Warhammer 40,000: Krieg by Steve Lyons

Warhammer 40,000 - Krieg Cover

Publisher: Black Library (Audiobook – 29 January 2022)

Series: Warhammer 40,000

Length: 9 hours and 33 minutes

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Death, dishonour and duty all collide as impressive author Steve Lyons returns to the epic Warhammer 40,000 universe with Krieg, which dives into the origins of one the most iconic regiments of Imperial Guard out there, the Death Korps of Krieg.

Damn this has been a good year for Warhammer fiction so far.  We may only be in March, but 2022 has already produced a great collection of awesome Warhammer novels, including Steel Tread, The Twice-Dead King: Reign and Day of Ascension.  I have deeply enjoyed all these cool books, and when another awesome sounding tie-in novel was released on audiobook, I just had to grab it.

This latest book is Krieg by veteran science fiction author Steve Lyons.  Lyons is a new author to me, but he comes with an impressive pedigree in tie-in fiction, having written several Warhammer novels and short stories, a ton of Doctor Who novels and audio dramas, and several other intriguing novels.  I knew that I was probably going to love Krieg and I turned out to be right, as this fantastic and dark Warhammer 40,000 novel contains an intense and captivating tale of a legendary regiment.

In the grim future of the universe, there is only bloodshed and death, especially near the system-spanning Octarius War, where two brutal alien races battle for supremacy, and Imperial forces fight to stop their conflict spilling out into the greater Imperium.  However, the latest round of fighting sees a massive orc ship break through Imperial lines and crash into the massive city of Hive Arathron.  As the desperate Imperial forces fail to contain the invading orcs, all hope looks lost until a new set of deadly reinforcements arrive: the Death Korps of Krieg.

The Death Korps of Krieg are a legendary unit of peerless soldiers who are utterly fearless in battle, fanatically loyal to the Emperor, and who seem to harbour an unnatural desire to die in battle.  But who are the men of Krieg under their gasmasks and coats, and why do they fight so hard to regain their lost honour?  The answer lies thousands of years ago when Krieg attempted to cede from the Imperium, thrusting the planet into a brutal civil war.  In the end, one man stepped forward to end the fighting, and his decision doomed Krieg to become a blasted wasteland where only soldiers are grown.

As the fighting around Hive Arathron continues, many of their fellow soldiers and inquisitorial observers begin to doubt the loyalty and sanity of the Death Korps, especially when their unusual habits and creeds keep them apart from the other members of the Astra Militarium.  However, a deadly discovery deep inside the Hive will show the Imperium just how invaluable the men of Krieg are, especially when history seeks to repeat itself.  Can the Death Korps succeed against the xenos, or will Hive Arathron and its planet soon share a similar fate to Krieg?

The Warhammer 40,000 hits just keep on coming as Krieg turned out to be a truly awesome read.  Steve Lyons has produced an epic and intense novel here, and I loved the brilliant story that not only showcased a dangerous alien threat but which also examined the past of an iconic and captivating faction.

I thought that Lyons came up with an exceptional and captivating narrative for Krieg, which takes the reader on several parallel journeys throughout the history of the Warhammer 40,000 universe.  I have said multiple times before that I think some of the best Warhammer stories out there focus on the common troops, and I was proved right again as Lyons does a brilliant dive into the mind of the average solider when they experience the very worst of circumstances.  The primary storyline is set in the modern era of the canon and shows a regiment of Krieg Imperial Guard dropped into the battle for Hive Arathron to fight the orcs.  This section, which is told entirely from the perspective of supporting non-Krieg characters, shows the Death Korps in battle, with a specific highlight on their unusual appearance and practices.  At the same time, another storyline dives back into the past and shows the civil war that occurred on Krieg and the events that led up to the destruction of the planet and the formation of the modern Death Korps.  Both these storylines take up about half the book and they present the reader with two unique and interesting tales which work to complement the story from the other timeline while also depicting their own brutal military actions.  The stories start to come together towards the end when the protagonists of the contemporary storyline discover nuclear weapons in Hive Arathron, which they need to recover.  This leads to an interesting conclusion that results in some clever parallels between the historical events and the current storyline.  All this leads to a satisfying, if grim, conclusion that reveals the various fates of the supporting characters and wraps up the remaining story elements.

I was really impressed with how Krieg was written, and I think that Lyon did a really good job here.  The story ended up perfectly toeing the line between examining the lore and history of the universe and providing the reader with all the necessary excitement and adventure.  I think the decision to split the book between the two separate timelines was pretty clever, and I had a brilliant time reading the unique storylines it produced.  Both timelines were really good, and I loved the grim and powerful plot points they contained, especially as the protagonists within both suffered defeats, setbacks and brutal character realisations.  If I had to choose a favourite it would probably be the historical storyline set on Krieg, mainly because it shows the more desperate situation and substantially more character development and tragedy.  The twin storylines also did a wonderful job complementing each other, ensuring that the reader gets two separate sides of the titular regiment.  It also results in a series of different battle sequences, and I loved the interesting comparisons between a protracted civil war and a short and brutal fight against orcs.  Krieg ended up being a good standalone read, with a concise, well-paced and beautifully set-up narrative that is pretty easy to get addicted to, especially once both storylines descend into the hell of battle.  This also proved to be an extremely accessible tie-in to the Warhammer 40,000 universe, with Lyons ensuring that newer readers can easily follow what is happening with a minimal of explanation about the universe.  As such I would strongly recommend this book to a wide range of readers, and both experienced Warhammer fans and general science fiction readers will really appreciate the powerful and action-packed story contained within.

Unsurprisingly for a novel named Krieg, there is an extensive and fascinating examination of the Death Korps of Krieg in this book.  Lyons does a brilliant job of diving into this distinctive Warhammer faction, and this novel ended up being a very detailed and impressive love letter towards the infamous regiment.  Every aspect of the modern regiment is shown in exquisite detail, and you get an extremely powerful look at their design, uniform (which is based on the uniforms of World War I German trench fighters), fighting style, equipment, unique regiments, and more, including the iconic Death Riders (I was so very happy they were included, especially as you get several great fight scenes with them, including against orc bikers).  However, the real focus is on their unusual behaviour, including their determination to die in combat, their complete resolve and the fact that they never remove their masks.  Lyons really hammers home the unusualness of this regiment by only showing the modern Krieg soldiers through the eyes of regular soldiers or member of the Inquisition, all of whom are at a loss about what the Krieg are or why they fight so hard.

However, while these outsider characters are left wondering about many of these events, the readers get multiple insights thanks to the chapters that explore the historical civil war on Krieg.  Lyons does an incredible job of portraying this conflict, and it is fascinating to see the events that led up to it and the lengthy and costly war that followed.  Watching the opposing mentalities on Krieg during this time is really fascinating, and you soon get caught up in the dramatic battle that follows, especially as the situation continues to deteriorate over time.  I loved how the origins of the Krieg’s many idiosyncrasies are featured here, and you soon see what necessitated the use of certain equipment or behaviours.  The real highlight is the eventual destruction of Krieg and the subsequent formation of the modern version of the Death Korps.  The scenes that cover this destruction are pretty damn brutal, and watching the slow transition from typical soldiers to the eventual shrouded figures is extremely compelling and awesome.  I really appreciated the way in which Lyons showed off the various stages of the Krieg regiments, and the use of both the historical version of the regiment and its current formation really helped to highlight just how distinctive and cool they are.  While there are still a few secrets left hidden (what’s under the mask??), the reader leaves this book with an impressive appreciation for this awesome regiment, and it wouldn’t surprise me if it convinces several Warhammer 40,000 players to start using the Death Korps in their games.

A quick shoutout also needs to go to the fantastic characters featured throughout Krieg.  Lyons makes use of a large cast to tell this interesting story, and I liked the excellent mixture that this novel contained.  The characters featured in the contemporary line are primarily made up of non-Krieg fighters who serve as an interesting counterpoint to the nameless, faceless Death Korp soldiers.  This includes Inquisitor Ven Bruin, an older witch hunter who leads the search for the hidden weapons in Hive Arathron.  Ven Bruin is a lot gentler and less cynical that a typical Imperial Inquisitor, and he has some intriguing viewpoints on the situation, with his decisions tempered by experience and weariness.  Ven Bruin ends up holding multiple secrets throughout Krieg, and it is emotional to see him impacted by his multiple hard decisions and the lives they cost.  You also get the compelling viewpoint of Sergeant Renick, a Cadian soldier who fights alongside the Krieg.  Renick, who is a surprisingly good female character for a Warhammer novel, gives the common soldier’s viewpoint of events, and I loved seeing her slow opinion change of the Death Korps after seeing them in action against the orcs.

