Red Winter by Marc Cameron (based on the series by Tom Clancy)

Red Winter Cover

Publisher: Sphere (Trade Paperback – 13 December 2022)

Series: Jack Ryan series

Length: 419 pages

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

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Prepare for another adventure from classic spy thriller character Jack Ryan as Marc Cameron once again visits Tom Clancy’s iconic universe for an amazing read with Red Winter.

Now, I am the first to admit that I have more than a few gaps in my reading knowledge, especially when it comes to some of the classic, long-running crime fiction or thriller series.  Perhaps one of the most significant of these are the works of Tom Clancy, whose books, particularly those featuring protagonist Jack Ryan, are very highly regarded and have resulted in many films and other adaptations.  The Jack Ryan novels have continued for years, even after Clancy’s death, with several authors contributing great new stories to the wider series.  Well, I am about to dip my toe into Clancy’s universe for the first time by checking out the new Jack Ryan novel, Red Winter.  Written by established thriller author Marc Cameron, who has already contributed several recent entries to the series, Red Winter was an intriguing and enjoyable read with some great spy thriller elements to it.

Berlin, 1985.  The crushing stalemate of the Cold War continues as the East and the West engage in their usual espionage games.  The most valuable piece on the board is an apparent Stasi source embedded deep within the CIA, providing invaluable information to the East Germany intelligence agency.  However, the espionage balance is about to tip once again, when a young American embassy worker is handed a note in mysterious circumstances, apparently from a high-ranking member of the Stasi who wishes to defect to the West with a trove of information.

Unwilling to trust the CIA team in West Berlin, the traitor requests that a new face journey to East Berlin to discuss his upcoming defection.  Forced to look outside the box of their usual operatives, the CIA decide to send Jack Ryan to make contact.  Accompanied by a talented agent and shadowed by a deadly CIA killer, Ryan begins the dangerous journey to East Berlin to determine the legitimacy of their new source.  However, there are few places more dangerous for a CIA agent like Ryan than East Berlin, and he soon finds himself surrounded by tricky foreign agents, deadly assassins and desperate informers, all of whom pose a dire risk to Ryan and his mission.

However, the plan gets even more complicated when an experimental US military aircraft crashes down in the Nevada desert, right in front of an undercover Stasi agent.  Securing a vital piece of military hardware, the Stasi agent flees across America, aiming for an extraction by his masters while the FBI, Air Force and local police hunt for him.  Desperately needing information on the Stasi agent in America before it is too late, Ryan must work hard to bring the defector to their side and find out where the fugitive is going.  But with the KGB, Stasi, and the CIA traitor moving in for the kill, can Ryan escape East Berlin with the information he needs, or will the stolen technology allow the East to once again heat up the Cold War?

Red Winter was an excellent and highly exciting spy thriller novel that takes readers back to the classic Tom Clancy setting of Cold War Europe.  Marc Cameron has produced a very entertaining and compelling read here, and I was swiftly sucked into the awesome story.  The narrative itself has a lot of moving parts to it as Cameron focuses on several closely related storylines or character arcs at the same time.  While much of the focus is on Ryan and his comrades as they attempt to infiltrate East Berlin and make contact with the defector, you also get familiar with several other great characters in the vicinity.  This included the CIA mole, an East German singer who is being abused by a Stasi agent, members of the various spy agencies working on both sides of the Wall, and a deadly American operative who is shadowing Ryan to keep him alive.  The book also shows the hunt for the fugitive Stasi agent in America, who is attempting to flee with the stolen military equipment.  This American part of the book is further split between different perspectives, with the reader seeing events from the eyes of both the Stasi operative and the FBI agent hunting them.

These diverse storylines come together extremely well, and I really liked the interplay of different characters and plot lines in the second half of the book.  There are some great storylines going on throughout the plot, with my personal favourite being the compelling fugitive scenes in America.  The sequences set in Germany are also very intriguing, especially as Cameron provides some excellent descriptions of tradecraft and the various counterplays by the spies, as both sides battle it out for espionage supremacy.  I really appreciated the dark dive into life within East Germany during this period, and the compelling looks at several East German characters who are attempting to survive added some intensity to the book.  There is also an excellent look at the traitor with the CIA and their complex position and their reasons for betraying their country are an excellent part of the plot.  While the first half of the book is pretty intense, everything kicks up a notch once Ryan and his colleagues arrive in East Germany.  There are a ton of destructive and high-impact action sequences here which really get the blood pumping and keep the story going at a very fast pace.  I deeply enjoyed the cool action sequences, especially as Cameron does a great job of writing them realistically, showcasing the talent of the professionals and Ryan’s lack of fighting ability.  There are a few good twists towards the end and Cameron keeps the conclusion hopeful, but dark, highlighting that there are very few heroes in the Cold War.  Red Winter was an amazing and very fun spy thriller, and I loved how this compelling narrative came together.

I also had a lot of fun coming into to this series as a Tom Clancy newbie.  My only experience with Tom Clancy and the Jack Ryan books comes from some of the film adaptations, such as The Hunt for Red October, Clear and Present Danger and Patriot Games.  However, I found that this was more than enough to enjoy Red Winter, and my lack of any real knowledge of Tom Clancy’s original books didn’t really hamper me at all.  While I am sure that I missed out on a bunch of clever throwbacks, Cameron did a great job of reintroducing all the key characters so that new readers can follow their storylines.  There are multiple references to some of the previous events that occurred canonically before the events of Red Winter, but none of them have any major impacts on the story, and I felt that any thriller fan could dive in here with a minimal amount of knowledge and still enjoy the fantastic story within.  Red Winter also apparently serves as a bridging novel between The Hunt for Red October and The Cardinal of the Kremlin, with Ryan meeting several of the supporting characters from The Cardinal of the Kremlin in advance here.  I felt that this was a very clever inclusion by Cameron, and fans of Clancy’s original work are going to love seeing some of the intriguing hints of the events that are to come.  This also ends up being the first canonical time that recurring character John Clark sees Jack Ryan, having travelled to Berlin to help him, although Cameron uses circumstance and training to make sure they don’t actually talk.  Personally, I thought this was a great introduction to the wider world of Clancy’s writings, and I will have to try and read some of his earlier works when I get a chance.

