characters featured in the book, and you got a great sense of their personalities, emotions and actions as he narrated them.  I had fun with several of the voices he provided in this book, and I thought that protagonists like Demir, Idrian and Baby Montego, were really good, especially as you get notes of weariness in the old veteran Idrian, and the barely contained violence that resonates off Baby every time he talks.  I particularly liked the cool European accents that Lynch gave to the various characters, which helped to reinforce the Italian city-state nature of the main location, and people from other nations or cities had subtly different accents, which I thought was a very nice touch.  All this, and more, makes for an outstanding audiobook and this is easily the best way to enjoy In the Shadow of Lightning.  I had a wonderful time with this exceptional audiobook and I will definitely be grabbing the next book in this format when it comes out.

As you can no doubt see from this lengthy review, I deeply enjoyed In the Shadow of Lightning, which was such an epic book.  Brian McClellan did a remarkable job with this new novel, and he really proved his ability to set up another distinctive and exceptional fantasy series.  Loaded with so many amazing story elements, a cool new fantasy world with unique magical elements, and some impressive and complex characters, In the Shadow of Lightning was so very addictive, and I really could not stop listening to it.  A highly recommended read, especially in its audiobook format, In the Shadow of Lightning was one of the best books of 2022 and is a must read for all fantasy fans, especially those who have enjoyed McClellan’s work in the past, and I am exceedingly excited to see how The Glass Immortals series progresses from here.

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Throwback Thursday – Warhammer 40,000: Storm of Iron by Graham McNeill

Storm of Iron Cover 2

Publisher: Black Library (Audiobook – July 2002)

Series: Warhammer 40,000

Length: 11 hours and 3 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 latest Throwback Thursday, I dive into some old-school Warhammer 40,000 fiction with the exceptional Storm of Iron by one of the most prolific Warhammer authors, Graham McNeill.

Readers of this blog will know that I have been really getting back into Warhammer fiction in the last few years, and I have had an outstanding time reading all the exciting and captivating reads the franchise’s extended universe contains.  I have been particularly impressed by the sheer number of talented authors who contribute to this extended universe, and I already have a few favourites due to how epic and complex their novels have turned out to be.  However, one of the main contributors to the current Warhammer canon I had not really explored yet is the superbly talented Graham McNeill.  McNeill has been writing Warhammer fiction for 20 years now, and he has produced multiple books for both the Warhammer 40,000 and Warhammer Fantasy sub-franchises.  Best known for The Ambassador Chronicles, Legend of Sigma, Ultramarines and Forges of Mars series, as well as his entries in the massive Horus Heresy series, McNeill has produced some outstanding sounding books throughout his career (including several books I really want to read) and had an incalculable impact on Warhammer fiction universe.  I however, have not had too much experience with his works, although I do have several of his novels sitting on my shelf.  I am hoping to read more of his stuff in the future, but I ended up starting with one of his earlier books, the standalone Warhammer 40,000 novel, Storm of Iron.

The Adeptus Mechanicus Forge World of Hydra Cordatus is a barren and desolate place, garrisoned by Imperial Guard of the 383rd Jouran Dragoons and members of Adeptus Mechanicus, who rule from one of the mightiest and seemingly impregnable fortresses in the galaxy.  No-one ever expected that the many wars that plague the universe would ever come to a planet as seemingly inhospitable as Hydra Cordatus, but hell has descended upon the planet in the form of Chaos Space Marines from the feared Iron Warriors legion.

Under the leadership of the dread Warsmith Barban Falk, the Iron Warriors have arrived on Hydra Cordatus in substantial numbers, determined to destroy all the Imperial defenders and take the planet’s main citadel.  After a blistering landing upon the surface of the planet that cuts off all hope of relief, the Iron Warriors deploy their full force of warriors, slaves, labourers and even several corrupt Titans to assault the enemy.  But they have not chosen an easy target, as the citadel of Hydra Cordatus is no ordinary fortress.  It is an ancient and mysterious stronghold, whose walls are designed to stymy any attack, and few foes would have a chance of defeating its defences.

However, the Iron Warriors have long been considered the greatest siege warfare specialists in all the universe.  Having honed their bloody craft for millennia since their betrayal of the Emperor, the corrupt Iron Warriors soon embark on an ambitious and fast campaign that soon threatens to completely destroy the Imperial forces.  Only the arrival of members of the Iron Warrior’s greatest enemies, the Space Marines of the Imperial Fists, gives any hope to the defenders.  But can even the legendary Imperial Fists stand against the ancient fury of the Iron Warriors?  And what secrets truly lay hidden in the depths of Hydra Cordatus’s citadel?

