City of Lies by Sam Hawke

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Publisher: Bantam Press

Publication Date – 3 July 2018

 

Poison, murder, conspiracy, and war are all on the way for readers of City of Lies, one of the best fantasy reads of the year from Canberra author Sam Hawke.

In the country of Sjona, the capital city of Silasta is a glittering beacon of culture and art.  Young nobleman Jovan and his family serve a special role, subtly protecting Sjona’s ruler, the Chancellor, and his heirs from being poisoned.  As a result of his training, Jovan is now capable of detecting and identifying poisons that could be slipped to his charges.  While his uncle and mentor directly protects the Chancellor, Jovan serves the Chancellor’s carefree young heir, Tain.

When Jovan and Tain return to the city following a diplomatic journey, they are soon placed in a terrible situation.  The impossible has happened: an unidentified poison has been slipped to the Chancellor, killing him and Jovan’s uncle.  Without their respective mentors’ guidance both young men are thrust into new roles: Tain as an untested Chancellor, and Jovan now responsible for the safety of his nation’s ruler.

However, things can always get worse.  A mysterious army has arrived undetected at the gates of Silasta, and the city, which has never known anything but peace, is soon besieged.  The army appears to be made up of Sjona’s peasants and contains powerful individuals in control of spirits.  With the majority of the military far away fighting in another conflict, few professional soldiers are left to defend Silasta, and Tain must lead a desperate defence against a superior force.

As the siege continues, it soon becomes apparent that not everything is as it seems.  Why is the city being attacked, and how did no one see this coming?  A deep conspiracy lies across the capital and no one can be trusted, not even Silasta’s ruling council.  It also appears that the person who killed the Chancellor is still at large within the city and is aiming to poison Tain as well.  As Jovan utilises all his skill to protect his friend, his sister Kalina searches for the traitors hiding inside their walls.

City of Lies is Australian author Sam Hawke’s debut novel and represents an outstanding first outing from a remarkable new talent.  This ambitious book contains a fantastic plot, with some unique story elements and an elaborate thriller narrative that combines perfectly with the book’s overarching fantasy narrative.  This is the first book in Hawke’s planned Poison War series, and is focused on two separate point-of-view characters, Jovan and Kalina, who each narrate around half the book.

This book contains an amazing and extremely compelling overarching thriller narrative that sees the protagonist attempt to unravel the conspiracies surrounding their city.  Hawke has put a lot of work into creating an elaborate and multilayered plot that draws the reader in with its significant intrigue.  The is so much for the reader to discover as the protagonists try to work out who the army attacking them is, what their motives are, and how the siege relates to the secrets of the ruling class.  This intrigue-driven storyline is amped up even more once it is revealed that the person who poisoned the chancellor might not be a member of the army camped outside the city.  Hawke presents the reader with a number of likely suspects, most of whom are on the city’s ruling council, as well as a range of interesting and plausible motives for the betrayal.  The full extent of the interwoven conspiracies is quite impressive, and Hawke presents an extremely captivating storyline of the protagonists unravelling the plot that is guaranteed to pull in the reader’s full attention.  This is definitely a high point of this fantastic book.

One of City of Lies’ standout features is Hawke’s substantial focus on poisons and role the main character plays in protecting the city’s ruler from harmful substances.  At the start of the story, the Chancellor and the protagonists’ uncle are both poisoned and killed by an unknown toxin.  Jovan, who already served Tain as his ‘proofer’, a combination food taster, poison master, and trusted personal chef, spends the rest of the book trying to defend Tain from a poisoner he knows is out there, who apparently has access to a poison he has no idea how to detect or cure.  The battle of wits between Jovan and the poisoner is an intense part of the book’s narrative, and the reader can feel the desperation that Jovan feels trying to keep his friend and, by extension, his city alive.  There are some great scenes throughout this book as Jovan attempts to work out how poison could be administered to Tain, as well as trying to work out potential cures and solutions to the poison’s victims.

In addition to examining the tension that the book’s poison elements elicit, Hawke also spends a significant amount of time exploring the various toxins of her universe and the techniques of the book’s poison ‘proofers’.  The descriptions of these skills in training is utterly fascinating, and the author has come up with some amazing ideas that prove to be enthralling for the reader.  In addition, Hawke has chosen to deepen the audience’s interest and knowledge of her universe’s poisons by including a page of the protagonist’s ‘proofer tome’ before each chapter in the book.  These pages contain a description of the poison, what effects it has when administrated and what clues the proofer can use to identify the poison in food, such as taste or texture.  This is a fun addition that also contains some information relevant to the book’s plot, and the readers will find themselves deeply exploring the lore being presented to them.  Another cool feature was the way in which Jovan uses his knowledge and cache of poisons in an offensive manner against his opponents to compensate for his lack of martial skill.  There are some fantastic scenes where Jovan uses a range of different substances in the middle of battles, as well as some excellent sequences where he doses potential opponents in advance of a confrontation.