Overall, I had a wonderful time reading Red Winter and I really enjoyed Marc Cameron’s latest addition to Tom Clancy’s spy universe.  Cleverly adding to the well-established Jack Ryan series, Red Winter features some awesome spy action while perfectly showing off the dangers of Berlin during the Cold War for all spies and government agents.  Fast-paced, action-packed, and loaded with some classic Tom Clancy moments, Red Winter was an intriguing and captivating novel that will appeal to a wide range of readers.

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The Bullet That Missed by Richard Osman

The Bullet That Missed Cover

Publisher: Viking/Penguin Audio (Audiobook – 15 September 2022)

Series: Thursday Murder Club – Book Three

Length: 11 hours and 17 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

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Murder, comedy and the most badass team of investigators you are every likely to read about come together perfectly in the new Thursday Murder Club novel, The Bullet That Missed by Richard Osman.

Over the last three years, some of the most impressive and outright entertaining murder mystery novels have been part of the Thursday Murder Club series by British television personality Richard Osman.  Set in a luxury retirement village in the English countryside, the Thursday Murder Club books follow the adventures of four outrageous pensioners who spend their free time solving cold cases.  However, their lives get even more complicated when several murders occur around their village, and they endeavour to find out who committed them.  The series started with The Thursday Murder Club in 2020, which had an outstanding blend of mystery, great characters and humour, all of which came together in a perfect and deeply addictive read.  The Thursday Murder Club ended up being one of my favourite books, audiobooks and debuts of 2020, and I cannot rave about it enough.  Osman followed this first book up last year with The Man Who Died Twice, an excellent sequel that presents the reader with another great mystery, while also exploring the characters even further.  I had another amazing time with The Man Who Died Twice, and it also ended up being one of the best things I read all year, making my top books and audiobooks of 2021 lists.  Needless to say after the first two epic books, I have been very excited for the third Thursday Murder Club novel, and The Bullet That Missed has been one of my most anticipated reads for 2022 for a while now. 

After their last exciting adventure, Elizabeth, Joyce, Ibrahim and Ron, are continuing to solve murders in their spare time.  Their latest case sees them dive into an infamous cold case in which a young, highflying television reporter was murdered just before breaking a story on a major crime ring, with her body never recovered from the ocean.  Teaming up with the reporter’s famous presenter colleague, the Thursday Murder Club eagerly begin their investigation, hoping to shed light on her murder while having fun with their new high-profile friends.

However, it soon becomes apparent that the people behind the reporter’s death might still be active and are attempting to cover their tracks.  Their only witness in the case is found dead in her prisoner cell shortly after the club attempts to question her, and even the notorious crime lord many believe responsible for killing their original victim is afraid to talk.

Not ones to be deterred, the club continues their investigation and soon long-hidden secrets from the past come spilling out.  However, as they close on the killer, a completely different threat emerges from Elizabeth’s past.  A mysterious new nemesis wants Elizabeth to return to her assassin roots and kill an old contact from her spy days, if she does not, everyone close to her will die.  Forced to choose between her friends and her conscience, Elizabeth needs to find a way to defuse the situation before someone gets hurt.  But is this new encounter just the thing the Thursday Murder Club needs to solve their latest crime before the murderer strikes again?

Well damn, what another brilliant and impressive read.  Richard Osman went all out for his third book and I honestly think that The Bullet That Missed is some of his best work yet, possibly even eclipsing the original The Thursday Murder Club.  Bringing together an elaborate and deeply enjoyable mystery storyline with some brilliant characters, outstanding humour, and a heck of a lot of great twists, I was instantly addicted to this latest book from Osman and couldn’t wait to find out how everything ended.  An extremely captivating read, The Bullet That Missed gets a very emphatic five-star rating from me, and I had an incredible time reading it.

I loved, loved, loved the exceptional story that Osman came up with for The Bullet That Missed, especially as Osman provided a perfect blend of mystery, character growth and genuine human moments that the reader can’t help but eat up.  Starting off shortly after the events of the last book, The Bullet That Missed sees the Thursday Murder Club using their usual charm and manipulative practices to investigate another cold case, gaining insight through the victims’ old colleagues, while also dragging in their usual friends and police colleagues.  They soon find themselves in the middle of a cracking mystery and use their connections and well-earned insights to examine the various clues and persons of interests associated with the case.  At the same time, Elizabeth is quite literally dragged into a dark place by a mysterious new figure who knows about her past and who forces her to choose between killing an old colleague from her spy days or watching Joyce and the rest of her friends die.  This side plot adds quite a bit to the overall story, especially the introduction of several awesome new characters, and I really enjoyed how Osman tied it into the main mystery. 

Combined with the various scenes that show the day-to-day lives of the many characters in the book, as well as some genuinely heartbreaking moments of love and loss, this proves to be one heck of a story that I was particularly rivetted to.  I loved the unique investigation that resulted from the mystery, and the characters have so many clever and hilarious ways of getting to the truth.  Osman throws in an appropriate number of red herrings and suspects, which serves to effectively muddy the water and keep the readers in suspense as they try to work out which of the many suspicious characters might have had a hand in the killings.  I was able to pick out the main villain a fair bit in advance, although the journey to getting there and the eventual reveal was really good, and I loved every single second of it.  I also didn’t see a bunch of the final twists coming, and you really appreciate all the cleverly hidden hints and clues that Osman seeded throughout the book.  I came away from The Bullet That Missed exceedingly satisfied with how the story unfolded, and I really cannot emphasise just how amazing and awesome the plot was.