Well, this was a pretty damn awesome Warhammer book.  McNeill did a remarkable job with Storm of Iron, producing an intense and action-packed novel that might be one of the best siege novels I have ever had the pleasure of reading.  Loaded with impressive battle-sequence after impressive battle-sequence, as well as a ton of intriguing and fun characters, Storm of Iron was an outstanding read, and I had so much fun getting through it.

I will admit that one of the things that really drew me to Storm of Iron is that it showcases a massive siege in the gothic future of the Warhammer 40,000 universe.  I have always deeply enjoyed books with sieges in them, and the Warhammer universe is naturally filled with some good examples of this, although these mostly occurred in the fantasy focussed books.  As such, I was quite intrigued to see how a science fiction siege would occur, and McNeill really did not disappoint, painting a powerful and captivating picture and using the Iron Warriors and Imperial Fists, both of whom are known for their siege craft, as central figures in the narrative.

McNeill starts Storm of Iron off with a bang, showing the Iron Warrior’s initial move as they launch a lightning-fast raid and landing upon Hydra Cordatus in the opening chapters.  From there, the siege of the citadel starts in earnest as the Iron Warriors deploy their entire army towards it.  Told from multiple character perspectives of both the attackers and defenders, you swiftly get to know all the key players of the book and see their various personal and military struggles as the siege unfolds.  The author sets everything up perfectly, and you are soon engrossed in the novel-spanning siege, which McNeill explores in intricate detail, examining the various moves and countermoves that the two sides are doing.  You get some awesome scenes throughout Storm of Iron, and it really has everything you could want from a siege book, including artillery barrages, trench warfare, sapping, sallies, reinforcements, counterattacks and desperate fighting in breaches.  The entire story moves pretty quickly, and there are barely any pauses in between battle scenes.  Any delays that do occur serve an essential part of the plot, showing the various personal issues impacting the participants, introducing new characters, or exploring some of the hidden intrigue going on within the besieged citadel.

The story picks up even further around the middle, with the arrival of the Imperial Fists Space Marines who give the defenders more of a fighting chance.  As such, you are never quite certain how the book is going to unfold, and the battle really could go any way.  I liked how McNeill balanced the book between the Chaos and Imperial characters (or the attackers and defenders), and I deeply enjoyed seeing how each side conducted their war, especially as both had to deal with internal dissension and setbacks.  I think that the narrative had a great blend of cool story elements, and the combination of action, intrigue and character work fit the story very well.  Naturally, the best part of the book is the exceptional battle scenes, and thanks to author’s detailed depictions, it is extremely easy to envision all the intense fight sequences that unfold.  There are some outstanding scenes here, and there is a little bit of everything, included destructive ranged warfare, brutal close combat fights, desperate last stands and even some over-the-top battles between the massive Titans (essentially intense mecha warfare).  This entire story comes together pretty well, and I really liked the fantastic and dark notes that McNeill left it on.  While I wasn’t too shocked by one of the book’s main twists, there honestly wasn’t a moment where I wasn’t entertained by Storm of Iron’s story, and I had such a fantastic time seeing this entire epic siege unfold.  I managed to power through this book extremely quickly, and I had so much fun seeing how this protracted battle unfolded.  As such, this is a must-read for all those who love a good siege book, and I really appreciate the awesome story that McNeill featured here.

I love all the cool Warhammer 40,000 elements that McNeill was able to fit into this awesome book, and fans of the franchise will appreciate his attention to detail and fun depictions of the various factions and their iconic regiments/toys.  While the Imperial Guard, Adeptus Mechanicus and Imperial Fists are all featured here, this book is mainly about the Iron Warriors, and it was fascinating to see them in action.  These traitorous and corrupt siege specialists have a rich history of hatred, and while the author doesn’t go completely into their fall from grace, you get a good idea of why they turned and some of the terrors they have inflicted.  Indeed, all the depictions of the Chaos side are extremely powerful, and you get an impressive view of just how twisted and dangerous they and their dark gods are.  That being said, you get a much more nuanced viewpoint of the Chaos side here than most Warhammer books have, and it was utterly fascinating to see their views on the conflict.  That, combined with some of the secrets that the Adeptus Mechanicus are hiding, continues to reinforce one of the key concepts of the Warhammer 40,000 universe: that there really are no good guys here, just winners and dead people.  Thanks to author’s ability to highlight key universe and faction details, this is one of those Warhammer 40,000 books that could serve as a great introduction to Warhammer fiction, and if a massive and bloody siege doesn’t get your attention and make you interested in this franchise, nothing will.  As such, you don’t need to come into Storm of Iron with too much pre-knowledge of the Warhammer 40,000 universe to enjoy this book, although established fans will naturally get a lot more out of it.  I am personally glad that, of all of McNeill’s books, I chose to start with Storm of Iron, especially as it apparently sets up some of his future Warhammer entries.  In particular, it introduces one of the key antagonists of his Ultramarines series, which has long been on my to-read list, and I look forward to enjoying more of McNeill’s epic Warhammer books in the future.

