Throwback Thursday – Beastslayer by William King

Beastslayer Cover

Publisher: Black Library (Paperback – February 2001)

Series: Gotrek and Felix – Book 5

Length: 275 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Welcome back to my Throwback Thursday series, where I republish old reviews, review books I have read before or review older books I have only just had a chance to read.  For my latest Throwback Thursday I continue to examine the awesome and exciting Gotrek and Felix series from the Warhammer Fantasy range with the fifth book, Beastslayer by William King.

Readers of my blog will have no doubt noticed my increased consumption of Warhammer novels in the last year as I have really started to get hooked on this cool franchise again.  One of my absolute favourite series has been the epic Gotrek and Felix books, the earlier entries of which are written by talented William King.  This excellent series is set in the Warhammer Fantasy world and follows two compelling protagonists, doomed dwarf Slayer Gotrek Gurnisson and his human companion Felix Jaeger, as they face the monsters, daemons and evil forces of the world in an attempt to find Gotrek a mighty death.  I have had a lot of fun with this series in 2021 and ended up reading the first four Gotrek and Felix books, Trollslayer, Skavenslayer, Daemonslayer and Dragonslayer.  This fifth book was another great entry in the franchise and pits this legendary team against an entire army of evil.

After their harrowing journey to the Chaos Wastes and their epic quest to slay a monstrous dragon, Slayer Gotrek Gurnisson and his chronicler Felix Jaeger continue their adventures throughout the Old Realm.  Once again determined to journey to the most dangerous place possible, Gotrek and Felix find themselves within the Kislev city of Prague, the great fortress city that serves as a bulwark between the Chaos Wastes and the civilised realms of man.  However, this mighty city is in mortal danger as a massive horde of Chaos descends upon it, led by the fearsome Arek Daemonclaw.

Arek, a ferocious and cunning war leader and sorcerer is determined to destroy Prague and lead his forces throughout Kislev and down into the Empire.  To carry out his goals, Arek has amassed one of the greatest armies of Chaos ever seen, filled with Northern marauders, elite warriors blessed by the dark gods of Chaos, beastmen, mutants, monsters, daemons and two sorcerers of unimaginable power.  Their victory over the people of Kislev seems certain, but Gotrek and Felix are used to fighting such impossible odds.

Accompanied by several powerful friends and allies, Gotrek and Felix are resolute in their determination to save Prague and kill as many followers of Chaos as possible.  However, their opponents are well aware of the threat these two companions represent and are doing everything in their power to destroy them.  Forced to confront both the massive army outside the walls and treacherous cultists from within who are led by a powerful member of the Prague court, can even Gotrek and Felix survive this latest attack from hell?

This was another thrilling and fun entry in the Gotrek and Felix series that I had a fantastic time reading.  Beastslayer has another great, action-packed story, and it was awesome to see the series’ two protagonists embark on another epic adventure.  This fifth novel takes place shortly after the events of Dragonslayer and sees the heroes arriving in the city of Prague just before the invading Chaos army arrives.  The story quickly devolves into a bloody siege novel, with the entire city under threat from the massive army outside.  I have a lot of love for siege stories, and this proved to a pretty good one, especially as some of the battles get quite brutal and over-the-top.  While the focus is naturally on the siege itself, King also mixes things up by installing a cool arc about a traitor within the city who is given the task of eliminating Gotrek and Felix.  This amps up the stakes for the heroes and ensures that they are facing threats from all sides.  While I did think that the identity of the mysterious traitor was a bit obvious (I had them pegged before I even knew there was a traitor), this intriguing arc worked out really well and I had a lot of fun with it.  The real highlight however is the final battle between the protagonists and the invading army.  King produces a truly amazing final battle sequence that sees Gotrek, Felix and their friends in one massive extended battle that really stretches them to their limit.  Although the eventual arrival of various allies seemed a tad predictable, it still ended up being an intense final third of the novel and I could not put the book down the entire time the battle was raging.  Throw in some interesting character development and an entertaining, if slightly disconnected, storyline around recurring antagonist Grey Seer Thanquol, and you have a great Gotrek and Felix novel that is really worth checking out.

I really liked the way that King wrote Beastslayer and I honestly think that it was one of the more consistent and compelling entries in the series so far.  King has moved away from having novels with partially separated storylines (such as the first parts of Daemonslayer and Dragonslayer), and instead presented a strong and very self-contained narrative.  Like most of the entries in this series, readers can easily dive into Beastslayer without having any prior knowledge of the series.  King makes sure to revisit and examine most of the key storylines and character moments from the previous novels, ensuring that new readers can easily follow what is happening here without too many problems.  From a series standpoint this is a key entry, wrapping up storylines from the previous novel in a fun and exciting way.  I loved seeing where some of the long-term story elements went, and by concluding a few of them, King sets up the next novel as a bit of a clean slate for new things.  This ended up being a pretty solid action-adventure novel, and I loved all the brilliant fight sequences that King loaded into the story.  These various action sequences are pretty gritty and brutal, and you get a real sense of the destruction and death being dealt around.  I had an outstanding time reading this novel and I think it was one of King’s stronger books.

One of the things that I liked about the Gotrek and Felix series is the slightly limited degree to which the plot relies on the overarching universe.  While this is clearly set within the Warhammer Fantasy world and features several iconic factions, locations and foes, enjoyment of this book is not dependent on known anything about them.  Any fantasy fan can easily dive into Beastslayer without being familiar with Warhammer lore and still have fun, and indeed this is a great introductory series for people interested in checking out the franchise.  There is of course a lot that will appeal to people more familiar with Warhammer and it was great to see some of the iconic locations, such as Prague and Hell Pit, especially as King does a wonderful job fleshing them out (especially Hell Pit, which is filled with some crazy Clan Moulder mutations).  There are also some great references to key parts of Warhammer history, such as the previous siege of Prague, and I enjoyed the continued focus on the lands of Kislev, which are often overlooked in Warhammer Fantasy fiction.  This ended up being a fantastic tie-in to the wider universe, especially as King went all out bringing in various monsters and Chaos foes, and I cannot wait to see where this series goes next.

At this point in the series, the central characters have been well established, and not only are the readers very familiar with the two main protagonists, Gotrek and Felix, but also with some of the main supporting characters, such as Max Schreiber, Ulrika Magdova and Snorri Nosebiter.  As such, there isn’t a great deal of character development in Beastslayer as King was mostly concerned with keeping the status quo.  As such, Gotrek and Felix are pretty much portrayed in the same entertaining way they have been throughout the entire series, with Gotrek being a grim, taciturn badass and Felix being a more sensible but dangerous ally.  There are a few interesting developments surrounding them, such as some fascinating peeks into Gotrek’s past which partially reveal the reason he became a Slayer, and Felix’s continued transformation into a hardened warrior and leader.  Max and Ulrika end up with a bit more development than Gotrek or Felix, with Max becoming more a sympathetic figure whose knowledge of magic becomes an important part of the novel.  Ulrika also goes through a few changes in this book, and it was great to see that annoying relationship with Felix mostly come to an end.  King still struggles a bit when it comes to writing female characters, especially since Ulrika is the only female character of note in the entire novel.  Several other fun recurring characters pop up throughout Beastslayer, although readers shouldn’t get too attached to some of them, especially during some of the climatic and deadly war scenes.

Aside from this great group of protagonists King has also included some interesting antagonists in this novel.  The most prominent of these is Arek Daemonclaw, the leader of the Chaos army attacking Prague and a follower of the dark god Tzeentch.  King does a lot with Arek in a very short amount of time, and he is soon built up to be a dangerous enemy and a real threat to Gotrek and Felix.  Aside from Arek there are a couple of other interesting villains, including some sorcerer twins who have their own agenda, and a mysterious cultist hidden within the city with some complex motivations.  King also makes sure to include the entertaining skaven character Grey Seer Thanquol, who has his own storyline throughout Beastslayer.  Thanquol once again serves as an excellent comic relief for most of the book, and it was entertaining to see all the fun intrigue and betrayal of the skaven.  I did think that Thanquol’s storylines were bit disconnected from the rest of the plot, especially as this is one of the last time we see Thanquol before he gets his own novel, but I still had a fantastic time following him.

Overall, William King’s fifth entry in the epic Gotrek and Felix series of Warhammer Fantasy books, Beastslayer, was a fun and exciting fantasy tie-in novel that I deeply enjoyed.  Featuring a ton of intense violence, a compelling siege-based storyline and some amazing Warhammer Fantasy elements, Beastslayer continued the cool storylines and character arcs established in the previous novels and made sure the reader was constantly entertained throughout.  I had an excellent time reading this awesome novel and I plan to grab the next few books in this series as soon as possible.

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All of Us Villains by Amanda Foody and Christine Lynn Herman

All of us Villains Cover

Publisher: Gollancz (Trade Paperback – 9 November 2021)

Series: All of Us Villains – Book One

Length: 388 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

The writing team of Amanda Foody and Christine Lynn Herman presents their first awesome joint novel, with the impressive and dark young adult fantasy book, All of Us Villains.

Foody and Herman are both established authors, having previously released cool-sounding novels and series, such as Foody’s bestselling The Shadow Game series and Herman’s The Devouring Gray novels.  While I have not had the opportunity to check out either of these authors’ previous books, I was very interested by All of Us Villains when I first heard about it a few months ago.  I loved the unique and compelling plot synopsis, and I was also intrigued by all the buzz from other reviewers.  I instantly jumped on it once I received my own copy and I was very impressed with its clever and compelling story.

In a world still powered by spells and curses, nothing is more precious than high magick, which can super-charge any spell and provide its wielder with insane amounts of power.  The only reliable source of high magick left in the world can be found in the remote city of Ilvernath, a dour and depressing settlement whose prosperity and fame can be traced to seven ancient families.  The ability to see and manipulate this high magick can only belong to one family at a time, and control ensures their prosperity for an entire generation.  However, to gain this right, each family must make an unbelievable sacrifice.

Every generation, when the Blood Moon starts to rise, a magical tournament is enacted that pits the very best of the families against each other.  However, this is no gentle tournament of magick; it is a brutal, curse-created fight to the death, with each family forced to nominate a young champion to represent them.  Only one champion can survive the tournament, and no-one ever emerges unscathed.

Twenty years after the last competition, a new Blood Moon starts to rise, and the families make ready for the latest battle for supremacy.  However, this tournament will be very different than any before.  Someone from the seven families has published a tell-all book, detailing every aspect of the tournament and informing the world of the hidden atrocities that have been committed in the name of power.  With the world now obsessed with every aspect of the tournament, all attention is now focussed on Ilvernath and the seven champions.

Thrust into the public spotlight, all seven champions must now deal with the intense infamy the tournament produces as they prepare to fight.  Forced to balance their own feelings on death and survival with the intense pressure placed upon them by their families and tradition, none are truly ready for the horrors they will be forced to endure.  However, this tournament also offers its competitors a chance to survive and end the curse that has blighted their families for centuries.  But not all the competitors are willing to give up the chance of ultimate power and are prepared to pay any price to win.  Let the games begin!