Special mention should also be given to the wonderful fantasy setting that Hawke has created for City of Lies.  The vast majority of the plot is set within the capital of Silasta, a large city that has a reputation and preference for culture and the arts, whilst viewing violence and warfare as a distasteful profession.  The author does an amazing job describing this city’s many wonders, whilst at the same time creating a unique societal setup that plays brilliantly into the story’s intriguing elements.  While the focus of this book is solely within the nation of Sjona, expect the sequels to follow adventures in other countries mentioned.

The siege elements of this book are also very enjoyable and offer another interesting point to this fantastic book.  I’m always a fan of a good siege storyline, especially when it’s told from the point of view of the defenders.  The parts of the book that focus on the siege are extremely well written and provide the book with some substantial action sequences.  It is also fun to see how a city mostly made up of peace-loving artists and performers can defend itself without an army to help.  Hawke produces some great ideas for her defenders, which also ties into the fantastic poison elements above, when the protagonists use their knowledge to create some defences for their city.

Overall, City of Lies is an intrigue-studded masterpiece of a fantasy novel that combines together a range or magnificent story elements with an excellent setting and an addictive overarching thriller narrative.  Hawke’s use of poisons as a key plot point is just incredible and represents one of the most interesting parts of this book, and I am intrigued to see how she will continue to use poisons in future entries in this series.  This is a five-star debut from Hawke, and I would wholeheartedly recommend City of Lies to any fans of the fantasy genre.

My Rating:

Five Stars

Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik

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Publisher: Macmillan

Publication Date – 10 July 2018

 

From award-winning fantasy author Naomi Novik comes an innovative novel that repackages the classic fairy tale Rumpelstiltskin and portrays a fresh and much darker take on a story no longer fit for children.

Miryem is the daughter of an ineffective village moneylender, whose kind nature is taken advantage of by their neighbours.  Forced to harden her heart and take over the family business, Miryem is soon successful in her new career and quickly turns her family’s fortunes around.  As her business grows, rumours soon spread that she has the ability to turn silver into gold.  But words have power, and this boast has been overheard by the king of the Staryks, powerful fairies who hold dominion over winter.  The Staryk king sets Miryem an impossible task: to turn three increasing amounts of silver coins into gold.  If she fails, she dies, but if she succeeds, an even worst fate awaits her: marriage to the cruel king in his harsh kingdom of ice.

Forced to find a way to escape her life of captivity, Miryem finds a common cause with Irina, the daughter of a powerful nobleman.  Irina has caught the attention of the Tsar and has used magical Staryk silver to win his hand in marriage.  However, the Tsar has a dark secret that could threaten the realm, and Irina must find a way to survive his terrible powers.  With no other choice, Miryem, Irina and Miryem’s servant, Wanda, embark on a daring quest to free themselves from these terrible forces.

The story within Spinning Silver is told through first person narrations from a variety of the characters featured within the book.  The three main characters, Miryem, Wanda and Irina, each have their own adventures and narrate the vast majority of the book.  Other side characters, such as Wanda’s younger brother, Stepon, and Irina’s old maid, Magreta, also narrate several parts of the book, although these sections are usually tied into the storylines of the main characters.

Naomi Novik is an exciting name in fantasy fiction, best known for her nine Temeraire books set in an alternate version of 19th century Europe in which the English and French fought the Napoleonic War with the help of dragons.  Her latest book, Spinning Silver, is more reminiscent of her 2015 release, UprootedUprooted, which is currently being looked at for a movie adaptation, was a standalone fantasy novel that utilised common fairy tale elements to create a unique and enthralling tale.

Spinning Silver is a dark and gripping fantasy story that is a loose adaption of the story of Rumpelstiltskin.  The book’s main character, Miryem, is this story’s version of the local village girl who runs afoul of the magical creature.  However, rather than being a miller’s daughter whose father claims she can weave straw into gold, Miryem is a money lender and businesswoman who earns gold through her business acumen and mercantile skill.  Her initial challenge to change a material, in this case silver, into gold is done in a much more practical way than making a deal with a supernatural force.  This is a fantastic and modern twist on a key point of this classic story, and Novik follows up with an inventive fantasy narrative which uses other key elements from the original fairy tale to an amazing effect.

Novik weaves several other unique story points from Rumpelstiltskin into this story, and readers will enjoy seeing several memorable elements of a story they have known since childhood inserted into a new and more adult fantasy tale.  For example, in the fairy tale, the imp Rumpelstiltskin appears to the miller’s daughter three times to spin straw into gold.  The first time he appears he demands the daughter’s necklace as payment for this gift, while during his second visit he demands her ring.  Novik reverses this in her story, by having Miryem use the silver she has been given to create a ring and a necklace, which she can then sell to raise the gold she requires.  Another example is the idea of the miller’s daughter having to fill three rooms with gold to marry the king and stay alive.  In Spinning Silver, the fairy king demands that Miryem turn all the silver in three rooms into gold or else be killed.  Novik instils her character with a certain amount of logic, which allows her to come up with a simple and clever solution to this task.  Other parts of the book that have their roots in the fairy tale include the fairy king only allowing Miryem to ask three questions every night, his unwillingness for anyone to know his name and the general death sentence hanging over her head should she fail any of her undertakings.  Novik’s ingenious use of elements associated with Rumpelstiltskin is a highlight of this book which results in a bold and captivating new story.