On top of this, Osman has an awesome writing style that I feel really enhances the elaborate and powerful narrative of The Bullet That Missed.  I particularly enjoyed how the author made great use of multiple character perspectives throughout the book to tell the elaborate narrative.  While the focus is generally on the four members of the Thursday Murder Club, the perspectives of all the other characters in the book are shown several times throughout the story.  Not only does this allow you to get multiple intriguing views of the main mystery and the club’s actions, including from the book’s many suspects, but it also ensures that the reader gets closer to all these characters by learning their motivations, feelings, and personal histories.  This makes for a much more compelling narrative, especially as you grow attached to the new characters quickly, while also getting to experience the powerful human developments impacting the main cast.  Osman does a great job of keep the pace pretty consistent and enjoyable throughout the entirety of The Bullet That Missed, and you are constantly exposed to intriguing mystery developments, deeper emotional moments from the characters, or a ton of entertaining humour which can’t help but make you chuckle.  This keeps up throughout the entire book, although it does pick up at several points, especially when the club are making some big moves, and it always works out well. 

While one of the best things about The Bullet That Missed is the compelling mystery, a discussion of this book really would not be complete without mentioning the fantastic humour loaded into it.  Osman is undeniably a very funny man, and he puts his excellent comedic skills to great use in this series, and particularly in The Bullet That Missed, with nearly every page containing some subtle, fun, comedic elements that I absolutely loved.  A large amount of this humour revolves around the various ways in which the older characters of the book manage to outwit and manipulate the younger people they come across, whether it be by acting senile, or forcing them to accommodate them out of politeness.  At the same time, the main characters’ very diverse and highly amusing viewpoints of the world around them, especially involving modern society or pop culture, are extremely funny, and it is entertaining to see an older perspective on this crazy modern world.  Osman fits in quite a huge number of references to British culture throughout the course of the book, and I had a lot of fun hearing all the clever references to iconic shows and products that the character’s mention throughout the book, especially as they often talk about them in a very clever way.  Throw in some fantastic coincidences, a lot of jokes about turning old, several hilarious self-referential jabs about the trouble with writing crime novels, and the perfect banter that occurs between the four main protagonists and their exasperated cohorts, and The Bullet That Missed was an exceedingly funny read that is guaranteed to keep you wildly amused with its various antics.

As always, one of the strongest parts of this latest Thursday Murder Club novel is the characters.  Osman has created an amazing group of protagonists for this series, and he continues to build on them with each book, showcasing their strengths, personalities, and inherent vulnerabilities, as the find themselves in dangerous and unique situations.  Most of the focus is again on the four members of the Thursday Murder Club who, by this third book, are really quite well established, and the reader is already very attached.  Osman keeps up the wonderful interpersonal dynamic that was such an impressive feature of the first two books, and it continued to work extremely well in The Bullet That Missed, with several great new developments added in.  Elizabeth and Joyce are once again set up as the book’s main characters, with a huge chunk of the book dedicated to them.  Elizabeth, the former spy, proves to be an excellent manipulator, and it is always fun to see her talk about her days as a trained assassin, especially when her past comes back to haunt her.  Joyce, on the other hand, is a legitimate sweetheart, and she really is the heart and soul of the book.  I love how Osman changes the perspective in all her chapters to reflect her journalling the events of the story, and she provides some of the best descriptions of the events going on in the book.  It is also very fun to see her in action as, despite appearing to be a harmless, sweet old lady, she is a tough as nails and can be just as manipulative as Elizabeth when she needs to be (the scene in which she meets the Viking was perfect). 

Ron and Ibrahim are also used to great effect in The Bullet That Missed and both have some impressive outings in this book.  I loved the many scenes featuring Ron, especially as he really stands out from the rest of the crowd by being a blue-collar rabble rouser who holds on to the old-school tough guy mentality.  A lot of Ron’s story in The Bullet That Missed revolves around the other characters breaking through his tough exterior, especially as he has a new love interest in this book who gets him to open up in several amusing ways.  I also loved the sense of vulnerability that surrounds Ron when he starts to realise that a lot of the men of his generation are starting to go and he suddenly doesn’t have as many people to connect with anymore, which gets used to great effect when he manages to get information by playing snooker with an old criminal with a similar mindset to him.  The final main character is Ibrahim, who is honestly one of the nicest, most genuine characters you are ever likely to meet in fiction.  Ibrahim gets an outstanding showing in this book, and it was really a relief to see him recovered after the terrible beating he received in The Man Who Died Twice.  I loved how he was able to use his psychology skills in this book, and he even spent time working with the woman responsible for his beating, which results in some excellent scenes.  All four of these main characters continued to impress me in this latest book and I cannot wait to see how their next adventure unfolds.

Aside from these major characters, The Bullet That Missed also contains a substantial supporting cast of entertaining characters who Osman uses to great effect throughout the course of the narrative.  These characters include a combination of some entertaining new figures, as well as many returning characters who made such an impact in the previous novels.  Many of these returning characters have been built up in a big way in the previous books, and it was great to see a lot of their character development continue, especially as they are generally better off after having met the Thursday Murder Club.  I really loved that the three main supporting characters from the first novel, DCI Chris Hudson, PC Donna De Freitas and Bogdan, each come into The Bullet That Missed with some positive storylines surrounding them, and the new romance between Donna and Bogdan was so damn nice. 

All the new characters in The Bullet That Missed were also very entertaining: an older makeup artist who takes a liking to Ron, a gigantic Scandinavian crime lord known only as the Viking, an eccentric local TV news host, and the local Chief Constable who also moonlights as a less-than-successful mystery writer.  These great characters added a lot of flavour to the narrative, and it was fascinating to see how many were worked into the plot, especially as Osman was setting several of them up for returning appearances.  I particularly loved the retired KGB officer turned criminal finance advisor, Viktor Illyich, who is an old contact of Elizabeth and who finds himself being hunted.  He was a brilliant and entertaining addition to the plot, especially with his great methods of manipulation.  You have to love that amazing scene where he applies his techniques to a young Virgin Media representative. 