I also deeply appreciated some of the excellent character work that was featured within Storm of Iron.  Due to how McNeill writes the story, the book features a huge range of different point-of-view characters, broken up between the Iron Warriors and the members of the 383rd Jouran Dragoons who are defending the citadel.  While the quick-paced story and multiple character perspectives cuts down on development a little, you do get to know all the key characters very quickly, and McNeill fits in some absolutely fascinating character arcs that I deeply enjoyed.  Three of the most interesting characters are the Iron Warriors captains who are leading the assault on Hydra Cordatus, Honsou, Forrix and Kroeger.  All three are pretty interesting in their own right, with Honsou the true believer ostracised by his comrades due to his heritage, Forrix the disillusioned veteran, and Kroeger the mad berserker who is slowly going insane serving the Blood God Khorne.  Their personal storylines are all amazing, but the real fun is seeing their interactions, especially as they all hate each other and are vying for their master’s favour.  McNeill spends a lot of time with these three villains, and you really get a sense of whole Iron Warrior’s legion through their disparate viewpoints.  I will say that I didn’t think any of the Imperial characters quite measured up to these Chaos characters, especially as McNeill really worked to make them as compelling as possible.  I did deeply enjoy the character of Guardsman Julius Hawke, a slacker who finds himself alone in the wilds and serves an interesting role in the battle.  I was also quite intrigued by Lieutenant Larana Ultorian, a defiant soldier who is captured by the Chaos forces and slowly driven insane by her forced service to them.  These characters, and more, all help to turn Storm of Iron into a much more complex and powerful read, and I had a great time explore all their unique stories and histories here.

I doubt anyone is going to be too surprised that I made sure to grab the recently released audiobook version, which in my opinion is one of the best ways to enjoy a cool Warhammer book.  The Storm of Iron audiobook was a pretty good example of this, as I quickly got drawn into it, especially as the awesome action sequences became even more epic when they are read out.  With a run time of just over 11 hours, this was a decent length Warhammer audiobook, although I managed to power through it in less than a week, mainly because of how much I got caught up in the story.  I was also pretty impressed by the narration from Michael Geary, who really dove into the various roles contained within Storm of Iron’s story.  Geary clearly had a lot of fun telling this dark tale, and I felt his fast-paced narration really added the intensity and excitement of the story.  I also felt that he did a great job bringing the various characters of Storm of Iron to life, and each of the main figures is given a unique voice or accent to help set them apart.  While I liked all the cool voices he did, Geary’s take on the various Chaos Space Marines was very memorable, especially as he really captures the cruelty, hatred and dark demonic influences that affect them.  An overall excellent Warhammer audiobook, I had such an exceptional time listening to this version of Storm of Iron, and this format comes highly recommended.

Overall, I am extremely happy that I chose to read this fantastic Warhammer 40,000 novel, and it was one of the more interesting older entries in the franchise I have so far read.  The extremely talented Graham McNeill did a wonderful job on Storm of Iron, and I had such an amazing time getting through its elaborate and action-packed narrative.  This book featured such an impressive depiction of a siege in the gothic far future, and readers are in for an intense and captivating time as they see this complex battle between besiegers and defenders unfold.  Clever, compelling, and filled with pulse-pounding fun, Siege of Iron was an excellent book and I look forward to reading more of McNeill’s Warhammer books in the future.

Storm of Iron Cover

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Act of Oblivion by Robert Harris

Act of Oblivion Cover

Publisher: Hutchinson Heinemann (Trade Paperback – 20 September 2022)

Series: Standalone

Length: 464 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

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That master of historical fiction, Robert Harris, returns with another deeply compelling read, this time diving into one of the most fascinating manhunts in history with Act of Oblivion.

1660, England.  It is the dawn a new age in English history.  Following the death of Oliver Cromwell, the country has allowed King Charles II to come to power.  In exchange, the King has agreed to clemency for the former Parliamentarians, allowing peace to return to England for the first time in decades.  However, the King’s clemency is not absolute, and under the terms of the Act of Oblivion, all the men involved in the execution of his father, King Charles I, including the 59 men who signed his death warrant, are to be hunted down and brutally executed.