In many ways, this is a story about exploitation, as the main characters try to overcome their situation and take control of their own lives.  For example, Wanda and her bothers live with an abusive father, and Wanda attempts to use her connections to Miryem to earn enough money to flee.  Another character, Irina, is initially exploited by her father, who sees her as a political tool rather than a daughter.  However, her exploitation by her eventual husband, the Tsar, is far worse, and Irina is forced to think of some inventive ways to manipulate the Tsar and his demonic ally in order to gain her freedom and keep her people alive.  While Miryem does have a loving family, the entire village exploits Miryem and her family.  Miryem is forced to become a hardened moneylender and then must outsmart the Staryk king to stay alive.  Watching the characters change their nature and way of thinking in order to overcome the people using them is a fantastic piece of this story.

Like her previous book, Uprooted, Novik has set her book in an Eastern European landscape, during an unknown period of history.  Despite the Germanic origins of Rumpelstiltskin, the setting of Spinning Silver feels somewhat more like Russian or Slavic in origin, with Tsars and Russian currency included in the narrative.  The dark, snow-filled forests that surround the story’s towns and cities are the perfect backdrop for this story, and Novik does an amazing job of conveying the cold and hidden menace that they contain.  Several of the characters in the book, including Miryem, are Jewish, and Novik spends time exploring how this group were treated and exploited.  There are many examples of the other characters, especially the inhabitants of Miryem’s village, treating these characters poorly, which reflects the poor treatment that the Jewish population suffered throughout Eastern Europe, while also focusing on the role they often played as moneylenders.  Overall, the dark Eastern European setting helps turn the usual child-friendly story into something colder and more hostile, and it is fascinating to see Novik’s supernatural and fantasy elements included in this historical situation.

Naomi Novik has completely reinvented one of our oldest and best-known fairy tales into a deeply fascinating and captivating story.  This book highlights Novik’s fantastic understanding and utilisation of key elements of the original tale and makes full use of its deeply haunting setting and compelling dark twists.  Spinning Silver is an excellent outing from Novik, who once again shows why she is one of the most creative minds in fantasy fiction.

My Rating:

Four stars

The Fire Court by Andrew Taylor

The Fire Court Cover

Publisher: Harper Collins

Australian Publication Date – 19 March 2018

World Publication Date – 5 April 2018

 

Bestselling author Andrew Taylor returns to the 1660’s and the scorched city of London with the thrilling murder mystery, The Fire Court.

It has only been a few short months since the Great Fire of London ravaged the city, killing many and destroying a large number of houses and buildings.  The city is now finally rebuilding itself, aided by the Fire Court, an incorruptible institution that examines legal cases around the rebuilding and ensures the best result for the city.  While the Fire Court is supposed to be neutral in all cases, there are some who seek to use it their advantage.

James Marwood, a low-level government official, is one of the few people in London doing better now than before the fire.  However, James is still caring for his ailing father, a convicted traitor whose mind has been affected by his time as a prisoner.  When his father claims to have found a murdered woman at the site of the Fire Court, James initially assumes that his father imagined the situation.  But when his father is run down in the street and killed, James begins to suspect he may have actually witnessed a murder.

As James begins to look into this possibility, he soon finds evidence that connects his suspicions to an upcoming Fire Court case that will decide who will rebuild a number of profitable properties.  His investigation once again leads him to an old acquaintance of his, Cat Lovett, the daughter of a regicide.  James previously helped Cat escape retribution for her father’s crimes, and he now turns to Cat and her new employer to gather information on the upcoming case.

When more people connected to the case turn up dead and their investigation is hampered by influential members of the court, James and Cat begin to suspect that the Fire Court may not be as incorruptible as they thought.  It soon becomes clear that death is once again stalking the streets of London and this time they will not escape unscathed.

The Fire Court is the follow-up to Taylor’s 2016 hit, The Ashes of London.  Taylor is a veteran author and has significant experience writing a range of different genres and novel types.  He has produced over 40 novels since 1982, mainly focusing on crime fiction, with some of his more recent books featuring captivating historical elements.

Taylor’s last book, The Ashes of London, was a fantastic piece of historical crime fiction that made full use of its distinctive setting of the Great Fire of London.  Having the characters solve a crime and explore the city during the immediate aftermath of such a devastating historical event was masterstroke from Taylor which has resulted in a superb and memorable piece of literature.  In The Fire Court, Taylor returns to this fascinating period to show how much rebuilding happened in the six months after the destructive fire.  The focus on the historical Fire Court that was instituted in the aftermath of this event is the most intriguing part of Taylor’s new book, and readers will be extremely interested in learning more about this unique bit of history.  Taylor does a tremendous job of introducing the role that the Fire Court played in the rebuilding of the city and how it worked.  The reader is treated to several scenes that feature cases before the court, showing how the verdicts were reached.  Several of the Fire Court’s actual judges are included as characters, which is a nice touch of historical realism.  Overall, the examination and inclusion of the historical Fire Court is a notable piece of this novel and readers will appreciate how Taylor has interlaced his complex murder mystery with this interesting historical setting.