Damn, now this was a really great novel.  The brilliant new writing team of Foody and Herman produced an outstanding book in All of Us Villains, and I really got stuck into its story incredibly quickly.  The authors did a wonderful job of utilising a new version of the always popular teenage death tournament to fit into a brilliant and moving narrative.  Filled with complex characters and intense personal moments, All of Us Villains is an awesome and powerful book that I deeply enjoyed.

All of Us Villains has an excellent narrative that is a lot of fun to get into.  Focused on four of the seven participants of the latest death tournament, this is an amazing character driven story that really dives into the protagonists’ psyches as they prepare for the ultimate challenge.  The authors do an awesome job setting the scene for this fantastic story, and the readers are quickly hooked by the four complex main characters and the interesting scenario.  Roughly the first half of the book is dedicated to the setup before the tournament begins, which I think ensured the perfect balance between development and bloodshed.  You come away from the first half appreciating each of the characters and deeply caring about the outcome of the upcoming battle.  I was particularly impressed with one great early twist that surrounded one main character’s family preparations, and it added some major impact to his storyline.  Once the tournament begins, readers are in for a whirlwind of emotions and excitement as all the characters enact their strategy to win while all bearing a heavy emotional weight or magical handicap.  There are some intense and captivating sequences here and the readers are constantly on the edge of their seat, especially with some unique interactions, alliances and motivations, including one character who attempts to destroy the entire tournament from the inside.  This all leads up to a devastating and powerful conclusion, filled with death, despair, betrayal and complete emotional devastation, as all the characters make their choices and everything crumbles around them.

I really loved this cool narrative and I found myself getting really caught up in the constant heartbreak and bloodshed.  I am a massive fan of the teenage death tournament premise, and the authors do a great job of working this established story elements into their setting extremely well.  While there isn’t as much intense violence in the actual tournament as some readers would probably hope, I think that the authors’ choice to focus on the characters and their intense emotions about being forced into this fight by their families turned All of Us Villains into a better book. The authors’ use of multiple character perspectives works extremely well here, especially as it forces you to choose between your favourite characters as you try and work out who you want to survive, while also ensuring a really in-depth look at the setting and the tournament.  While I did find the final twist of this novel slightly predictable, the rest of the reveals and unpredictable actions were really cool, and I was shocked and surprised multiple times while reading.  This was also a great first entry, with the story ending on a compelling final note that will ensure that I will be coming back for the next book.  This was a deeply accessible and enjoyable read that has a lot of appeal to a vast array of varied readers, especially its intended young adult audience who will really love the complex story, clever setting and fantastic characters.

I had a lot of fun with the captivating and inventive setting and scenario that the authors have come up with for All of Us Villains.  While the world itself is a bit of a familiar alternate world with magic, the town of Ilvernath and the tournament it hosts more than makes up for it.  The authors spend a substantial amount of time establishing the setting, showcasing how the participants live, the vile history surrounding their families, as well as the tournament which plays a major role in their existence.  The people of Ilvernath, especially the seven families, are explored in detail, and it was fascinating to see the various opinions and expectations surrounding them.  This becomes even more apparent as a clever media saturation element is worked into the narrative as the tournament has been exposed to the public and has gained substantial attention, changing the entire nature of the tournament.  Excerpts from the tell-all-book that caused this attention are featured at the start of each chapter, which I deeply enjoyed.  Not only is it fascinating to see an inside perspective on the events, the families, and the tournament history, but it helps to expand the lore of this world in a fun way.  I also quite enjoyed the cool magical system of this novel, which is channelled through spell-laden rings powered.  The authors spend a lot of time exploring this magical system, especially as they show off various aspects of it, including spell/curse crafting and the subsequent casting.  You get a real sense of how this system works in a very short amount of time, and there are some unique and intense spells that get chucked into the mix, resulting in some big story moments.

The highlight of All of Us Villains is the death tournament, which gets a lot of attention and development.  The authors perfectly explain the lore, rules, and quirks of the tournament, and it is fascinating to see it unfold once the characters are thrown into it.  Cut off from the rest of the world by a magical barrier, the participants need to kill each other within a set period or else everyone left alive will die.  There are some fantastic rules and inclusions set into this tournament, including seven artefacts with their own unique benefits and seven strongholds that the champions can hold up in.  These items and strongholds have their own significance and connections to the seven families, and it was interesting to see their impact on the events of the tournament.  The authors’ clever use of excerpts from the tell-all book works extremely well to highlight elements of the tournament, and I loved all this crucial part of the book.  There are also some new elements introduced for this specific tournament, as parts of the curse start to break apart due to the unpredictable actions of the participants.  This opens new opportunities and possibilities that were quite fascinating to see.  I look forward to seeing what happens around this tournament in rest of this series, especially as more bloodshed and destruction is inevitable.

As I mentioned multiple times above, the best thing about this cool book is the fantastically complex and compelling central characters.  The focus of All of Us Villains is on the seven participants of the tournament, with a particular emphasis on the four main characters.  The authors really dive into these four characters, highlighting their personalities, emotions, and their thoughts on the tournament they are about to embark on.  Each character is very well established, and there are some extremely complex and powerful storylines and character arcs set up around them.  It is a testament to the authors’ writing that I tended to enjoy each separate perspective about equally, and there were none that I disliked more than any of the others, which is a real peril in novels with a lot of narrators.  I will say that this intense focus on only four of the main characters does detract a lot of attention and interest away from the rest of the supporting cast, especially the three other family champions, but I think it is worth it for the impressive development put into the central protagonists.

The first of these characters is Alistair Lowe, the powerful scion of the Lowe family.  The Lowes win most of the tournaments and are generally considered the villains of Ilvernath and its history due to their monstrous personalities.  Alistair has been raised his entire life to win the tournament by any means necessary and has fully accepted his role as the monster of the story, even if he isn’t as evil as everyone assumes or wants him to be.  However, an interesting and unexpected romance soon starts to change his mind and he is convinced that changing his ways and saving the others might be a good idea.  However, a particularly vicious twist towards the end of the novel completely alters the entire trajectory of his character arc and will leave you reeling in shock while it loads up the epic feels.  I felt that out of all the characters, Alistair had the most moving and complex storyline as well as the most substantial development, and he swiftly becomes the character you bond with the most.  I am deeply intrigued to see what happens to him in the next book and I have a feeling that there is both great tragedy and great evil in his future.

The next central champion is Isobel Macaslan, a bright and powerful magick user from a highly resented family.  I loved the great work that the authors put into developing her.  At first Isobel appears to be one of the most confident and enthusiastic figures in this book, especially as she is the one leaning into the publicity surrounding the tournament the most.  However, it soon becomes apparent that she was forced to be champion thanks to the machinations of her uncaring family and her former best friend, who threw her to the press.  Isobel has a lot of issues going into the tournament, with the mass attention and the unfair expectations placed upon her forcing her to take some big risks which severely disadvantage her as she enters the tournament.  Isobel ends up developing some unique connections throughout All of Us Villains, and the friendships and relationships she develops form the emotional heart of much of the narrative.  The reader sees Isobel go to some dark places in this book and it is hard to see all the heartbreak and despair she experiences.

I was also a major fan of the underdog Gavin Grieve, who has an amazingly complex and relatable story arc.  Gavin is the champion from the Grieve family, who have never won the tournament and are generally looked down upon by everyone in town.  Gavin is a sad and angry character since everyone underestimates him and his chances, while also showering him with scorn as it was apparently a Grieve who wrote the tell-all expose about the tournament.  This anger leads to him making a dangerous deal that provides him with impressive power at a great price.  This was an amazing story inclusion, especially as it turns Gavin into a bit of a beast due to finally having power and an advantage over the other families.  This leads him to do some reckless and cruel things, and it was fascinating to see the events of the tournament and its bloody legacy slowly corrupt this character before your eyes.

The final point-of-view character was Briony Thorburn, the confident wildcard.  Unlike all the other major characters, Briony wants to compete in the tournament and has spent her entire life getting ready for it, going as far as to dump her boyfriend, one of the other competitors, so she would feel less guilty about killing him.  However, events outside of her control impact her participation and she is forced to take some drastic actions.  This leads to her significantly reconsidering her position and gives her a fantastic arc about trying to save all her fellow participants and try to break the tournament once and for all.  Watching her attempt to make up for all her past mistakes while also convincing the other champions to change hundreds of years of tradition is pretty brilliant, and I found it to be a compelling arc that fleshed out the story perfectly.

In their first collaboration, the brilliant team of Amanda Foody and Christine Lynn Herman have produced one of the best young adult fantasy novels of 2021 with All of Us Villains.  This amazing novel contains an excellent story set around an intense magical teenage death tournament that takes the reader into some incredible directions.  Filled with tragedy, impressive character development, and a ton of impressive twists, All of Us Villains is an exceptional read that comes highly recommended novel.

All of us Villains Cover 2

Leviathan Falls by James S. A. Corey

Leviathan Falls Cover

Publisher: Orbit/Recorded Books (Audiobook – 30 November 2021)

Series: The Expanse – Book Nine

Length: 19 hours and 40 minutes

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

For my last review of 2021 I check out the epic and highly anticipated final book in the iconic The Expanse series by James S. A. Corey, Leviathan Falls.

For the last ten years the science fiction genre has been dominated by the impressive and captivating The Expanse series.  Written by James S. A. Corey, the joint pen name of authors Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck, The Expanse series consists of nine awesome novels that navigate the troubles and wars of future humans in both our solar system, and other systems accessed by ancient alien technology.  This has been a pretty amazing series which has moved from wars between Earth, Mars and the Belt, to intergalactic travel and battles between galactic empires and interdimensional aliens.  I have been really enjoying this series lately, and the last two novels, Persepolis Rising and Tiamat’s Wrath were extremely fun, especially as they utilised the conquering Laconian Empire, which forced the protagonists to form a rebel movement known as the underground.

The plot of Leviathan Falls starts a few months after the events of Tiamat’s Wrath, which saw the underground destroy Laconia’s shipyards and free James Holden, captain of the Rocinante, and Teresa Duarte, the daughter of the Laconian high consul.  Now the Rocinante flies throughout the various settled systems attempting to keep the underground alive and bring down the faltering Laconian Empire.  At the same time, unnatural and destructive alien forces, disturbed by the intergalactic technology used to traverse space, are reaching into our universe and attempting to exterminate all human life.

The best hope for humanity may lie in the hands of the Laconian high consul, Winston Duarte, whose alien enhancements have given him unnatural insight into the universe.  However, Winston Duarte is currently missing, having vanished from his room as he attempts to unleash his ambitious master plan.  To find him, the Laconians unleash their ultimate hunter, Colonel Aliana Tanaka, who focuses on the Rocinante, determined to use Teresa as bait.  At the same time, Dr Elvi Okoye leads a desperate scientific mission to uncover the secrets of the ancient aliens whose technology has allowed humanity to expand throughout the universe.  But her progress is dependent on the lives of the mysterious half-alien children in her care, whose ability to connect with the past could save the future.