However, the best recurring character has to be Elizabeth’s husband, Stephen, who has been a bit of a tragic figure throughout the series due to his dementia, which Elizabeth tries to hide from the world.  Stephen is perhaps the best character Osman has written, as the author provides a deep and extremely powerful view of the impacts dementia has on the sufferer and those closest to them.  Watching Stephen slowly lose himself while Elizabeth suffers beside him has provided some of the most heartbreaking parts of this series.  Stephen still proves himself to be a brilliant and caring figure, and Osman writes some great scenes for him in the series, especially when he plays chess with Bogdan, and it is always fun when he provides fantastic insights into Elizabeth’s cases.  He was particularly effective in this book, especially after being kidnapped, and his knowledge and surprising criminal contacts allow Elizabeth to outsmart one of their enemies in several amazing scenes.  Of course, these scenes are also loaded with sadness; with every positive step Stephen takes, he also loses a little, and every time he forgets a detail or a person it breaks your heart a little bit more.  Honestly, every character in this book is pretty damn epic, and clearly creating amazing characters is one of Osman’s biggest strengths as a writer.  I look forward to all the amazing character work that is bound to appear in the next Thursday Murder Club, and I am sure that I will fall in love with every single cast member once again.

While I did receive a physical copy of The Bullet That Missed, I chose to instead grab the audiobook version of this novel, as I had such an amazing time listening to the first two books in this format.  As it was, I ended up being surprised and slightly disappointed to discover that Lesley Manville, who narrated the first two Thursday Murder Club books, wasn’t returning for this third entry.  However, my disappointment was exceedingly short lived when I found out that she had been replaced by the amazing Fiona Shaw, who I have loved for years in things like the Harry Potter films, Killing Eve and Andor.  Unsurprisingly, Shaw did an outstanding job narrating The Bullet That Missed, and she masterfully portrayed all the characters in a very fun and entertaining way.  I loved all the great voices she used for this awesome audiobook, and each character got their own distinctive tone that allowed the reader to easily pick up who they were.  Shaw brings a huge range of different accents to the table, and while her Swedish accent was purposely a little silly, it still fit the character extremely well.  However, what really impressed me was the effort that Shaw took in matching the voices of most of the recurring characters with Lesley Manville’s previous take on them.  All the four main members of the cast, as well as supporting characters like Donna and Bogdan, sounded extremely like their appearances in the previous two audiobooks, and while Shaw did do her own take on a couple of figures, I personally deeply appreciated her attempts to keep some continuity with the previous audiobooks.  Shaw also kept the audiobook rolling along at a brisk pace, and the 11 hour and 17 minute runtime passed along in no time whatsoever, especially as you get deeper and deeper into the plot.  Throw in another lovely interview with Richard Osman at the end and I felt that this was an absolutely incredible audiobook, and definitely the best format by which to enjoy The Bullet That Missed.  I will be extremely happy if Shaw chooses to come back for the fourth Thursday Murder Club audiobook next year.

Richard Osman continues to show the world just how much talent he has a murder mystery writer with the third exceptional entry in the amazing Thursday Murder Club series, The Bullet That Missed.  Continuing to follow his brilliant pensioner protagonists as they solve a complex murder in some clever and funny ways, The Bullet That Missed was an incredible addition to the series that is guaranteed to have you hooked from start to finish.  I cannot recommend this book enough, and if you haven’t started reading the Thursday Murder Club books yet, you are really missing out.

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Quick Review – Black River by Matthew Spencer

Black River Cover

Publisher: Allen & Unwin Australia (Trade Paperback – 31 May 2022)

Series: Standalone/Book One

Length: 349 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

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Fantastic new author Matthew Spencer presents one of the best Australian crime debuts of 2022 with the powerful and intense Black River.

Plot Synopsis:

A long, burning summer in Sydney. A young woman found murdered in the deserted grounds of an elite boarding school. A serial killer preying on victims along the banks of the Parramatta River. A city on edge.

Adam Bowman, a battling journalist who grew up as the son of a teacher at Prince Albert College, might be the only person who can uncover the links between the school murder and the ‘Blue Moon Killer’. But he will have to go into the darkest places of his childhood to piece together the clues. Detective Sergeant Rose Riley, meanwhile, is part of the taskforce desperately trying to find the killer before he strikes again. Adam Bowman’s excavation of his past might turn out to be Rose’s biggest trump card or it may bring the whole investigation crashing down, and put her own life in danger.


Black River
was a highly compelling Australian murder mystery thriller that I was lucky enough to receive a copy of a few months ago.  The debut novel of veteran Australian journalist Matthew Spencer, Black River was an impressive read that dove into the dark heart of Sydney with a brilliant mystery.

Spencer comes up with a pretty exceptional and clever mystery for his first book, as Black River sees a damaged journalist and a dedicated cop investigate a deadly killer haunting Sydney.  The investigation in question is a combination serial killer hunt and standard murder investigation, with the main question being whether a murder at an elite boarding school is connected to the larger case or whether it was the work of a copycat.  At the same time, there is also a captivating dive into the mysterious history of the fantastically dreary and haunting boarding school setting, which seems to have a deeper connection to the case, especially as central protagonist, Adam Bowman, has some major history there.  Spencer takes the investigation on several great tangents throughout the book and presents a powerful story with some clever twists and turns.  I loved the balance of clever investigation, deep character examination, and psychological twists as you try to determine who the killer is and whether the two cases are linked.  Spencer introduces some great side plots and red herrings to distract the reader from the solution, including some concerning revelations about the main protagonist.  The eventual solution to the mystery was extremely good, and I loved just how shocking the main reveal was, especially as there is a very cool twist surrounding the identity of the killer.  Everything came together extremely well, and I was spellbound throughout the entire book as Spencer delivered a great, dark Australian mystery. 