In addition to the fire-related historical elements, Taylor has also done an outstanding job of displaying what the city of London would have looked like in the 1660s.  During their investigation of the crime the protagonists visit large and varied swathes of the city which are vividly described, which brings readers right in to the middle of this vibrant and bustling city.  This base historical setting is well written, and readers will enjoy this incredible romp back in time.

The central plot of this novel revolves around a powerful murder mystery storyline and investigation.  The Fire Court is told from the perspective of three separate narrators – James, Cat and Jemima – each of whom tries to find answers in their own way.  The investigation into the murder is very intense, and what initially starts as a single potential murder spirals into a series of killings as the culprits attempt to cover up their crimes.  This overall storyline is well written, filled with suspense, and very compelling.  Readers will be captivated by the way fire is used by both the protagonists and the antagonists throughout the book.  The use of such a tool is significant, as all the London-based characters know the power of fire and its destructive potential.  It is a potent symbol of criminal wrongdoing in this series, and the audience will be shocked by how it affects the lives of the protagonists in this book.  In addition to the symbolic use of fire, Taylor also includes a significant twist at the conclusion of the investigation that will leave the reader reeling and thinking for a very long time.

Taylor has produced a remarkable and enjoyable murder mystery that makes full use of its unique setting.  Readers will love the detailed examination of the aftermath of London’s most destructive fire and will find themselves enthralled by an excellent mystery with one hell of an ending.  This is a highly recommended read from an exceptional author.

My Rating:

Four stars

Word of Warcraft: Before the Storm by Christie Golden

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Publisher: Titan Books

Publication Date – 12 June 2018

 

War is once again coming to Azeroth in the brand new World of Warcraft novelisation from the queen of tie-in books and Blizzard Entertainment’s new in-house novelist Christie Golden.

The world of Azeroth is constantly at war, and for generations its inhabitants have known nothing but conflicts and threats.  Perhaps the greatest enemy that the people of Azeroth ever faced were the demonic Burning Legion, who are the root of many of the world’s great conflicts.  Now, after a devastating campaign, the Burning Legion has finally been defeated, although Azeroth’s victory came at a great cost.  As his final act of destruction, the leader of the Burning Legion, the Titan Sargeras, struck a great blow against Azeroth, plunging his gigantic sword into the surface of the planet and leaving a gaping wound in the side of the world.

Now both factions of Azeroth, the Alliance and the Horde, can finally recover and come to terms with the destruction caused by their demonic foes and the dramatic changes that have rocked their hierarchies.  Following the death of his father, young Anduin Wrynn has inherited the throne of the human kingdom of Stormwind, and serves as the new leader of the Alliance.  At the same time, the Horde is now under the sway of its new Warchief, the banshee queen of the Forsaken, Sylvanas Windrunner.  Both new leaders must come to terms with the running of their respective factions and the current peace blessing the land.

But there is always tension simmering between the Alliance and the Horde, and many predict that a new conflict is just around the corner, especially when both sides make a startling discovery: the blow from Sargeras’s sword has caused the very essence of Azeroth to bleed forth from the ground.  This new substance, known as Azerite, is extremely powerful, containing the very strength of Azeroth, and with the potential to be used as a mighty weapon by whichever side controls it.

As both factions investigate the wound in Azeroth and this strange new material, King Anduin seeks to finally forge peace between the Alliance and the Horde.  In order to achieve this peace, Anduin embarks on an ambitious plan to win the Forsaken to his cause and gain the trust of Sylvanas.  But Sylvanas has her own vision for the future of Azeroth, and woe betide anyone who stands between the Dark Lady and her goals.  Will peace finally be achieved, or will the discovery of Azerite result in a new war between the Alliance and the Horde?  And what role will Calia Menethil, long lost sister of the Lich King Arthas Menethil, play in this new era?  One thing is certain: the Battle for Azeroth starts here.

Before the Storm is the latest tie-in book to the massive Warcraft video game franchise.  People who have never played these games may be surprised to know that this franchise has a rich narrative history.  The original Warcraft games came with a substantial amount of lore and plot that were in some ways just as revolutionary as the game’s mechanics.  This tradition of great storytelling has continued over the years, and every single one of the games has contained a range of intricate and compelling storylines.  Many of these stories are incredibly elaborate and have great potential for future adaptations.  For example, this reviewer would be especially keen to see the corruption of Arthas and the rise of the Lich King told on the big screen.

The game’s narrative tradition has also resulted in a huge number of tie-ins that are mostly targeted towards fans of the game.  There are currently over 30 Warcraft books, as well as a number of comics and even some manga.  The vast majority of these adaptations are considered canon, and have been subsequently referenced in the plot of the games, including the franchise’s main game, the MMORPG World of Warcraft.  For example, in one of the previous novels, The Shattering: Prelude to Cataclysm, Cairne Bloodhoof a major character from Warcraft III: Reign of Chaos and the leader of the Taurens in World of Warcraft, is killed off, and this carried through to the game in several different ways.  Before the Storm is the latest book in this extended universe, and has been released as a tie-in for the upcoming Battle for Azeroth expansion, which is out in August.