As the situation in the universe becomes even more desperate, the crew of Rocinante are once again thrust into the midst of the battle for humanity’s survival.  Entering a desperate alliance and faced with near certain extinction, the Rocinante and their allies embark on a final battle for the future.  However, not only are they facing the malevolent forces from outside their universe, but also the radical and altered Winston Duarte, whose plan to save the species comes with an impossible price.  Can Holden and his crew stop him before it is too late, or is the final chapter in humanity’s story?

Leviathan Falls was another intense and impressive science fiction read from Corey, who brings this epic series to an end in a big way.  This ninth and final Expanse novel had a captivating and intense narrative filled with amazing and realistic science fiction elements, complex characters, and a fitting and heartbreaking conclusion that wraps everything up extremely well.  This ended up being a fantastic novel and I was glad I had a chance to see how everything finished up.

There is a great narrative for this book that takes the reader on a powerful and compelling ride as the authors seek to wrap everything up.  Leviathan Falls continues several of the storylines set up in the previous novels, especially Tiamat’s Wrath, and takes them towards their inevitable conclusion.  Told through multiple characters, including several minor figures, this is a slow-burn narrative that methodically sets up the various storylines and explores them to their full extent.  The story gets quite complex in places as the protagonists attempt to survive not only the various battles between the Laconians and the underground but also the malevolent entities attempting to take them down from another universe.  The first half of the story focuses on a cat-and-mouse battle between the protagonists on the Rocinante and the Laconian Colonel Tanaka, while there are some interesting examinations of Elvi’s attempts to understand the threat facing humanity.  These storylines lead up to a big event that sets up the intense and exciting second half of the novel and forces the previously disparate characters to come together and face the major threat.  This results in a massive, extended sequence that forces several characters to make some major decisions, and a moving conclusion that is both devastating and a fitting ending to the franchise.

The team behind The Expanse have a really unique writing style that I think fits the epic scope of their series.  Using an intense amount of description, as well as some colourful analogies, the authors paint a brilliant picture of the events occurring around them that perfectly encapsulates the insanities and complexities of the situation.  The Expanse series is known for its realistic approach to science fiction, and this continues through in Leviathan Falls as the reader gets a real sense of the awesome nature of space flight through the various characters’ eyes.  While some of the science fiction elements are obviously invented solely for the narrative, most of the human technology in this book appears to be quite realistic and well thought out.  I also love the cool take on space travel, communication and fights, with many of the events in space taking hours or days to complete due to distance and light delays.  This is particularly impressive during the battle sequences which rely more on calculations and manoeuvres than fast-paced firepower, and it really added to the intensity of multiple scenes throughout the book.

While I enjoyed the narrative and the way that the authors told the story, Leviathan Falls did drag a little in places.  I honestly think they could have streamlined this into a better novel by taking out, say, 50 to 100 pages, and I personally would have cut all the chapters told from the perspective of Kit Kamal, which have no major impact on the overall story.  I also think that the authors went a tad overboard in places trying to make some of the elements and experiences seem a little cleverer than they needed to be, such as certain long-winded interludes.  While I understand that this is their writing style and it usually works, I felt that it made parts of the book a little unwieldy and unnecessarily complex.  Being the grand finale, it was also a very inaccessible novel for new readers, especially as so much of the plot relies on knowledge of some of the preceding books, particularly Persepolis Rising and Tiamat’s Wrath.  However, the rest of Leviathan Falls story more than compensates for some of the above issues, and this still ended up being an excellent and compelling read.

Fans of this series will no doubt appreciate some of the excellent world building that took place in Leviathan Falls.  The author introduces some interesting and compelling expansions of various elements of lore and technology within this universe, especially when it comes to the two ancient alien races who the protagonists have been encountering throughout the series.  It was rather fascinating to see how certain elements were utilised throughout the plot, and they ended up enhancing the narrative extremely well.  I loved all the use of alien technology, especially as there are some great call-backs to the previous books and the weird molecules and artefacts the protagonists previously encountered.  There was also a good wrap up with the universe that I really appreciated, and it think it ends everything on a compelling and interesting note.

Leviathan Falls features an impressive cast of complex characters, and the multiple perspectives are used to great effect throughout the book to craft a massive and elaborate narrative.  I liked the cool range of characters in this book, especially as it primarily focuses on the well-established cast from the previous novels, as well as one great new antagonist.  The vast array of perspectives proves to be a lot of fun to explore, although I do question the necessity of one or two overutilised point-of-view characters.  I also appreciated some of the development that occurred around the recurring cast of the series.  This included a tangible sense of weariness that multiple characters experienced, especially the series’ long-running protagonists, which helped to reflect how they have aged and evolved over the years, especially in the face of so much adversity.  There are also a couple of interesting inclusions that I quite enjoyed, including one excellent character whose return will come as a pleasant surprise to fans of The Expanse.

There are several extremely awesome characters that I really must highlight in this book, including protagonist James Holden, the captain of the Rocinante and main character of the series.  Holden has gone through a lot throughout The Expanse novels, and it shows in Leviathan Falls.  The character is clearly dealing with some PTSD following his extended imprisonment in the prior novel, and there are some compelling and intense trauma storylines around him.  Holden has a particularly major moment in this novel, and it ended up being an interesting and moving novel for this great central character.  Aside from Holden, you also must love the work put into the surviving crew members of the Rocinante, Naomi Nagata, Amos Burton and Alex Kamal, each of whom have their own interesting storylines and serve as great point-of-view characters.  I particularly enjoyed the increased focus on Naomi now that she’s the head of the underground, and it was still fascinating to see her as a confident and capable leader.  Amos’s storyline was also rather interesting, especially after he died and was resurrected by alien technology in the previous novel.  This gives him some unique perspectives throughout the book, although there were only so many times you can hear about the “unnatural pauses” he now has.

In addition to the Rocinante crew members, several other exceptional characters also really stood out to me.  I continued to enjoy the inclusion of Elvi Okoye, the brilliant scientist who was drafted into the Laconian military force as the leading expert on alien technology.  Elvi offers most of the scientific insight into the events occurring in the novel, and it was interesting to see her experiences as she attempts to understand the ancient alien technology and discover a solution to the mysterious attacks plaguing the various human systems.  I also really appreciated Colonel Aliana Tanaka, a Laconian soldier who is sent to track down the missing Winston Duarte by hounding the Rocinante and trying to take back Teresa Duarte.  Despite being a new character, Tanaka has one of the best arcs in the entire novel, as she is forced to contend with not only the boldness of the protagonists but also her own instabilities and issues.  While she initially appears to be a mostly rage filled attack-dog, the author soon expands on her character and backstory turning her into a very complex and somewhat sympathetic figure.  This is particularly true after a major event results in an unwelcome intrusion in her mind, and her inability to cope makes her even wilder and angrier.  These brilliant characters really helped to enhance Leviathan Fall’s plot and it was an absolute pleasure to see all the great character driven story arcs come to an end.

While I did receive a physical copy of Leviathan Falls, I ended up listening to the audiobook version to fit this book into my reading schedule.  This was a pretty good audiobook, and I had a fantastic time getting through it.  Leviathan Falls has a decent run time of just under 20 hours, which did take me a while to get through, especially in some of the spots where my engagement slipped a little.  Despite the length, this was a fantastic audiobook adaptation and I appreciated the impressive narration from Jefferson Mays, who has previously lent his voice to all the previous The Expanse novels.  Mays’ voice seems to fit the massive and epic format of the series extremely well and I found myself appreciating and following some of the heavy scientific elements, battle sequences and intriguing analogies a bit better with his work.  He also provides some excellent voices to the various characters featured in the series which fit their various personalities and helped to showcase their emotions.  I had an awesome time listening to this latest audiobook and it is an impressive way to check this novel out.

After nine epic novels, The Expanse series by James S. A. Corey finally comes to end with the fantastic Leviathan Falls.  This final book does an excellent job of tying together the various story threads from the previous novels and giving this impressive series the outstanding conclusion it deserves.  Filled with complex characters, a powerful and rich science fiction setting, and an intriguing central storyline, Leviathan Falls was an awesome read.  An amazing and cool conclusive episode, Leviathan Falls is really worth checking out and I loved its compelling and exciting story.

Throwback Thursday – Warhammer: Dragonslayer by William King

Dragonslayer Cover Combined

Publisher: Black Library (Paperback – November 2020)

Series: Gotrek and Felix – Book Four

Length: 271 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kill Your Brother by Jack Heath

Kill Your Brother Cover

Publisher: Allen & Unwin Australia (Trade Paperback – 30 November 2021)

Series: Standalone

Length: 339 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

One of Australia’s most brilliant and potentially psychotic crime fiction authors, Jack Heath, returns with a powerful and captivating thriller, Kill Your Brother, which was one of the best pieces of Australian fiction I read all year.

Would you kill your brother to save your own life?

That is the question that Elise Glyk is forced to ask herself after being placed in an impossible situation.  Elise, a disgraced athlete hated by the entire country, is a woman on a mission.  Her brother, Callum, a popular local teacher, has been missing for a month, and the police have been unable and unwilling to find him.  Determined to locate Callum, Elise’s investigation eventually leads her to a dilapidated local farm, where she is shocked to discover her brother being held prisoner in a modified septic tank.  However, before she can rescue him, Elise is captured and thrown into the same hole as her brother.

Their captor is heartbroken former sheep farmer Stephanie Hartnell, who believes that Callum is responsible for her daughter’s death and has been attempting to force him to confess to his supposed crimes.  However, Stephanie doesn’t have room for two prisoners, and while she doesn’t want to hurt the innocent Elise, she needs to make sure that she won’t immediately go to the police.  To that end, she offers Elise a deal: kill your brother and you’re free to go.

Not even considering the deal, Elise attempts to find another way to gain their freedom.  Trying to find a way to escape while also working to prove Callum’s innocence to Stephanie, Elise hopes that someone will eventually be able to find them before time runs out.  However, the more Elise digs into her brother’s story, the more inconsistencies she discovers.  What is her brother really hiding, and how will either sibling react when the truth comes out?

Kill Your Brother was an awesome and impressive novel that I powered through in a couple of days due to its incredible narrative and amazing twists.  This was a great standalone book from Jack Heath, an author from my home city of Canberra, who has written some fantastic thrillers over the years.  This includes his bestselling Timothy Blake series, the third book of which, Hideout, was one of my favourite pieces of Australian fiction in 2020Kill Your Brother was originally released as an Audible original audiobook, with the paperback version I read subsequently rewritten and adapted into a novel format.  I had an outstanding time reading this book, and it was an excellent and impressive Australian thriller.