While there are some great characters in the Hive Arathron storyline, Lyons saves his best character work for the historical storyline on Krieg, which highlights the key people in the deadly civil war that destroyed the planet.  While there are several intriguing figures here, most of the focus is given to Colonel Jurten, the Imperial Guard commander who fights to keep Krieg in the Imperium.  Jurten is a weary veteran character who borders on the fanatical, especially when it comes to saving his home from himself.  Throughout the course of the book, you see Jurten fight a desperate war for his believes that culminates in him making a terrible decision that will impact his people for generations.  Watching Jurten’s substantial resolve slowly chip away throughout the book is very intense, and Lyon really shows the weight his beliefs and determination bear on him, especially after he makes the very worst of choices.  The other characters in this past storyline serve as an excellent support cast, and it was great to see their concerns and opinions about the battles being fought, especially compared to the resilient Jurten.  My favourite is probably the mysterious Adeptus Mechanicus tech-priest, Greel, who acts as the devil on Jurten’s shoulder, convincing him to make the tough decision about the future of Krieg.  I am still a little uncertain whether Greel was a hero or a villain (probably both; it is Warhammer), and I would be curious to find out more about him and his motivations in the future.  An excellent group of characters, I would be interested to see more of some of them in the future.

Unsurprisingly, I made sure to grab the audiobook version of Krieg, which ended up being another excellent and enjoyable experience.  I deeply enjoy Warhammer audiobooks, especially as they tend to enhance the grim and brutal stories, while also highlighting all the cool details about the Warhammer universe.  I had amazing time with the Krieg audiobook, and with a runtime of only 9 hours and 33 minutes, this was a pretty easy audiobook to get through.  The audiobook did an excellent job capturing the grim battles and blasted warzones featured throughout this awesome novel, and I could easily envisage every fight and every brutal decision.  I was also really impressed with the voice work of narrator Timothy Watson, who brought a ton of gravitas and intensity to this book.  Watson’s voice fit perfectly into this grim universe, and he did an outstanding job of capturing the various larger-than-life characters featured within, while also providing great Germanic accents to all the characters who originated from Krieg.  You really get a brilliant range of voices throughout Krieg, and I loved Watson’s ability to showcase the devotion, despair and weariness of all these great figures.  Another brilliant and wonderful Warhammer audiobook, this is easily the best way to enjoy this amazing tie-in book.

Overall, Krieg by Steven Lyons was another awesome Warhammer 40,000 novel that did a wonderful job of examining one of the game’s more unique and enjoyable faction.  Containing an action-packed narrative that highlighted the fantastic Death Korps of Krieg and showcased the events that made the soldiers they are today; Krieg was an addictive and clever read.  I loved the excellent use of a split timeline narrative, especially when it dove back into the civil war on Krieg, and the result was a grim and haunting tale of regret, duty and honour.  Highly recommended to all fans of Warhammer 40,000, you will love this beautiful and moving love letter to the iconic Death Korps and their tragic origins.

Her Perfect Twin by Sarah Bonner

Her Perfect Twin Cover

Publisher: Hodder Studio (Trade Paperback – 25 January 2022)

Series: Standalone

Length: 329 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Prepare yourself for shocks, twists and so many sweet surprises as impressive new author Sarah Bonner presents her epic debut thriller, Her Perfect Twin.

Megan Hardcastle has always lived in the shadow of her estranged twin, Leah, who always took everything Megan had, while exploiting their dramatic family past to obtain fame, fortune and the freedom to do anything she wanted.  Despite that, deep down Megan still loves her sister, until she finds explicit photos of her on her husband’s phone.  Rushing to her sister’s house, she is unable to contain her rage, and their argument ends tragically when she kills Leah.

Determined not to get caught, Megan comes up with the desperate plan to become Leah, fooling the world into thinking she is still alive.  Diving deep into Leah’s perfect life, Megan starts to become her sister and soon finds her carefree life intoxicating and irresistible, especially when she falls in love with the new man in Leah’s life.  As life at home with her controlling husband gets even more difficult, Megan decides to give up her entire existence and start living as Leah.  However, just before she can enact her escape, the pandemic lockdown hits.

As the country adjusts to a new normal, Megan struggles to maintain two separate lives under lockdown.  Her problems are only just beginning when it becomes clear that someone else knows her secret and they are willing to use it to take everything from her.  Soon, Megan finds herself engaged in a deadly game of cat and mouse against a sadistic foe with her life, freedom and identity on the line.  However, not everything is as it seems, and all the dark secrets from these twin’s life are about to come out.

OMG, well that turned out to be exceedingly epic and amazing.  Sarah Bonner has come out of the gates swinging here, and her first book was such an outstanding and epic read.  Her Perfect Twin is easily one of the best psychological thrillers of the year, and I loved the exceptionally clever and wildly entertaining story it contained.  Loaded with complex and deeply flawed characters as well as some impressive examinations of self and identity, Her Perfect Twin is an incredibly addictive novel that gets a five-star rating from me.

Let me just start off here saying that you are going to really fall in love with the intense and captivating narrative contained within Her Perfect Twin.  Bonner has gone out of her way here to create an exceptional read that quickly drags you in and then hits you with clever twist after clever twist, until the only thing you can think about is getting to the end of the story.  Her Perfect Twin starts off strong, introducing the protagonist Megan and showing the events through her eyes as she uncovers her husband’s affair with her twin sister, Leah, who she then kills after they get into an argument.  The reader slowly gets to see Megan enjoying the new freedoms and fun associated with living her sister’s life, while she also plans to escape from her normal life and terrible marriage.  This first part of the book is very good and I enjoyed seeing the protagonist dive into her new identity, especially as she grows as a person under it.  While I liked this part of the story, I thought I could see where the story was going, including the introduction of lockdown part way through.  However, it turns out that I was so very, very wrong, as Bonner had some amazing tricks up her sleeve.

The first real indication you get about how much Her Perfect Twin is going to change happened about halfway through when, after a major and surprising reveal, the narrative suddenly starts getting told from the perspective of an entirely different character.  This honestly altered everything, as not only did it throw you right into the mind of a psychopath but it starts showing some of the previous events of the book in an entirely new context, revealing just how much set up and foreshadowing Bonner included in the first half of the novel.  From there you are forced to watch an incredibly evil villain make their move, manipulating the situation to their advantage while appearing to have total control, which is both infuriating and extremely compelling at the same time.  And then, just when you think you have a handle on the situation, Bonner throws another big twist at you, along with another new point-of-view character, and you honestly have no idea what the hell is going to happen next.  At this point, I was honestly reeling with all the revelations as I began to fully understand just how talented Bonner is as an author, but the story isn’t done yet.  There are even more great reveals and twists from there as the third character tells their story, which changes everything that you thought you knew already.  A final major shift occurs for the last part of the book, which seeks to wrap up everything and showcases the full cleverness and feelings off all the previous characters.  While this final part of the book is a tad slower and seems a little disconnected from the main plot, it concludes everything up beautifully and leads to an impressive and well-thought-out ending that will leave you incredibly satisfied.

This was a pretty incredible story, and it is one that I had so much fun getting through.  I honestly read the last 250 pages in a single sitting, and it was physically impossible for me to put down the book after the first big reveal.  I cannot emphasize enough just how clever and brilliant all the twists in Her Perfect Twin were, and Bonner sets all of them up perfectly.  I loved how multiple small details and seemingly throwaway lines came back in a big way as the novel progressed, and there was some brilliant planning here.  Bonner writes a pretty dark psychological tale here, and Her Perfect Twin does an impressive dive into the inner psyches of its various characters, with a particular focus on identity, freedom and the terrible secrets that bind us together.  While a few scenes get a bit disturbing and might be upsetting for some readers, it all works for the greater good of the story, and every brutal scene is incredibly well written and impressively moving.  I did appreciate the way in which Bonner was able to work England’s COVID-19 lockdowns into the story.  While some recent novels tend to shoe-horn lockdowns into their story, Bonner’s examination and use of the lockdowns was particularly clever, expertly tying into the story and becoming one of the better inclusions of it that I have seen in recent years.  An overall incredible and powerful narrative, you will fall in love with Her Perfect Twin’s perfect story.