The author of this latest novel, Christie Golden, has a bibliography of over 50 books, and has substantial experience writing tie-in books for big franchises.  In addition to her debut Ravenloft trilogy, Golden has written 15 Star Trek novels, five Star Wars books, and a number of full-length and short story tie-ins for franchises such as Assassin’s Creed, Invasion America, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel.  Golden has also written a number of books for Blizzard, with five books based on Starcraft and 10 based around the Warcraft games.  Her previous Warcraft novels include stories that help cement the franchise’s established lore, the official novelisation of the recent Warcraft movie, and novels that have established the plot prior to several of World of Warcraft’s expansions.  For example, her 2014 novel, War Crimes, heavily set up the Warlords of Draenor expansion, while also presenting an elaborate novel that highlighted the crimes of the previous expansions main antagonist.  Golden has incredible knowledge of Warcraft’s lore and narrative history, having provided significant contributions to it in the past, and readers will appreciate the way that this new book connects with several of her previous Warcraft novels.

Before the Storm is a fun and exciting fantasy novel that has been expertly set within the World of Warcraft universe.  The narrators visit a number of key locations that feature within the games and Golden has done an amazing job of describing these distinctive and well-explored background settings.  There are some great locations used within the story, including several of the game’s main cities, such as Stormwind, Ironforge, Orgrimmar and the Undercity.  People familiar with the latest expansions will also love the addition of the Netherlight Temple, the priest class hall, as a key setting within this book, as it is such a unique and niche location within the game.

A large proportion of the novel is told from the perspectives of the leaders of the Alliance and the Horde, Anduin Wrynn and Sylvanas Windrunner.  If the awesome trailer for Battle for Azeroth is anything to judge by, the next World of Warcraft expansion will focus heavily on these two characters as they lead their factions into a large-scale war against each other.  Golden has made sure to explore both of these respective characters’ mindsets and examine potential future motives for the upcoming in-game conflict.  Other parts of the story are told from the perspective of a range of minor characters, many of whom are actually interactable NPCs within the game.  This range of perspectives gives a wide angle viewpoint of the story being told in both the book and the game, and allows the author to show off the different motivations and differences between the two rival factions.  Players will also love to see this story woven around minor NPCs they may have interacted with in the game, especially as this book may explain why they may have moved or disappeared in future versions of the game.  This is a great adaptation of the current World of Warcraft universe and Golden has successfully transplanted several key and iconic aspects of the game into this book, creating an excellent addition to this extended universe.

While a number of the different Warcraft races are featured within Before the Storm, many readers will enjoy Golden’s focus on the undead playable race, the Forsaken.  While many of the franchise’s previous novels have featured Forsaken characters, Golden has chosen to do a deeper examination of this race now that their ruler is the Warchief of the Horde.  There are some particularly interesting discussions about the role the Forsaken play within Azeroth and how the other races view them.  Readers will be intrigued by the examination about their current level of humanity, and whether they can still maintain connections to the family they had before they died, and will be intrigued by Golden’s fascinating analysis.

As an official World of Warcraft tie-in, Before the Storm is naturally a desirable read for those who are familiar with the franchise and the game’s current storylines.  As mentioned above, there are a ton of elements that will appeal to those gamers currently awaiting the next expansion, as this book ties in to its central storyline.  However, Golden makes sure to elaborate on a range of prior events in the franchise and this will ensure that former players will be able to jump in and follow from when they were last familiar with the story.  In addition, Golden’s writing is fairly accessible, and the game elements don’t massively overwhelm the story, ensuring that readers unfamiliar with the games will be able to enjoy this fantastic fantasy adventure without getting too lost.

Christie Golden has once again created a fun and electrifying novelisation of the Warcraft universe.  Before the Storm is a great tie-in to the upcoming game release, Battle for Azeroth, and serves as an excellent precursor of the exciting stories that will feature within the new expansion.  Making full use of the franchise’s significant lore and a range of iconic settings, Golden has produced a deep and thrilling fantasy tale that that will massively appeal to all fans of the Warcraft games.

My Rating:

Four stars

The Falcon of Sparta by Conn Iggulden

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Publisher: Michael Joseph

Publication Date – 3 May 2018

 

One of historical fiction’s very best authors is back with an enthralling story that follows history’s greatest warriors on one of their most legendary journeys.  Without a doubt, Conn Iggulden is one of the top authors of historical fiction in the world today.  Since 2003 he has consistently produced some of the most in-depth, detailed and engrossing chronicles of several different historical periods and cultures.  His previous work includes lengthy examinations of Julius Caesar and Genghis Khan in his bestselling Emperor and Conqueror series, and he has also produced the definitive fictional account of one of the bloodiest civil wars in English history with his extraordinary War of the Roses series.  Now, following his 2017 fantasy debut Darien, Iggulden has once again returned to his historical fiction roots by exploring another new realm of history, the Spartans.

In 401 BC, the new Persian king, Artaxerxes II, rules the largest empire in the known world.  With an empire sprawling from the Aegean Sea to the north of India, the king of Persia is the undisputed ruler of 50 million people.  However, despite all their wealth and power, the kings of Persia have never conquered Greece.  From Thermopylae to Marathon and Platea, the Persians have suffered the ferocity of the Greeks, and none are more feared than the men of Sparta.  As a result, it has been many years since the Persians have attempted to invade Greece, and many Spartans now serve as mercenaries in the Persian army.