This book has an incredible story that takes the reader on a powerful thrill ride that they cannot get off if they tried.  Told using several character perspectives, Kill Your Brother quickly launches into the book’s deadly and compelling scenario, with Elise, a universally hated woman, attempting to find her brother.  Her hunt, which has been going on for months, has been largely unsuccessful, and the evidence found at her brother house’s, combined with her own reputation, means that everyone in her life constantly brushes her off.  However, Elise’s perseverance pays off when she finds Callum being held in a septic tank in Stephanie Hartnell’s backyard.  Posing as a private investigator, Elise tries to reason with Stephanie while plotting an escape, but she is soon forced into the ultimate no-win situation when given the option to kill her brother.  From there, the story devolves even further, with several escape attempts and mounting danger from their captor, and the two siblings turning against each other as their situation gets more desperate.  As the story progresses, several viewpoints on the situation and the events leading up to it are presented.  As the protagonist attempts to survive you get an interesting view of what Callum is accused of, and the eventual reveal of the full picture really influences the rest of the narrative.  This all leads up to the gripping and deadly finale in which every secret comes out and no-one is left untouched by the revelations and accompanying violence.

I really cannot exaggerate how awesome this cool narrative is.  Heath has gone out of his way to make Kill Your Brother’s story as clever and thrilling as possible, and I loved every single second that I spent reading it.  This book is filled with some brilliant twists and reveals, and Heath does a wonderful job of setting each of them up and slowly revealing them as the book progresses.  I honestly did not see half the twists coming and I loved how several small and seemingly inconsequential details eventually come back with amazing significance towards the end.  Heath also perfectly utilises a series of flashbacks that examine Elise’s past, showing why she is so disliked, while also revealing several clues about her family and the circumstances that lead to her brother’s imprisonment.  This was a really good standalone read, and potential readers are guaranteed a satisfying ending after getting stuck into the unique mystery and scenario.  I deeply enjoyed how this novel flowed, and there were no obvious issues with this being an adaption of an audiobook novella.  The impressive combination of character history, twisty writing and fast-paced storytelling ensured that I was deeply addicted within a few pages of starting.

One of the things that I must highlight is the fantastic central protagonist, Elise.  Elise is a brilliantly complex and sympathetic figure due to her complicated and tragic past, which has led to her current ostracism from her community and the hatred of the entirety of Australia.  I really enjoyed the impressive and complex backstory that surrounds this interesting and unique protagonist, especially as Heath did a great job of gradually introducing the full character history as the book progressed.  The whole angle is perfectly portrayed, including her motivations and the distinctly unfortunate events surrounding her disgrace, as well as the predicted reaction of the ordinary Australian sports fans.  This compelling and damaging backstory gives her quite an interesting insight and set of emotions regarding the events around her, as well as some intense determination to survive no matter the odds.  This helps produce a really fascinating character driven narrative, and I deeply enjoyed seeing the captivating and emotionally rich development that surrounded this brilliant protagonist.

I also deeply appreciated the way that Heath captured the feel of small-town Australia in his writing.  Most of the story is set in the fictional town of Warrigal, which draws a lot of inspiration from the small rural settlements throughout Australia, such as Braidwood, where Heath apparently wrote a good portion of this novel.  I really think that Heath did an amazing job of portraying the attitudes and mindsets of people in these sorts of locations, and you get an impressive sense of the location.  Watching the protagonist attempt to deal with the challenges of being the biggest pariah in her small town is pretty fascinating, and it was also compelling to see some of the limitations of a police investigation in this location, especially when it comes to locating a missing teacher.  The impacts of growing up in such a location also become a major part of the protagonist’s backstory, especially as the pressures of succeeding and representing her family and town drive her to make some mistakes.  I also must highlight the tiny pit that the protagonist and her brother find themselves held captive in.  Heath ensures that the reader gets the full sense of claustrophobia and the feeling of being trapped as the book progresses, especially once the characters become weaker and start turning on each other.  This intense and claustrophobic setting really helps to amp up the tension, and you will feel very uncomfortable during the scenes set down there.  Finally, I had a lot of fun with the author’s occasional visits to Canberra throughout the book, mainly because it was interesting to see the author’s take on my home city.  Overall, these settings are perfectly portrayed and the reader gets a real sense of them, especially the small-town lifestyles.  These work in the narrative extremely well, and it was a lot of fun to see the various characters’ experiences and impressions of them.

Kill Your Brother was an exceptional read from Jack Heath, who is quickly becoming one of Australia’s most impressive thriller writers.  This brilliant, dark and exceedingly clever thriller takes the reader on an incredible ride, and I loved seeing all the unique and captivating twists and turns that Heath came up with.  Focused around an amazingly complex protagonist and making full use of the rural Australian landscape, Kill Your Brother’s story is just incredible, and I am still reeling about some of the twists it contains.  This is a highly recommended read that gets a well-deserved five-star rating from me.  I am extremely excited to see what Heath writes next.

Star Wars: Thrawn Ascendancy: Lesser Evil by Timothy Zahn

Star Wars - Thrawn Ascendancy - Lesser Evil Cover

Publisher: Del Rey/Penguin Random House Audio (Audiobook – 16 November 2021)

Series: Thrawn Ascendancy – Book Three

Length: 23 hours and 13 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

The undisputed master of Star Wars extended fiction, Timothy Zahn, returns with final book in the Thrawn Ascendancy series, Lesser Evil, which brings this excellent prequel trilogy to a fantastic and dramatic end.

Out of all the awesome authors who have contributed to the Star Wars extended universe over the years, few are more talented or highly regarded than Timothy Zahn.  Zahn, who is one of the key architects of the original extended universe (now rebranded as Star Wars Legends), is probably best known for his original trilogy of Star Wars novels, which started with Heir to the EmpireHeir to the Empire served as the introduction of several major extended universe characters, such as Mara Jade; however, his most iconic creation is probably the legendary character of Grand Admiral Thrawn.

Grand Admiral Thrawn is an intriguing and complex figure considered the greatest tactician in the entire Star Wars canon.  Serving as a major figure in the Imperial Navy, Thrawn was the brilliant antagonist of Heir to the Empire and other major Star Wars Legends novels.  The subsequent popularity of Thrawn saw him eventually introduced into the Disney canon in the Star Wars: Rebels animated series, as well as a future live-action appearance.  This also resulted in Zahn being contracted to write six new Thrawn-centric novels.  The Thrawn trilogy (made up of Thrawn, Alliances and Treason), detailed Thrawn’s introduction, rise and career in Imperial Navy and filled in some of the gaps of the show.  Zahn followed this up with the Thrawn Ascendancy trilogy, which served as a prequel to the original trilogy.

The Thrawn Ascendancy series is set during the Clone Wars period and takes place in the Chaos, the unexplored area of space outside of the main galaxy of the Star Wars series, and focuses on Thrawn’s species, the Chiss.  As such, the series is primarily set in and around the Chiss Ascendancy and focuses on several threats to the Ascendancy that Thrawn attempts to overcome.  This series has so far consisted of Chaos Rising and Greater Good, both of which were extremely cool, filled with detailed battles, fun new characters, and some intense political machinations.  Now this brilliant trilogy comes to an end, with a final chapter telling the full story of Thrawn’s greatest victory and lowest moment.

For thousands of years, the legendary Chiss Ascendancy has been one of the greatest powers within the Chaos, keeping its people safe from the alien races who seek to conquer or destroy them.  Confident in its own power and determined not to interfere in the lives of its neighbours, the Chiss maintain their borders through the Expansionary Defence Fleet.  However, in recent months, the Ascendancy has found itself under attack from a dangerous and manipulative force that seeks to utterly destroy the Chiss.  After defeating a potential external invader and weathering an attempt to drag some of the Ascendancy’s powerful families into conflict, the threat to the Chiss appears to be over.  However, these were merely a precursor to a much more sophisticated and dangerous attack by a new alien race, known as the Grysk.  Led by the dangerous and manipulative Jixtus, the Grysk seek to unleash a deadly, multi-pronged assault against the Chiss to rip the ascendancy apart inside and out.

As Jixtus traverses the planets of the Ascendancy, manipulating the great Chiss families towards civil war, his powerful fleet lies just outside its borders, waiting to attack.  With the Chiss getting closer and closer to a devastating internal and external conflict, the fate of the Ascendancy lies in the hands of Senior Captain Mitth’raw’nuruodo (Thrawn), the Chiss Expansionary Defence Fleet’s most brilliant and unconventional commander.  Having defeated the previous attacks on the Ascendancy, Thrawn is the only person that fully understands the oncoming danger and he is determined to stop Jixtus and permanently end the threat he represents.  However, Thrawn has long worn out the patience of the ruling families, and he now finds himself hamstrung by politics and personal grievances.  To save his people, Thrawn will be forced to break all the rules he has sworn to uphold.  But just how far will Thrawn go to defeat his enemy, and what consequences will his actions have on himself and the future of the Chiss Ascendancy?

Lesser Evil was another brilliant and exceptional read from Zahn that did an amazing job of wrapping the complex Thrawn Ascendancy series to an end.  Containing some awesome and unique Star Wars elements, Lesser Evil fills in all the gaps between this trilogy and the sequel Thrawn trilogy, and I think it ended up being one of Zahn’s strongest recent novels.

This novel contains an amazing narrative that brings together all the elaborate and compelling storylines from the previous Thrawn Ascendancy novels and provides a satisfying and fantastic conclusion to the trilogy.  The novel starts off right after the events of Greater Good, with several characters dealing with the aftermath of the near civil war and Thrawn’s latest unofficial mission.  The story quickly introduces the book’s antagonist, the master manipulator Jixtus, as he starts his grand plan to destroy the entire Chiss Ascendancy.  This brings out an impressive amount of intrigue, infighting and dissent, which forces many of the protagonists to attempt to slow it down.  At the same time, Thrawn engages in his own mission to try and identify the enemy’s master plan, which reintroduces several key storylines and settings from the previous novels and helps tie them into the plot of this book.  Zahn also throws in a series of flashback interludes that dive into key parts of Thrawn’s past and give some context to his current mindset and plans.  This all leads up to the big conclusion in which the great adversaries, Thrawn and Jixtus, finally meet in battle.  Lesser Evil proves to be a particularly exciting and intriguing read, and I loved the brilliant combination of world building, political intrigue, character development and fantastic battle sequences.  I had a lot of fun with this story, and it was one of the strongest in the entire Thrawn Ascendancy trilogy.

I really enjoyed how Zahn told this final entry in the series.  The great use of multiple character perspectives not only allows for a richer story that examines all angles of the conflict but it also presents several impressive character driven storylines that were wonderful to follow.  In addition, Zahn once again lays onto the universe building by expanding the reader’s knowledge of the alien Chiss Ascendancy and their domain outside of the main galaxy of the Star Wars universe.  This universe building excellently comes into play as the novel progresses, especially as the antagonist’s plan relies on manipulating the politics and history of the various ruling families.  I really appreciated this cool extended look into this intriguing setting, especially as it ties into some of Zahn’s prior work.  Due to the extensive and elaborate Star Wars lore contained within Lesser Evil, this book is probably best read by experienced fans of the franchise who will appreciate all the inclusions.  It is also highly recommended that readers check out the first two novels in this trilogy first, as the storylines of Lesser Evil are very strongly tied into them.