I must also highlight the incredible characters that Bonner featured throughout Her Perfect Twin, although I might avoid specifics to keep some of the twists hidden.  All the characters in this book are extremely well developed, and Bonner produces some intricate and powerful backstories for them that drive them to do the bad things in this novel.  Megan was extremely well written, and her constant battles with her identity, her devious twin, and the constant fear of obtaining the same memory issues that plague her mother, become important parts of her story.  Watching her develop and attempt to find happiness is pretty satisfying, although she goes through a lot in this novel, especially as the story gets darker and darker.  The rest of the main characters were also really good, and you get some intriguing perspectives as the novel progresses, which help to produce such a rich and striking story.  A particular shoutout must go to the main antagonist of the book, who is quite frankly one of the best/worst villains I have seen in fiction.  This antagonist is a malicious, deceitful and sadistic figure who puts all the other characters through the emotional wringer as they attempt to get their ultimate goal.  I hated this character so much in Her Perfect Twin, especially after finding out the full extent of their plans, and once the book jumps to their arrogant perspective, you will grow to hate them too.  Watching them put their devious designs into motion is pretty horrific, and you will hang in there just to wait and see if they fail.  You will really come to love or hate these characters by the end of Her Perfect Twin, which just goes to show how awesome an author Bonner really is.

I think it is clear from my excitable ramblings up above that I really loved this incredible novel.  Her Perfect Twin was an exceptional debut from Sarah Bonner and I still cannot get over how much I loved its cool and clever story.  Loaded with insane twists and powerful characters, this novel is just so damn good, and you honestly will not be prepared for how crazy the story gets.  A must-read for all fans of the thriller genre; I cannot recommend Her Perfect Twin enough.

Engines of Empire by R. S. Ford

Engines of Empire Cover

Publisher: Hachette Audio (Audiobook – 18 January 2022)

Series: The Age of Uprising – Book One

Length: 22 hours and 3 minutes

My Rating: 4.25 out of 5 stars

Bestselling fantasy author R. S. Ford starts off an intriguing and compelling new epic fantasy series with the powerful Engines of Empire, a great read that I had a wonderful time reading.

Ford is an author who has been writing some interesting books in the last few years.  His big works include the Steelhaven and War of the Archons series, both of which have some very intriguing plots.  While I have not had the pleasure of reading any of his previous work, I have heard some great things about his War of the Archons books, and I might have to go back and check it out at some point.  After reading some early positive reviews of Ford’s latest novel, Engines of Empire, I decided to check it out, grabbing an audiobook version, which proved to be extremely good.  This cool book serves as the first entry in Ford’s new The Age of Uprising series and sets the scene for a captivating and exciting new trilogy.

For generations, the nation of Torwyn has been ruled by the Guilds, industrial powerhouses who provide the nation its food, weapons, transportation and invaluable devices that fuse magic with technology.  One of the most prominent Guilds is the Hawkspurs, an ancient and powerful family who have long held the empire together and ensured its position in the world.  However, the current generation of Hawkspurs are about to find that everything they thought they knew is about to change.

As the matriarch of the family, Rosomon Hawkspur, attempts to maintain her family’s status and standing in Torwyn’s capital, the Anvil, her children each head off to find their own destinies.  The oldest son, Conall, departs to the empire’s distant frontier to prove his worth as a military commander.  The rebellious and magical Hawkspur daughter, Tyreta, is sent to an important imperial holding to facilitate her training as the future head of the family business.  The youngest son, Fulren, a talented artificer, finds himself involved in foreign politics when he is tasked with guiding an emissary from a powerful rival nation.

However, forces of chaos, fanaticism and destruction are all around them, and soon all the Hawkspurs are placed in mortal danger.  At the frontier, Conall attempts to prove himself, but only finds rejection and hints at a rising evil.  Tyreta’s reckless actions place her in mortal danger, and her only path to salvation lies in understanding the people her nation has hurt the most.  Back in the Anvil, Fulren is framed for murder and is soon banished to a hostile foreign nation ruled by dark gods.  Rosomon, desperate to save her fractured family, finds herself thrust into the middle treachery and dark revolution, as unseen hands plot against the guilds.  As the entirety of the world changes all around them and dangerous forces reveal themselves, can the Hawkspurs endure, or will they, and the entirety of Torwyn, come to utter ruin?

Engines of Empire was a captivating and entertaining fantasy epic that transports the reader to intricate new world, filled with interesting characters, political intrigue, and intense action, and makes for an excellent and exciting read.

At the centre of Engines of Empire is a massive and complex narrative that fully explores the various main characters while also plunging the intriguing new setting into chaos and anarchy.  Ford utilises a great multiple perspective storytelling device that splits the overall book into some compelling, separate chunks.  The story initially has four distinctive storylines that follow the Hawkspur family members as they go off on their own separate adventures.  This results in an interesting blend of plotlines as you have a more military story with Conall, a survival/adventure storyline with Tyreta, Rosomon’s political intrigue narrative, and Fulren’s life-or-death struggle in a foreign land.  These storylines are mostly unconnected to each other and not only allow the point of view protagonists to grow and develop independently with their own group of supporting characters, but it also ensures that the reader gets to explore various aspects of the new fantasy realm and see the range of different problems affecting it.  These four storylines develop at a reasonable and compelling pace, and the reader soon is drawn into their individual storylines, as well as some of the overlapping conspiracies that are featured throughout.  A fifth point-of-view character is introduced about halfway through the novel, which mainly acts to bolster one of the existing storylines and proves to be an excellent feature filled with action and espionage.  This leads to the final stretch of the novel, where several big events and twists occur that shake the foundation of the novel and take it in an excellent new direction.  Several of the separate plot lines start to come together more closely towards the end, and there are some excellent moments as the characters reunite to face a common foe.  This leads to an exciting and intense conclusion that takes several of the character storylines in interesting direction and sets up the rest of the trilogy extremely well.

I really liked how Engines of Empire came together as Ford wrote an excellent fantasy tale that made sure to cover a vast range of people and places.  The entirety of Engines of Empire has a great combination of story elements that ensures there is something for all sorts of readers here, including massive world building, great action, clever political intrigue, dangerous adventures or interesting characters.  I particularly enjoyed the great use of five character driven storylines centred on different point-of-view protagonists.  Not only did they come together well to produce a great overall narrative but they also provided the reader with several unique adventures with their own appeal.  I particularly enjoyed Fulren’s story, as it featured an excellent blend of interesting world building in a rival nation ruled by dark magic and impressive character moments.  Tyreta’s jungle-based survival mission was also really cool, especially with the intriguing side characters and brutal combat, while the fifth storyline introduced halfway through the book was filled with some amazing sequences and intriguing international espionage.  Unfortunately, the remaining two storylines surrounding Rosomon and Conall were a little slower and I didn’t have as much fun reading them, even with their respective political intrigue and desert action elements.  I struggled a little to get through these specific storylines at times, especially towards the centre of the novel, and it slowed down my overall reading of Engines of Empire.  Still, both storylines end on interesting notes, and I think they might have more potential in the sequel.

Due to the narrative being focused on five specific central characters, Ford spends a lot of time in Engines of Empire exploring and building up some of the characters.  The main protagonists are the four members of the Hawkspur family, Rosomon, Conall, Tyreta and Fulren, each of whom have their own skill.  Due to certain tragedies in their past, the family is a bit dysfunctional, and there is a noticeable distance between them.  I liked seeing each of them go on their own distinctive journey throughout the book, and each of them does develop to a degree, especially Fulren and Tyreta.  However, I did find myself getting rather frustrated with some of the protagonists as the book continued, especially as there is a lot of narrative stupidity and inconsistent character work.  This is particularly true for Conall, who comes across as a whiney idiot for most of the novel, while Rosomon, who is supposed to be a brilliant leader and tactician, is soundly outsmarted at every turn and can’t even see the most obvious of traps.  I felt these negative character traits deeply impacted their individual storylines, and it made them harder to care for.  On the other hand, I felt the fifth point-of-view character, Lancelin Jagdor, rounded out the main cast extremely well.  Lancelin is a master swordsman who has a very complicated relationship with the Hawkspurs.  He finds himself getting dragged into their issues about halfway through the book, and I think his interesting outlook and unique experiences help to balance out the less enjoyable protagonists and produce a better story.