In addition to the excellent story, I loved Spencer’s amazing use of Sydney as a background setting to the intense mystery, especially the parts of the city that border the Parramatta River.  Watching the police characters slowly traverse the elegant river, trying to work out how the killer uses it to choose their victims, is a brilliant touch that is sure to bring a shiver to any readers familiar with the area.  I also need to highlight the cool private school setting where the book’s primary murder takes place.  The old elite school with its coating of history and tradition makes for a memorable background where murder and tragedy feel like they belong.  Spencer really built up this school throughout the book, no doubt using his own personal experiences of such educational institutions, and it played into the plot extremely well, especially when aspects of class, privilege and money start to influence the investigation.

Spencer caps this all off with a great cast of excellent and captivating characters that add to the power and impact of the story.  Most of the book focuses on the character of Adam Bowman, the damaged journalist who is dragged into the case thanks to his personal connection to the private school.  Bowman is forced to revisit some of the worst moments from his past in this book, which helps to turn him into quite an intriguing protagonist, especially as you begin to wonder just how connected he is to everything.  Bowman is well balanced out by police character Rose Riley, who serves as one of the primary investigators in the book.  Rose is a great foil to Bowman and acts as the professional member of the cast who keeps the police storyline on track.  I liked the connection and partnership that develops between Bowman and Rose in this novel, especially as it was lacking any romance.  They make a great team, even though Rose considers him a possible suspect, and it will be interesting to see if Spencer revisits these characters again the future.

Overall, Black River is a pretty impressive crime fiction debut that really made an impression on me in 2022.  New author Matthew Spencer came up with a dark and memorable mystery story that makes great use of its Australian setting and cool characters.  A brilliant first outing from an amazing new talent and a must-read for all fans of Australian murder mysteries.

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Warhammer 40,000: Kasrkin by Edoardo Albert

Warhammer 40,000 - Kasrkin Cover

Publisher: Black Library (Audiobook – 22 October 2022)

Series: Warhammer 40,000

Length: 11 hours and 3 minutes

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

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Get ready for some high-concept action in the latest awesome and exciting Warhammer 40,000 novel by Edoardo Albert, Kasrkin.

While I might be repeating myself a little, I must once again talk about the particularly amazing year I’m having when it comes to Warhammer 40,000 fiction.  There have been some outstanding Warhammer 40,00 books out in 2022, and I have done my best to listen to as many of them as possible.  Some of my personal highlights include The Wraithbone Phoenix, Outgunned, Assassinorum: Kingmaker, Ghazghkull Thraka: Prophet of the Waaagh! and Day of Ascension, just to name a few.  All these have been a ton of fun, and so when I had an open slot in my reading schedule, I naturally chose another recent Warhammer 40,000 book, Kasrkin.  Written by a new-to-me author, Edoardo Albert, who has previously created some interesting pieces of Warhammer fiction, Kasrkin is an action epic that pits a band of elite warriors on a deadly mission into the dark heart of a desert planet.

Welcome to the deadly desert world of Dasht i-Kevar, an Imperial planet currently under siege by the advanced xenos, the T’au, who have turned the usually baren planet into a bloody battlefield.  But the war is about to get even more interesting as the T’au have succeeded in shooting down an Imperial Valkyrie containing an important Astra Militarum general, whose knowledge of the Imperial Guard strategy and disposition could cause the planet to fall.

Only one group of Imperial soldiers have a chance of journeying into the harsh desert of the planet, an elite squad of Cadian Kasrkin.  Led by Captain Bharath Obeysekera, the Kasrkin are tasked to travel deep into the Great Sand Sea behind enemy lines to find the general and either recover him or kill him to keep him out of enemy hands.  The best of the best, the Kasrkin are trained to operate in any terrain and face off against any enemy.  But none of them have every encountered anything as endless, hot, or deadly as the deserts on Dasht i-Kevar.

Cut off by sandstorms and forced to journey over impossible obstacles, the Kasrkin are firmly on their own and can only rely on themselves.  But the deeper they journey in the wastes, the more they begin to realise that they are not as alone as they thought.  Other hunters are searching for the missing general, and the mysterious locals have their own games to play.  However, none of them are prepared for an ancient evil lurking far beneath the desert sands, determined to kill everything it encounters.

Another week, another exceptional Warhammer 40,000 novel that I had so much damn fun listening to.  Kasrkin was an excellent, fast-paced read that follows a compelling group of characters on an epic adventure tale.  Loaded with action, compelling characters, and a story that makes perfect use of its setting and the fantastic lore of the Warhammer 40,000 universe, Kasrkin in an epic read from Edoardo Albert that I absolutely powered through.

The story itself starts off pretty simply, with Albert introducing the reader to the Kasrkin squad and quickly setting them on their mission to find the missing general.  The early parts of the book are really focussed on allowing the reader to get their heads around the book’s premise, the characters, and the impressive desert setting, which honestly takes on a life of its own.  Initially a little slow going to build up tension and camaraderie amongst the Kasrkin, the book starts to get interesting about a third of the way in, when Albert introduces some unique world elements which show how cool and weird the Warhammer 40,000 universe can be.  From there, the story takes the protagonists closer to their objective, and I was initially a little surprised at how soon then managed to get where they were going.  However, this proves to be a bit of a ruse from Albert, as he chooses this moment to really shake everything up.

About halfway through, the entire structure of the book changes with the appearance of a new group of point of view characters, a kindred of Kroot aliens, determined to capture the general for the T’au.  This results in an awesome split in focus between the human and Kroot characters, and I loved the sudden introduction of an excellent rival group who appear equal to the Kasrkin in terms of combat ability.  However, this is not the only surprise that Albert has in store, as both the Kasrkin and the Kroot find themselves facing off against an even more deadly enemy in a fantastic new setting.  While I won’t go into too much detail about what happens next, it was a pretty epic move from Albert and one that I deeply appreciated.  The rest of the story is particularly intense and dark, and there some real horror vibes going for part of it, which fit in perfectly with the powerful narrative and darker setting.  Albert really layers on the action in the second half of the book, and I loved all the shocking and bloody places that he took his story, especially as there are several great twists and some truly engaging scenes featured throughout.  Everything comes to an excellent end, and this proves to be a particularly powerful and gripping Warhammer 40,000 read that really stands on its own.