Lesser Evil contains some intriguing connections to the wider Star Wars universe and canon that long-term fans of the franchise will deeply appreciate.  These connections mainly revolve around Thrawn’s prior appearances and fills in many gaps that were left open from the Thrawn trilogy.  This includes the full reason why the original series began with Thrawn banished from his people and left stranded on an alien planet.  It has been pretty clear since the first Thrawn Ascendancy novel that this entire trilogy has been leading up to this moment, and Zahn did not disappoint, including a moving and complex reason for the banishment that played perfectly into the character’s personality and the events of the previous novels.  Zahn also layers in a ton of intriguing connections to his Star Wars Legends novels that fans will deeply enjoy.  For example, parts of Lesser Evil are deeply connected to Zhan’s previous novel, the now non-canon Outbound Flight, which also focused on a younger Thrawn.  Parts of Outbound Flight’s story and setting have been adapted into the Thrawn Ascendancy trilogy, such as some elements of Chiss culture and some supporting characters, and it was interesting to see Zahn retrofit his previous works for the new canon.  In addition, key flashbacks within Lesser Evil take place in a version of Outbound Flight’s narrative, and while I did think this was cool, Zahn did not include a lot of context, so readers unfamiliar with his prior book may be left a little confused.  Still, this was a clever homage to the author’s prior works, and I appreciated Zahn’s fascinating references to his now defunct novels.

One of the strongest things about Lesser Evil was the great array of characters featured throughout.  There is a very strong cast in this final book, with most of the key characters having been established in the previous Thrawn Ascendancy novels or re-introduced from some of Zahn’s Star Wars Legends novels.  All the major characters featured in Lesser Evil have some amazing story arcs and Zahn spends a lot of time fleshing out their personalities, motivations, and histories, which deeply enhances this brilliant narrative.

The most prominent of these characters is Thrawn himself, who has an epic showing in Lesser Evil after being somewhat underutilised in Greater Good. Lesser Evil proves to be a defining novel for Thrawn, especially as he encounters his true enemy, the Grysk, for the first time.  The reader is also given insights into certain previously unseen relationships that Thrawn had, namely with his adopted brother, Thrass.  It also finally reveals the reasons why he was banished from the Chiss and marooned on the deserted alien planet by the start of Thrawn.  I deeply enjoyed the cool character arc surrounding Thrawn in this book, and Zahn does a great job once again highlighting his unique personality and motivations.  Despite being a little less sinister in literary form than in Star Wars Rebels, Thrawn has a harsh edge here, and the reader gets some great insights into his constant motivation of protecting the Chiss Ascendancy.  Throughout the course of the book, it becomes deeply apparent that Thrawn will risk everything to achieve his goal, and I loved how heartless Thrawn can become when dealing with his enemies.  This motivation and background go a long way to exploring Thrawn’s actions while serving the Empire, and fans of this fantastic character will deeply appreciate this compelling story arc.  Zahn also answers several intriguing questions about Thrawn’s past in this book, and it proved incredibly fascinating to see this great character expanded even further.

I must once again highlight the great way in which Zahn displays his central protagonist.  As with his previous appearances in Zahn’s novels, Thrawn is one of the few characters whose perspective is not shown; instead all his actions and interactions are viewed through the eyes of his friends, allies, and even a couple of enemies.  I have always felt that this was a very clever technique from Zahn as it helps to highlight just how mysterious and distinctly complex his protagonist is.  Readers are only given glimpses into his brilliance, and it allows for increased suspense and surprise throughout the novel as the reader often has no idea what Thrawn is thinking or how he plans to get out of a certain situation.  The use of other observers also really helps to highlight the tactical ploys Thrawn employs, especially as he usually is forced to explain his insights, strategies, and the entire scope of his plans to the less tactically gifted people he is working with.  These elaborate explanations, coupled with the observations of the relevant side character, ensures that the readers get a much more detailed picture of Thrawn’s observations and subsequent tactics.  I have often compared this to how Watson amps up the deductive ability of Sherlock Holmes by having Sherlock explain everything to him, and the result is pretty much the same here.  I deeply enjoyed this fantastic use of perspective and I love everything that Zahn did with his iconic protagonist throughout Lesser Evil, and indeed the entire Thrawn Ascendancy series.

If Thrawn was Sherlock Holmes, then I would say that antagonist Jixtus was the Professor Moriarty of the Thrawn Ascendancy series.  A member of the mysterious Grysk species, Jixtus has been a shadowy figure throughout the proceeding novels, influencing events from the shadows and sending out proxies to fight Thrawn and the Chiss.  This comes to an end in Lesser Evil as Jixtus takes a personal hand in attacking the Chiss Ascendancy.  Jixtus proves to be an excellent and brilliant counterpoint to Thrawn and it is fascinating to see the battle of minds between them, especially as both have alternate strengths.  While Thrawn is tactically brilliant, Jixtus is better at personal manipulation and politics, something Thrawn struggles with.  As such, there is a real battle of styles here in Lesser Evil and the result is pretty brilliant.  I also really appreciated how you also never see any part of the book told from Jixtus’ perspective, ensuring that he is just as mysterious and ethereal as Thrawn.  I loved how Zahn portrays Jixtus in this novel; he comes across as an incredibly dangerous and malevolent being, even though you never see his face.

The other new character I wanted to focus on in this book was Thrass (Mitth’ras’safis), Thrawn’s friend and fellow member of the Mitth family.  Thrass is an interesting character, initially introduced in the previous canon as Thrawn’s brother.  There have only been hints of him in the Thrawn Ascendancy novels, and this final book finally features in him to a degree, showing him in a series of flashback interludes set in Thrawn’s past.  Thrass is shown to be a Mitth politician who finds himself befriending and then partnering with Thrawn through a series of adventures.  The two complement each other extremely well, with Thrass serving as a bridge for the more unconventional Thrawn, while also supporting him with his political knowledge.  Thrass’s scenes proved to be a great inclusion to the novel and I felt the author did a great job re-introducing the character, even if only for flashback sequences.  I really appreciated the author’s examination about how this friendship, and later brotherhood, was vital to Thrawn’s growth and current abilities, and I particularly enjoyed the examination about how Thrass helped develop Thrawn’s flair for the dramatic.  Fans of Zahn’s Legend’s work will deeply enjoy the new appearance of this established character in Lesser Evil, and I think it was an interesting and fun choice from the author, that ended up working incredibly well.

I must also highlight how Zahn featured the other recurring characters from the Thrawn Ascendancy series.  Pretty much all the major characters from the previous two novels are featured strongly in Lesser Evil, and there are some remarkably good storylines set around them.  Thrawn’s crew aboard the Springhawk get a decent amount of focus throughout this book, particularly Samakro, Thalias and Che’ri, and each of their storylines are nicely concluded.  In addition, I loved the continued use of Ziinda, another Senior Captain, who, after barely averting a civil war in the previous book, finds herself subsequently vilified and forced into a new family.  Ziinda proves to be a vital part of the plot, and it was great to see how much she had developed since the previous novel, especially as Zahn starts her on the path to becoming as determined as Thrawn.  Zahn also makes great use of Roscu, a former member of the Expansionary Defence Fleet who had issues with Thrawn in Chaos Rising. Roscu is initially set up as a secondary antagonist, especially as her mistrust of Thrawn, his friends, and all the rival families, drives her to do some stupid things.  However, Zahn slowly turns her into a surprisingly sympathetic character as the novel progresses and you end up really rooting for her.  I also loved Qilori, a supposedly neutral Pathfinder with a grudge against Thrawn; and Thurfian, the Mitth Patriarch who views Thrawn and his actions as a threat to his family and the Chiss as a whole.  These two serve as interesting secondary antagonists to the story, and it was great to see their outraged reaction to Thrawn’s actions, as well as their own attempts to end him.  These characters, and many more, added so much to this book, and I loved seeing all their arcs conclude with the trilogy.

I cannot talk about a Zahn Star Wars novel without highlighting the amazing and exciting space battles featured within.  No one does a space battle in Star Wars fiction better than Zahn, who devotes an impressive amount of time and detail into making them as impressive, thrilling, and tactically awesome as possible.  The reader gets a detailed mental impression of the space engagements that occur, and you can practically feel every shot, roll, or manoeuvre.  Lesser Evil was a particularly good example of this, featuring several great battle scenes, including one massive and action-packed confrontation towards the end.  Each sequence was beautifully rendered and perfectly portrayed, with the reader getting the full sense of everything that happened.  Throw in the distinctive technology of the Chiss, as well as the tactical abilities of Thrawn, and you have some of the most unique and brilliant battles in all of Star Wars fiction, especially as there is a great focus on larger cruisers and battleships, rather than smaller fighter craft.  I deeply enjoyed every battle sequence in this book, and fans of fights in space are in for a real treat here.

Unsurprisingly, I ended up checking out the audiobook version of Lesser Evil, rather than reading a psychical copy.  I cannot overemphasise just how amazing the Star Wars audiobooks are, thanks to their usual amazing combinations of impressive voice acting, clever sound effects and moving Star Wars music.  Lesser Evil is a great example of this, and I had a wonderful time getting through this brilliant audiobook, even with its extensive 23+ hours run time (it would rank 17th on the current version of My Longest Audiobook I Have Ever Listened To list).  I must once again highlight the cool sound effects that were utilised throughout the audiobook to great effect.  These effects, most of which have been taken from Star Wars films and animated shows, add so much depth and power to the audiobook’s scenes, building up a strong atmosphere around the words.  Sounds like blaster fire or roaring engines really help to bring the listeners into the centre of the book’s climatic scenes, while even smaller scenes get a boost thanks to having crowd noises or computer sounds lightly running in the background.  The audiobook also makes good use of the iconic Star Wars score in various parts.  While not featured as heavily as other Star Wars audiobooks, in several places the amazing orchestral music from the films is utilised to give some major scenes a dramatic punch.  This is particularly true in some of the battle sequences, and the listeners are treated to some of the more exciting or moving tunes, which makes the battles or major moments feel bigger and more important.

In addition to this great use of sound effects and epic Star Wars music, Lesser Evil’s audiobook also benefited immensely from the narration of Marc Thompson.  Thompson is an amazing narrator (one of my personal favourites), who has contributed his voice to a huge range of Star Wars novels, including all of Zahn’s previous Thrawn and Thrawn Ascendancy novels, and other audiobooks such as Scoundrels, Light of the Jedi, The Rising Storm, Dark Disciple and more.  Thompson has such a great range for Star Wars fiction, and he can produce some amazing and fitting voices for the various characters featured within.  Most of these voices are continuations of the ones used in the previous Thrawn Ascendancy novels, and I enjoyed the consistency from the previous two books.  I must also really highlight Thompson’s epic Thrawn voice, that perfectly captures the character’s essence, and which is incredibly close to Lars Mikkelsen’s voice from Star Wars: Rebels.  I also loved the voice that Thompson assigned to Jixtus, and the dark and sinister tones perfectly fit this awesome villain.  Thompson also cleverly modulated his voice for certain alien races to capture the unique characteristics Zahn assigned to them in his writing.  You really get a sense about how alien and strange these creatures are, which helped bring me into the zone.  This was another exceptional Star Wars audiobook, and this is easily the best way to enjoy this clever and impressive novel.