When Prince Cyrus, Artaxerxes’s brother, is nearly executed by the new king following the death of their father, the young prince is determined to claim the throne of Persia for himself.  After hiring an army of skilled Greek mercenaries led by an elite core of Spartan warriors and the revered Spartan General Clearchus, Cyrus marches against his brother.  But battles can be lost with a single blow, and when Cyrus is killed on the battlefield the Greeks suddenly find themselves trapped in the middle of the Persian Empire.

With Clearchus and the other Greek generals having been killed through treachery, it falls to a young solider, Xenophon, to lead the surviving Greeks to safety.  With limited supplies and no knowledge of the land before them, Xenophon must find a way to lead 10,000 soldiers and an additional 10,000 camp followers back to Greece.  Forced to endure constant attacks from the Persian army as they travel through deserts and across mountains, their journey will become legendary.

The Falcon of Sparta is a standalone novel primarily based on the classic Greek text, Anabasis, which was written by the historical Xenophon.  Iggulden’s novel focuses on the events of the first four of the seven books of Anabasis.

While The Falcon of Sparta does not contain the full version of Anabasis, in some ways it is a much more complete and detailed story that focuses on the people who featured in this great adventure.  Xenophon related his tale in a rather simple and direct manner, and Iggulden has compensated for this by providing his own storytelling and dramatic writing.  Many of the key characters now have significant backstories fictional justifications for many of these characters’ actions and motives.  For example, Iggulden attempts to provide a more complex and dramatic explanation for the schism between Artaxerxes and Cyrus, rather than the historical story that Cyrus simply desired the throne.  Iggulden also provides additional context for one of the main villains of the Anabasis, the Persian noble Tissaphernes, who led the Persian armies against the retreating Greek forces.  In The Falcon of Sparta his role as a villain is greatly expanded.  Not only is he portrayed as a former friend of Cyrus who betrayed him for power but also as one of the main reasons Cyrus fails to seize the throne and the protagonists are placed into such peril.  Iggulden’s additional backstories and character traits make for a much more compelling and complete story with thrilling and absorbing motivations and antagonists.

These additional story elements are greatly enhanced by the author’s use of character perspectives.  For the first two thirds of the story, narration is split between a number of characters, including Cyrus, Clearchus, Tissaphernes, Artaxerxes and Xenophon.  Not only does this split narration help to build up the respective characters’ histories and allow the audience a better view of their personalities, but it also adds significantly to the story as these characters provide various perspectives on the events occurring in the formative parts of the main story.  Through the narrators we are given glimpses into a range of interesting things, including Artaxerxes’s and Cyrus’s thoughts on the war for their father’s throne, as well as the events and feelings that led up to the conflict.  We also see the respect that Cyrus and Xenophon have for their Spartan allies, as they see examples of their effectiveness in combat and their legendary self-discipline.

The scenes told from Tissaphernes’s point of view further highlight his role as a villain as his inner monologue reveals his selfish motivations and ambitions.  The story told from Tissaphernes’s viewpoint helps turn him into an embodiment of the distain that the ancient Persians had for the Greeks and their soldiers.  Despite seeing the Greeks’ substantial battle prowess, Tissaphernes and many of the Persians viewed the Greeks as second-rate soldiers, and it is fascinating to see how deeply held this belief was.

After the first two thirds of the book, the story is told exclusively from the point of view of Xenophon and starts to mostly represent Book III and Book IV of the Anabasis.  This part of the book allows the reader a closer view of the Spartan and Greek forces as they participate in their epic march and is very entertaining.  Even as the story becomes confined to only one narrator, Iggulden is still able to provide the necessary detail and drama in the final part of the book to keep the story going strong and maintain the reader’s attention and enjoyment.

Special attention needs to be given to the masterful portrayal of the Greeks and Spartans in battle.  Iggulden has an incredible eye for detail and an amazing writing style that brings the reader right into the heart of the book’s large-scale action sequences.  In particular, he spends a significant amount of time focusing on the Greeks and the Spartans and does an amazing job of capturing their battle techniques, tactics and mentality.  There are a large number of battle scenes within this book, and Iggulden uses every opportunity to show off the prowess of his heroes in as much detail as possible, allowing the reader to easily witness the events in their minds.  The Persian soldiers are also examined in the scenes narrated by Cyrus, and it is interesting to see the differences in the fighting style and mentality of the Greeks and Persians.  Those interested in reading about this part of history will love the amount of attention given to the Spartans and find many of the associated descriptions deeply fascinating.

Conn Iggulden has once again produced a masterful and absorbing fictional account that focuses on an utterly intriguing historical event.  Bringing the reader right into the middle of the march of the Ten Thousand, Iggulden expands on Xenophon’s Anabasis and provides a more dramatic and elegant story of betrayal, endurance and survival.  The Falcon of Sparta is a love letter to one of history’s most legendary race of warriors, and it provides the reader with a detailed exploration of Spartan warfare, lifestyle and mentality.  This is a breathtaking and highly recommended piece of historical fiction that is guaranteed to drag you in for the long haul.