I felt that Albert’s strong writing style helped to enhance the compelling narrative of Kasrkin and I really appreciated how the author’s style brought everything to life.  Like most Warhammer 40,000 novels, Kasrkin is a great standalone read that is very appealing for established fans of the franchise.  However, this book can also be easily enjoyed by most general science fiction or military fiction fans, especially as the author covers all the relevant lore details that you need to understand the world you are diving into.  Albert blends together some excellent storylines in this novel, and he keeps the pace steady, with a ton of brilliant action and dangerous occurrences.  I liked how the narrative kept morphing as the book progressed as what started as a compelling, if slower, desert adventure eventually turned into a high-octane war novel, before finally transforming into a desperate survival novel in a horror setting.  Albert manages these changes in style really well, and I think the constant alterations helped to keep the reader’s attention glued to all the craziness of the book. 

At the same time, the book remains a soldier’s story at heart, which is something that Warhammer fiction always excels at showing (good recent examples include Steel Tread, The Vincula Insurgency and Catachan Devil).  Watching these elite soldiers face impressive odds makes for an awesome read, especially as Albert also dives into their deeper concerns and features some deeper betrayals and intrigues.  I also cannot highlight enough how outstanding the combat sequences were in Kasrkin as Albert features some pretty hairy action scenarios.  I was particularly impressed with how well these combat scenes were enhanced by the book’s multiple character perspectives, especially once the Kroot were introduced.  Having the perspectives changed between the opponent groups as the firefights was ongoing was just brilliant, and it was amazing to see both sides of the battle, as well as the reactions from the rival teams.  All this, and more, really brought the best out of Kasrkin’s narrative and I deeply enjoyed how it was showcased.

Perhaps one of the most notable features of Kasrkin are the distinctive and memorable locations.  The reader is dragged to several great settings throughout the course of the plot, and the author takes particular pleasure in presenting them in exquisite detail.  The main location is the endless, featureless desert of Dasht i-Kevar, which the characters are forced to traverse for a good part of the book.  I got some great Dune vibes from this setting, and Albert makes this desert out to be a soulless, crushing place of shifting sands, massive unstable dunes, and intense heat, with the ability to strip the resolve and strength from the strongest of men.  Just listening to the characters traverse it made me thirsty, and you could really imagine the harsh journey they are going through.  At the same time, Albert also introduces some very unique aspects to the desert, including impossibly smooth patches of sand that move like water and mysterious water that lives deep under the surface which gives the planet some unusual life.  All these elements are very memorable, and you find yourself really feeling the intense desert surroundings as the characters push through it.  I think that Albert did a remarkable job of introducing and then utilising this harsh setting and it definitely stood out as a landmark part of the book.  A second, darker location becomes the key setting for much of the second half of Kasrkin and while I will again be brief to avoid spoilers, it was pretty damn epic.  Serving as the lair of a notable enemy, this location was a haunting and deadly setting, and one that the characters all struggled to survive in.  There are so many surprises and foes lurking in this location, and the strain of it really showed on the characters who find themselves with very little chance of survival.  I had such a great time with this location, and it, as well as the outside desert, helped to turn Kasrkin into a particularly noteworthy book.

On top of the new setting, I was also really impressed with the outstanding Warhammer 40,000 elements contained within this great book.  As I mentioned before, Kasrkin is a book a range of readers can enjoy, and part of the reason why is that Albert spends a lot of time exploring the unique lore elements of the Warhammer 40,000 universe that come into play during the plot.  Not only does this help to introduce the universe to new readers but established fans will appreciate how deep Albert dives into the subject.  As the name of this book suggests, quite a lot of the focus revolves around the Cadian Kasrkin, the most elite special forces group in the whole Imperial Guard.  Albert showcases them perfectly throughout the book, and it was so damn epic to see them in action, especially as they live up to all the hype and work together as a particularly effective unit.  The author dives into all their particularly quirks, training and operational preferences that sets them apart from the common Astra Militarum units, and you come away with a greater appreciation for who they are and what they can do.  In addition, there is a great underlying look at how the Kasrkin are doing following the destruction of their home world of Cadia, and I loved the deeper grief that they are all suffering after their failure and the hardships they have faced.

On top of the Kasrkin, Albert also spends a substantial amount of time examining and featuring other Warhammer 40,000 factions throughout the story.  The most prominent outside of the Kasrkin are the kindred of Kroot that become the protagonist’s opponents.  During their multiple scenes, Albert dives deep into the biology, beliefs and society of the Kroot, and the reader is soon given a crash course in who they are and what they can do.  There is a particular focus on their biological abilities, with Albert exploring their avian traits, their ability to communicate in different frequencies (giving off high-pitched whistles, which made several hunting scenes particularly cool) and more.  The real focus is on the Kroot’s ability to absorb the genetic traits of anything they consume, which is a big part of their society, as they live to hunt and consume prey that can give them a greater edge in battle.  Albert really examines this hunting and eating part of their culture, and it was fascinating to see how diverse the Kroot are after eating different creatures during their travels.  This ability plays a big role in the plot, with horrific consequences, and I loved having the Kroot featured so heavily in this book, especially as I haven’t seen them in too many other pieces of Warhammer 40,000 fiction.  I also loved how Albert did some fun contrasts between the Kroot and the Kasrkin and showed that they were very similar in their abilities and mentalities (and they both refer to their groups as kin).  Watching the two sides face off against each other is a thing of beauty and it results in some complex and exciting battle scenes.

On top of the Kasrkin and the Kroot, a third major faction from the Warhammer 40,000 universe are also featured, and they become an exceptional part of the books plot in the second half of the book.  Just like with the other groups featured within Kasrkin, Albert examines and features this group extremely well, and you get a good idea of who they are and what motivates them, even if they are a little more unusual then the general examples you see in Warhammer fiction.  I was particularly impressed with how Albert used one distinctive unit from this third faction throughout the course of Kasrkin, and they prove to be brutal and terrifying hunters that haunt the point of view characters in some epic and dark ways.  I cannot emphasise how well Albert featured all these different factions throughout Kasrkin, and fans of the franchise are going to have an outstanding time seeing them all in action and facing off against each other.