With the brilliant and captivating Lesser Evil, the legendary Timothy Zahn brings his awesome Thrawn Ascendancy trilogy to an end in a big way.  Loaded up with excellent universe building, an outstanding story, some excellent characters and some truly impressive space battles, Lesser Evil is probably the best entries in the entire Thrawn Ascendancy trilogy.  I loved how Zahn brought the trilogy’s various storylines together in this final novel, providing an exciting and captivating conclusion that perfectly leads into the original Thrawn trilogy.  Thanks to all of this and more, Lesser Evil gets a full five stars from me and comes extremely highly recommended, especially in its audiobook format.  I have had an incredible time reading the various Thrawn novels over the last few years and I really hope that Timothy Zahn continues to explore his iconic protagonist in the future, especially once Thrawn gets his long overdue live action debut.

Quick Review – The Dying Squad by Adam Simcox

The Dying Squad Cover

Publisher: Gollancz (Trade Paperback – 27 July 2021)

Series: The Dying Squad – Book One

Length: 360 pages

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Intriguing new author, Adam Simcox, presents his compelling debut novel, the fun and fascinating supernatural crime fiction read, The Dying Squad, which proves that just because you are dead, it doesn’t mean that you can’t get justice.

The Dying Squad was a fantastic and intriguing first novel from Simcox that contained a fascinating premise about a man forced to solve his own murder as a ghost.  I loved the sound of this book when I first heard about it, and I was very glad when I received a copy a while ago.

Synopsis:

WHO BETTER TO SOLVE A MURDER THAN A DEAD DETECTIVE?

When Detective Inspector Joe Lazarus storms a Lincolnshire farmhouse, he expects to bring down a notorious drug gang; instead, he discovers his own body and a spirit guide called Daisy-May.

She’s there to enlist him to The Dying Squad, a spectral police force who solve crimes their flesh and blood counterparts cannot.

Lazarus reluctantly accepts and returns to the Lincolnshire Badlands, where he faces dangers from both the living and the dead in his quest to discover the identity of his killer – before they kill again.

This was an awesome and intriguing read and I ended up really getting into this fantastic supernatural novel.  Set initially in the apparently crime-ridden wilds of Lincolnshire, the novel quickly establishes itself by killing off the protagonist, Joe Lazarus, and introducing him to his co-lead the bombastic and entertaining Daisy-May, a member of the ghost-run investigative unit, known as the Dying Squad, there to recruit Lazarus.  The book then jumps to the Pen (purgatory), where Lazarus is given the chance to save his soul by solving his own murder.  Returning with Daisy to the real world, Lazarus must investigate his death while facing several limitations, including the fact that the real world is affecting his memories, and he must work to uncover his own past to discover who killed him.  At the same time, dangerous events are occurring in the Pen as a mysterious being leads an uprising of the seemingly mindless souls imprisoned there, while back in the real world, a dangerous creature stalks Lazarus and Daisy-May, seeking to drag them down below.

I really enjoyed the cool story featured within The Dying Squad, and Simcox has come up with something particularly unique and compelling here.  The author does a great job of quickly introducing all the relevant story elements, and the reader is soon expertly enthralled in the book’s compelling mystery.  I loved the unique investigation that takes place throughout the novel, especially as the protagonists must deal with a range of different problems, including the sinister Xylophone Man (he’s a lot more threatening than the name implies), the deceit of living humans, fading memories, and the protagonist’s desire to interfere in events, even when they’re not supposed to.  At the same time, the protagonist’s boss back in the Pen is forced to deal with a universe-ending revolt, as desperate lost souls attempt to tear down the walls of reality.  While Daisy May and some of the other characters are dragged between these two plot threads, Lazarus continues to follow the trial towards his death by investigating several potential suspects and slowly regaining his own memories.  This eventually leads to several startling revelations, including a very clever reveal about who was behind his death and their reasons why.  This investigation eventually leads back to the wider universe story about the rebelling souls, and there are some great moments, especially when the protagonists are forced to make some hard and afterlife-altering choices.  I really enjoyed this unique blend of storylines, as well as some of the cool characters featured throughout the book, and The Dying Squad ended up being quite a fun and interesting read.

I definitely need to highlight the unique world building featured throughout The Dying Squad.  Simcox has come up with a detailed and fascinating scenario, involving supernatural ghosts going back to Earth to investigate unsolved murders.  This results in several memorable and compelling settings, including the dark and dreary Pen, a version of Purgatory, where lost and forgotten souls congregate in confusion and apathy (unless roused by a dangerous soul with ulterior motives).  At the same time, you also have the setting of Earth, which ends up being an unnatural location for departed souls, even the protagonists.  As such, the characters who venture there to investigate encounter all manner of obstacles, from rogue spirits to the very air itself, which drains dead souls of their memories unless precautions are taken.  These various elements, especially the memory loss and the typical incorporeal nature of ghosts, are worked into the investigation aspect of the story extremely well, and it added a layer of complexity and uncertainty that really enhanced the mystery.  At the same time, Simcox really went for broke exploring the wider universe and the focus on the events in the Pen soon become a major part of the plot.  While I deeply enjoyed the potential universe ending event, I cannot help thinking that maybe more of the story could have been spent on beefing up the investigation angle of the book, especially as some of the culprits and twists ended up being a little easy to spot.  That being said, it was a fascinating part of the story that ended up being explored extremely well, and it really enhanced the stakes of the plot.  It will be interesting to see what the focus of the next novel will be, but I am sure that I will enjoy it.

Overall, this ended up being quite a clever read, and I think that Simcox did a great job of combining a complex murder investigation with complex and fascinating supernatural elements.  I had a lot of fun with The Dying Squad, and it is an excellent compelling new debut to check out in 2021.

The Apollo Murders by Chris Hadfield

The Apollo Murders Cover

Publisher: Quercus/Hachette Audio (Audiobook – 12 October 2021)

Series: Standalone/Book One

Length: 15 hours and 14 minutes

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Prepare for one of the most impressive and complex debuts of 2021, with the exciting alternate history science fiction thriller, The Apollo Murders, by former astronaut Chris Hadfield.

In 1973, former test pilot turned government liaison officer Kazimieras “Kaz” Zemeckis arrives at Huston to supervise NASA’s latest voyage into space for their 18th Apollo mission.  On paper, NASA plans to send three astronauts to the moon, seemingly on a scientific expedition.  However, Kaz is also under orders to prepare the military astronauts on board for a covert operation to investigate the Russians’ recent rover mission to the moon as well as a secret spy satellite orbiting Earth that could give the Soviets an invaluable advantage in the Cold War.

As the crew prepares for their mission, tragedy strikes when a helicopter crash results in the death of one of the astronauts.  Forced to take on a new crew member at the last minute, the team launches and begins to make for their primary mission, the spy satellite.  However, the Americans are unprepared for the satellite to be manned by Russian cosmonauts determined to defend their station.  The encounter results in a terrible accident and a cosmonaut being trapped aboard the Apollo craft as it hurtles towards the moon.

As the American and Soviet governments argue over the unfortunate events, the Apollo crew attempt to undertake a moon landing with limited crew and resources.  Forced to work together with their Russian stowaway, the crew begins to descend towards the moon on an apparent joint venture.  However, back on Earth, the Soviet government is determined to turn this to their advantage by any means necessary, even if it means utilising a long-hidden intelligence asset.  Worse, it soon becomes clear that the helicopter crash that killed one of the astronauts was no accident.  Forced to contend with the knowledge that an Apollo astronaut in space might be a murderous saboteur with nothing to lose, Kaz and the flight team at Huston can only watch helplessly as events unfold and the future of space travel is changed forever.

This was a pretty impressive debut from Chris Hadfield, who really showed a lot of talent in this book.  Hadfield, a former astronaut known for his excellent rendition of ‘Space Oddity‘ filmed aboard the ISS, was able to construct a compelling and fast-paced novel with an amazing story to it.  Combining detailed science with a complex alternate history thriller, The Apollo Murders ended up being an excellent and powerful read that I deeply enjoyed.

At the heart of this novel lies a captivating and multilayered narrative surrounding a doomed mission into space.  Set in the 1970s during the golden age of spaceflight, The Apollo Murders follows a fictional 18th Apollo mission that goes very differently than intended, with fantastic espionage thriller elements combining with the science and historical fiction storyline.  Told from a huge range of different perspectives, this book initially focuses on the planning for an Apollo flight, which intends to both explore the moon and disable a Soviet spy satellite.  However, the story takes a turn when one of the astronauts is killed, and from there the story ramps up as the astronauts blast off into space while the other characters, both American and Russian, attempt to follow them while also conducting their own investigations and espionage missions.  The novel has an explosive middle, in which the American and Soviet astronauts encounter each other in space with disastrous results.  The consequences of this encounter lead into an epic second half filled with lies, deceit, sabotage and backstabbing, as two characters in space attempt to manipulate the situation to their advantage, while everyone on the ground, including Kaz, the astronauts, mission control, the Russians and a variety of other characters try to influence what is happening.  This all builds to one hell of a conclusion, with interesting consequences for several of the characters, and one surprise after another.

I really enjoyed this cool story, and I loved the fun blend of genres that Hadfield featured throughout it.  On paper, a thriller and murder mystery set around a fictional historical space flight seems a bit too complex for its own good, but Hadfield made it work, and the story is crisp and easy to follow, with none of the component parts overwhelming any of the others.  The reader is swiftly drawn into the story and it was fun to see everything unfold, especially as Hadfield ensures that you can see all the various angles and treacheries as they occur.  The author made excellent use of multiple character perspectives to tell a rich and captivating story, and it was extremely fun to see how the various characters viewed the situation and reacted to certain events.  Each of the characters featured in this novel is set up extremely well, and the reader quickly get to see their unique personalities, history and motivations surrounding the events of this book, which makes them extremely relatable and easily to follow.  While the identity of the person responsible for the murder at the start of the novel was a tad obvious, Hadfield uses this to its full advantage, helping to establish the book’s main antagonist, turning him into quite an arrogant and unlikable figure whom the reader really starts to root against.  It was really fascinating to see all the various character arcs and storylines come full circle by the end of the narrative, and The Apollo Murders ended up being a brilliant and compelling self-contained novel.