My Rating:

Five Stars

Fallen Gods by James A. Moore

Fallen Gods Cover

Publisher: Angry Robot

Publication Date – 2 January 2018

 

Those looking for a fast-paced action fantasy adventure to really get the blood pumping should prepare themselves for Fallen Gods, the latest novel from one of the leading authors in dark fantasy, James A. Moore.

Brogan McTyre, former soldier of the Kingdom of Stennis Brae, is a damned man.  After the Grakhul, the servants of his world’s cruel gods, took his entire family, Brogan risked everything to save them from being sacrificed.  Although he failed, his actions resulted in the disruption of sacred rites, a desecration he compounded by killing or enslaving all of the Grakhul.  Now with the gods angered beyond all belief, their dark heralds, the He-Kisshu, have unleased terrible storms and intense acts of destruction across the Five Kingdoms.  The only way they will stop the destruction and avert armageddon is with the sacrifice of Brogan and his companions.

Now Brogan and his men, including his loyal second-in-command, Harper Ruttket, are being hunted.  Everyone is out to capture them – not just the servants of the gods but anyone seeking to survive the oncoming destruction.  As Brogan and his men flee across the Five Kingdoms, their adversaries start to become more powerful and demonic in nature, and not even an army of mercenaries will be able to save them.  Their only hope might be an item of immense power: a sword containing the heart of a slain god hidden within the Broken Mountains.

Elsewhere, Myridia the Grakhul leads her remaining sisters to salvation while trying to avoid the shadowy Night People hunting them.  Niall Leraby and Tully, two freed former sacrifices, seek safety in Niall’s home city of Edinrun but find it already in the grips of an intense magical madness.  Brogan’s former king, Bron McNar, and his fellow rulers of the Five Kingdoms must find a way to appease the gods before their lands and people are completely destroyed.  Beron the slaver seeks revenge against Brogan and the men who brought the wrath of the gods down on him and his people.  But Beron is serving a darker master; one who may prove to be an even greater threat to the world then the gods.

As the world he knows breaks down around him, can Brogan claim the power he needs to survive, and will it be enough to stop the utter chaos he has unleashed?

James A Moore is a renowned author of dark fantasy and horror who has written more than 40 books in his career.  Some of his previous works include the Serenity Falls trilogy, the Seven Forges series and the Subject Seven series.  Fallen Gods is the second book in The Tides of War series and is the sequel to his 2017 action extravaganza, The Last Sacrifice.

This is a perfect book for readers who are looking for an action-packed adventure story.  Moore has made sure to include a large number of varied battles and fight sequences through this book, as well as several other intense action scenes.  These action sequences are also enhanced by the author’s use of crazy and inventive fantasy creatures that are encountered by the book’s characters.  In addition to the unique creatures that Moore introduced in the previous book in this series, the characters within Fallen Gods are also forced to contend with numerous new creatures and opponents.  Not only do they encounter rampaging gods, magically powered soldiers and maddened slavers, they are also forced to contend with corrupted and demonically mutated Grakhuls and He-Kissus that are even more freaky than the original versions.  As a result, this is an extremely fun dark fantasy book than contains enough action to excite any reader with a pulse.

As soon as a reader starts Fallen Gods it will quickly become obvious that there is a lot going on within this book.  Moore makes use of several recurring narrators throughout the books and is constantly implementing quick-fire changes between them.  Each of the narrators has their own unique storyline filled with their own side characters and adventures throughout different parts of Moore’s fantasy world.  There are also several interludes told from the perspectives of minor characters and groups away from the story’s main characters.  Whilst many of these interludes contain key plot points and set up later scenes with one or more of the main characters, a number have been included to explore the rest of the Five Kingdoms.  In particular, they show how a range of different characters are experiencing the wrath of the gods and the associated destruction, as well as the various ways in which they are attempting to survive.  Moore does a great job of tying the varied storylines and interludes together at the end of the book, as most of the main and minor characters have been subtly placed in or have had their focus turned towards a singular location where they will all meet up.  As a result, Moore is able to showcase large portions of his fantasy landscape to the reader whilst also expanding on his fascinating narrative of a world suffering divine punishment and the craziness that results.

While there are a number of positives to Moore having such a huge range of narrators and storylines, Fallen Gods does seem a bit overcrowded at the start.  However, readers should be reassured that each of the individual storylines is very easy to follow and they should have no problem viewing all of the storylines together as one cohesive and enjoyable plot.  That being said, new readers could possibly benefit from starting with the first book in the series, The Last Sacrifice.  While Moore does a really good job of explaining the vast majority of the book’s story elements, there are one or two features that may confuse new readers when they are first introduced.  Most of these are eventually explained later in the book, so readers will only be in the dark for a short period of time.  However, there is at least one plot element that originated within The Last Sacrifice which could prove to be slightly confusing to the uninitiated.  That said, if a reader wishes to start their exploration of this series with Fallen Gods, they should have no problem enjoying this excellent action adventure.

Overall, this is an exciting and highly charged book that makes the most of its dark fantasy premise.  Readers will love the overarching story of a world experiencing the wrath of its vengeful gods, which Moore masterfully tells with his huge range of narrators and point-of-view characters.  This is a fantastic sequel to The Last Sacrifice, and I can’t wait to see what madness occurs in the next instalment of this series.