I had a lot of fun with the characters featured in Kasrkin as the author features some interesting interactions and character development in a short amount of time.  Most of the book focuses on the members of the Kasrkin team, including their leader, Captain Bharath Obeysekera, a veteran officer with a lot of regrets behind him.  Albert showcases this character a lot and Obeysekera proves to be a bit more of a radical thinker than your typical Imperial soldier, which I felt fit rather well in this unusual tale of survival, and it was heartbreaking to see him try and fail to keep his squad alive.  Other great characters include Sergeant Shaan Malick, the squad’s veteran NCO, who serves as a rock for most of the book, while also playing his own selfish game.  Watching him manipulate the other characters added a great edge to the plot, and I really appreciated his realistic and understandable motivations once they were revealed.  I was also very impressed with the character of Roshant, a newly minted Commissar with family connections who joins the mission and proves to be a bit of a pain for most of it.  Initially despised by the men and seen as a coward, Roshant goes through some real soul searching in this book, and it was fascinating to see this privileged character contrasted against the rough and tough Kasrkins, especially in some dangerous situations.  The rest of Kasrkin’s cast are also pretty impressive, and Albert does a good job of balancing the narrative around a large group of characters.  There is some excellent character work in this book, and I really appreciated seeing such a fun and damaged cast go to war against each other.

Like most Warhammer 40,000 books, I chose to enjoy Kasrkin in its audiobook format, which was an absolute ton of fun.  Coming in at just over 11 hours, the Kasrkin audiobook was an excellent and quick way to experience this fantastic narrative, especially as all the many cool action sequences really seemed to pop in this format.  The real highlight of this audiobook was narrator David Seddon, whose work I previously enjoyed in the short production Dredge Runners.  Seddon did a remarkable job with the narration in Kasrkin, and I loved how he swiftly moved the book along and perfectly controlled the pacing of the audiobook.  I was also deeply impressed with the huge range of voices that he brought to the production, and he effectively captured all the characters featured in this book and gave them all distinctive and fitting voices that showcased their personalities and emotions.  Not only does he capture the various gruff and thoughtful human characters, but he also provides some great alternate voices for some of the alien characters contained within.  The avian-inspired voices of the Kroot characters reminded me a little of the Skeksis from The Dark Crystal, which was really fitting considering the Kroot’s evolutionary origins.  I also loved the deeper and more ancient voice that was used for another character, revealed later in the book, especially when combined with the various voices used for this character’s computer servant.  This outstanding voice work really helped with my enjoyment of this book, and I had a wonderful time listening to the Kasrkin audiobook.  This was easily the best way to enjoy this fantastic book, and I would strongly recommend this format to anyone interested.

The Warhammer 40,000 universe continues to enchant and amaze me with this latest tie-in book Kasrkin.  Edoardo Albert wrote a powerful and deeply intense read that sees an iconic regiment from the game go up against all manner of trouble in some exceptional settings.  Extremely addictive, relentlessly exciting, and very clever, Kasrkin was an outstanding read that I am really glad I decided to check it out.  Highly recommended, especially for fans of Warhammer 40,000 fiction.  You are guaranteed to have a great time with this excellent tie-in book.

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Fool’s Gold by Jon Hollins

9780356507651

Publisher: Orbit (Paperback – 26 July 2016)

Series: The Dragon Lords – Book One

Length: 517 pages

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

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Prepare for all manner of craziness and exceedingly entertaining fun as Jon Hollins presents an amazing book about heists and dragons with Fool’s Gold.

A few months ago, whilst perusing my local book fair, I happened upon a copy of Fool’s Gold by Jon Hollins (a pseudonym for fantasy author Jonathan Wood), which really grabbed my attention.  The first book in Hollins’ The Dragon Lords trilogy, Fool’s Gold had a fantastic plot synopsis which involved heists and dragons.  I was very intrigued by this cool book, which sounded so very fun, so naturally I made sure to grab it.  As a result, it was nice and handy when I was in the mood for a fun fantasy book, and boy was I entertained by this cool read.

In the fantasy land of Avarra, there are many different magical creatures and beings who infest the world and bring all manner of chaos with them.  However, no creature is as dangerous, arrogant, and domineering as the dragons, especially members of the destructive Consortium who have taken over the isolated nation of Kondorra and rule it as overlords.  Employing a private army, the dragons impose massive taxes on the lands surrounding their lairs, driving the people into poverty and forcing many to lose everything.

It is only a matter of time before something gives, and when Willett Fallows loses his farm to greedy dragon who controls his village, he snaps and becomes a fugitive.  On the run, Will finds himself in the most unusual of situations after a chance meeting with four unlikely wanderers in a nearby cave, including a skilled warrior woman, a murderous lizard man, a dragon obsessed academic with explosive magical powers, and his village’s local insane drunkard.  Together the five new companions come up with an ambitious plan to steal all the gold from the local dragon lord and make their escape.

However, when their heist unsurprisingly goes wrong the friends find themselves in a surprising position as the nation’s apparent saviours.  Suddenly worshipped by a massive following, the companions must find a way to escape both the deadly retribution coming their way and their own insane devotees.  But no matter how hard they try, all their plans seem to backfire until they find themselves in the middle of a deadly religious war against the dragons.  Can they pull off one more con to destroy the Consortium, or is everyone about to end up dead in a field of fire?