Easily one of the best things about The Apollo Murders was the incredible amount of detail about space flight and the science of space featured within.  Throughout the narrative, Hadfield spends an amazing amount of time explaining all the relevant science and technology that is relevant to the plot as the protagonists encounter it.  At the same time, the author also features a ton of relevant anecdotes or discussion about the history of spaceflight up to this point, which often serves to highlight the scientific information being provided at the same time.  All of this is worked into the plot extremely well, and the reader is soon given insight into what the characters are doing and the significance of their actions.  While all this information had the potential to be extremely overwhelming, Hadfield manages to dole it out in appropriate snippets, ensuring that there is never too much science or history in one scene, only enough for the reader to follow what happens.  This information is usually very easy to follow, and Hadfield’s writing style ensures that all the relevant facts are explained appropriately as the reader requires.  As such, the reader is never left confused at any point, and it leaves them open to enjoy some of the epic scenes.  I really must highlight some of the great spaceflight sequences featured throughout this book, including some of the epic take-off and landing scenes.  Hadfield really paints a beautiful picture here with his writing, and the reader gets a detailed understanding of every element of the flight and what the astronaut characters are experiencing or attempting to do.  These spaceflight elements are extremely well written, and I really must commend Hadfield for the work he put into making them seem as realistic and accurate as possible.

I must also highlight the great historical elements featured in this novel.  I rather expected this to be one of the weaker spots of the book, especially with so much focus on the spaceflight or the thriller parts of the book.  Instead, the reader is treated to a detailed and compelling discussion about the state of the world in the 1970s, especially surrounding the Cold War and the capabilities of both America and the Soviet Union.  A lot of this history relates to space travel, which is probably why Hadfield knows so much about it, and he uses it to great effect throughout the novel, giving the story an appropriate feel.  However, Hadfield also takes the time to examine the competing nations of America and the Soviet Union, and there are some brilliant scenes set in both, especially when it comes to the covert geopolitical battle occurring between them.  Hadfield portrays this period perfectly, and I especially liked his great use of multiple real historical characters, including politicians, NASA flight crew, espionage heads and even a few famous astronauts such as Alan Shepard, all of whom played vital roles in fleshing out the espionage elements of the plot.  While a lot of this book is based on historical events and facts, it is set around a fictional 18th Apollo mission.  This alternate history element is a fun part of the book, and I really appreciated the way in which Hadfield tried to envision how the various governments would react to such as disastrous mission to the moon.  I feel that Hadfield captured the political and social elements of this period extremely well, and I really appreciated this examination into history, especially as it combined with the thriller and space faring elements of the book extremely well to produce an outstanding and compelling narrative.

While I did receive a physical copy of The Apollo Murders, I was unable to resist the audiobook version, which proved to be really impressive.  With a run time of just over 15 hours, I was able to power through this audiobook quickly, especially once I got engrossed in the cool story.  I felt that the audiobook format was very conducive to following the various scientific elements featured throughout the novel, and I had a wonderful time imagining the elaborate space manoeuvres brought to life by the narration.  However, the main reason that I wanted to listen to this book was due to its narrator, Ray Porter.  Porter is one of the best audiobook narrators in the world today, and I am a big fan of his voice work in the thrillers of Jonathan Maberry (such as Code Zero, Deep Silence, Rage, Relentless and Ink).  Porter ended up providing an excellent narration for The Apollo Murders, with each of the various characters presented with a compelling and fitting voice that fit their personalities and nationalities.  While it was a bit weird in places to hear a voice from one of the other books I have heard him narrate, Porter was able to produce an excellent flow throughout The Apollo Murders, and the story swiftly moved across at a great pace.  This ended up being an excellent way to enjoy this novel and I would strongly recommend checking out this audiobook version of The Apollo Murders.

The Apollo Murders is a brilliant and powerful literary debut from former astronaut Chris Hadfield, who blew me away with this amazing first novel.  The Apollo Murders contains a fantastic and complex story that blends several genres into an exciting and clever read that takes the reader on a wild and thrilling adventure into space.  Featuring a deeply fascinating look at historical space flights and based around a fictional 18th Apollo mission, The Apollo Murders was one of the best debuts of 2021 and I had a fantastic time listening to it.  This is a great novel to check out and I cannot wait to see what Hadfield writes next.

Among Thieves by M. J. Kuhn

Among Thieves Cover

Publisher: Gollancz (Trade Paperback – 14 September 2021)

Series: Standalone/Book One

Length: 343 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Magic, betrayal and the ultimate fantasy heist await in Among Thieves by M. J. Kuhn, one of the most exciting and compelling debuts of 2021.

Welcome to the city of Carrowwick, where life is cheap and three powerful gangs fight for supremacy and control of its notorious underground.  Out of all the thieves, rogues and assassins found within Carrowwick, no one is more feared than Ryia Cautella.  Better known as ‘the Butcher’, thanks to her uncanny skill with her twin hatchets, Ryia is sworn to notorious gang-leader Callum Clem, and is the chief enforcer and hidden blade of his Saints gang.  But while she seems content to spend her time fighting, drinking, and womanizing, deep down Ryia harbours a dark secret and a hidden past.

Thanks to an incredibly rough childhood, Ryia is in hiding from the most dangerous person in the entire realm, the Guildmaster, the powerful magic user who serves as the de facto ruler of the continent of Thamorr.  The Guildmaster runs a continent-spanning organisation whose operatives locate, capture and bind every child with magical potential in order to sell them to the highest bidder.  Forced to flee from city to city, constantly changing her identity, Ryia has no chance at a future while the Guildmaster is after her, and there is only so long that she can avoid her fate.  However, a chance encounter soon reveals a potential way out of her desperate situation, although it will mean journeying to the most dangerous place in the world, the Guildmaster’s Island, to steal a powerful magical artefact.

Determined to gain her freedom, Ryia prepares to attempt the impossible and infiltrate the Guildmaster’s Island during the annual auction where the bound and brainwashed magic users are sold.  However, not even the mighty Butcher can break into this impenetrable fortress alone.  Reluctantly forced to work with a team, Ryia sets out with a motley crew of rogues and miscreants, including a forger, a conman, a fallen soldier, and a smuggler.  But can this disparate crew pull off their impossible job, or are they all marching towards their deaths?  Worse, who among the crew can really be trusted, as every member has their own reason for being there, and none of them would hesitate to stab the others in the back to achieve their goals.  Let the heist begin!

This was a brilliant and outstandingly entertaining debut from M. J. Kuhn, who has done a remarkable job with her first book.  Among Thieves has a fun and clever story that takes its fantastically motley group of protagonists on an intense and thrilling adventure.  I loved the great blend of enthralling characters, an interesting new fantasy setting and an outstanding narrative, and this ended up being one of the best debut novels I have read in 2021.

Among Thieves has a really awesome narrative that I had an absolute blast getting through.  Frankly, I was very keen to read this novel the moment I saw it was a fantasy heist novel, as I love it when dark magical settings combine with classic crime fiction heist storylines.  Kuhn really did not disappoint as Among Thieves’ narrative is extremely well set out and does a great job bringing together its disparate genre threads.  The world, the various characters, and the dark tone of the book are set out quickly in an entertaining and easy-to-follow manner in the first 100 pages.  The reader gets a great sense of all the key players of this book, especially as the author makes excellent use of a multiple-perspective storytelling device, with all five members of the heist crew narrating several chapters within the book.

Once the scenario and the characters are established, Kuhn quickly moves into the exciting centre of the novel, which sees the protagonists infiltrating the Guildmaster’s island to find the treasure they seek and steal it.  The characters face some major adversity here, from betrayals within and without, as well as the unfortunate attention of rivals, law enforcement and the forces of their target.  This leads to several intense and entertaining scenes as the protagonists attempt to overcome these obstacles while their own personal demons and ambitions come to the surface.  There is a major twist about two-thirds through Among Thieves that is not only fun and a little unexpected but which also sets up the final arc of the novel extremely well.  This final third of the book sees the various characters make their final plays for the prize (if they still want it), while several revelations and twists are brought to the surface.  I deeply enjoyed the way that the story turned out, especially the reveal of the book’s real winner, and Kuhn chucks in some great surprises towards the end.  The entire story is an amazing blend of intrigue, action, thievery and relatable character interactions, which helps to produce a fast-paced and captivating narrative that I had a really hard time setting down.  Kuhn also makes sure to leave a few storylines wide open, which would translate into a sequel extremely well.  I really hope that the author continues this storyline in the future as I cannot wait to see how this awesome narrative finishes up.

Easily one of the best things about this amazing novel was the great mixture of unique and entertaining characters.  As I mentioned above, Among Thieves’ story features five central protagonists, the members of the heist crew, each of whom has their perspective shown at various points of the book.  This includes:

  • Ryia, a hardnosed and incredibly powerful killer who parties hard, flirts mercilessly with every female character and kicks ass in some incredibly violent ways. While Ryia appears to be a fun and entertaining character most of the time, she has a very dark past, filled with regret, betrayal, and the shocking actions of her father.  Thanks to her tendency to use humour and crassness as a distraction to hide deeper pain, Ryia proves to be both an entertaining and tragic figure, and it was deeply compelling to see her storyline unfold.  I loved the focus on her twisted loyalties, especially as she initially plans to betray her crew for her own ends.  However, she goes through some major development as the book continues, and slowly establishes some emotional connections she has been missing throughout most of her life.  A brilliant and fun central character, you will fall in love with this axe-wielding maniac.
  • Tristan, the youngest member of the group and their resident sleight of hand expert, specialising in gambling, cheating and pickpocketing. Tristan is bit of a dandy who was forced into the Saints after incurring a substantial debt, later sticking around due to his unrequited love with Ryia.  Like Ryia, Tristan has a lot of secrets from his past and is also a bit of a fugitive.  Tristan ends up being forced into some very unfortunate positions as the book continues due to various betrayals (his and other peoples), and he ends up being quite a major figure in the story.  I deeply enjoyed some of the great twists surrounding him, and it looks like Kuhn has some intriguing plans for him in the future.
  • Nash, the smuggler, a ship captain of great skill and cunning who transports the gang to the Guildmaster’s Island and helps them pull off their heist. Nash is a fun character who has some interesting storylines surrounding her inconvenient relationship with gang leader Callum Clem.  While I quite liked her as a protagonist, she was one of the least developed characters in the novel, mainly because she is the only one who didn’t have a plan to betray the gang.  Kuhn does add some interesting details to her arc towards the end of Among Thieves, as she is forced to deal with her growing attraction to Ivan, her conflicted loyalty to the insane Callum, and her own ambitions and survival instincts.
  • Ivan, the forger who serves as another entertaining character with a compelling storyline around him. Ivan is ultra-talented master of all sorts of forgery, including documents, tattoos, disguises, and everything in between.  A natural charmer and brilliant actor, Ivan manages to win the hearts of many, including Nash and the reader.  However, he also has a secret past as a freedom fighter, and he sees this job as an opportunity to free his imprisoned brother and re-start his revolution.  I found Ivan to be a funny and charming figure, and like I did with Ryia and Tristan, I deeply appreciated the inclusion of a hidden past which motivates his potential betrayal.  Ivan ends up in an interesting place at the end of the novel, and it will be fascinating to see how his gamble will play out.
  • Evelyn, the former city guard of Carrowwick and Among Thieves’ final point-of-view character. Evelyn is a complex and intense figure, a former honourable officer who is dishonoured and disinherited partially thanks to Ryia’s actions.  After a massive bender, she is convinced to join the heist crew by Callum Clem in exchange for being allowed to capture Ryia, whose imprisonment would restore her honour and position.  Evelyn has one of the best character arcs in the entire novel, especially as she plays a fish-out-of-water character, as the former cop trapped among a group of thieves.  This allows her to serve as an excellent foil to Ryia, and the two have a very adversarial relationship, which naturally develops some romantic overtones as the book progresses.  I liked how Evelyn slowly became more devious and criminally minded as the book progresses, and she was an excellent addition to the story, bring some great humour, drama and integrity (briefly) to the narrative.