Aside from these five main protagonists, Ford has also included a great collection of supporting characters.  These supporting characters are usually unique to one of the main protagonists’ storylines and are primarily shown through their eyes.  Many of these characters prove to be allies or friends of the protagonist, although there are a few good antagonists thrown in there as well.  Some of my favourites include Sted, Conall’s hard-drinking second in command, whose fun, no nonsense personality helps to enhance Conall’s storyline to a degree.  I also had fun with Kosma Khonos, a ruthless Torwyn spy in the kingdom of Nyrakkis, Saranor the Bleeder, an over-the-top barbarian war chief, and Wenis, a foreign witch who becomes both a jailor and love interest to Fulren, which ends up being one of the more interesting relationships in the entire novel.  This huge web of supporting characters really helps to enhance the overall story and I look forward to seeing some of these elaborate and distinctive figures again in the future.

I was deeply impressed with the amazing new fantasy world featured in Engines of Empire, and it appears that Ford spent a significant amount of time developing it.  The main setting for the novel is the fascinating nation of Torwyn, a former religious nation that has been taken over by the Guilds, industrial powerhouses who now hold sway over the various industries.  Torwyn is built up beautifully by Ford, and you soon get the full sense of it, including its intriguing industrial aspects, magic-powered technology, dragon-based religion, and ruthless politics.  The arrangement of Torwyn leads to an intense civil war that looks set to shape the future of much of the novel and serves as a brutal and fantastic central setting for several storylines.  While Torwyn proves to be an exceptional area to explore, Ford goes above and beyond and takes the reader to several other intriguing locations within and without it.  Thanks to the adventurous characters, you see some of the more desolate and dangerous locations in the lands, such as the jungle-covered Sundered Isles, the war riven frontier, the snow-covered, barbarian-infested Huntan Reach, and the magical controlled nation of Nyrakkis.  While all these locations were pretty cool, I particularly loved the dive into Nyrakkis, which proved to be a very intricate location filled with intrigue and demonic magic.  The jungles of the Sundered Isles were also extremely awesome, and Ford provides an interesting examination of the tribes who were displaced by the Torwyn settlers, especially as Tyreta spends time amongst them and getting to know their culture.  Throw in an interesting blend of different magical practices and technologies, as well as a few fun creatures (giant war eagles and beast men for the win), and you have an extremely awesome world that I can’t wait to return to in the future books.

I ended up grabbing the audiobook version of Engines of Empire, which ended up being a very enjoyable experience.  With a run time of just over 22 hours, this is a pretty substantial audiobook (it would have come in at number 18 on my Top Ten Longest Audiobooks list), and it did take a fair bit of effort to get through, especially in some of the slower parts of the story.  Despite its length, I think that it is worth the time to get through this audiobook, especially as it proves to be an excellent way to absorb Engines of Empire’s story.  I always find myself really connecting more to new fantasy settings and characters in this format, and this happened again with Engines of Empire, as I really found myself absorbing all the interesting details about this world.  I also loved how the Engines of Empire audiobook had several different narrators including Alison Campbell, Ciaran Saward, Phoebe McIntosh, Ewan Goddard, Andrew Kingston, Martin Reeve and Stephen Perry.  These narrators provide a rich and powerful audible tapestry, with one narrator assigned to voice all the chapters told from the perspective of a specific point-of-view character.  Not only do the narrators do a good job capturing the personalities of the main characters they are portraying but they also provide some fun voices for the various supporting figures and antagonists.  While it is occasionally odd to hear a narrator start voicing a character who had appeared in other chapters, this ended being a great collection of voices and I loved how well they all brought the characters to life.  An overall excellent audiobook, I would strongly recommend this format to anyone who wants to check out Engines of Empire and I had a brilliant time listening to it.

I have to say that I was quite impressed with my first book from R. S. Ford.  Engines of Empire was an excellent read that takes the reader on an epic fantasy adventure.  Making awesome use of a big cast of characters, Ford transports his audience to a brilliant and elaborate fantasy realm filled with adventure, intrigue and betrayal.  I had an amazing time getting throughout Ford’s captivating narrative, and I loved the exception world building that he did.  While I didn’t enjoy all of the characters, Engines of Empire ended up being an outstanding read that does a wonderful job setting up his next The Age of Uprising novel.  A great fantasy novel that is really worth checking out, especially in its audiobook format.

Warhammer 40,000: Day of Ascension by Adrian Tchaikovsky

Day of Ascension Cover

Publisher: Black Library (Audiobook – 29 January 2022)

Series: Warhammer 40,000

Length: 5 hours and 38 minutes

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Legendary science fiction and fantasy author Adrian Tchaikovsky has arrived in the Warhammer 40,000 universe with the awesome and clever novel, Day of Ascension, a deadly and wildly entertaining read that sets two brilliant factions against each other.

2022 has so far proven to be an amazing year for Warhammer fiction, with several impressive novels already released, including Steel Tread by Andy Clark and The Twice-Dead King: Reign by Nate Crowley.  However, the Warhammer 40,000 novel I have been most excited for is Day of Ascension, an awesome and unique read written by acclaimed author Adrian Tchaikovsky.  Tchaikovsky has been wowing science fiction and fantasy audiences for years, producing several impressive novels across various genres.  Not only has he written some fantastic standalone novels but he also produced highly regarded series, such as the Shadows of the Apt and Children of Time books.  I have really liked the sound of his cool novels, but I had not had a chance to read any of them yet.  Once I saw that Tchaikovsky was contributing to the extended Warhammer 40,000 universe, I knew that this would be the year I finally read something from him.  Day of Ascension is Tchaikovsky first full novel in the Warhammer universe (he previously wrote the short story Raised in Darkness), and I was deeply impressed by the brilliant and captivating story he came up with.

On the forge world of Morod, the life and soul of every human belongs to the Adeptus Mechanicus, the Imperial machine cult who provide the armies of mankind with their weaponry and war machines.  However, while the tech-priests of the Adeptus Mechanicus live in comfort and prosperity, constantly delving into the secrets of the machine, the common people of Morod have been worn down by millennia of servitude, exploitation and conscription, doomed to either die young in the mines and foundries or be turned into mindless mechanical soldiers.  In their grief and anger, the civilians of Morod have turned to a new faith that offers salvation from the harsh rule of the Mechanicus, although that devotion comes with a dark price.

In the hierarchy of Morod’s Adeptus Mechanicus, Genetor Gammat Triskellian is considered a joke due to his focus on improving the flesh rather than replacing it with machinery.  Constantly overlooked by his superiors and given the most menial of tasks, Triskellian looks to find a way to advance his research and end the corruption he sees holding the order back.  When he uncovers a particularly interesting genetic strain in the populace of Morod, he thinks it could be the answer to all his prayers, one that could enhance his science and revolutionise the advancements of his order.

Digging further, he finds evidence of an unusual and twisted religious congregation operating throughout the planet, preaching rebellion and the destruction of the tech-priests, while awaiting the return of long-gone angels who will turn the planet into a paradise.  Seeking to use this congregation to his own advantage, Triskellian captures young, idealistic infiltrator Davien to find out more about her mutated family.  But as his plans begin to come into effect, Triskellian is about to discover that not everyone is meant to rule, and that the forces he seeks to control are far more dangerous and hungrier than he could possibly know.

What an epic and impressive read!  Tchaikovsky has dived into this franchise with great relish, producing an exceptional and powerful piece of Warhammer 40,000 fiction that is not only exciting and action packed, but also extremely thought provoking as the author examines some of this universe’s most complex and intriguing factions.

I had a lot of fun with the incredible story contained within Day of Ascension, as Tchaikovsky takes the reader on an intense and dark journey.  The main premise of this book is a fun one: what if an ambitious Imperial tech-priest attempts to utilise the deadly power of a Genestealer Cult for his own machinations?  The answer: absolute chaos as an entire world implodes in the fires of revolution, destruction and religious zeal.  This was a great story that Tchaikovsky sets up brilliantly in the early stages, quickly introducing the corrupt world of Morod, the choking hierarchy of the Adeptus Mechanicus, and the malignant underlying Genestealer Cult attempting to manipulate events from the shadows.  After this great introduction, the remaining story happens at a very fast pace, especially as this overall novel is fairly short (193 pages, or just over five and a half hours on audiobook).  The political and scientific intrigue of point-of-view character Triskellian runs straight into the revolutionary aspirations of the Genestealer Cult’s Davien with the expected destructive results.  I loved the brilliant clash of styles that occur between these two groups, and all the betrayal, manipulation and alien influences melds perfectly with the non-stop action and revolution.  This quickly leads up to a destructive and powerful conclusion that I deeply enjoyed and will leave you reeling in multiple ways.  There were some absolutely amazing twists towards the end, and I loved the resultant terrifying consequences to the wider universe which were really cool and deliciously ironic.  Tchaikovsky ends everything on a captivating and dark note which will leave readers extremely satisfied after getting engrossed in the impressive story.  This is an epic narrative that drags you right into the very heart of the worst parts of the Warhammer 40,000 universe.