Fool’s Gold is an exceedingly fun and very entertaining read that I was able to finish off in a few days, especially once I got caught up in its exciting and fast-paced narrative.  Hollins sets everything up very quickly, with the new fantasy world introduced, the dragon’s control of Kondorra established, and all five of the main characters brought together.  While I wasn’t the biggest fan of the extremely coincidental meeting that saw all the protagonists meet up in the first few chapters, the story evolves at a much more appropriate pace from there, with the characters quickly planning their theft of the local dragon’s hoard.  I was a little surprised at how fast the first heist came about, as I figured it would be a long-term plan that would unfold much later in the book.  However, featuring this heist early on really works, as it sets up the rest of the story extremely well while also showcasing early just how crazy and over-the-top this book is going to be.  The chaotic results of the first heist see the protagonists incorrectly declared religious saviours destined to bring down the dragons.  Suddenly leading a ragtag army, the protagonists are forced to engage in several more attempted heists and plots against other dragons and their minions.  While these plans often backfire in very funny ways, the protagonists keep failing upwards and must keep the con going while dealing with a multitude of problems, including deranged followers, immense responsibility, and deep personal issues.  This all leads up to the final confrontation with the dragon Consortium, with the characters unleashing their most ambitious plan yet.  Watching this final plan come together is pretty damn awesome, and the insane battles and crazy results that follow were so damn epic.  I ended up really loving this compelling and very fun story, which Hollins leaves open for some intriguing sequels in the future.

Fool’s Gold is an incredibly fast-paced novel with a great writing style that makes it very easy to power through.  The author has a brilliant and wicked secret of humour that infects his writing, and I found myself chuckling the entire way through, not just because of the jokes but because of the insane scenarios that resulted.  I was also deeply impressed with how well Hollins brought together several genres to create a compelling and hilarious read.  The book initially appears to be a classic fantasy read, as the author quickly and effectively sets up an intriguing new fantasy world at the start of the book, which contains several classic fantasy creatures and elements that are likely going to get expanded on in the sequels.  However, it soon becomes apparent that this isn’t going to be a typical fantasy book, especially as the very modern sense of humour and language that Hollins employs gives it a whole new tint.  I often enjoy when authors feature contemporary language and attitudes in fantasy novels, and I felt that Hollins uses it to great effect in Fool’s Gold, giving the book a distinctive tone.  The author further brings in the brilliant heist elements to the book, which I deeply enjoyed thanks to all the fantastic plans and cons.  It proved to be extremely fun to see all these elaborate and weird heists get planned out and executed in a fantasy universe, and it combines extremely well with the humorous tone and fantasy elements of the book.  I deeply enjoyed how this captivating story came together, and I can’t wait to see how the next books in the series pan out.

I also really liked the cool characters featured in Fool’s Gold, especially as Hollins came up with a very eclectic and damaged group of central figures.  The book primarily revolves around five protagonists, each of whom have multiple chapters told from their perspective and who unite as a team very early in the book.  This includes Willett Fallows, the former farmer who turns to heist planning after the dragon’s greed takes everything from him.  There is also the fantastic pair of Lette and Balur, a female adventurer looking to settle down and her lizard man companion who loves all forms of violence and is determined to fight and kill the biggest opponents he can find, in this case dragons.  There is also Quirk, a former mage turned academic who arrives in Kondorra to study the dragons and finds herself dragged into the group’s plans so she can get a closer look at the dragons and their lairs.  Finally, there is Firkin, a local drunk whose failure years ago to defeat the dragons drove him mad and who finds new life during the new adventures. 

All five characters are pretty crazy in their own way, and I think they made for quite an intriguing and amusing focus for the narrative, especially all the interesting growth Hollins makes use of.  Will’s evolution from a farmer to a master strategist was very well written and I appreciated the compelling examination of how the power he started to wield was potentially corrupting him, especially when he holds the lives of so many in his hands.  The inevitable romance between Will and Lette was handled well throughout the book and it came across as a natural and well-developed relationship.  Balur, the battle-loving lizard man was easily one of the most entertaining characters in the novel, and I loved seeing his mad rages and various attempts to kill the dragons they encounter, especially as it results in an incredibly funny and hilariously brutal final fight at the end of the book.  I was also quite impressed that Hollins was able to keep up Balur’s unique style of speech for much of the story.  Firkin’s rise from unpredictable drunk to unpredictable drunken religious mouthpiece and rabblerouser was exceedingly funny in places, especially as you are never quite sure whether he is actually insane or just messing with everyone.  I did find his continued crazy speech a bit too much at times, although the occasional hints at his deeper intelligence and sanity made up for that.  However, the best character work was probably reserved for Quirk as Hollins really dives back into her history as a child soldier/mage who was gently rehabilitated and taken into the academic lifestyle.  Quirk finds herself reverting to her old destructive magical ways throughout the course of the adventure and she must figure out who she truly wants to be.  I had a great time with all the cool characters in this book, although I do wish that the greedy and arrogant dragons might have gotten a little more development.  Overall, I would say that the characters were some of the best parts of Fool’s Gold and look forward to seeing more of them in the future.

Unsurprisingly, I had a pretty wonderful time with Fool’s Gold and it ended up being as thrilling and compelling as I hoped it would be.  Jon Hollins wrote a wildly entertaining and very funny fantasy heist narrative for Fool’s Gold, which came equipped with some great fantasy elements and a bunch of excellent characters.  I really enjoyed Fool’s Gold and I will have to try to grab the next two books in the Dragon Lords trilogy, especially when I’m in the mood for some crazy, over-the-top adventure and excitement. 

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Death to the Emperor by Simon Scarrow

Death to the Emperor Cover

Publisher: Headline (Trade Paperback – 15 November 2022)

Series: Eagles of the Empire – Book 21

Length: 466 pages

My Rating: 4.75 out of 5 stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Boys from Biloxi by John Grisham

The Boys from Biloxi Cover

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

Series: Standalone

Length: 454 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Call of Empire by Peter Watt

Call of Empire Cover

Publisher: Macmillan (Trade Paperback – 25 October 2022)

Series: The Colonial series – Book Five

Length: 368 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Star Wars - Path of Deceit Cover

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

Series: Star Wars: The High Republic – Phase Two

Length: 8 hours and 10 minutes

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Desert Star by Michael Connelly

Desert Star Cover

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

Series: Ballard and Bosch – Book Four

Length: 393 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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