My Rating:

Four stars

A People’s History of the Vampire Uprising by Raymond A. Villareal

Vampire Uprising Cover

Publisher: Hachette

Publication Date – 29 May 2018

 

From the inspired mind of Raymond Villareal comes one of the most captivating and thought-provoking literary achievements of 2018.  Have you ever wondered what would happen if vampires came into existence in the modern world?  Villareal’s debut novel, A People’s History of the Vampire Uprising, explores the possibility of such an event through a comprehensive fictional oral history, much like Max Brooks’ observation of a zombie apocalypse in World War Z.

The body of a young woman in an Arizona morgue awakens and disappears into the night.  This mysterious event will start a chain reaction around the world that no one could predict.  The CDC investigator consulting on the case soon discovers that the woman was suffering from a mysterious disease with several incredible symptoms.  Subjects are stronger, faster, suffer a violent reaction to sunlight, have unnaturally long lives and are utterly enthralling to humans.  More importantly, they must consume blood to survive and can pass the disease on by biting another human.  As attempts to quarantine the disease fail and additional bodies start disappearing, the world quickly realises that vampires are real and here to stay.

As more and more people are infected, many of those who have been turned begin to reintegrate back into society.  These new creatures call themselves ‘gloamings’, finding the term ‘vampires’ to be derogatory.  Soon, many of the rich and famous are flocking to the gloamings, hoping to join their ranks and be re-created.  With their natural talents enhanced, the gloamings start accumulating significant wealth, power and influence as they infiltrate all levels of human society while attracting followers to their side.  Gloamings infiltrate the government, powerful companies and the Catholic Church.  One gloaming even begins a run for high political office.

However, not everyone is enamoured by the gloamings.  A faction of the church is determined to stop the vampire incursion and has formed its own militia to fight gloamings throughout the world.  Following a series of high profile cases, the FBI starts a taskforce focusing on crimes by gloamings.  The original CDC investigator continues her research into the virus despite intense political and social pressure to stop.  In New Mexico, a skilled political motivator soon discovers a terrible secret about his employers.  This is the start of the vampire uprising; the world will never be the same.

Written in the format of a history book, A People’s History of the Vampire Uprising is an epistolary novel that uses a series of fictional documents and testimonials to tell the story.  Villareal presents a large portion of the story within chapters representing testimonials from certain characters specifically taken for a history book.  Other chapters are written in the format of important documents from the fictional world and are made to represent interrogation notes, congressional transcripts, government reports and articles in scientific and legal journals.  In addition to these longer chapters, Villareal has also included numerous shorter entries that are presented as news stories, public interest articles, transcripts pulled from popular media sites, emails and the comments section of a message board.  As a result of all these different formats and documents types, A People’s History of the Vampire Uprising has the uncanny feel of an actual history book, which is further reinforced by the inclusion of footnotes in most of the longer chapters, and three short appendices slipped into the back on the book.  This is a marvellous way to structure the book and it speaks to Villareal’s skill that he was able to tell such a captivating narrative using this style of writing.

By employing fictional testimonies and documents originating from a number of different characters, Villareal is able to tell an extremely wide-reaching story about the introduction of vampires.  Most of the longer chapters are written in the style of testimonies from characters in the United States, while many of the shorter articles show a wide view of the rest of the world.  This allows Villareal to focus his main story in one specific country and focus his analysis on how the United States would react to such an event.  At the same time Villareal is also able to illustrate a much wider story showing how the vampire uprising would affect the entire world.  Exceptions to this are the chapters featuring the gloamings causing a religious and ideological schism within the church.  These chapters focus the plot on characters throughout Europe and represent some of the more fascinating fictional postulations within A People’s History of the Vampire Uprising.

While the book contains numerous narrators, authors and interviewees telling their specific stories, Villareal is still able to produce a clear overall narrative about the introduction of vampires to the world.  While Villareal initially has the individual narrators tell their own stories, eventually the characters meet and interact, allowing the multiple storylines to combine into one overarching plot.  The smaller articles and extra details within some of the longer features also allow the reader to have an amusing examination about how some social groups and individuals may react to the introduction of vampires, including celebrities such as Taylor Swift.  The end result is very well-done, overarching narrative that takes the multiple storylines within and turns it into an exciting and comprehensive overall plot.

While this is a piece of fiction, it also serves as an examination and critique of modern society.  Villareal postulates that if vampires ever did appear society would be split between distrusting such creatures and worshiping them, while the rich, famous and powerful would all try to join them, turning the gloamings into the ultimate elitist clique.  Villareal examines extremely plausible ways in which the gloamings could influence humans and attempt to win them to their side, with one chapter in particular describing how a vampire might win an election.  The result is a perceptive and astute examination of current human nature that will leave readers spinning.

A People’s History of the Vampire Uprising is one of the most impressive books of the year.  Raymond Villareal produces an insanely compelling story while using a unique and clever format that clearly highlights his skill and imagination.  In addition to being incredibly entertaining, A People’s History of the Vampire Uprising is also an insightful piece of social commentary that will greatly amuse readers.  This is a truly magnificent piece of fiction and an outstanding debut from Villareal.

My Rating:

Five Stars