I really must commend Tchaikovsky’s first dive into the Warhammer 40,000 universe as the author has a noticeable appreciation for this franchise and canon.  I loved how he expertly focused the story on two particularly sinister factions within this universe, while also making excellent use of an Imperial Forge World as the main setting of this book.  The two main factions of this novel are the tech-priest of the Adeptus Mechanicus and an undercover Genestealer Cult, the dangerous human/alien hybrids who act as infiltrators and forerunners of the Tyranids.  Tchaikovsky ensures that the reader gets an exceptional and detailed look at both factions, and you are soon immersed in their lore, politics, and motivations, which is just so fascinating.  There are so many cool things about this, from the unique interactions of the cybernetic tech-priests and the mechanical soldiers to the slow infiltration and incorporation of the Genestealers who spark revolution throughout the planet.  However, the best thing about this is the way in which Tchaikovsky’s expertly showcases one of the most inescapable facts of the Warhammer 40,000 universe: there are no actual good guys here; just self-serving fanatics with their own terrible agendas formed from a universe constantly at war.  This is so brilliantly highlighted in the fact that halfway through the book you find yourself on the side of the alien infiltrators, who are taking advantage of the terrible conditions on Morod to spark a revolution.  However, no matter how beneficial and beatific they may appear, preaching about angels and the better days ahead, there is still an amazing sinister edge to them, especially if you know what horrors they are actually referring to.  I loved how brilliantly these two unique and corrupt Warhammer factions are played off each other, and it proves to be an excellent background to this awesome novel.

Like most Warhammer tie-in novels, Day of Ascension is probably best enjoyed by those fans of the franchise, especially as Tchaikovsky looks at some obscure and unique parts of the canon.  While maybe a little too-lore heavy to serve as the best introduction to the Warhammer 40,000 universe, I felt that this is an easy enough book for new fans to get into, especially if they are established science fiction fans.  Tchaikovsky ensures that the various story elements feature the right amount of detail and I the various factions are introduced extremely well especially to new readers.  I do feel that readers who don’t quite understand what the Genestealers and their Tyranid masters are might not get the true horror of this book and its conclusion, and I personally enjoyed the novel more because I knew what the true nature of the Genestealer’s plans were.  However, new readers probably will get the full benefit of this as it is made pretty clear from the context.  As such, I would probably recommend this to both established Warhammer fans and general science fiction readers, especially if they have enjoyed Tchaikovsky’s writings in the past, and I know a lot of people with have a great deal of fun with this.

I deeply enjoyed the cool and over-the-top characters featured throughout Day of Ascension, especially the main two characters, Triskellian and Davien, who act as the point-of-view characters for the novel.  Both are fantastic figures who are fully enveloped in the massive machines of their organisations, whether they like it or not, and who spend much of the book trying to battle what they see as their oppressors.  As such they form a brilliant tandem of opposing views, which perfectly shapes the morally grey nature of the narrative and makes it very unclear which one of these inherently terrible people you should be rooting for.  I particularly liked the character of Triskellian as the author envisions him as a thoroughly underappreciated middle management figure who is ignored and ridiculed by his superiors who fail to understand his work.  This constant mistreatment causes Triskellian to snap in this novel and he starts doing some darker deeds to gain what he believes is rightfully his.  I loved seeing this brilliantly portrayed figure, who will be clearly understood by anyone whose worked under an idiot boss, slowly slip off the deep end and attempt to use an evil alien cult to fulfil his objectives.  This character has some amazing moments, and it was so much fun seeing him try to manipulate events around him, only to be surprised that nothing goes to plan.  I also found his focus on genetics and biology to be quite fascinating, especially for a tech-priest, and his obsession with alterations on the flesh ended up having some intriguing parallels with the objectives of the Genestealer cult.

Davien, on the other hand, is an oppressed member of Morod’s population who acts as an infiltrator and spy for the Genestealer Cult she is a part of.  Frustrated by the slow pace of the promised revolution and the eventual appearance of their “saviours”, Davien has some outstanding scenes throughout Day of Ascension as she tries to save her loved ones from the machinations of the tech-priests.  Her rise in status and closeness to the powers that guide her family occur at the exact same time that she starts to have doubts about her organisations purpose, and the subsequent internal battle is extremely powerful and captivating, especially if you know just how right she is to be worried about the future.  Davien goes through a lot of growth, and it is fascinating to see what happens during her character arc, especially when it comes to her interactions with Triskellian and the influences of the beings guiding the cult.  Day of Ascension also has several great supporting characters who get their moments to shine throughout the book.  While most of them are a bit over-the-top in their appearance and personality, they prove to be very entertaining and I loved the outrageous and mechanically deformed highly ranked tech-priests who so badly enrage the protagonists.  There is a particularly good twist surrounding one of the minor support characters that I thought was extremely brilliant, especially as there is some subtle set up for it earlier on, and it results in an outstanding ending for the entire book.  An overall excellent cast of characters make this shorter Warhammer novel really shine.

Just like most of the Warhammer novels I have had the pleasure of reading, I chose to check out Day of Ascension in its audiobook format, which was an impressive and enjoyable experience.  As I mentioned above, this audiobook has a very short runtime and you can quickly power through it, especially once you get stuck into the intriguing and clever story.  I deeply enjoyed how this format enhanced this great narrative, and it was a lot of fun to hear all the chaos and destruction being read to you.  I must commend the narrator of Day of Ascension, actor Harry Myers, who did an exceptional job here.  I loved Myers’ great voice, which at times strongly reminded me of Stephen Fry, which is a definite plus.  Myers really dives into the various characters here, and I loved the brilliant edges he gives to them, especially the main character Triskellian.  You can really sense Triskellian’s frustration, ambition and internal outrage as the events of the novel proceeds, and this helps you to get into the mind of this entertaining figure.  An extremely cool way to enjoy Day of Ascension, I would strongly recommend this format to anyone interesting in checking out this great Warhammer 40,000 novel.

With this clever and exciting novel, Adrian Tchaikovsky has a brilliant debut in the Warhammer 40,000 universe.  Day of Ascension is an epic and intriguing novel that takes a fascinating look at two exceptional factions from the Warhammer canon and brings them together in a dark and entertaining battle of wills and manipulation.  Containing a tight, addictive story, some great characters, and a deep examination on some of the best parts of the Warhammer 40,000 universe, Day of Ascension is an outstanding read.  I really hope that Tchaikovsky writes more Warhammer fiction in the future as he absolutely killed it here.

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

Star Wars - The Fallen Star

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

Series: Star Wars – The High Republic

Length: 13 hours and 31 minutes

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Star Wars - The Fallen Star Cover 3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Star Wars - The Fallen Star Cover 2

The Burning Road by Harry Sidebottom

The Burning Road Cover

Publisher: Zaffre (Trade Paperback – 5 January 2022)

Series: Standalone/Warrior of Rome

Length: 344 pages

My Rating: 4.75 out of 5 stars

One of my favourite historical fiction authors, Harry Sidebottom, returns with another epic and intense historical adventure, The Burning Road, a fun-filled, action-packed thriller.

There are some amazing historical fiction authors out there now who focus on Roman history to create some excellent and compelling novels.  However, one of the best is the extremely talented Harry Sidebottom, a historian turned author who has been producing some awesome and unique reads.  I have been a major fan of Sidebottom ever since reading his debut novel, Fire in the East (an exceptional siege novel) back in 2008.  I really enjoyed his Warrior of Rome (which followed a Germanic Roman soldier, Ballista) and Throne of the Caesars series, both of which contained some exceptional historical elements.  Sidebottom has also had a lot of success recently with some standalone novels, especially his last three books, which cleverly combined his historical knowledge with elements from thriller subgenres.  This included his 2018 release, The Last Hour, which brought back Ballista and set him on a 24-esque romp through ancient Rome; The Lost Ten, which was reminiscent of special forces thrillers; and The Return, a dark and complex murder mystery that had interesting Scandi noir overtones.  I deeply enjoyed all these previous novels, and I was very excited when I received a copy of Sidebottom’s latest book, The Burning Road, a couple of weeks ago.