General Edward Whalley and his son-in-law, Colonel William Goffe, are two such men.  Former Parliamentarian leaders, their signatures lie prominent on the king’s death warrant.  Knowing that their deaths are close behind, Whalley and Goffe are forced to abandon their families and flee to the colonies.  Arriving in New England, Whalley and Goffe attempt to become part of the local community, but the shadow of their treason is far-reaching, and both old soldiers will have to live with the consequences of their action.

In London, Richard Nayler has been appointed as secretary of the regicide committee of the Privy Council.  Tasked with tracking down, capturing and executing all the men wanted in relation to the King’s death, Nayler attacks his task with zeal and passion, determined to bring justice to those who wronged the kingdom.  However, Nayler saves the vast amount his hatred and determination for Whalley and Goffe, two men he bears a particular grudge against.  Soon, a large bounty is placed on the two fugitive’s heads, and Nayler himself arrives in America, determined to see the men captured.  Forced to flee across the continent, Whalley and Goffe find themselves as outcasts and fugitives wherever they go.  The chase is on in the new world, and no-one is prepared for how far this mission of vengeance will go.

Robert Harris does it again, producing a brilliant and riveting historical epic that reconstructs fantastic historical events in impressive detail.  I have long been a fan of Harris’s writing, having deeply enjoyed An Officer and a Spy and V2, and his latest book, Act of Oblivion, is one his better works.  I had an outstanding time getting through this complex novel, especially as it spent substantial time diving into a unique historical occurrence I was unfamiliar with.

I had an exceptional time with Act of Oblivion, especially as Harris presents an elaborate and massive story set across multiple years.  Leaning heavily into historical sources, Harris dives deep into the flight of Goffe and Whalley and perfectly portrays their journey to America and the hardships they encountered.  This proves to be quite an intense and frustrating tale, as these two protagonists suffer a great deal through the course of the book.  Forced to abandon their families, Goffe and Whalley are initially seen as heroes by the people of Boston and Cambridge, but the two fugitives are gradually forced to flee from these towns due to the machinations of the English and their former enemies.  Forced to flee to smaller and smaller settlements, the protagonists are chucked into some uncomfortable positions in their flight, which includes years of depredation and isolation throughout the country.  The full tale of their time in America (or at least what is known), is pretty damn remarkable, and I felt that Harris did a wonderful job bringing it to life and showing what these two might of experienced and the lengths they went through to survive.  However, it does occasionally get slow in places, mainly because the historical fugitives were often unable to move for fear of being captured.

Harris covers these slower periods well by mixing in a second major storyline that runs parallel to the depictions of Whalley and Goffe.  This second storyline is primarily set in England and Europe and showcases the events occurring while the fugitives are in hiding.  Mainly shown from the perspective of the fictional character hunting them, Richard Nayler, as well as several scenes that show the fugitives’ family, this second storyline adds some real colour and danger to the events, especially as you get to witness the hunt from the other end.  The blend of fictional and historically accurate storylines works extremely well, and Harris creates a deeply fascinating and compelling overall narrative that really draws you in.  Seeing the simultaneous actions of both hunter and fugitives is a lot of fun, and I loved Nayler’s reactions to the constant escapes of Whalley and Goffe.  Harris also spends time showing the hunt for the other regicides, which Nayler embarks on with greater success.  Not only does this add in some additional fun action and historical context, but it also ups the stakes of the main storyline, as you are forced to witness the gruesome fate that awaits Whalley and Goffe if caught.  All this adds up to quite a remarkable tale, and I was deeply impressed with how exciting and captivating Harris was able to make these historical events appear.

One thing that is extremely clear about Act of Oblivion is the sheer amount of historical research that Harris put into crafting this book.  There is so much exceptional and compelling detail put into Act of Oblivion, as Harris goes out of his way to make this book as historically accurate as possible.  Naturally a substantial amount of this research goes into showing the known events of the two fugitives, as Harris meticulously recounts where they went and the various places they were forced to hide.  While the author does add in a few literary embellishments, this appears to be a very accurate and intriguing depiction of the fugitives’ flight in America, and I had such an amazing time seeing what they went through.  Harris makes sure to try and tells as much of their tale as possible, and the book goes all the way up until 1679, when the records end.  At the same time, Harris spends a large amount of time exploring the history of the rest of the world.  The novel is chock full of intriguing depictions of various key parts of British and American history at the time, which I found to be extremely fascinating, especially as you get to see how England changed after the return of the

King.  Harris also makes sure to examine how major historical events around the world might have impacted the lives of the two fugitives, and I felt that he worked all these fascinating events into the main story extremely well.  All the historical aspects of the book are showcased to the reader in a fantastic and very readable way, and even non-history fans will be able to dive into this story extremely easily.  This is mostly because the historical events themselves are pretty damn remarkable (honestly historical reality stranger than fiction in some places), but I really appreciated how well Harris was able to explore them and showcase them to the reader.