Overall, I felt that Kuhn did an amazing job establishing all these main characters, and each of them brings something unique and fun to the story.  There was a pretty good balance between each of these characters, and it was very enjoyable getting to know all five of them.  That being said, having five separate motivations/planned betrayals was a bit much on top of the heist storyline, and it muddied the main plot just a little.  Still, I think that Kuhn made it work and it wasn’t too overwhelming.  All five characters have great chemistry with each other, and their distinctive perspectives helped to highlight the various mad plans and ideas in a very entertaining light.  I had an amazing time following these five rogues, and I look forward to seeing what happens to them in any future novels Kuhn writes.  I am also very curious about the side character who was cleverly given a point-of-view chapter at the end of the book, and I am sure it will result in a brilliant and villainous performance in the next book.

In addition to the awesome story and complex characters, I also was quite taken by the intriguing new fantasy world that Kuhn came up with.  Among Thieves is set in the continent of Thamorr, which is made up of five kingdoms who all pay homage to the Guildmaster, who controls the supply and demand of the magically powered supersoldiers each nation relies on.  Kuhn does a great job of introducing and setting up this new fantasy world, and the reader is soon dragged into the great crime-riddled city of Carrowwick, with its warring gangs, and the eventual travel to the Guidmaster’s island, a grim and hopeless magical fortress.  The interplay of the rival gangs, the political upheaval of several kingdoms, and the creation of obedient magical beings are all fantastic and add some great depth and background to the story.  I also loved the cool magical system Kuhn works into the narrative really well, ensuring that the control of people with magical potential becomes a major plot point.  This amazing setting serves as the perfect backdrop to the fast-paced and clever narrative, and it was quite fascinating to see the characters explore every compelling aspect of it.  It looks like this fantasy world will be massively expanded in the future novels, and I cannot wait to what cool new elements Kuhn introduces next.

With her debut novel, Among Thieves, new author M. J. Kuhn has shown herself to be an outstanding and impressive new talent on the fantasy fiction stage.  Among Thieves has an awesome and captivating heist-centric storyline, and I loved the cool combination of intense fantasy and thrilling crime fiction elements.  This all results in a powerful and intense narrative based on five brilliant and complex characters, which proves to be exceedingly addictive and thrilling.  I had an excellent time reading Among Thieves and this was easily one of the best debut novels of 2021.

Enemy at the Gates by Kyle Mills (based on the series by Vince Flynn)

Enemy at the Gates Cover

Publisher: Simon & Schuster Audio (Audiobook – 14 September 2021)

Series: Mitch Rapp – Book 20

Length: 8 hours and 36 minutes

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Ready for another down-and-dirty spy thriller with America’s most violent secret agent, then make sure to grab a copy of the 20th book in the bestselling Mitch Rapp series, Enemy at the Gates, by the series’ current author Kyle Mills.

One of the most consistently entertaining thriller series of the last few years has been the long-running Mitch Rapp series.  The Mitch Rapp series is an iconic collection of thriller novels originally written by author Vince Flynn, and more recently by Kyle Mills, who took over the series after Flynn’s death.  Mills has been doing an outstanding job with this series, and I have had an incredible time with some of his recent books, including Red War, Lethal Agent and Total Power.  Now, 22 years after Mitch Rapp’s first appearance in Transfer of Power, the 20th book in the series, Enemy at the Gates, has been released, and it was another dark and compelling novel with an awesome story.

Following the resolution of a coordinated terrorist attack aimed at taking down America’s entire power infrastructure, the lights are finally back on across America, and the country seems ready to return to its usual problems.  A new president, Anthony Cook, has been installed in the White House, and many believe that he has the potential to turn the country around.  However, the old guard of American intelligence, CIA Director Irene Kennedy and legendary agent Mitch Rapp, believe that there are dangerous ulterior motives behind many of Cook’s actions.

In Uganda, a high-tech research facility belonging to the world’s first trillionaire, Nick Ward, is attacked by a dangerous and deranged warlord, aiming to capture and ransom the lab’s brilliant head scientist.  Ward, the richest man on the planet, claims to want to make the world a better place, and the research being undertaken by his Ugandan team is rumoured to have the potential to save billions of lives.  Determined to save his people and against the wishes of President Cook, Ward hires Rapp and his friend Scott Coleman to recover his scientist before it is too late.  However, their desperate battle in the jungle soon turns out to be the least of their problems.

As Rapp and Coleman brave the skilled militia in the jungle, a mysterious mole has managed to infiltrate the CIA’s secure computer network, stealing data on Nick Ward and his current security arrangements.  To keep Ward safe and to flush out the source of the leak, Kennedy instructs Rapp to stay close to Ward, just in case.  However, following a vicious and coordinated attack, it soon becomes clear that some very powerful people are determined to kill Ward at any cost.  With all intelligence and communications with their usual sources in the CIA potentially compromised by the mole, Rapp and his team embark on an elaborate scheme to flush the true architects of the attacks out.  But what happens when their plan puts them right in the cross of the ambitious new president who is determined to shape the chaotic world no matter the cost?

This was a high-intensity, action-packed thriller from Mills, who has produced another awesome and fun read.  Enemy at the Gates contains a great narrative that sees its aging but deadly protagonist caught between the very powerful forces of the world’s richest man and the President of the United States.  This is a very fast-paced story, with Mills quickly introducing the new characters, mainly Nick Ward and President Chisholm, as well as some of their key allies, and showcases the first stages of the president’s proxy war against Ward.  From there, Mitch Rapp and his team are drawn into the conflict on Ward’s side, thanks to CIA director Irene Kennedy, resulting in a fun dust-up in the jungle.  The story quickly moves on from there, forcing Rapp to face off against a crazed Ugandan warlord while also trying to uncover the mole in the CIA.  This is an extremely fun story, with the story moving at a very quick and entertaining pace.  Mills writes a great espionage story, and I loved the usage of tradecraft, over-the-top action and general dislike of politicians throughout the story.  The author introduces a couple of great twists, especially around the identity of the mole, and it was excellent to see Rapp and his allies forced to deal with a crooked United States President.  There is a ton of intensely violent scenes throughout this novel, and readers should be prepared for a couple of torture sequences and somewhat disturbing methods of killing (let us just say there is a strategically placed explosive).  Just like all the previous Mitch Rapp novels, Enemy at the Gates is an easy book to enjoy, even for readers unfamiliar with the series.

One of the things I have enjoyed about Mills’s Mitch Rapp novels is the unique insights that the characters have about the world and the United States, and Enemy at the Gates is no exception.  Most of the characters in this novel have been engaged in the political or espionage game for a long time, and all of them share a similar, cynical view about the state of America and its potential future.  While you would mostly expect an ultra-positive American outlook from this sort of thriller novel, Mills apparently has a pretty grim view of the future, which is reiterated multiple times throughout the book.  Making references to a lot of recent events and political schisms, the characters in this novel envision a future filled with increased factionalism, chaos, and political uncertainty, with many of these characters subsequently wondering how they will fit into such a potentially destructive future.  This grim and surprisingly honest viewpoint from Mills sets the stage for the major conflict of this novel, with the president attempting to kill the richest man on the planet, who may be the best chance of saving America.  It was certainly very fascinating to see the author’s views on the role of the uber-rich and corporations will have on the power structure in the future, and the introduction of a trillionaire philanthropist, certainly changed the scales around.  All this political introspection gives Enemy at the Gates an extremely dark and brooding feeling to it, especially as most of the characters full accept this reality and are just waiting for the other shoe to drop.  I personally found Mills’s views to be extremely fascinating and particularly realistic, and I think that he did a great job working them into the narrative and highlighting the impact these opinions could have on modern espionage and world events.

This was another interesting book for protagonist Mitch Rapp, the legendary spy feared throughout the world, especially by all rival intelligence operatives.  Rapp continues to show off his credentials as a genuine badass in this novel, and I liked the fun storylines around the spy getting older and being forced to reconsider his methods and techniques.  It was interesting to see Rapp more on the outs with the American intelligence community in this novel; with the new president in power, he is forced to use some alternative means to complete his missions.  The author also introduces a few interesting storylines in Enemy at the Gates that examine Rapp strongly considering retiring.  This allows the author to include a few emotionally rich scenes of Rapp attempting to settle into the quiet life with his family.  However, despite his best efforts, he is eventually dragged back into the game by a new employer and some old friends.  I liked these inclusions of the character’s personal life, and it was great to see him as a more conflicted figure.  Despite all that, nothing can really disguise the fact that Rapp is a raging psychopath, even for a spy thriller protagonist, whose complete disregard for human life results in some major violence and natural fear and hatred from his enemies.  While this does result in some entertaining moments, it is a bit hard to root for Rapp at times, which does slightly lessen the impact of some of the storylines.  Still, Rapp is a fun character to follow, and it will be intriguing to see what happens to him and his family in the future.

Just like I have with the last few Mitch Rapp novels, I chose to grab a copy of Enemy of the Gates in its audiobook format.  I must admit that the Mitch Rapp audiobooks, which are narrated by George Guidall, are not my absolute favourite audiobooks out there, but with a run time of just eight hours and 36 minutes, it was a quick way to enjoy Enemy at the Gates, which I managed to do in only a couple of days.  Guidall, who has narrated hundreds of audiobooks throughout his career, has his own unique voice for these novels, with a lot of gravitas and cynicism, which helps translate the story extremely well, although he does sound a bit tired as he narrates, and he really does not try to vary his voice too much to distinguish between the various characters featured in the book.  While I was never uncertain who was talking thanks to Mills’s writing, I do think that Guidall could make a little effort to make his narration a little more passionate and his voices a little more distinctive.  Still, this is a fine way to enjoy this novel, and I did have fun getting through Enemy at the Gates.  Despite some of my concerns about Guidall’s performance, I will probably enjoy the audiobook version of the next Mitch Rapp novel in 2022.

After 20 intense books, the Mitch Rapp continues to reign supreme as one of the most entertaining and captivating spy thriller series currently in print.  This latest novel, Enemy at the Gates by Kyle Mills, is a fantastic addition to the series which sets the violent, titular protagonist on another action-packed adventure, this time diving deep into the political and social spectrum of America.  I had an absolute blast listening to this awesome novel and Enemy at the Gates is a great book to check out if you are in the mood for a fun and exciting read.  An overall very fun story that does a great job of continuing this long running series, while also leaving behind a few interesting storylines for later books.