Sicily, 265 AD.  Throughout the strategic volcanic island, a call of freedom has been heard as a charismatic slave starts to rally his fellow enslaved workers.  The various estates and towns are in a state of uproar as vicious slaves and captured barbarian warriors rise up to kill their masters.  As the revolution gains strength and results in greater bloodshed, the fate of the island may rest in the hands of a legendary warrior, Marcus Clodius Ballista.

After years of fighting for corrupt emperors and battling deadly Roman politics, Ballista is finally free from his responsibilities, determined to enter retirement.  Whilst travelling with his eldest son, Marcus, to his estates on Sicily, their ship hits a terrible storm, forcing it aground on the west coast of the island.  Barely surviving the rough surf and destructive storm, Ballista and Marcus are soon thrust into even greater danger when a band of armed slaves mercilessly kills the other shipwrecked survivors.

Barely escaping the rampaging slaves, Ballista leads his son inland, hoping to discover what chaos has befallen Sicily.  They soon discover that the entire island is in revolution, with any non-slave at risk at being killed or brutalised.  Determined to keep his son alive and rescue his family on the other side of the island, Ballista and Marcus attempt to cross the entirety of Sicily on foot.  Constantly harassed by marauding bands of former slaves, the two Romans must find a way to survive and reach their family before it is too late.  But can the old veteran and rash youth work together to survive and save all of Sicily, or will one of Rome’s greatest warriors finally be finished off by rampaging slaves?

Wow, now this was a fun and intense novel from Sidebottom, who once again highlights his skill as a particularly inventive author of Roman historical fiction.  I deeply enjoyed The Burning Road, especially as Sidebottom once again combines compelling historical elements with an impressive and action-packed thriller storyline.

I had a lot of fun with the incredible and extremely fast-paced narrative that Sidebottom featured in The Burning Road.  While it took me a little while to get into this book (mainly because I couldn’t find any reading time), once I started, I honestly couldn’t stop, and I ended up powering through The Burning Road in less than a day.  The Burning Road has a brilliant story that pits Sidebottom’s best protagonist, Ballista, and his teenage son right in the middle of an intense slave revolt on Sicily.  Sidebottom sets this all up perfectly, with a quick prologue to establish that the slave revolt has occurred, before focusing entirely on Ballista and Marcus, who are shipwrecked off the coast of the island.  At first, the scenario reminded me of another historical fiction novel, The Gladiator by Simon Scarrow, which featured slaves revolting on Crete.  However, Sidebottom takes this in a very different direction, with a dark and non-stop story that sees the protagonist forced to navigate across the island, encountering all manner of odd characters and a ton of enemies.  The first two-thirds of the book see the protagonists on their own, walking a hellish volcanic landscape filled with murderous slaves, which was so damn cool.  Sidebottom was clearly trying to emulate some post-apocalyptic thrillers here, and there is even a scene that is a brilliant homage to The Road.  This makes for some intense and bloody sequences, and you will find yourself glued to the pages as you wait to see what danger they will encounter next.  The final third of the book sees Sidebottom return to his original writing element as Ballista is drafted into leading the defence of a besieged city.  This leads to an amazing and unique set of siege sequences, as Ballista and a small force of civilians attempt to hold back an overwhelming army of enraged slaves, which leads to a bloody and satisfying conclusion.  I loved this brilliant combination of story elements, especially the brutal walk across Sicily, and it makes for one heck of a story.

One of the best things about The Burning Road was the compelling central characters, especially as Sidebottom used it to tell a touching an enjoyable father-son story.  The first of these is Ballista, the protagonist of the Warrior of Rome series, who returns for another gruelling adventure.  As a former Germanic prince turned Roman soldier, siege expert and noble, Ballista is an old hand at danger and once again rises to the challenge even with his advancing age.  However, this time Ballista is forced to undertake his battled filled journey with his young teenage son, Marcus (also called Isangrim).  Setting Ballista and Marcus up as the main point of view characters, Sidebottom tells a fascinating tale that not only follows their desperate journey but which dives into their relationship and personality.  Due to Ballista’s military career, these two aren’t particularly close, with Marcus slightly resenting his barbarian father.  However, over the course of the book the two slowly grow closer as they face constant ordeal.  Sidebottom paces this growth in their relationship perfectly and you soon get really invested in seeing how much they begin to trust and rely on each other.  I enjoyed seeing this paternal side of Ballista, which enhanced his already complex character, and Marcus grows to become an enjoyable companion, especially as he begins to realise everything his father has done for him and how he has tried to prepare him.  This great father-son relationship becomes a major part of the book’s plot, and it put me in mind of some other similar adventures such as The Road, or even the recent God of War game (I may have imagined Ballista speaking in Christopher Judge’s voice).  This was a brilliant and powerful heart to the entire book, and it will be fascinating to see how much Marcus is featured in any of Sidebottom’s future novels.

I was also very impressed with the interesting historical detail that Sidebottom featured throughout The Burning Road.  The author has clearly done a ton of research on the various subjects contained within and there is a comprehensive reference section at the back, including a history book written by Sidebottom himself.  As such there is an amazing sense of authenticity to the setting and figures featured within The Burning Road which really helps to drag the reader into the story.  This period of Roman history has always been a rich ground for Sidebottom’s novels, and it was fascinating to see some more detail about the politics of the time.  I loved all the awesome detail about Sicily, which proves to be an exceptional and fascinating background setting for the story.  Sidebottom, who has visited Sicily many times, does a great job of filling in the historical blanks around the island and he portrays it as it would have appeared during Roman times.  All this impressive attention to environmental detail results in some cool romps through forests, mountains and ancient towns, and I think that the author really captured the historical soul of this island.  One of the big historical elements that Sidebottom invests a lot of time exploring is slavery during the Roman era.  The author includes a fascinating examination of how slaves are treated during this period, as well as some of the philosophical thought surrounding the entire process, both from the masters and the slaves.  The subsequent slave revolt really helps to highlight the Romans’ reliance on a large population of slaves to maintain their society and having the outsider Ballista explore this provided an interesting alternate perspective to the practice.  I also deeply appreciate the desperation and anger that the various slave characters had, which helped to turn them into a sympathetic enemy, even if you want the protagonists to survive more.  All this really added a lot to the overall story, and I look forward to seeing which area or historical period Sidebottom will explore next.

The Burning Road was another exceptional and epic read from Harry Sidebottom, who continues to flourish as one of the most inventive and exciting authors of historical fiction out there.  This latest novel features an intense and unique historical fiction tale chock full of action, character growth and some fascinating bits of period detail.  I had an absolute blast getting through this amazing novel, and The Burning Road comes very highly recommended as a result.

Unforgiven by Sarah Barrie

Unforgiven Cover

Publisher: HQ (Trade Paperback – 1 December 2021)

Series: Standalone/Book One

Length: 480 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Talented Australian author Sarah Barrie presents one of the darkest and best Australian thriller novels of 2021 with Unforgiven, a powerful and captivating read that sets determined protagonists against the very worst of human monsters.

Years ago, the city of Sydney was haunted by a terrible paedophile and murderer known as the Spider, who kidnapped, molested and killed young girls, all on camera.  His reign of terror was ended suddenly one violent night thanks to two women, a determined rookie police officer, Rachael Langley, and one of the Spider’s young victims, Lexi Winter, who disappeared never to be seen again.

Now, after years of living on the street, Lexi has grown up tough and hard, determined to escape the tortures of her childhood through alcohol while trying to reconnect with the sister she was forced to leave behind.  However, Lexi is still obsessed with taking down monsters, and with her impressive hacking skills she spends her days tracking paedophiles, entrapping them, and ensuring they are captured by the police.  However, when her latest target proves to be particularly illusive online, she makes a fateful decision to break into his house, only to witness him being murdered.

At the same time, Rachael Langley is now a successful detective inspector, solving some of the toughest crimes in Sydney.  Still lauded for her role in stopping the Spider, Rachael lives in regret for being unable to save Lexi all those years before.  However, everything changes when a man calls her, claiming to be the real Spider and providing proof by horrifically murdering another child on camera.  Quickly establishing a police taskforce, Rachael and her team must determine if the killer is a copycat or whether Rachael captured the wrong man all those years ago.  To solve this case Rachael is going to need help from the last person who wants to see her, Lexi, but can these women work together after everything they have been through?  And what happens when their killer learns that Lexi is still alive and hunting for him?