Another historical aspect of this book I deeply enjoyed was the author’s extremely detailed and moving depictions of the American countryside and its settlements in the 17th century.  Quite a lot of the book is spent out in the American wilds, as the two protagonists are constantly fleeing from their pursuers and avoiding people, and Harris makes sure to patiently and lovingly depict the various locations they find themselves in.  You really get a sense of the beauty and danger of the land during this period, and I loved seeing the various English characters react to the wide open spaces after spending time in cities like London.  Harris also takes the time to describe several of the historical settlements that the characters journeyed to and through, and you get a real sense of how built up or settled they were.  I found it fascinating to see all the descriptions about the various settlements, especially as many are quite significant cities in modern times, and it was really cool to see how they originated.  The descriptions of towns like Boston and Cambridge were pretty intriguing, especially as I didn’t realise just how built-up they were during this period (sentiments that some of the character’s shared), and I loved also seeing the Dutch settlement of New Amsterdam, especially as Harris also explored the events that saw it renamed as something far more iconic.  Throw in the deeply fascinating depictions of the people inhabiting these settlements, including the distinctive religious differences (so many puritans) and political sentiments.  Religion in particular becomes quite a key part of this book, and watching the various Puritan figures discuss their beliefs and their thoughts on the actions of the main characters, is particularly intriguing, as you get to see how these religious fugitives shaped early America.  Overall, this is a very impressive and clearly heavily researched look at 17th century America, which all historical fiction fans will deeply appreciate.

I also really enjoyed the central figures of Act of Oblivion and I found their storylines to be very compelling.  As I mentioned above, I really didn’t know that much about Edward Whalley and William Goffe before reading this book, but that swiftly changed.  Harris did a remarkable job showcasing the lives of these two historical figures and you really get to know everything about them.  While I am sure that Harris made a few character changes to fit the narrative, I felt that the overall presentation of them was pretty realistic.  Harris really highlights their personalities, religious convictions, and deep pride in the actions they took under Cromwell throughout the book as they spend time remembering their pasts.  All the key moments are their lives are captured in some way throughout the book, either in the plot or in their memories, and you soon see what events led them to become fugitives.  While the depictions of some their actions during the war and Cromwell’s control of England does make them a tad unsympathetic, I grew attached to them, especially as you see them suffer in isolation over a period of years.  Harris did a remarkable job showcasing how he believed these people would have felt spending years and years trapped in attics and basements, and you can just feel the mental and physical impacts it had on them.  This was frankly a brilliant portrayal, and I had an excellent time getting to know these unique historical figures.

Aside from Whalley and Goffe, the other major character I need to mention is Richard Nayler, the man charged with hunting the fugitives down.  Nayler is a purely fictional character, although Harris indicates upfront that someone likely had this job in the 17th century.  I quite enjoyed the portrayal of Nayler in this book, especially as he serves as a grim and determined counterpart to the protagonists.  A Royalist who witnessed the execution of King Charles I, Nayler goes about his duties with a resolute duty, determined to make all the regicides pay.  However, his main obsession lies with Whalley and Goffe, who holds responsible for the death of his wife and child.  Despite this tragic past, it is a times hard to feel sorry for the super serious Nayler, especially as he has little compassion for others, even the innocent.  However, he is quite a captivating figure, especially as his growing obsession with finding the fugitives becomes more and more apparent.  While his fellow returned Royalists initially share his determination, it soon becomes evident that he is true fanatic, while the others are purely in it for political reasons.  Harris really shows the downside of obsession through this character, especially as Nayler sacrifices a lot to try and find the fugitives.  I felt he had an impressive storyline throughout Act of Oblivion, and this great fictional character played off the real historical figures extremely well.

Robert Harris’ latest novel, Act of Oblivion, once again highlights the author’s outstanding skill as he recounts a particularly fascinating occurrence from history.  I loved the amazing story contained in Act of Oblivion, especially as the author did such a great job incorporating historical events into an intense and captivating plot.  Deeply intriguing and very entertaining, Act of Oblivion is a highly recommended read, and I can’t wait to see what elaborate historical tale Harris comes up with next.

Act of Oblivion Cover 2

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