This was an intense, grim and deeply compelling Australian crime fiction read from Barrie, who has written an amazing and powerful story that proves very hard to put down.  Unforgiven was the first of Barrie’s books that I have read, although several of her other Australian crime fiction novels are quite intriguing and I might try and read them at some point after being so captivated by this epic and moving read.  This was such an addictive novel that it gets a full five-star rating from me.

Barrie has come up with a very impressive and intense narrative for Unforgiven that sees several damaged characters dragged into the web of a dangerous and clever criminal.  The story has a great start that showcases the lives of the main protagonists, Lexi, Rachael and Rachael’s nephew and fellow police officer Finn, as well as giving some hints at the events of the original Spider case that so deeply impacted the female main characters.  After this quick set-up, the story advances in all its dark and powerful glory, as two fascinating plot lines develop.  Lexi, who has become an online vigilante hunting paedophiles on the dark web, finds herself caught up in a brutal murder when one of her targets is murdered by a mysterious figure while she is sneaking into his house.  Most of her early story involves her continued attempt to hunt paedophiles while also trying to find a way to hide the body of the murdered man, for which she gains some help from an interesting source.  At the same time, Rachael and Finn become involved in a brutal case when the man claiming to be the real Spider calls Rachael and leads them to murdered young girl, forcing them to once again dive into the unsettling world of paedophiles.

Both storylines advance at a quick and compelling pace, with each of the main protagonists facing massive challenges as they attempt to achieve their objectives.  I liked this initial separation of the storyline, and the two plotlines work well together in tandem, with the reader getting pretty caught up in both narrative threads.  At the same time, the author drip-feeds in bits and pieces of Lexi and Rachael’s pasts, especially the events that led up to the arrest of the Spider and the disappearance of Lexi.  This deepens the audiences’ connections to the two protagonists so that when their storylines inevitably connect it really enhances the impact of the scene.  Unforgiven shifts into high gear once these plotlines are joined, with all three protagonists working towards the same goals, although Lexi maintains her secrets.  Barrie starts throwing in some real curveballs here, providing a complex and intriguing case that throws the protagonists through the emotional wringer as they get closer to the big and powerful conclusion of the novel.  There are some great twists in the last half of the book and while I saw a couple of things coming, there were some fantastic surprises that really threw me.  This ends up being an outstanding and complex story, and the readers will be left wanting more, especially as Barrie leaves it open for a sequel, which I really hope she does.

While I deeply enjoyed the captivating and intense story contained within Unforgiven, this was a bit of a hard novel to read at times due to its very, very dark content.  Unforgiven focuses on the hunt for a murderous paedophile and his child exploiting friends, which inevitably leads to some depictions of the terrible acts they commit, not only to children in the current storyline, but to the protagonist Lexi back in her childhood.  Barrie really does not pull any punches here, and the book contains some very dark and grim moments that really stick in the mind.  These powerful and shocking scenes really raised the stakes of the book and ensured that the reader becomes extremely invested in seeing the protagonists achieve justice through their actions.  While I really appreciated that Barrie was trying to raise awareness and showcase just how evil some people can be, I will admit that some of these scenes did get to be a bit much at times, forcing me to stop and put the book down.  Readers are warned that Unforgiven has very strong themes of violence and abuse against children and young people.  However, if you can get past that, it is worth it, as Barrie does an excellent job telling this rough story about true human evil.

Unforgiven’s already brilliant and powerful narrative is enhanced by the impressively written and complex central characters contained within.  Barrie has gone out of her way to introduce several very damaged and compelling protagonists, each of whom add so much to the overall plot thanks to their excellent backstories and substantial development.  The most prominent and interesting of these characters are the two female leads of the book, Lexi Winter and Detective Inspector Rachael Langley, whose lives became irreparably entangled all those years ago.  These two characters serve as two of the three main point-of-view characters, with most of the story told from their perspectives.

Lexi was a great character, and I was deeply impressed with the amount of work that Barrie put into her complex and damaging past, as well as her distinctive current personality.  There were so many interesting aspects to Lexi, who immediately stands out as a protagonist thanks to her damaged personality, strong sense of deduction and observation, her badass ability with a computer and the fact that she is the only character whose chapters are told in the first person.  I loved the intriguing contradictions in her life as Lexi makes a living as an escort while devoting most of her personal life to being an online vigilante/hacker extraordinaire who specialises in taking paedophiles down.  This makes for such a distinctive character, especially once you figure in all the major impacts of her childhood that has left her such an emotional mess.  Barrie does a good job of slowly revealing all the horrors of her early life, and while some of the scenes are pretty brutal, it is amazing to see everything that the character has risen above to still be such a strong figure.  The reader swiftly gets attached to Lexi as a protagonist and it will be fascinating to see what happens to her next if Barrie decides to turn this into a series.

The other central character that I must talk about is Rachael, the veteran detective inspector whose career was built off the success of the Spider case.  Rachael is a great police protagonist, a confident, intelligent and strong figure who is able to keep most of her people in line and pursue a vigorous investigation.  However, Barrie builds in several great aspects to her character that really impact this protagonist throughout the course of Unforgiven.  Firstly, there is the guilt that Rachael still feels over her past with Lexi, especially as Rachael failed her in a way which is slowly revealed over the course of the book, especially once the two reunite and have an awkward relationship.  The other aspect is the doubt that slowly creeps into Rachael as the case proceeds, especially as the possibility that the original person convicted in the Spider case might be innocent.  This doubt, coupled with the guilt over the fact that she could be responsible for the latest deaths by not actually catching the real Spider, starts to impact her throughout the book and proves to be an intriguing motivator for some of her decisions.  These complex aspects really helped enhance the emotional power of Unforgiven and I really appreciated the intense storyline that Barrie wrote about people living in the past and accepting one’s mistakes.  I really enjoyed seeing both Lexi and Rachael in this novel, and they had some great storylines in this book.

Aside from Lexi and Rachael, there are several other great characters in Unforgiven I should mention.  The most prominent of these must be Detective Senior Sergeant Finn Carson, Rachael’s nephew and second-in-command of the investigation, who ends up being the third major point-of-view character.  Finn was an excellent male police character who serves as an interesting counterpoint to the two female protagonists.  While not as damaged as the other two, Finn has his own issues, and his viewpoint really added to the overall quality of the book.  I was also a big fan of Lexi’s neighbour Dawny, an eccentric older woman who assists Lexi in several matters, including disposing of a body (what are good neighbours for?).  Dawny was one of the funniest characters in the book and it was great to see the protagonists be completely baffled by her knowledge and ability to come up with effective solutions to problems while maintaining the batty old lady routine.  I quite liked the eventual reveal of who Dawny really was, as it fit in well with the other characters in the book, and it will be fun to see if Barrie brings her back at some point in the future.  Finally, I definitely need to highlight the villain of the book, the Spider, who is one of the most despicable fictional antagonists I have seen: a sordid child abuser and murderer who films their grisly crimes.  You quickly feel a lot of hate towards this character, even if you don’t know who they are for most of the story.  The eventual reveal and the various twists around them were quite clever and I had an amazing, if disturbing, time finding out who this monster was.  An overall exceptional character driven novel, you will quickly find yourself getting stuck following all these fascinating and compelling figures.

Unforgiven by Sarah Barrie is an outstanding and impressive read that takes the reader of a gritty and vicious ride.  Filled with a disturbing narrative and some brilliantly damaged central characters, Unforgiven is an utterly captivating read that is near impossible to put down or forget about.  Easily one of the best Australian thrillers of 2021, Unforgiven comes highly recommended and I am extremely excited to see what other incredible novels Barrie comes up with in the future.

The Judge’s List by John Grisham

The Judge's List Cover

Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton (Trade Paperback – 19 October 2021)

Series: Standalone/The Whistler – Book Two

Length: 359 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Those interested in a tense, complex and brilliant thriller should definitely check out the latest novel from legendary crime fiction author John Grisham, The Judge’s List.

Grisham is an exceedingly talented author who has been producing impressive and distinctive legal-based thrillers since his 1989 debut, A Time to Kill.  Grisham has since written over 40 novels, made up of mostly standalone reads with a couple of series thrown in, such as his Theodore Boone children’s thrillers.  Most of these books have been absolute hits, with several being turned into massive films or other adaptations such as The Firm, The Pelican Brief, The Rainmaker, and The Runaway Jury.  While I have enjoyed some of the movies that came out of his work, I haven’t actually ever read one of Grisham’s novels before.  So when I received a copy of Grisham’s latest book, The Judge’s List, I decided to check it out, not only to finally see how this author writes but because I really liked the sound of its awesome plot.

Throughout America’s long judicial history, no judge has ever been convicted or charged with murder, but that is about to change.  In Florida all criminal accusations against judges are handled by the Florida Board on Judicial Conduct, and their chief investigator is Lacy Stolz.  Still recovering from her ordeals during her last big case and forced to deal with the chronic underfunding affecting her agency, Lacy is strongly considering a new career path.  However, an intriguing new case may relight the fire within her when a mysterious woman contacts her, wishing to report a serious crime.

For years, Jeri Crosby has been hunting the man who murdered her father using every investigative trick and avenue she can find, while concealing her identity behind a series of elaborate aliases.  Jeri finally believes that she knows who killed her father, and her prime suspect is a sitting judge in Florida.  While this judge appears to be a dedicated legal professional, Jeri believes that he is the most dangerous form a serial killer capable of concealing his identity and using his vast legal and forensic knowledge to hide his tracks and keep his very existence secret from the police.

Determined to stop this killer no matter what, Jeri provides all her evidence to Lacy, who she believes can connect the pieces she cannot.  While initially reluctant to investigate a murder, even one potentially committed by a judge, Lacy is eventually dragged into the case by her own curiosity and sense of justice.  However, the suspected killer is no easy target; he is a compassionless psychopath capable of hunting down anyone who has ever wronged him and permanently ending them.  Now he has both Lacy and Jeri on his list of potential victims, and he is coming for both of them!

This was an amazing novel from Grisham which proves that I really should have read some of his stuff a long time ago.  The Judge’s List has a captivating and clever narrative that pits two determined women against a lethal and brilliant killer determined to survive no matter the costs.  Serving as a sequel to Grisham’s previous novel, The Whistler, The Judge’s List was an outstanding thrill ride that I had an incredible time reading.

I deeply enjoyed the amazing story of The Judge’s List as Grisham came up with an extremely clever and impressive thriller narrative.  The author starts things off extremely quickly, reintroducing the protagonist of The Whistler, Lacy Stoltz, and bringing her into contact with new character Jeri Crosby, who tells Lacy the story about the man who murdered her father.  Grisham drip feeds the details of who the killer is and what they have done to the reader, ensuring that they have just enough to whet their curiosity, without overloading them.  Thanks to the compelling and unique story that the clearly fearful Jeri tells, the readers are swiftly wrapped up in the plot, and this brilliant introduction ensures that they will come back for more.  The novel swiftly continues from here as Jeri reveals more details about the murderer she is stalking, setting him up as a real monster who is seemingly supernatural in his ability to avoid detection and destroy those hunting him.  As Lacy gets closer to starting the investigation, you start to get some scenes shown from the perspective of the killer, whose intense and chilling point of view serves as a grim counterpoint to that of the protagonists.  While Grisham initially keeps the identity of the killer hidden during his scenes to help cast doubt on Jeri’s story, you soon get a very good picture of who the killer is and why they are committing their crimes.

This proves to be an exceptional setup for when the killer become aware of the investigation and starts to take some drastic measures to eliminate their pursuers and fulfil their master plan.  I loved the impressive and clever cat-and-mouse game that soon develops as the killer attempts to stay one step ahead of the protagonists while also discovering who they are and how they can be eliminated.  There are some powerful and brutal moments in this second part of the book, and I honestly had a very hard time putting it down once I got concerned for the characters.  This second half of the book was just outstanding and it all leads up to an intriguing and surprising conclusion.  While I might have preferred a more legal-based ending, perhaps with some sort of trial, I appreciated the brilliant moves that the antagonist pulled and it was an overall satisfying and fantastic way to wrap this excellent story up.

I had a great time with the impressive writing style in this book and it has definitely made me want to check out more of Grisham’s work in the future.  The author tells a clever and sharp story, and there are some amazing twists and turns that I didn’t see coming.  I appreciated how the author revealed the identity of the killer quite early in the book and the rest of the narrative follows the protagonists’ attempts to prove it and then catch him, which was a refreshing change.  Thanks to the cool plot point of the killer being a well-respected genius judge, this proves to be a very complex and intense investigation, and you are honestly uncertain if the protagonists will succeed in their investigation.  I found the inclusion of a judicial conduct board to be an interesting investigative base for the narrative, and it was fascinating to see Grisham utilise his legal knowledge to make this organisation and the characters associated with it feel very realistic.  The author’s use of various perspectives worked well here, especially as you get some amazing shots from the antagonists’ point of view, and you really end up with a full and distinctive plot.  I can say with confidence that readers need no knowledge of any of Grisham’s previous books to enjoy The Judge’s List despite it being a sequel to The Whistler.  I deeply enjoyed the story this book contained and the way that Grisham told it, and it proved to be very addictive.

I also need to highlight the great characters contained within The Judge’s List, especially its two central protagonists, Lacy Stoltz and Jeri Crosby.  Lacy is the returning protagonist from The Whistler, and Grisham introduces some great storylines around her that impact how she investigates the case in this book.  Lacy is still traumatised and damaged after the murder attempt that occurred in the first book, which makes her reluctant to get involved with another dangerous case, especially with the increased profile her previous success has given her.  Lacy has also reached a bit of a mid-life crisis here as she is facing stagnation in both her career and her romantic life.  This becomes a major part of her character as the book progresses, and it was interesting to see her try and balance them with her role in the case.  I also liked the intriguing reluctant investigator angle that Grisham worked into this character, as Lacy isn’t convinced that she should be involved with a murder case.  However, her inherent curiosity and sense of justice keep dragging her back into the investigation despite her better judgement, and it makes for an intriguing story angle.  I had a great time getting to know Lacy in this book and I would love to see more of her in the future.

The other major protagonist is Jeri Crosby, who has been hunting the book’s killer for years.  The author does an amazing job with this character, and you soon get introduced to a dedicated woman deeply obsessed with finding the person who murdered her father.  I loved the great storylines written around Jeri, and it was amazing to see the various impacts of her obsession, including failed relationships and estrangements from family.  Despite her obsession, Jeri is a very collected and cautious person who has adapted to hunt the monster that killed her father.  For most of the book Jeri appears to be extremely paranoid, due to her belief that the killer can track down any pursuer and make them disappear, and I loved how Grisham justified her concerns.  Watching this character finally get to bask in the success of her lifelong venture is pretty cool, although I do question some of Jeri’s choices during the final stages of the case.  Still, this was a brilliant bit of character work here and I deeply enjoyed diving into the psyche of this obsessed character.

While I deeply enjoyed the protagonists of The Judge’s List, the true standout character must be its complex and dangerous antagonist who serves as a brilliant counterbalance to Lacy and Jeri.  Grisham has gone out of his way to produce a truly impressive and distinctive antagonist here, and I loved the concept of a murderous judge who uses their position and knowledge to get away with their crimes.  The author sets them up perfectly, first introducing the idea of the killer through Jeri’s eyes, and then fleshing them out in person with several excellent and thrilling chapters shown from their perspective.  From there, you find yourself caught in the mental web of an unrepentant killer, who acts on petty grudges for their own self-satisfaction.  You really get a sense of what this villain is capable as the book continues, and I found myself really starting to hate him, which is enraging as he manages to slip a lot of nets and proves to be near impossible to catch.  Grisham does a brilliant job diving into the head of this great antagonist, and the reader is given a powerful view into their motivations and history, ensuring that they know how and why he became a killer.  I really enjoyed following this excellent antagonist, and I thought that his character arc went perfectly, and it was fascinating to see the lengths they will go to win, no matter the personal cost.

Overall, The Judge’s List was an intense and impressive novel from John Grisham, which is making me really regret not checking out any of his books sooner.  This latest novel had a brilliant and powerful plot that takes the reader deep into the mind of a demented killer.  Filled with complex and compelling character moments and a thrilling and twist-filled narrative, I had an exceptional time reading The Judge’s List and it comes extremely highly recommended.  I will definitely be reading more books from Grisham in the future, and I cannot wait to see what other outstanding novels he has written.

Throwback Thursday – Beastslayer by William King

Beastslayer Cover

Publisher: Black Library (Paperback – February 2001)

Series: Gotrek and Felix – Book 5

Length: 275 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Beastslayer 2

All of Us Villains by Amanda Foody and Christine Lynn Herman

All of us Villains Cover

Publisher: Gollancz (Trade Paperback – 9 November 2021)

Series: All of Us Villains – Book One

Length: 388 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All of us Villains Cover 2